An article appeared on August 1, 1886 in New York’s The Sun entitled simply “Bourbon and Rye”. The author, uncredited, billed himself as an expert. The article shows every sign he was, e.g., his deft explanation how exporting whiskey could reduce the cost of aging.
Not least interesting is the account of bourbon’s character before the imposition of the whiskey tax, first levied in 1862 to help pay for the Civil War and sharply increased later in the war. For convenience, I’ll speak of bourbon before and after simply the war.
The writer posits the pre-war, or Antebellum, period as the golden age, when bourbon was long-aged, especially on the distilling estates of the Bluegrass:
Then the theory was that Bourbon never reached its rich maturity “until half the contents of the barrel had evaporated”. Nothing short of six-year-old bourbon was accounted fit for use, and many a hospitable Kentucky mansion contained in its cellar mellow and aromatic Bourbon of from ten to twenty years old.
Although the author doesn’t mention it, some commercial distillers such as Oscar Pepper also aged their product well. Oscar Pepper’s product, made by legendary Scots-born physician James Crow, was noted for its red colour and was probably at least seven years old. As early as 1818 some Kentucky whiskey is documented at seven years of age, and some was available at higher ages.
Still, some bourbon historians state that most bourbon before the Civil War was young, a year or two at most. Gerald Carson appeared to hold this view in his landmark The Social History Of Bourbon (1963).
The Sun explained that aging liquor was no great burden before the war or while the new tax was still low. Annual shrinkage, the angel’s share to which all aging spirits are subject, adds to the cost as tax was paid on new spirit and the producer was not credited for shrinkage. Still, the extra cost to age whiskey (warehousing, insurance, interest, etc.) was considered acceptable. When the tax rose however to $2.00/gal. it became uneconomic to age whiskey for as long as before. The writer was a little inaccurate on his recollection of the tax rates, this U.S. government source gives the true picture, but there is no reason to question his general argument.
The result of the Civil War tax was, it appears, that bourbon became much younger. Sold at two or three years’ age, it was half the minimum age stated as acceptable before the war. This created an opportunity for blenders, who added a few gallons of expensive old whiskey to a much larger amount of neutral spirits to create an acceptable drink. Indeed, blending manuals start to appear about 1860 although the commercial practice probably started earlier. This blending is the origin of modern American blended whisky, taking in brands such as Seagram Seven Crown. Scotch and Canadian whisky also became largely blended articles in the 19th century.
By 1886 the increase in the bonding period, during which whiskey could be stored tax-deferred, as well as new rules that relieved distillers from paying tax on the angel’s share, made it economic to keep whiskey for longer again. When these stocks were supplemented by American whiskey brought home from a seven-years plus sojourn in Bremen or Liverpool, that created a market where bourbon and rye could be offered at seven years vs. the earlier four year average.
It’s interesting that again today, four years’ aging is the norm for straight whiskey. Jim Beam White, Four Roses Yellow Label, Maker’s Mark, and Jack Daniel’s, say, are likely not much older. A sharp spike in bourbon sales evaporated the “whiskey glut” of 15 and 30 years ago and has reduced the amount of extra-aged whiskey to a trickle, however.
There is a tendency in bourbon country, among many who know, to consider bourbon over-aged at more than eight or 10 years old. Former distiller Charlie Thomasson, in a c. 1960 article on old-time distilling at Willett Distillery in Bardstown, KY (now in operation again), wrote that the best bourbon was about six years of age. Yet The Sun in 1886 stated that Kentucky grandees prized bourbon aged two to three times longer than that before the Civil War. Thomasson felt that prolonged aging would impart a “punky” taste, a degraded flavour from a break-down of the barrel wood, yet old Kentucky must have liked that taste.*
Despite Carson’s view, there is good reason historically in my view to consider that “bourbon” – vs. that is “common whiskey”, always meant a well-aged whiskey, brown or red with a sweet taste from caramelized wood sugars. In contrast, common whiskey including corn whiskey, un-aged or little-aged until the Civil War, had an unrefined, more congeneric palate.
Of course, terminology was never precise. “Old whiskey” could mean bourbon, or straight rye, and conversely examples can probably be shown of early bourbon advertised at two or three years age. But in general, bourbon, or the quality end of it, always meant arguably a long-aged drink of rich palate, comparable to fine brandy, say. The Sun’s account supports that.
The takeaway: good bourbon was expected to be long-aged before the war. Perhaps due to its extra-congeneric character resulting from use of pot stills or crude column stills, those extra years were needed. The bourbon or rye mash of today’s distilleries, apart perhaps some craft producers, is likely much cleaner, and hence needs less time in wood to mature.
At day’s end, I like six- to eight-year-old bourbon, although some extra-old bourbon is exceptional, yes (George Stagg comes to mind). But Thomasson – a teetotaller, by the way – had it right in general terms, imo.
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*[Note added January 27, 2020]. Needless to say different tastes have always existed, some people just like the taste of very aged whiskey, others less so. See also further in the text my remark that new spirit in the period quite possibly was considerably more congeneric than today’s, resulting from still technology of the time. This alone would encourage longer aging periods than today is likely necessary.