This past weekend, during a lively session of late-night — or early-morning, depending on your perspective — wassailing on a moonlit terrace overlooking New Brunswick’s scenic Hamilton Street, two acquaintances and I began to discuss the merits of various distilled liquors. Our deliberations rapidly yielded the conclusion that whiskey is the finest, most wonderful and superlatively magnificent spirit ever to be conceived of by human minds, being superior in its taste, texture, history, iconography and pharmacology to such other popular liquors as vodka, gin, brandy, tequila and rum — especially that of the spiced variety. Of course, these other distilled alcohols are undoubtedly wonderful in their own right, each having a rich history as well as an extensive lineup of delicious cocktails of which they are the chief component. After all, surely no right-minded individual could deny the distinct sublimity of a perfectly balanced vodka tonic, of the splendorous mélange of flavors that characterize a dirty gin martini or of the traces of tropical paradise to be found in each glorious sip of a good Cuba Libre — that’s a rum and coke with lime for those not privy to this particular bit of lingo. Nevertheless, none of them, in my estimation, approach the timeless perfection of a good whiskey, the flavor of which manages to be both simple and complex at the same time, standing alone among spirits in its inherent majesty. It is this reverence for the spirit that inspired Mark Twain to write: “Too much of anything is bad, but too much of a good whiskey is barely enough.”
Although my associates and I quickly concurred that a good Kentucky bourbon is probably the greatest kind of whiskey, its Scottish, Irish and Canadian cousins were each agreed to be delicious and magical in their own respective ways. My current discussion though, will focus on bourbon, its history and the unique place it occupies in American culture. The roots of the great American bourbon are to be found with the Scottish-Irish settlers of Western Pennsylvania during the mid-18th century. To help finance the American Revolution, in 1791 the Continental Congress put a tax on the whiskey they produced. But the distillers refused to pay, sparking what would become known as the Whiskey Rebellion, which forced President George Washington to send military forces to put and end to the uprising. This proved more difficult than Washington had anticipated and so, wishing to save his fledgling government any embarrassment and avoid any further quarrels with the Pennsylvania distillers, he offered them incentives to move to Kentucky.
Until this time, American whiskey had been made primarily of grain, but this was about to change. As many settlers took up residence in Kentucky, which was at that time a part of Virginia, the state’s governor, Thomas Jefferson, offered pioneers 60 acres of land if they promised to construct a permanent structure and raise corn. Because no family could consume 60 acres worth of corn in a year, and because it would be highly impractical to transport such a large volume of produce to market, many farmers began making corn whiskey. Although Kentucky’s first commercial distillery was opened by Evan Williams in 1783, it is widely held that bourbon as we now know it was not actually invented until six years later when Minister Elijah Craig inadvertently aged his corn whiskey in charred oak barrels while taking it to market. It is this process of aging corn whiskey in such barrels that subsequently came to define it as “bourbon,” a name taken from the county in Kentucky where it was first manufactured. Whether it was actually his invention, Minister Craig’s name has long been recognized as one of the most important in the history of bourbon — indeed, Heaven Hill Distillery still produces small-batch bourbon named in his honor.
It was not until 1840 that bourbon was established as the spirit’s official name. Prior to this time, it was usually referred to as “Bourbon County Whiskey.” The Civil War era saw a great shortage of bourbon, as many distillers had been called to fight and many battles took place in the areas in which the spirit was produced. In 1870, distillers began marketing bourbon in consumer-sized jugs, rather than barrels, making it far easier to distribute. During the period of prohibition from 1920 to 1933, the majority of bourbon distilleries were closed, never to open their doors again, though a select few — such as Jim Beam — began operating again after the ratification of the 21st amendment. In 1964, an act of Congress named bourbon as “America’s Native Spirit” as well as the country’s official distilled spirit. The current legal guidelines for what may be called “bourbon” were also established during this time. Finally, in 2007, the U.S. Senate decreed that September be recognized as National Bourbon Heritage Month in recognition of the important role that the bourbon industry has played throughout the nation’s history. Although other spirits now outsold it, bourbon represents a tradition and culture that are uniquely American.
Josh Baker is a Rutgers College senior majoring in sociology with a minor in psychology and philosophy.