Favorite Bourbon Myths

There's a lot of history and 'lore' behind bourbon so discuss both here.

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Favorite Bourbon Myths

Unread postby bourbonv » Mon Nov 06, 2006 11:42 am

I was discussing this past weekend bourbon myths and legends. There are several well known myths that are often quoted as history. The most common ones are:
1) Evan Williams was Kentucky's first distiller.
2) Elijah Craig invented bourbon.
3) James Crow invented (a) the sour mash process, (b) the aging process (c) bourbon
4) Jack Daniel's is the first registered distillery.
5) George Garvin Brown was the first to bottle bourbon.
6) The "Lincoln County Process" was invented in Tennessee.

These are all polular myths. Evan Williams was an early Louisville distiller, but according to his family papers, he did not leave England until 1784. Elijah Craig was another early distiller but there is no real evidence that he created bourbon. James Crow was an important figure who vastly improved the methods of making bourbon, but I have yet to find evidence that created anything new. There are sour mash recipes in the Kentucky Historical Society dating to 1818, evidence of charred barrels date back to at least 1826 and bourbon back to the early 1820's. While he applied scientific methods to measure and control these process and created a more sanitary distilling conditions, he did not actually invent anythig. Jack Daniel did not have the first registered distillery and never made that claim in his lifetime. He did claim to have the oldest registered distillery, but even that can be disputed. George Garvin Brown was the first to sell Old Forester only in the bottle, but there were many bourbons being sold by the bottle before that time. Finally there are written documents describing the charcoal filtering process found in Kentucky and Canada that predate the Lincoln County date put forth by the Tennesse distillers.

These are just a few of the more common myths to be found in what is described as "history" by some companies and writers. I thought I would share them with you with some comments. I hope you enjoy.
Mike Veach
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Unread postby cowdery » Tue Nov 07, 2006 2:18 pm

I'll quibble with you only about G.G. Brown, as Brown-Forman has always stated the claim accurately, that Old Forester was the first brand of bourbon to be sold in bottles exclusively.

About Crow, while it may be true that he didn't "invent" anything, it seems true that he used certain methods that had not been widely used before, at least not in Kentucky, was successful with them, and was widely copied as a result of that success.

You can add to the list the invention of wheated bourbon by Bill Samuels Senior or, as Buffalo Trace now claims, William Weller.

And my favorite, the unchanged-for-211-years Jim Beam recipe.

And some "facts" that are not brand-specific:

- That bourbon can only be made in Kentucky.
- That bourbon can't contain more than 80% corn.
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Unread postby bourbonv » Wed Nov 08, 2006 10:40 am

Chuck,
I agree with you about what Brown-Forman states, but it is not usually what ends up being written in the newspaper or magazine. Reporters and writers are often the source of these myths.

The other myths you point out are also very good ones. Jim Beam is simply creating a marketing myth with their story. I have no doubt that Jacob Beam was distilling 211 years ago. At the same time I doubt that anybody would be able to find "Brand Name" for his whiskey if they wanted to buy some, other than "Whiskey made by Jacob Beam" at the local grocery. The other two legends are simply people making assumptions that are not right. Just because most bourbon is made in Kentucky does not mean that has to be made in Kentucky and just because Corn whiskey is at least 80% corn does not mean that all whiskey with that high percentage of corn has to be called corn whiskey.

I am sure some other popular myths will come to mind with time.
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Unread postby cowdery » Tue Nov 21, 2006 8:11 pm

I have actually gotten into a bit of a battle with Jim Beam about their current ad claim, specifically the statement: "Jim Beam is the only American whiskey that has been made the same way, following the same recipe, for 211 years.” The "only American whiskey" part is what set me off, with its implication that Beam's consistency in this regard is unique among American whiskey-makers.

You can read the whole story here and here.
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Unread postby angelshare » Wed Nov 22, 2006 6:47 am

This is more of a "trivial" myth, but we were always amused by the story that Jack Daniel's was the first to be bottled in a square bottle with the implicit advantage that it is less likely to roll out from under your car seat.
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Unread postby bourbonv » Wed Nov 22, 2006 11:52 am

Chuck,
Some very interesting correspondence. I did expect for you to get any other answer from Jim Beam, but it is intering all the same.

It is really sad the way the marketing people handle the heritage of the whiskey brands. They make up crap because crap seem to impress their little minds, but leave the true rich heritage of the brands, distilleries and people behind the scenes. The truth is usually much more impressive. It takes time and money to do the research, but it is out there to be found. Beam deserves better than what they are getting.
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Unread postby bourbonv » Wed Nov 22, 2006 11:55 am

Dave and Tina,
I have actually seen several of the early round Jack Daniel's Old No. 7 bottles. The archive at United Distillers had a very nice example. I think that Jack Daniel's went to the square bottle because everyone else was using round bottles and they wanted to stand out on the shelf. It seems to me I have even seen an early 1900's article in a trade magazine stating something to that effect. Still, it does not roll around as much...
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Re: Favorite Bourbon Myths

Unread postby bourbonv » Fri Jul 18, 2008 12:23 pm

Another myth that I have seen quite a bit in the last couple of weeks is the myth about fish barrels. I wish the industry would quit using this myth because it shows a deep lack of knowledge about cooperage and aging whiskey. First of all the barrel to be re-used would have to be a barrel designed to hold liquid so we are talking pickled fish. If it was salted fish then the barrel would be a lesser quality because it need not be water tight. Any liquid, whether it is salt brine or vinegar, would soak into the wood and take fish oils with it. Once in the wood, no amount of charring is going to remove that flavor and if bourbon was placed in that type of barrel then the distiller would have to sell bourbon that tasted of salty or vinegary fish. That alone would kill the sale of the whiskey to the great majority of the people wishing to purchase whiskey. If that was the origin of charred barrels then we would never had enough aged whiskey sold to make people want to continue to char the barrel.
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Re: Favorite Bourbon Myths

Unread postby gillmang » Tue Jul 22, 2008 2:15 pm

Mike, I think you are right but the idea of burning barrels to disinfect from off-odors - not just heating them to bend the staves to help make a barrel - makes sense to me on a basic level and there is support for that in the early distiiling text by M'Harry I have often mentioned here. And perhaps it was in a history of Canadian whisky that I see the statement (by Lorraine Brown, or quoting a contemporary source?) that even around 1900, barrels often had pieces of salt pork and all kinds of things floating in them. So some of those early bourbon barrels may have had a fishy taste although certainly I agree that routinely barrels would not have been used that held pickled oysters or similar.

Of all the stories I've read - accidental fire in a distillery and they used the burned barrels anyway (how did the fire only get inside, though?); attempted toasting of staves for bending that went too far and they used them anyway (although this is not completely implausible); intentional charring of fermentation vats to preclude contamination from organisms in wood and once disused put to storage of finished whiskey - the disinfectant one as applied to barrels holding green whiskey makes most sense IMO.

Of course, this question is separate from the one of how bourbon was discovered. I think we are in agreement that once burned inside, the barrels went out to the trade alongside barrels that were not so treated. It was, surely, as the evidence you have found suggests (that letter), the retailers who noticed that whiskey stored for a time in the blackened barrels was better than whiskey stored in toasted or white barrels.

But back to the question of disinfection, earlier on this board I quoted from a Cyclopedia of the late 1800's that a "London" method of disinfecting barrels was to char them inside. The technique in other words was probably an old British practice, and the largely British immigration to the U.S. must have brought it with them. That handful of straw in M'Harry had history behind it I think, although in his discussion of doing that he seems to be concerned as a distiller would have been then with the idea to cleanse fermentation vats especially in warm weather, not to age white dog whiskey, which few distillers would have done at the time I think.

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Re: Favorite Bourbon Myths

Unread postby cowdery » Tue Jul 22, 2008 7:07 pm

Add this to all that.

People have known that carbon contact improves the taste of beverage alcohol since antiquity.

Consider, for example, the origins of the word "toast" as in "to drink a toast." The "custom of flavoring drinks with spiced toast" is one example of that knowledge.

Unless my association of the Maillard reaction with charcoal creation is misguided.

(From Wikipedia:)

The practice of toasting originated in Ancient Greece, at a time when fear of poisoning was a significant concern. To put guests at ease, the host would pour the guests' wine from a common decanter, take the first drink to demonstrate its safety, then raise his cup to the guests and invite them to drink in good health. The custom of touching glasses also eased concerns about poisoning, since clinking glasses together would cause each drink to spill over into the others.

The word 'toast' became associated with the custom in the 17th century, based on a custom of flavoring drinks with spiced toast. The word originally referred to the lady in whose honor the drink was proposed, her name being seen as figuratively flavoring the drink
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Re: Favorite Bourbon Myths

Unread postby bourbonv » Wed Jul 23, 2008 2:22 pm

Gary,
I do believe that you are right and the idea of charred barrels was imported into the United States from Europe, but I think it was the French. I have heard from several reliable sources that French brandy was aged in charred barrels since the 15th century. It is my belief that whiskey was aged in charred barrels in order to make it taste more like French Brandies. I think to find the origin of charred barrels the researcher is going to need to read either French or Medieval Latin or both.
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Re: Favorite Bourbon Myths

Unread postby gillmang » Wed Jul 23, 2008 6:09 pm

Well, that is (Mike) another explanation, then. Charring of barrels to make bourbon was done on purpose to emulate what brandy is like. And we we have indeed discussed this before here. Maybe..

Chuck's comment about toasting and toast is very interesting. I know from my beer knowledge that toasted bread was put in bowls of ale (and wine) to float on the beverage and be consumed with it. It never occurred to me to think that a beneficial contact with carbon was the (unconscious or other) intention of such practice! This may be so, but it may be a coincidence, too. Maybe old (stale) bread was toasted and added to these drinks to thicken them, to make them more a food. Caudles and possets and such are an example of thickened alcoholic drinks, this is age-old. And what better way to use up old bread than to toast it ? We still often prefer day-old or older bread toasted to make it more palatable...

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Re: Favorite Bourbon Myths

Unread postby cowdery » Thu Jul 24, 2008 4:28 pm

Toasting has always been a way to stretch the useful life of bread, but it's my understanding that the practice described was more to improve the taste of the beer/wine than as a way to use up the bread. As anyone who has tried to make beer or wine at home can attest, it's not that easy even with modern equipment and materials to make something that tastes good, so imagine how difficult it was on the frontier.

The fact that the words "toast" and "char" both have very old culinary applications suggests to me that the benefits of putting alcohol in contact with toasted or charred wood was well known. That doesn't, of course, mean it was known to everybody. One characteristic of life in remote areas before the advent of modern communications was that if a particular knowledge was not possessed by anyone in the community, it might as well not exist, so certainly not every distiller knew that aging in charred barrels was beneficial.

The other and, probably, more important factor in the earliest days was that in remote frontier communities, barrels and the tools, materials and knowledge to make them were rare and even the most crudely made alcoholic beverages sold readily regardless of their quality. If the producer could readily sell all he could produce regardless of quality, there would be very little incentive to take steps to improve the taste, especially steps that would have been extremely expensive. Aging wasn't so much unknown as it was impractical. It was only when areas became more developed and gained more contact with the wider world that routine aging became practical.

My point is that knowledge or the lack thereof wasn't all that significant, compared to other factors, so the question of how the benefits of aging were discovered is moot.
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Re: Favorite Bourbon Myths

Unread postby bunghole » Thu Jul 31, 2008 10:39 pm

Distiller's Spooge!

It's how Dr. James Crow first soured his mash!

Huzzah!
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