Evolution of Modern Bourbon

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

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Evolution of Modern Bourbon

Unread postby bourbonv » Fri Feb 25, 2005 12:07 pm

Linn's contest has me thinking about "Modern" bourbon, as we know it and how it came about. This product is very different from what was made in the 1820's. I think the most important changes are as follows:

1830's and 40's: James Crow applies modern methods of testing in an attempt to produce a product that did not change.

1840's and 50's: The growth of the use of the column still in production.

1860's: Whiskey tax leading to a bonding period of first 1 year, then 2 years, then 4 years and finally 8 years by the late 1880's.

1870: George Garvin Brown starts selling Old Forester only in the bottle to insure quality of the product.

1897: Bottled in Bond Act is passed and signed into law by President Cleveland. The law was supported by Treasury Secretary Carlisle, and E H Taylor and other distillers in Kentucky. This added a level of quality control to the product and encouraged bottle sales.

1903: The Pure Food and Drug Act: Whiskey became the center of debate as to what is "pure" whiskey.

1910: The Taft Decision: President Taft makes a decision helping to define "straight" and "blended" whiskey.

1920-1933: Prohibition changes the taste of the American consumer as Scotch, Canadian and Irish whiskey became more popular in this period because they were less likely to be adulterated by the supplier.

1933 to 1945: Short supplies of aged products do to prohibition, depression and the war increase sales of blended whiskey as supplies are stretched to meet demand.

March 1, 1938: The date it became manditory to put straight bourbon in a NEW charred barrel.

1950's: Over production leads to the extention of the bonding period to 20 years.

1970's: Bourbon sales plument as other spirits sales increase. Over stock of bourbon causes many distilleries to close down. Those that remain cut cost by increasing barrel proof and other quality versus quantity measures.

1980's: The growth of Single Malt Scotch cause American distillers to in answer in kind with extra aged, single barrel and small batch bourbons.


This leads us to the "modern" bourbon we know today.

Any comments?

Mike Veach
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Unread postby gillmang » Fri Feb 25, 2005 12:36 pm

Excellent chronology. I can't prove this, but despite all the changes in technology, grains, etc., I believe our bourbon of today would be quite familiar to those at least in Crow's time if not earlier at least in some areas in Kentucky, Pennsylvania and other states. The, "red cretur" referenced in Chuck's book was known evidently from fairly early on in the 1800's, as was the red whiskey sold in New York mid-century I mentioned, as was the (not dissimilar) red Monongahela mentioned by Melville. Things have changed but not all that much, I think.

I think one factor that may explain some change in taste is yeast. I think the yeasts in the 1800's produced estery (fruity) ferments and the whiskies likely were more fruity and maybe funky in taste than today. Think of certain English ales which are top-fermented, or, say, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, made ditto, that is how the mashes would have tasted in the 1800's. Distillers would not have used single cell yeasts, the kind that later were used to make lager beer and produce clean flavors, they would have used top yeasts that were semi-wild and multi-strain. In a sense the signature taste of Jack Daniel, said to come from its yeast I believe, may be a survivor of that style of fruity, anise-like whiskey. A typical estery taste in a cereal beer is cherries and I believe the old aged whiskies had a cough medecine-like taste, in fact I believe the first cough medecine was designed to taste like a non-alcoholic whiskey.

Yellowstone had a notably fruity edge as mentioned by you, Mike, in your recent taste note. But if I have one cavil with bourbon today it is that it may be losing that facet. E.g. the Beam whiskies are very clean in taste; ditto the Trace products. The whiskey that most resembled in recent years what I think aged 19th century whiskey was like was ORVW 13 year old rye. It had a rich fruity edge to it. The later bottles (e.g. F series) seem different in that regard, but the ones of a few years back were very much in that style.

Gary
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Unread postby bourbonv » Fri Feb 25, 2005 12:55 pm

Gary,
I agree with you that the understanding of yeast and what it does has improved, but I think the biggest change is the higher distillation and barrel proofs of today's products. There is less flavor from the grain because of the increase in the proofs at these stages.

Mike Veach
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Unread postby bunghole » Fri Feb 25, 2005 1:34 pm

bourbonv wrote:Gary,
I agree with you that the understanding of yeast and what it does has improved, but I think the biggest change is the higher distillation and barrel proofs of today's products. There is less flavor from the grain because of the increase in the proofs at these stages.

Mike Veach


Shame on you Professor Veach! Did you not hear or just not listen to Master Distiler Chris Morris?!

It's quite clear that some folks do a good job in taking care of their yeast!

"O"

OK so Chris Morris knows more than I do. That's a fact.

:arrow: ima :smilebox:

So "What's Knew?"
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Unread postby gillmang » Fri Feb 25, 2005 2:55 pm

I'm sure the yeast management at Trace and all the distilleries is ultra-modern and sanitary. But it was the weird semi-wild yeasts of olden times that gave specific flavors to brews and distillates, some were probably awful but some were probably great.

And Mike is quite right about distillation and entry proofs.

Here is something:

(i) take any kind of heirloom corn, mash with Rosen rye of Wisconsin and barley malt

(ii) ferment with a top-fermenting ale yeast, use backset

(iii) distill in a pot still or short-chambered beer still to about 100 proof

(iv) enter at distillation proof in No. 4 charred barrels made from old oak naturally seasoned. Preferably, blacken the barrels with smouldering straw

(v) age in an unheated limestone warehouse for 4-6 years

What will this taste like? Darn good, probably, maybe sensational. Will it be different from the best 4-6 year old from today's companies? I think so.

I think you will have made an 1860 Bourbon.

Gary
Last edited by gillmang on Fri Feb 25, 2005 3:38 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Unread postby bourbonv » Fri Feb 25, 2005 3:06 pm

Linn,
I am confused! I agree that the knowledge and taking care of the yeast has improved. My point is that I don't think that is a recent thing. Brown-Forman, Schenley and I am sure others were doing in depth studies of yeast in the 1930's that have led to today's knowledge of yeast care and and strains.

My point is that the more recent trend toward higher distillation and barrel proofs would make a greater difference in the product today than that made 50 or 100 years ago.

Mike Veach
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Unread postby bourbonv » Fri Feb 25, 2005 3:56 pm

Gary,
Actually it could have been aged in a wooden warehouse as well as a stone or brick. Other than that, I agree with your assessment. What I would like to see is old time distillation with modern knowledge of yeast and control. I think that would make a truely great bourbon.
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Unread postby bourbonv » Sat Apr 16, 2005 10:30 am

Gary's comments here have me thinking about wild yeast. I wonder what a bourbon would taste like if they used a wild yeast strain? They could gather several samples of wild yeast and examine them under a microscope to find the ones that have some recognized "good" strains and use them to make a bourbon. That might provide some interseting new product, especially if they then distilled it at a low proof at the "replica" George Washington's still at Mt. Vernon.

Another thought is this: If Elijah Pepper was distilling near the present day Woodford Distillery in the early 1800's he was probably using a wild yeast strain found in the area. Would that strain still be found in the area? If so, maybe then that is the yeast James Christopher Crow was using to make whiskey.

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Unread postby cowdery » Sat Apr 16, 2005 12:29 pm

Pappy Van Winkle, among others, made the distinction between "practical" distillers and "scientific" distillers. The distinction primarily has to do with yeast.

Practical distillers use, essentially, wild yeast. They create a medium of grains, water, hops, sulfur and other ingredients of personal preference, set it outside or--in the case of Jim Beam, out on the screened back porch of his house in Bardstown--and wait for nature to do its thing. Once a yeast has been captured in this way and begins to propagate, the yeast maker watches it, smells it and otherwise monitors it to determine if it will be good for making whiskey. If he thinks it will be, he continues to propagate it, then takes it to the distillery and tries it out.

Conversely, if he doesn't like the results, he pitches it and tries again.

A scientific distiller uses a pure strain yeast produced by a yeast company and propagates it in such a way as to avoid "infection" by wild yeast or other microorganisms.

The bridge between the two, of course, is that a yeast created originally by a practical distiller and proven to be good for whiskey making can be scientifically reproduced as a pure strain. I don't know which distilleries have done this but I am sure some of them have. Seagrams, for example, was proud of having created something like 5,000 different strains of yeast. These are called proprietary yeasts and are, I presume, patented or legally protected in some other way.

A wild yeast propagated in the traditional way is not equivalent to a pure strain because it mutates naturally and can express some variations. At some level this is acceptable but managing it is where the skills of the yeast maker come into play. The practical distiller takes steps of a traditional nature to prevent infection and excessive mutation. The most common and most effective of these, which is used by practical and scientific distillers alike, is the sour mash process.

A pure strain yeast is easier to manage and the skills are scientific in nature, whereas the practical distiller uses legerdemain and lore passed from father to son.
- Chuck Cowdery

Author of Bourbon, Straight
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