I like to remind people that bourbon didn’t really become bourbon until the early 1900s. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when bourbon became bourbon as we know it, because little tweaks to regulations and production standards have continued to happen over time, but the main thing that made it ‘bourbon’ was putting it into a new charred oak barrel.
Corn whiskey was predominant on the frontier because there was a lot of corn and turning it into whiskey preserved it and made it more valuable. Jimmy Russell is often quoted as saying, “If rice had grown here, bourbon would be made with rice.” The first-known mention of bourbon appeared in the Western Citizen newspaper in 1821, but the earliest-known mention of putting corn whiskey into a barrel didn’t appear until 1826.
As much as we like to talk about heritage and tradition, changes have taken place in Kentucky bourbon for generations. When wine cask finishes proved successful for Scotch producers, distiller Lincoln Henderson came up with the idea to finish Kentucky bourbon in a wine cask. It was not immediately popular, but today Angel’s Envy, which practises port wine cask finishing, has a cult following.
This innovation has only been around since 2006, but you can now find whiskeys finished in every conceivable type of cask, including Chardonnay, rum, orange curaçao, beer, and even tabasco. However, it was a Cognac cask that made bourbon what it is today.
In the early 1800s, the main export market for Kentucky bourbon was New Orleans. Corn whiskey and common whiskey would be distilled and put into earthenware jugs. Farmers would trade their whiskey for things they needed, like nails to build a barn. Excess whiskey could be traded to another market to bring in goods that could not be produced locally. Earthenware jugs didn’t travel well and eventually were replaced with an uncharred barrel.
There was just one problem: people in New Orleans preferred French spirits such as Cognac.
In 1826, a grocery store owner in Lexington, Kentucky wrote to John Corlis, a distiller in Bourbon County, Kentucky. In his letter, the main purpose of which was to order another 100 barrels of whiskey, he made a special request: he asked Corlis to char the inside of the barrel, as was done for Cognac, to “improve the flavor of the whiskey”. The grocer even specified that the charring should be done at about a 16th of an inch (which, according to Independent Stave Company’s Andrew Wiehebrink, was how char levels were measured prior to the 1950s when the current level system was developed).
In the letter, this grocery store owner compliments Corlis on his whiskey, stating that if our whiskey “continues to be as good and as high proof as the nine barrels… it will soon gain a preference to any other brought to market”.
While we don’t know for sure who first started charring barrels or why (sorry, but it probably wasn’t Elijah Craig), the idea of collaborative innovation has always existed, including in beverage alcohol.
Some people say that a barrel gives bourbon half its flavour and all of its colour. While the colour part is undeniable, we don’t actually have a way to quantify the percentage of flavour that comes from the barrel (although we do know that barrels contribute vanillin to a whiskey, which is a hallmark flavour of bourbon).
In bourbon, as in other whiskeys, time is really the optimal ingredient. Chemical processes such as dissolution, evaporation, and oxidation take place gradually and are influenced by multiple factors in the surrounding climate. Many brands throughout history have tried to speed this process up, but nothing takes the place of time in the barrel and allowing those processes to occur naturally.
It took time to arrive at the use of charred barrels for corn whiskey on the frontier, but the market forces that favoured Cognac ultimately pushed bourbon in the right direction. Since then, barrels and time have been key ingredients in bourbon and other American whiskeys, much to our palates’ delight.