It snowed here in southeast Pennsylvania not too long ago, for the first time this winter. Not much – just a three-minute squall – but I had promised myself that when the first snow fell, I'd fill up my system with 86-proof antifreeze and give you guys a
lecture about America's true original spirit: straight bourbon whiskey. It's a subject I love, so I may go a bit long. I'll try to keep it interesting.
Er, by the way ... some of you may remember that I said that "true original spirit" thing about rye whiskey
. Well, I, um, I misspoke. See, rye whiskey was something the German and Scots-Irish distillers who came to the New World already knew how to make. They made it back home, didn't really age it, called it karn.
Karn was made from grain and distilled to a high proof. It was clear and unaged ... today we'd call it vodka. It is interesting to note that the early Americans often drank their rye whiskey with flavorings infused in it: hot peppers, a strong-flavored herb called tansy (which contains thujone, the same toxic compound as absinthe; no stories of any colonists cutting off their ear, though), and a cherry/sugar smash-up they called baunz. Absolut Baunz, minus the marketing.
The rye distillers made plenty of whiskey. It was an easy way to transport grain in a concentrated form (and you could nip at it along the way). That was important: while the long stretch of north-south ridges in Pennsylvania means nothing more than scenery to today's traveler on the PA Turnpike, back in the day, they were a barrier that made travel across 100 miles of the Commonwealth more difficult than travel across the entire Atlantic to England.
As a result of the relative isolation the topography imposed, things were a bit anarchic in the wild western reaches of Pennsylvania and Maryland in the days after the Revolutionary War. When the new government put an excise tax on whiskey in 1791 to pay off some of the huge debts incurred in fighting the war, the "Westsylvanians" got out the tar and feathers. Literally. They tarred and feathered a couple tax collectors – always a popular pastime – and by 1794, there was armed rebellion. Charging tax on whiskey? Let's put up a Liberty Pole, boys, yeee-HA!
President-General George Washington and his Cabinet figured that this just wouldn't do. Washington mobilized an army bigger than any he'd ever commanded in the war and marched across Pennsylvania, rounding up distillers and holding trials as he went, until arriving in the heart of the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania. The huge army cowed the rebels. Some gave themselves up ... but some figured they'd already fought a war to get rid of this kind of tyranny and taxation, so they got on flatboats and headed down the Ohio River.
They wound up in Kentucky, in the rich farmland between Louisville and Lexington. That's where they found limestone soil, and water percolated pure through the limestone bedrock, and that's where they found that corn would grow so fast it practically knocked you on the chin on its way up. And that is when they started making the spirit that could only have come from America: bourbon whiskey.
It's kind of funny, but this whiskey, which is indirectly a product of a fierce desire to avoid government interference, is thoroughly regulated by federal law today. The feds have rules on how to make bourbon; do it differently, and you better come up with something else to put on the label.
What are the rules? First, the grains used to make bourbon, the "mashbill," must be at least 51 percent corn; most bourbons use around 70 percent corn. The rest of the mashbill, called the "small grains," contains some malted barley and either rye or wheat for flavor. These small grains are not covered by the law – they're just in there because that's how you make bourbon.
The grains are ground, mixed with water, mashed to convert the starches and fermented. At this point, it's essentially beer without the hops. This unfiltered "distiller's beer" – grits and grains and alcohol and all – is pumped into the top of a still, where the alcohol is brought off by live steam bubbling and hissing up through the soupy liquid. It may be distilled again, or even three times, but the final proof after distillation is subject to that federal law: it cannot be higher than 160 proof.
Some of the grits and grains out of the bottom of the still are put into the next batch of mash to go into the fermenter. It's done for pH balance ... and that's all there is to the "sour mash" process. Just about all bourbon is sour mash whiskey, by the way; not just the ones that say it.
Now the whiskey, which is clear and tastes like sweet corn lightning (been there, tasted that, WHA-HOOOO!!), is put into barrels, and there's a whole web of regulation around this. The first one comes into play before it even goes in: if the whiskey is filtered through hardwood charcoal before entering the barrel, something that's known as the Lincoln County Process, it's no longer bourbon, it's Tennessee whiskey. Just to be clear: Jack Daniel's is not bourbon. So stop calling it that – especially the bartender in Wilkes-Barre who threw me out of his bar for telling him it wasn't bourbon. Dick.
Back to Kentucky, and we learn that the feds say the whiskey must be cut down to a maximum of 125 proof before it goes in the barrel, and that the barrel must be made of new, charred, American white oak – "new" meaning you can only use them once, "charred" meaning they get flamed on the inside when they're made, so there's a layer of charcoal on the inside of the barrel. They load up the barrels onto a truck, take them to the warehouse and roll them onto a set of rails ... where they pretty much sit for years.
Now that the whiskey's in the barrel, the law says that if it stays in there less than four years, there must be an age statement on the label. Nobody wants to say their whiskey is three years old, so pretty much all bourbon on the market is at least four years old.
What happens over those four years, or seven years, or fifteen years? The whiskey is sucking flavor and color out of the wood. The charring creates a "red zone" (yeah, really, it's called that) in the wood where sugars, caramels and vanilla-like compounds are created. The alcohol sucks that stuff right out. The long hot summers expand the whiskey into the wood, the cold winters pull it back out. Over half of the whiskey's sweet, rich, vanilla-laced flavor and all its color come from this process.
The warehouse is where the real magic takes place. Distillers are constantly tasting, and not just because they can. The whiskey ages differently depending on the barrel and where it is in the warehouse: barrels high in the warehouse get more heat, barrels by the doors get more air, barrels in the middle are insulated from temperature shifts and barrels at the bottom get more moisture. The distillers are looking for barrels that are aging quickly and for "honey barrels" – the special barrels that are aging well and will probably wind up in small batch bourbons.
When they're ready, the barrels are hauled out to the dump room. The bung's pulled, the barrel's tipped, and wild, free whiskey rushes out. This is my favorite part of the whole process – this profligate, headlong gushing and rushing of whiskey out of the barrel into a trough full of busted-up char and more whiskey, running like a stream. It makes me feel rich just looking at it.
The bourbon goes through a screen filter to catch any char that breaks loose, and then it's cut to bottle proof with water. Two final regulations have power here. You cannot add any kind of flavoring or coloring to bourbon whiskey. To be called bourbon, the whiskey must go into the bottle at a proof of at least 80 (40 percent alcohol). It can be, and often is, higher than that.
That's it, folks. The final step to the process is drinking it, and I'll tell you, I'm about ready for another one. (I'm drinking Old Grand-Dad 100 proof today.) I usually drink my bourbon straight, maybe with a little spring water, or on the rocks in the summer. Most bourbon (and Tennessee whiskey, for that matter) gets mixed with Coke on ice, but you can make some great cocktails with bourbon. Two of my favorites are the mint julep and the whiskey sour.
I had to take a break from juleps. I had a big bed of mint out in the yard just for making them. But one day, I was mixing up a julep and happened to look out the kitchen window. There was my dog, pissing all over my mint. I couldn't face a julep for three years. But I'm over that, now that the dog's too gimpy to make it out that far into the yard. The mint julep is essentially a sno-cone made with a lot of bourbon and sugar, garnished with a big clump of mint so that when you take a drink, the mint's right in your nose.
Details on mint julep recipes lead to duels – and not just with dickhead bartenders – so I'm going to leave it at that. But I'm going to insist that you try making a whiskey sour just like this, a recipe I'm stealing from my friend Gary Regan [www.ardentspirits.com
] because it's delicious.
Take 2.5 ounces of bourbon, an ounce and a half of freshly squeezed lemon juice and a half teaspoon of superfine sugar – not confectioner's sugar: Domino Superfine. (Get a box, you'll want it.) Put all that in a cocktail shaker half-full of ice, shake well and strain into a sour glass (or a martini glass). Garnish with a fresh orange slice. It's the absolute cat's nuts. Don't serve this to your Aunt Minnie – it'll set her glands on fire. Just let her keep drinking the sours she makes with the mix, and save this stuff for yourself.
That's all about "red likker." Hope I didn't bore you, but what I really hope is that you'll go out to your local package store and ask the guy for a good bourbon under 20 bucks. Take it home and try it out. Thank me later.