Okay, which one of you rang the bell about four years ago and started the Gold Rush to Bourbon? While the demand for Bourbon had been building steadily for a couple of years, suddenly the dam burst and everyone, along with his brother and all the cousins, wanted to drink Bourbon.
For Bourbon producers, there are worse problems to have than high demand for the distilled spirit. But it’s not quite that simple. Because while Bourbon can be produced from grain year round, the really good stuff benefits from long aging, anywhere from 2 years, the minimum aging time for straight Bourbon, up to 20 years in barrel. And there is nothing you can do to hurry time. For most of us, time passes too quickly. If you are trying to meet current market demand with an aged product, you check your watch and your calendar frequently, wondering what is taking so long.
Bourbon was originally made in this country by Scotch and Scotch-Irish immigrants who settled into the region that we now know as Kentucky in the middle 1700’s. Ready access to grain, which the native Indians were growing, and some excellent “sweet” flowing water were made-to-order for the creation of a Scotch-like spirit.
The Shawnees, Iroquois, and the Cherokee used the area for hunting and agriculture but there were no major tribal settlements in what-was-to-become Kentucky when the Europeans settled here. So there were no local wars or sending Native Americans off their land. A minor consideration, no doubt, of the early settlers to this area given the sterling history of Europeans and their dealings with the people who were here first.
Anyway, and here’s where the story gets interesting for us, New Orleans was already a major city and a great international port, the key, as far as Thomas Jefferson was concerned, to the well-being and success of America. We were, of course, still under the control of France and Spain but New Orleans made a lot of money from the new country, America, as goods came down the river for shipment to world markets.
Remember that the Creoles in the early 1800’s had a derisive name for the uncouth and uncultured Americans. They were all called Kaintucks. So we were all getting along very well at that point, calling each other names but trading together nevertheless.
The distilled spirit, in previously used wine barrels, or any other barrel that was available, came down the river from what was to be Kentucky on barges. The journey in those days took five months, and you read that right. The distilled spirit was, and still is, clear when it leaves the still. The trip down the river, with the rolling water of the rivers moving the liquid around in the charred oak barrel, caused the liquid to pick up a brown caste.
And so Bourbon became a brown spirit. But, you ask because you are the inquisitive, trouble-maker type, where did Bourbon get that name?
Today, the people in Kentucky will tell you that Bourbon got its name from the Bourbon Family, the Royal families of France and Spain. But that does not explain what the connection of European royalty to Kentucky’s most famous product is. Kentucky was not even a part of the Louisiana Purchase, nor did the settlers into the area have any connection with Spain or France. Being of somewhat English descent, the feelings developed from the heritage of the Kentucky settlers towards Spain and France would be harsh, not embracing. Wars had been fought among these countries for centuries and there was not a general peace in existence at this time, the mid 1700’s to the mid-1800’s. They did not like each other even a little bit.
Anyway, back to the question, why would a product of mostly English origin, made in a new land, take on the name of the Royal Families of Spain and France?
The makers of the spirit gave the spirit its generic name because that was the name of the product’s best sales market. Yep, Bourbon Street, which is indeed named after the Royal Family of the countries who owned New Orleans and Louisiana, was the best market for this distilled spirit. And so Bourbon it was called in a sort of marketing ploy to keep the customers happy.
You can have this same discussion today with Bourbon makers and they will tell you the name of the county in what was to become the state of Kentucky was Bourbon County. And that is where the name of the spirit came from. But that line of thinking takes you back to the same place as the above-noted argument/reasonable explanation, and that same place is New Orleans’ most famous party street, even today.
The infamous bartender over at Kingfish in the French Quarter, corner Chartres and Conti, Chris McMillian is enshrined in the Smithsonian Institution reciting “Ode to a Mint Julep,” written in the 1890’s by a newspaper man in Lexington, Kentucky. The classic poem is the perfect accompaniment to the creation of this legendary cocktail. Chris will, on some occasions, recite the poem as he creates the perfect Mint Julep.
The poem notes, when speaking of the Mint Julep, “the zenith of men’s pleasures…the very dream of drinks.”
8 mint leaves, plus mint sprigs for garnish
1/2 ounce Simple Syrup
2 ounces bourbon, preferably overproof
In a chilled julep cup or fizz glass, muddle the mint leaves and Simple Syrup. Add the bourbon and crushed ice. Set a swizzle stick or bar spoon in the cup and spin between your hands to mix. Top with additional crushed ice and garnish with the mint sprigs
When crushing the ice, do not make the ice too fine. Smaller pieces of ice chopped or cut from larger pieces are preferable to minimize the effects of the ice melting and diluting the drink. Also it is best to use a pewter cup which will hold the cold of the ice for a longer period of time.
4 basil leaves
1 teaspoon aged balsamic vinegar
1/2 ounce Simple Syrup
1 1/2 ounces Buffalo Trace Bourbon
1 1/2 ounces chilled ginger ale
In a cocktail shaker, muddle 3 of the basil leaves with the vinegar and Simple Syrup. Add ice and the bourbon and shake well. Strain the drink into an ice-filled rocks glass, stir in the ginger ale and garnish with the remaining basil leaf.
This cocktail was created at The Oak Room in Louisville, Kentucky, which is where Al Capone regularly played cards in the 1920’s.
1 1/3 ounces bourbon
2/3 ounce white crème de cacao
2/3 ounce fresh lemon juice
2/3 ounce fresh orange juice
1/2 ounce grenadine
1 orange wedge, for garnish
Fill a cocktail shaker with ice. Add all of the remaining ingredients except the garnish and shake well. Strain into an ice-filled rocks glass and garnish with the orange wedge.
This drink is a variation on the Commodore No. 2, as noted in the Old Waldorf-Astoria Bar Book, 1935.
(All drink recipes courtesy of Food & Wine website, www.foodandwine.com, 2014 Time, Inc.)
Before we leave this topic, if you are a lover of Bourbon, we need to mention the New Orleans Bourbon Society. This free-to-join organization, based at Dickie Brennan’s Bourbon House (where else?), corner Bourbon Street and Iberville in the French Quarter, hosts tastings, often led by a distiller, so the event is part educational, mostly social, always a good evening. Over 90 American whiskies are always on hand at Bourbon House for your tasting pleasures.
Sign up for the New Orleans Bourbon Society