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Colonial Spirit

Thursday, April 21 2016 10:31 AM

For all of you who read our “Thirsty Thursday” blog you know I like to focus on the historical side of libations and spirits. This week we are going to focus on the history of whiskey in America. We all relate bourbon whiskey as being America’s spirit, and rightfully so as it helped with colonizing land during western expansion. Much like Jazz, Bourbon is an American art form. What most people don’t realize is it was not America’s first whiskey, but a by-product of our country’s ingenuity and ability to adapt.

After the American Revolution many of the colony’s settlers were on a trek westbound in search of farm land. One of the largest counties to offer settlers such land was Bourbon county in what is now Kentucky. As great as it may sound to obtain free land on which to work and from which to reap benefits, the settlers soon found it was going to take hard work to survive. Corn was the main crop—it grew plentifully with very little preparation and maintenance. But it was also a double-edged sword in that it has very little dietary value and overpowered grains not as commonly found in the area. So in an attempt to use the resources of the land to provide for their family, many farmers began distilling white corn whiskey (a non barrel-aged type of whiskey most commonly resembling modern day moonshine). Over time, the quality of whiskey became better as well as the techniques to make it. Charred barrel-aging quickly caught on with individuals looking to make the most superior spirit. Not long after, Edmund Haynes Taylor (Col. E.H. Taylor), nephew of our twelfth President Zachary Taylor, gave us our first set of rules regarding the production of whiskey in America: the Bottle and Bond Act of 1897. The act established a standard for the vast differences in common American whiskey and quality American whiskey.

Bourbon whiskey was not produced in its current form for over 150 years after we started producing “whiskey” in the “New World.” Our first foray into this type of distillate was rye whiskey. Many have conjectured that the reason for stopping at Plymouth Rock was because the ships had depleted their supply of spirits (mainly the hefty load of sherry rumored to cost more than the entire expedition). There were not great amounts of corn or grape vines when they landed, but there was an abundance of rye. It didn’t take settlers long to create rye whiskey using techniques adopted from other countries. Rye whiskey instantly took off as the first and most prominent spirit in the “New World”. So much in fact that in 1838 America’s first cocktail was created using it, the Sazerac. It’s true that in some form this cocktail had existed much longer with its use of sugar, bitters and an Absinth wash. But it truly brought America’s first whiskey to the world stage when Thomas Handy took possession of the Sazerac Coffee House, adapting the recipe to incorporate the cask strength rye whiskey he was known for producing.


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