Bourbon tales debunked: The truth behind seven bourbon myths

New bourbon distilleries seem to be opening almost every week.

Bourbon lists are expanding exponentially in bars and restaurants.

And some 6.5 million barrels of bourbon are aging in warehouses across the Commonwealth, which adds up to about a barrel and a half per Kentuckian.

In short, we are in the midst of a bourbon boom that the spirits industry is betting (to the tune of $1.1 billion dollars in capital investment in the last five years) will continue into the foreseeable future.

Indeed, you could say that the mantra of the moment, uttered by Mark Twain and often quoted in bourbon circles, is: “Too much of anything can be bad. But, too much good whiskey is never enough.”

Spend any time taking in the colorful and enjoyable tours at distilleries or reading the copy on bottle labels recounting the histories of various brands, and another aphorism often attributed to Twain will come to mind: “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”

There are scores of great bourbon stories. Some of them are even true. Many of them come courtesy of creative marketing staffs that start with a thread of history and weave a whole backstory tapestry.

Then, there is simply a certain amount of innocent confusion.

For example, how often have you heard (or perhaps asked), “What is the difference between bourbon and whiskey?” The answer is that bourbon is whiskey. It is one of many different types of whiskey styles in the world. Examples of others include rye, Scotch and Irish whiskies. All are made from distilled grains, but differ in what those grains are and in certain details of the distillation process.

So here, just in time for National Bourbon Heritage Month, are clarifications and corrections to some of the most frequently encountered bourbon misconceptions and, in some cases, tall tales. They are presented in no particular order.

Bourbon can be made only in Kentucky

Actually, bourbon can be made anywhere in the United States. Congress passed a resolution in May, 1964 in “…recognition of Bourbon whiskey as a distinctive product of the United States…”

This doesn’t negate the fact, according to the Kentucky Distillers’ Association (kybourbon.com), that 95 percent of all bourbon is made in Kentucky. It’s also important to note that while Bardstown fancies itself “The Bourbon Capital of the World” — and perhaps even the known universe — one third of all bourbon is made right here in Louisville. You can thank bourbon powerhouses Brown-Forman and Heaven Hill for that.

The whiskey is named after Bourbon County

Perhaps. The truth is that no one really knows how the name originated. One popular story is that whiskey traveling downstream for six months or more from Limestone (now Maysville), Kentucky, to New Orleans took on color in the charred barrels in which it was shipped. The cognac-loving (and cognac-deprived) French ex-pats in New Orleans developed a taste for “the red whiskey” with “Bourbon County, Kentucky” written on the shipping invoices.

Historian Michael Veach shed some light on this legend in his “Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: An American Heritage” by explaining that the port city of Limestone from which so much whiskey from central Kentucky was shipped, was part of Bourbon County (then  still part of Virginia) for a very brief period. By the time the whiskey started to be known as bourbon, Limestone had been part of Mason County for more than 30 years.

Veach went on to speculate that it might have been more likely that the name came from “… river travelers drinking the aged whiskey of New Orleans on Bourbon Street and starting to ask for that ‘Bourbon Street whiskey.’”

Bourbon has to be aged at least two years to be called ‘bourbon’

“How long does bourbon have to be aged to become bourbon?” This is a favorite, bourbon-tasting trick question. The answer is, “As soon as the clear, new-make whiskey off the still touches the oak of the barrel in which it is going to be aged, it is ‘bourbon.’”

The two-year age is often cited because, in order to be called “straight bourbon,” it must be aged for at least two years. As Fred Minnick explained in “Bourbon Curious — A Simple Tasting Guide for the Savvy Drinker,” “Distilleries are required to put an age on the bottle only if the bourbon is under four years old.”

Minnick also clarified that if barrels of different ages are mingled in a batch for bottling, then the age statement on the bottle must give the one for the youngest whiskey. Batch six, eight and 10-year-old bourbons, and what is put in the bottle has to be called “six-year old.” Of course, an age statement is optional here, since aging has gone on longer than four years.

At less than four years, it is not uncommon to see age statements such as “36 months.” This is especially true with bourbons from very small distilleries that need cash and cannot afford to sit long on their stock. Perhaps they are trying to make the whiskey sound older by using double digits. But even after a few sips, most bourbon enthusiasts can do the math.

Old Forester was the first bottled bourbon

Before the manufacture of glass bottles became reliable and economically viable, the common practice was to take your own container to the local grocer or saloon to fill it from a barrel on the premises. Obviously, there was a lot of opportunity with this arrangement for unscrupulous retailers to enhance their barrels if stock began to get low before a new barrel was scheduled to arrive.

The most benign alteration was simply to top up a dwindling whiskey supply with water. But that lowered the concentration of alcohol and lightened the color of the liquid. Common solutions to these dilutions included adding alcohol by pouring kerosene in the barrel and using darkening agents, ranging from tea to prune juice to creosote. Yum.

Enter whiskey salesman George Garvin Brown, who vowed in 1870 to sell his Old Forester brand bourbon only in sealed bottles, with its quality guaranteed by his signature on the label. This was effectively the founding of today’s Brown-Forman Corporation, which still makes Old Forester, as well as Woodford Reserve bourbon and Jack Daniels Tennessee whiskey.

“The First Bottled Bourbon” is the tag line that appears on Old Forester’s labels today.  But Michael Veach has a tiny little caveat, “Old Forester was the first bourbon sold exclusively in bottles.”

In an interview, Veach told me that Hiram Walker, the Canadian distiller, was selling his whiskey (admittedly, not bourbon) in bottles in the 1860s. Closer to home, a scrapbook from 1850 in the collection of the Filson Historical Society contains labels by a Louisville printer named Miller for “Old Bourbon Whiskey – Samuel Jacobs & Co., Louisville, Ky.” and “Superior Old Bourbon Whiskey – Geo. Welby, Louisville, Ky.”

“The existence of labels implies that there were bottles to put them on,” said Veach. He hypothesized that some stores sold a limited amount of whiskey in bottles so as “not to miss a customer” if someone arrived without his own container.

“What [George Garvin] Brown did was especially admirable because bottles were still handmade and expensive to produce. It wasn’t until 10 or 15 years later that they could be manufactured by machines.”

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Brown took a gamble that consumers were willing to pay the premium for a bottled product that would assure them that they were getting unadulterated whiskey. He turned out to be right.

The Old Fashioned Cocktail was invented at Louisville’s Pendennis Club

The Old Fashioned, that lovely concoction of bourbon, sugar, bitters and a little fruit, is Louisville’s “official cocktail.” (Let us take a moment to be pleased and proud that we live in a city that has an Official Cocktail.) The reason for the Old Fashioned’s civic designation is that its creation is credited to the city’s Pendennis Club.

But there’s a catch.

In his James Beard-awarded book, “Imbibe!,” cocktail scholar Dave Wondrich citesd a reference in The Chicago Tribune in 1869 to the “Old-Fashioned.” The Pendennis Club did not open its doors until 1881. Plus, Chicago bartender Theodore Proulx published an Old Fashioned recipe in his bar guide of 1888.

Faced with this timeline, the Louisville origin has been amended to say that it was the version created at the Pendennis that we know as the Old Fashioned today. But does that claim hold up?

Curious, I reached Wonderich by e-mail, and he sent me a lengthy reply expanding on his material in “Imbibe!”

“Martin Cuneo, the guy the Club credits for inventing their Old-Fashioned (the claim to inventing the original one having been proven untenable), was a hell of a bartender. Born 1875, began bartending by 1906 … and then at the Pendennis, by 1913. He worked there through Prohibition (was arrested there in 1930 for serving booze); retired from there between 1940 and 1942. Died 1943.

[Cuneo] was popular and made fantastic drinks; in 1913, he was written up in the papers for the excellence of his Juleps. The Pendennis Club was also recognized as a center of mixology and contributed recipes to several books, ones which became well-known and popular. Unfortunately, they were the Julep, the Pendennis Cocktail (not an Old-Fashioned) and their Eggnog.

Cuneo’s Old-Fashioned recipe, which he gave to the Works Progress Administration in 1941 or thereabouts (he had retired) and claimed he developed, used lump sugar, not syrup, and had the fruit (orange and cherry) as a garnish, not muddled in — thus contradicting two of the three things the Pendennis nowadays maintains characterize its claim to the cocktail (the other is the use of Angostura bitters, not other types).

Now, the slice of orange already appears in the Hoffman House’s (New York’s best bar, 1870-1913) Old Fashioned from 1905. Angostura bitters appear variously, but are common in the drink by 1912. As far as I can tell, the muddled-fruit Old Fashioned didn’t come into play until the 1950s or even 1960s.

I don’t have any beef against the Pendennis Club: Its claim to the drink — the original version — was asserted in 1931, and not by the club, but in the book “Old Waldorf Bar Days.” “Back then, there was no way of disproving it, and it was well known that they made good drinks at the club. With modern research tools, however, the claim is easy to disprove. I wish that they would admit it in good grace, claim the great drinks that they did make and celebrate Martin for his skill, rather than trying to crawl through the eye of a needle to prove a claim that was never grounded.”

So there we are. But I’m still happy that Louisville has officially embraced the Old Fashioned.

The Manhattan cocktail was invented at New York’s Manhattan Club

The Old Fashioned is not the only whiskey cocktail that has been subject of myth-making. For the real story about the Manhattan, I called Albert Schmid, Director of Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management at Guilford Technical Community College outside Greensboro, North Carolina, and the author of “The Manhattan: A Modern Guide to a Whiskey Classic.” He was quick to debunk the received origin story.

“The most common idea about the drink is that it was created for a dinner at the Manhattan Club to honor Samuel Tilden’s election as governor of New York. Lady Randolph Churchill (Jennie Jerome) was supposed to have been the hostess. But she couldn’t have been.”

Schmid explained that the dinner indeed took place at the Manhattan Club, but it was in November 1874. Lady Randolph was in England and on the 31st of that month, she gave birth to her son, Winston. It took five to six weeks to cross the Atlantic via ocean liner, so she couldn’t have been in New York.

“Probably the story about Jennie Jerome got started because she was an American and that her father at one time owned the building that was the headquarters of the club,” explained Schmid.

“The other common story is that a member of the Manhattan Club, Judge Charles Henry Truax, was instructed to stop drinking martinis so he could lose weight. Supposedly Truax asked the club bartender to mix an alternate drink, and the Manhattan was the result. Unfortunately, the two cocktails have exactly the same number of calories.”

Schmid thinks the most likely story is about a bartender named Black who named it after the island. “It’s ironic,” he mused, “since the Native-Americans who were trading with the Dutch colonists gave it that name because it meant ‘The place where we become intoxicated.”

Well, that certainly seems appropriate.

Distilling is returning to Louisville’s Whiskey Row for the first time since before Prohibition

This has been the rallying cry for several recent projects along West Main Street. The Evan Williams Bourbon Experience led the way with a micro-distillery. Peerless Distillery and Angel’s Envy Distillery are larger operations that are both making whiskies (both bourbon and rye). Old Forester is scheduled to start distilling soon in the same block where the company once had offices. And the city has created a Bourbon District, complete with historical markers along the corridor.

But, in reality, Whiskey Row never had any actual distillers.

“Whiskey Row had warehouses and distillery offices and other bourbon-related businesses, but whiskey was not distilled there,” says Carla Carlton, who blogs as “The Bourbon Babe” and has a new book, “Barrel Strength Bourbon – The Explosive Growth of America’s Whiskey.”

“Whiskey Row certainly deserved its name,” Carlton continued, “Virtually every distillery in Kentucky had offices there to see to the marketing and shipping of their products.”

Indeed, a check of the City Directory from 1890 shows that there were more than 125 businesses associated with the bourbon industry. Not only offices and warehouses, but whiskey wholesalers, grain merchants, label printers, trade publications, bottle manufacturers and others. So it might be more appropriate to simply applaud the fact that distilling has finally come to Whiskey Row.

Carlton agreed and is certainly pleased to see the historic recognition and new buzz around the multi-block stretch she says was once known as “The Wall Street of Whiskey.” •

Susan Reigler is the author of books including “Kentucky Bourbon Country: The Essential Travel Guide,” and is co-author of “The Bourbon Tasting Notebook” and “The Kentucky Bourbon Cocktail Book.”

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