As we approach our annual Independence Day celebration, I wanted to write about a topic that highlights American ingenuity and culture. After a recent visit to StilL 630 in downtown St. Louis, I finally found my inspiration. Let us take a look into a brief history of Bourbon whiskey, America’s uniquely quintessential and native spirit.
The History of Bourbon
Like the beginnings of many stories, the origin of bourbon in America is quite hazy and rather heavily disputed. Many attribute its discovery in 1789 to the “Father of Bourbon”, Reverend Elijah Craig. Legend tells us that Reverend Craig was the first to age whiskey in new oak barrels, charred by an accidental fire. Others bestow the Samuels Family with the creation of American bourbon in 1783 after Robert Samuel concocted a “secret family recipe” using corn-mashed whiskey.
While it may be difficult to pinpoint the truly original creator of bourbon one thing is certain – its creation came by the way of distillation evolution and good ole’ American ingenuity.
An Abundance of Corn Grain
Early American settlers were less worried about creating the best-quality mash and settled for what was cheap, and readily available. Readily available across the plains was corn grain – a plentiful, sugar-rich crop with a long history in the Americas. As European farmers (particularly the Irish and Scottish) began to settle the American South, they brought with them their country’s knowledge of the distillation process.
Utilizing the well-practiced oak barrel aging process, early American settlers replaced their traditional barley and peat mixture with New World corn mash, and American bourbon was born. Bourbon production spread throughout the nation and flourished throughout the 1800’s, but the Temperance Movement would soon bring the industry to temporary ruin.
Too much of a good thing?
There is the saying “work hard, play hard”, and there was plenty of hard work and hard drinking involved in settling the untamed Americas. Alcohol was not just popular for the obvious reasons. Water sources were often polluted, milk and tea were expensive or unavailable, and at the time it was socially acceptable to drink small amounts of alcohol throughout the day. Many people felt that this party-hard lifestyle was ruining the health of individuals and by extension, their families. This disintegration of the family unit propelled the Temperance social movement forward and with it, the prohibition of alcohol.
The National Prohibition Act halted alcohol production in the United States from 1920-1933. Unsurprisingly, total prohibition would inspire people to develop alternative, more dangerous methods to create and distribute alcohol. Unregulated “bathtub gin” became a popular means of production. Many people were unfortunately poisoned and even blinded as a result of drinking these dangerous, homemade concoctions.
Bootlegging as a means of distribution would breed violence and corruption, and its aftermath would overwhelm the justice system. Workarounds to prohibition would even provoke the federally-approved poisoning of industrial ethyl alcohol (seriously, research denatured alcohol and the term “blind drink”) to discourage illegal activity.
Just a few years into prohibition it became clear that the restrictions were not effective. Americans possessed ingenious ways of working the system and in 1933, the National Prohibition Act was repealed under the the 21st Amendment to the Constitution.
What makes whiskey a bourbon?
There are simple but stringent legal qualifiers for what constitutes an American Bourbon Whiskey. The Federal Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits dictates that:
- bourbon must be made in American, using American ingredients
- bourbon must be made from a fermentable grain (mash) mixture that is at least 51% corn
- must be aged in new, charred American Oak barrels
- bourbon must be distilled to to no more than 160 proof (80% abv)
- bourbon must be entered into a container for aging at no more than 125 proof (62.5% abv)
- the mixture must not contain any additives other than water
- and bourbon must be bottled at a minimum 80 proof (40% abv)
What makes Missouri Bourbon so special?
In 2019 the signing of House Bill 266 declared Missouri bourbon its own style of whiskey, officially joining the ranks of Tennessee and Kentucky. Real Missouri bourbon must adhere to federally-mandated standards of American bourbon production but must also “be mashed, fermented, distilled, aged and bottled in the state; aged in oak barrels manufactured in the state; and made with corn exclusively grown in the state” (House Bill 266).
But why is Missouri bourbon special enough to be made its own category? Our Ozark-grown Missouri White Oak (Quercus alba) barrels is one important reason. The cellular structure of White Oak contains plastic-like outgrowths called Tyloses. Tyloses act as a sealant and will swell and plug vessels, which aid in making White Oak rather durable and waterproof. When charred, White Oak barrels will emit flavor and aroma-enhancing properties into the aging liquid, and chemical reactions create color stability.
If bourbon barrels can only be used once, what happens to the used barrels? Many distilleries will re-use Missouri White Oak barrels to age their own spirits in. Famous distillery Glenmorangie went as far as to purchase a portion of the Ozark Forest from which its oak barrels are made. Glenmorangie first leases their oak barrels to other distillers like Jack Daniel’s and Heavens Hill to use for four years before using these barrels to age their own single malt Scotch whisky.
Additionally, unique temperature fluctuations and seasonal changes play an important role in distinguishing Missouri bourbon from the rest. Unlike wine, bourbon does not age in temperature-controlled environments. Bourbon ages in rick houses that fluctuate in temperature and humidity throughout the year. The ending result is often unique and varies from batch to batch.
St. Louis distillery, StilL 630
StilL 630 is located at 1000 4th Street in St. Louis, Missouri. Locals may recognize the building as the old Hardee’s location near Busch Stadium. Utilizing the building’s incredible natural light, the distillery storefront offers an industrial, yet apothecary, aesthetic. My husband and I enjoyed the Grain to Glass tour with a few others on a hot Saturday afternoon. The Grain to Glass tour begins with an introduction to the distillery and distillation processes. Throughout the experience David passionately tells his story, and is happy to answer any questions. Guests can then enjoy a few samples of the current spirits line-up at the conclusion of the tour.
After trying several samples, we went home with a bottle of the Missouri Straight Bourbon Whiskey Single Barrel (April batch) and a Moonwalker candle.
StilL 630 will celebrate its annual StilL 630Day this Saturday, June 26, 2021. Patrons can purchase event tickets to try the new Smoked Mushroom Agave Spirit release from 5:00 – 9:00 PM. To learn more about StilL 630 and plan your own Grain to Glass distillery tour, visit www.still630.com.