For all of the absolute facts that exist with bourbon, there has always been a surprising amount of debate over everything from grand concepts (like President Taft ruling on what is whiskey) to pure minutia (like whether whiskey should be spelled with, or without, the “e”).
Practically since the first drop of this majority corn distillate almost 250 years ago, bourbon has embraced half-truths, tall tales, and marketing gimmicks, along with balancing, using, and abusing legal requirements. Why should it be any different today?
So, I selected a few “facts” that people tend to like to disagree about, and posed a Twitter poll to ask which one of these people doubt most of all:
Each one of these “facts” can be false, at least to varying degrees. And from another viewpoint, each option could range from absolutely true to close enough to be accepted as truth. Which of these facts do you most doubt?
Does Tennessee Whiskey qualify as Bourbon?
I started with the biggie. Even when distillers of Tennessee Whiskey say that their whiskey is bourbon, and even when trade law equates the two, purists dispute it. It’s a never-ending debate that neither side will concede.
Federal law provides the Standards of Identity for bourbon. Tennessee Whiskey—which is defined by Tennessee state law—meets all the federal requirements with a single possible exception, which forms the basis of the ongoing debate: after distillation, but before barreling, the distillate passes through sugar maple charcoal.
Here’s how Jack Daniel’s—the most famous Tennessee Whiskey—describes it:
Once distilled to 140-proof, we send our clear, un-aged whiskey on a painstaking journey. Drop by drop, it crawls through our handcrafted charcoal at a pace dictated by gravity and nothing else. The trip takes 3-5 days to complete and once it’s done, the whiskey is transformed. Might even say blessed.
It’s this extra step that imparts the distinctive smoothness folks expect from Jack Daniel’s. And part of what makes our whiskey what it is—a Tennessee Whiskey and not a bourbon.
“Charcoal can accomplish in days what the barrel takes a couple of years to accomplish”, says Master Distiller Jeff Arnett. And the added time and cost it takes to give our whiskey that head start before it goes into the barrels is well worth it.
So, Jack Daniel’s is telling the world that its charcoal mellowing is an accelerated aging technique intended to do what a barrel does, only faster. But the larger point is that bourbon cannot contain any flavoring or color additives. If sugar maple charcoal mellowing imparts any flavor or any color from the char, it cannot be bourbon.
The real purpose is probably more subtractive, though, and scientific study has found that charcoal mellowing removes certain odors and flavors. But it might actually remove too much to be called bourbon. The science of charcoal mellowing was studied by Trenton Kerley and John P. Munafo, Jr. in “Changes in Tennessee Whiskey Odorants by the Lincoln County Process,” Agric. Food Chem. 2020, 68, 36, 9759–9767 © American Chemical Society. The authors found that charcoal mellowing decreased the concentration of 31 odorants including dropping those associated with fatty, rancid, foxy, and roasty aromas to below detection levels. “Concentrations of lipid-derived aldehydes, organic acids, and other odorants decreased between 13 and >99%.”
This means that charcoal mellowing could be filtering too much out of the whiskey for it to be called bourbon. Federal law (27 C.F.R. § 5.27(c)) prohibits filtering out characteristics generally associated with bourbon or, when dealing with straight bourbon, that “results in the removal of more than 15 percent of the fixed acids, volatile acids, esters, soluble solids, or higher alcohols.”
Is this enough to question the factualness of the statement? A respectable 19% of respondents said so.
Is there really a Bourbon shortage?
The sky has been falling for years for the bourbon enthusiast. The bourbon boom turned once-“regular” brands that sold for $26 into allocated products commanding top dollar. Distilleries have cried that they can’t keep up with demand because, of course, bourbon needs to age before it’s ready.
But now we’re six or so years into all distilleries running at full capacity, several distilleries doubling their own capacity with new stills, and massive warehouses springing up across the Bluegrass like dandelions in the spring. Yet some bourbon brands are still impossible to find, with the shortage still to blame, and in the meantime new sourced brands keep cropping up every week. With 10 million barrels of aging bourbon just in Kentucky, how can there be a bourbon shortage?
Understandably, exactly half of all respondents agreed that the shortage myth was the bourbon “fact” that they doubted the most. The people have spoken: just bottle some of it already and loosen up the allocations.
On the other hand, if bourbon markets open in India and China, we’ll have a shortage overnight, even with all of the recent production.
Is Col. E. H. Taylor, Jr., really a hero?
In today’s world of marketing exaggerations, Col. Taylor receives practically all the credit for passage of the Bottled in Bond Act of 1897, he is given credit for turning distilleries into showpiece tourist destinations, and he is perhaps the most venerated name from the pre-Prohibition era.
While Col. Taylor was undoubtedly a critical figure in the history of bourbon, he was no hero. He defrauded customers and business partners. He cheated. He sued everybody. And when he died, his heirs wasted no time in selling off his estate and brushing him under the rug of history.
Only 9% of the respondents were most bothered by Col. Taylor’s hero status, which tells me that more people need to read Bourbon Justice.
Was Elijah Craig the first to char oak barrels?
Heaven Hill refers to Elijah Craig as the “Father of Bourbon” because, in 1789, he was “the first distiller to age his whiskey in new charred oak barrels.” As questionable as this might sound at first blush, there is some support for the claim. The History of Kentucky, a book published in 1874, connects the dots between Rev. Craig and “the first Bourbon Whisky made in 1789, at Georgetown.”
Whether he really was the first to char barrels (and especially whether it was accidental, a fortuitous barn fire, or intentional) might be a bit more toward the legend side, but Rev. Craig was undoubtedly one of the very earliest bourbon distillers in Kentucky.
The second-highest percentage of the respondents doubted Heaven Hill’s claim the most, so perhaps this is a good lesson for brands to not take legends too far or too seriously.