Bourbon: Heritage in a Glass
Here at Huckberry, it’s no secret we love bourbon (we’ve been known to put it in our brownies), and we’re always up for an opportunity to learn more about our favorite drink. Lucky for us, we know AJ Hochhalter who just produced a documentary called “Neat: The Story of Bourbon,” which dives deep into the history and production of this beloved American spirit. We’ll be tapping into AJ’s wisdom in a series of bourbon articles, and we’re kicking off with Bourbon Heritage Month.
“You come into the business in your early 20s and make the best batch of bourbon you can. When your last barrel from that batch reaches its maturity, you are now 45 years old. So you do it again, and when your last barrel from your second batch reaches maturity, you are around 70 years old. It is very rare for old guys like us to ever taste our third batch to final maturity—that’s what you leave for the next generation.”
— Freddie Johnson, third-generation employee at Buffalo Trace Distillery
In case you haven’t heard, September is Bourbon Heritage Month. While you might be more familiar with celebrating history, it’s important to note the distinction between history and heritage. While history is simply the record of past events, heritage is the things from the past that are so valuable to us today that they must be saved for tomorrow—past, present, and future. That is the story of bourbon.
So where did that story begin? For starters, bourbon is a highly specialized classification of whiskey that must follow a very strict set of rules to improve and protect its quality. Somewhere in the wild Wild West of a newly formed America, someone figured out that all you need is charred oak and time to add sweetness to an otherwise harsh corn whiskey. Soon after that discovery, a new generation started shipping bourbon from Kentucky, down the Mississippi and New Orleans, and the world began to acquire the taste.
Skip forward a few more generations and the USA thinks so highly of bourbon that it claims it as its own and by act of Congress, names bourbon “America’s Only Native Spirit”. This patriotic bourbon party lasts for a while until a new generation in the ‘60s and ‘70s rises up who wants to flex their independence and chooses to run exclusively to clear spirits and martini bars.
The bourbon industry all but dies, but those working with it understood its heritage. Bourbon was too valuable of an American product to give up on, and it had to be preserved for the next generation. Amidst the ashes lay thousands of barrels in the bourbon warehouses of Kentucky, just sitting because there was no demand for them. But before long, a new generation of bourbon barons armed with storehouses full of old aged bourbon began to bring it back—one barrel at a time. Cultural preferences begin to shift back to appreciating things that are natural, authentic and unique, and bourbon is culturally relevant again. Time had worked its magic. Just like the product needs to go away and age in the rickhouse for seven to 10 years, bourbon needed to leave the public’s eye for a generation so that it could come roaring back.
When it comes down to it, bourbon’s heritage should inspire us all because we all want to endure time with all its ups and downs and come out the other side sweeter, mellow, and more mature. Bourbon helps us remember the past, cherish the present, and dream about what the future can be. So as you and your loved ones responsibly celebrate bourbon this September, look down into the deep amber pool of American grain that is in your glass and think about history if you want—but don’t forget that bourbon is the very definition of heritage.
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