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3 Things You Might Not Know About Whiskey

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[Photograph: Amy Cavanaugh]

This past week was Craft Spirits Week in Chicago, and included in the lineup of tastings and dinners was a class entitled "Everything You've Ever Wanted to Know about Whiskey." Michael Veach, a whiskey historian from Louisville, usually teaches the class over four weeks at the Filson Historical Society, but he crammed it into an eight-hour session that covered the history of American whiskey from the whiskey rebellion to the present day.

Of course, it wouldn't be a whiskey class without the brown stuff, and he walked us through sampling eight different American whiskies and discussed their grains, ages, water, and other factors that contribute to the its flavor. Here are a few tidbits you may not have realized about this delicious brown spirit.

1. President Taft is responsible for our current definition of whiskey.

As whiskey came of age in America, no one was sure how to exactly define it. Could blended whiskey and bonded straight whiskey both be just be called "whiskey"? The Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897 stipulated that whiskey must come from the same distillery, be made in the same season, be at least four years old, and be bottled at 100 proof to be labeled "Bottled-in-Bond" or "Bonded." But that didn't fully answer the question, and producers of blended and straight whiskey were both adamant that their product be called simply "whiskey." Theodore Roosevelt was president at the time and his chief chemist said that only straight whiskey counted, and people blending whiskey brought the case to court—as did producers of Canadian, Irish, and Scotch whiskey.

The case was still in court when William Howard Taft became president. Taft had a judicial background and he decided to hear the case himself. He listened to arguments for months—and drank lots of whiskey—before determining that both products were whiskey but labels would have to identify them as "straight whiskey" and "blended whiskey."

2. Charred barrels weren't always the norm.

After the Louisiana Purchase was added to the United States, Kentucky distillers were sending whiskey down to New Orleans in uncharred barrels, but no one was buying it. Veach theorizes that it the Tarascon brothers, who hailed from France and handled trade between Louisville and New Orleans, came up with the method of putting whiskey in toasted oak. The city had Spanish and French influences, and residents were used to drinking cognac and Armagnac, which are aged in charred barrels.

3. If the bourbon mash bill has less than 10 percent malted barley, enzymes are added.

We know that bourbon must be at least 51 percent corn and that other grains such as wheat, rye, and malted barley are used to complete the mash bill. Distillers can adjust how much of each grain they're using, and there is no minimum amount of malted barley that bourbon is required to contain. Malted barley supplies the enzymes that turn corn starches into sugar, and if they don't comprise at least 10 percent of the mash bill, distillers need to add enzymes, which the U.S. allows for.

And one more: Some states ended Prohibition a heck of a lot later than 1933.

Though Prohibition was overturned in 1933 on the federal level, Mississippi didn't overturn it until 1966. Every state had their own Prohibition law—New York refused to ever vote in Prohibition at the state level, and it took many years for every state to finally overturn Prohibition.

More You Might Not Know About Whiskey

The Serious Eats Guide to Bourbon
Serious Eats Goes Behind the Scenes at Maker's Mark
What Is the Difference Between Single Malt and Blended Whisky?
The Serious Eats Guide to Single Malt Scotch
The Serious Eats Guide to Blended Scotch Whisky
The Serious Eats Guide to Irish Whiskey

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