“If you don’t want to taste the grain in the spirit you’re drinking, then drink vodka.” That is Brett Little, co-founder and distiller at Mad River Distillers in Warren, Vermont, a little outside of Burlington.
Little is describing Mad River’s bourbon, a richly spicy, yet smooth iteration of what could very well be America’s oldest indigenous spirit. New England distilleries are fairly new at making bourbon—the first offerings date from the latter half of the previous decade—and the region is not even remotely as well known for the corn-based whiskey as is Kentucky (its likely birthplace) or Tennessee (where a close bourbon cousin, Tennessee whiskey, arose). That is less a function of quality than of circumstance: New England bourbons, like those from other smaller distilleries nationwide, have not had the benefit of several years of barrel aging, which can drastically enhance the spirit’s taste and texture.
“The problem with most craft bourbons is that they are very young, typically two years old or less,” says Chuck Cowdery, author of Bourbon, Strange: Surprising Stories of American Whiskey and a leading authority on the spirit. “Some are novel, some are interesting, some find an audience, but they generally don’t show well against the standard 4- to 6-year-old products from the major distilleries.”
So, no, New England bourbons are not as prominent as their Kentucky counterparts. But some are quite good—and will surely get better with age. What’s more, their creators could not have picked a better time to craft them.
Sales of bourbon and Tennessee whiskey jumped more than 28% worldwide from 2009 through 2014, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, with the biggest gains coming in the so-called high-end premium and super-premium categories, which include bourbons from craft distilleries. The number of such distilleries has itself increased from a handful nationwide in the early 1990s to several hundred today, including dozens in New England.
Why is bourbon so popular? There may be something to the American-ness of it. Or the taste itself—brownest of the brown spirits, layered and full-bodied, especially in the hands of a distiller such as Little at Mad River, who wants consumers to really taste the corn and the grains.
In much the same way that Americans have come to prefer heavier, fruitier fine wines and stronger, hoppier craft beers, they may have simply migrated to the fuller, denser craft spirits, including bourbon. Whatever the reasons, the fact that serious bourbon distillation has made it to New England—a region best known, alcohol-wise, for its lagers, ales and ciders—is itself a sign of the spirit’s resurgence.
That resurgence was far from assured.
Aside from rye whiskey, which likely dates from the mid-17th century in Pennsylvania, bourbon is the oldest American-born spirit. European settlers in a French-controlled area now known as Kentucky developed bourbon out of necessity—as getting drunk was apparently considered then.
The Appalachian Mountains cut the future Kentucky off from seaboard markets and the soil was inhospitable to grains such as wheat and barley.
Settlers improvised. They used corn, which Native Americans had been cultivating for centuries in the area, to make a sweetish spirit that, these settlers soon discovered, turned brown when aged in oak barrels. It was a practice they borrowed from cognac and rum distillers. (Some early bourbon distillers couldn’t abide the aging—they simply drank the clear, strong corn whiskey.)
They called the new spirit bourbon, after an area that might have covered much of present-day Kentucky and that had been named after France’s royal family. The region fell into British hands in the 1760s and into American ones 20 years later, as a part of the then-mammoth State of Virginia.
In 1792, Kentucky became the 15th state, with a Bourbon County smack in the middle. Around the same time, bourbon began a relatively quick march from a feature of the frontier to one of the most popular libations in the entire nation.
New technology such as the railroad, which facilitated massive shipments of corn from newly settled territories such as Nebraska and Iowa, and government regulations, which pushed back against a black market in poorer-quality bourbon knockoffs, only boosted the spirit’s popularity and production numbers. (It was during the 1800s, too, that Tennessee whiskey branched off, separated from its Kentucky kin via an extra charcoal-filtering step.)
By 1950, roughly two centuries after its birth, bourbon accounted for about one-quarter of bottle whiskey sales in the U.S. At the start of the following decade, the share was about half.
And then the bottom fell out.
No one could quite nail the reason, but everyone had a theory: a generational shift to spirits-eschewing baby boomers; the rocket-ship rises of vodka and fine wine; a balloon in beer production; laxer standards in a bourbon sector that decades of strong sales had made complacent; and the introduction in America of single-malt whisky from Scotland.
During the 1970s, bourbon seemed in near-terminal decline, destined to become a curiosity, something your grandfather used to drink. If an American tippler encountered the spirit in the 1970s and 1980s, it was invariably through harsher-tasting, homogenous brands such as Jim Beam and the Tennessee whiskey Jack Daniel’s, mass-produced not in the folksy distilleries that birthed bourbon but in factory-like complexes that covered acres.
The spirit’s reputation suffered. It became known mostly as a cheap buzz, the tipple of problem drinkers (or obnoxious college kids), not connoisseurs. They opted for those single-malts from Scotland, upon which critics bestowed an aura not unlike the one that crowned the finest French wines.
Most Americans would have considered savoring a glass of America’s homegrown whiskey laughable. You downed bourbon in shots.
Then, just after the turn of the century, bourbon’s fortunes began to change. Again, no one was really sure why, but a number of craft distilleries embraced the spirit. That embrace came to include New England distilleries by the end of the 21st century’s first decade.
Perhaps it had something to do with a resurgence in cocktail culture—bourbon undergirds many classic concoctions, including the Old Fashioned that Don Draper preferred on “Mad Men,” a hit AMC series that boosted cocktails’ popularity so much that alcohol-industry analysts spoke of a “Mad Men effect.” (Speaking of mad, Mad River’s Brett Little swears by an as-yet-unnamed mixture of freshly squeezed blood oranges and bourbon.)
Or maybe bourbon became more popular simply because it was so retro, a rustic artifact of a libationary time before the ascents of the more urbanely chic Chardonnay and flavored vodka. Bourbon’s often heavy-tasting spiciness could have appealed as well to the same demographic that came to prefer spicier, heavy-tasting beer styles such as IPAs and wine styles such as Cabernet Sauvignon. Or it could have just been that the new bourbons rolling out tasted great. And friends told friends… and the trend was born.
The first New England distillery to produce a bourbon since this new wave of interest was Triple Eight in Nantucket. Triple Eight, the oldest working distillery in Massachusetts, is part of a tripartite alcohol concern stretching back to the early 1980s and the establishment of a winery. A brewery—the popular Cisco—followed in 1995, and Triple Eight two years later.
The distillery introduced its Nor’Easter Bourbon in 2005. It is produced using bourbon made in-house and some sourced from distilleries as far away as Kentucky and Indiana, and then aged further in barrels in a coastal climate not unlike the one blanketing Scotland, long home to some of the world’s best whiskeys (though the primary ingredient in those is barley, not corn); and, finally, blended and bottled for sale.
Within 10 years of the first sales of Nor’Easter, at least seven other distilleries in Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts and Connecticut joined Triple Eight with bourbon offerings.
They all share certain characteristics. First, naturally, they have to adhere to federal standards in place for decades to call themselves bourbon (see box). Among the most important: Corn has to comprise most of the grain bill, and the spirit has to age in unused oak barrels that have been charred on the inside.
After that, it’s pretty much an art form, and New England distillers so far have taken full advantage, particularly when it comes to that barreling aspect essential to bourbon making.
In Connecticut, the two-year-old Litchfield Distillery ages a bourbon twice, in different barrels, cutting the alcohol content in between. Massachusetts’ 9-year-old Berkshire Mountain Distillers has done double-barreling with a twist: In April 2013, it began finishing the aging of some of its bourbon in barrels that 10 different craft brewers had used for various beers. For instance, a Berkshire bourbon spent its final 12 weeks of aging in a barrel that the Smuttynose Brewery in New Hampshire had used to age a hoppy brown ale.
All of New England’s distilleries play with the grain bill, too, hitting that 51% corn threshold and then adding various proportions of barley, rye, wheat and even oats. Two Vermont distilleries—Saxtons River and Vermont Spirits—sweeten their bourbons with local maple syrup.
Such touches ensure that New England bourbons vary from batch to batch, even bottle to bottle within the same batch, presenting tipplers with textures and tastes they would perhaps not find in better-known brands from much larger producers.
It is these better-known brands from much larger producers that dominate the bourbon market in terms of sales and critical plaudits. Jim Beam and Jack Daniel’s are still among the best-selling bourbon labels nearly 20 years into the spirit’s renaissance. And large companies such as Sazerac and Brown-Forman produce critical darlings such as Blanton’s, Woodford Reserve and Pappy Van Winkle.
Meanwhile, the fastest-growing sector of whiskey worldwide is not bourbon, despite its newfound popularity stateside, but flavored whiskey—particularly whiskey spiced with cinnamon. Sazerac’s Fireball Cinnamon Whisky went from nowhere during the past six years to become one of the 10 best-selling spirits brands nationwide, inspiring imitators from the corporate parents of Jack Daniel’s and Jim Beam. It’s as if whiskey is about to follow vodka down that same slippery flavored slope.
New England bourbons will never scale such popular heights. Nor do they care to try. These are small-batch operations with limited distribution—deliberately so, in most cases. The bourbons are not usually the moneymakers, either. The bestselling spirit at Triple Eight, pioneer of bourbon in New England, is a vodka infused with Maine blueberries, according to distiller Bryan Jennings.
The biggest challenge for New England bourbon producers, then, is a perceptional one.
“Every time I do a tasting,” Brett Little says, “someone’s got to say, ‘How can you call this bourbon?’”
It’s the Kentucky thing: Though federal regulations only hold that bourbon be made in America, the romance of its birthplace still shadows its reputation. People think bourbon can only come from Kentucky, where it’s been made for centuries, through the ups and downs of the spirit’s fortunes, and where that fact ensures a level of aging that New Englanders cannot yet match.
At least not yet.
“I wish we were a 50-year-old distillery and had 12-year-old bourbons, but we don’t,” Chris Weld, the distiller at Berkshire Mountain, says. “We’re working on it.”
What makes a whiskey a bourbon?
- Must be made in the U.S.
- Must be at least 51% corn. Rye, wheat and malted barley are typically the other grains used.
- Must be distilled no higher than 160 proof (80% alcohol by volume) ensuring grain character.
- The newly made spirit must go into barrels that are brand-new, charred oak.
- The newly made spirit must enter into a barrel no higher than 125 proof (62.5% ABV).
- It must go into the bottle no less than 80 proof (40% ABV).
- There is no minimum barrel-aging requirement for bourbon, though distilleries have to identify on the packaging if a release is aged for less than four years.
Adapted from Triple Eight Distillery, Nantucket, Massachusetts
This article and sidebar originally appeared in To Market magazine.