Saturday, September 4, 2010


I just came across a handout I did for a Southern Foodways Alliance event in Chicago in 2008. I thought you might find it interesting.

What is Bourbon?

Bourbon is whiskey made using corn (maize) as the primary grain. It is further characterized by aging in new charred oak barrels.

What is Tennessee whiskey?

Tennessee whiskey is the same as bourbon except it is filtered through thick vats of charcoal before aging, and it is made in Tennessee.

What is Southern about it?

In the original colonies, distilled spirits were made from molasses (rum), apples (applejack/apple brandy) and cereals (whiskey), but the primary grain used for whiskey was rye.

Only after settlement of the interior began in earnest, after the Revolution, did Americans begin to make whiskey primarily from corn, especially in what became Kentucky and Tennessee. The practice of making whiskey from corn spread throughout the region. After Prohibition, it contracted back into its original Kentucky-Tennessee heartland.

Whiskey-making was part of the South’s “hogs and hominy” agriculture, as most distillers kept hogs and fed them spent grain from the stills.

What does Chicago have to do with it?

Westward expansion after the Civil War was driven by the railroads. In Chicago, steers shipped East to the hungry city were replaced for the return trip by barrels of whiskey for the thirsty cowboys.

Whiskey was a commodity, bought in bulk from rural distilleries by Chicago merchants who “rectified” it before sending it west. “Rectification” might include blending, filtering, coloring, and flavoring.

After Prohibition, the descendants of those merchants financed the rebuilding of the Southern distilleries. Two examples are Oscar Getz, who owned Barton Brands; and Harry Blum, who owned Jim Beam. Both companies are still headquartered in the Chicago area.


Anonymous said...

Uh sure, Chuck. That would discount Peoria, Illinois as a major area of distillation in the late 1800s. But as you once said in a way old blog of yours, "...don't laugh, Peoria."
It has played a bigger part in the history of whiskey than Chicago has, so quit pretending. Pride in where you live is good - that's why I'm speaking up about Peoria's distillery heritage - but don't try to pump your hometown up to be something it wasn't.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Context, friend, context. I was presenting about bourbon, in Chicago, to a group of Southern foodways enthusiasts and was just trying to tie those pieces together. Chicago's role in the bigger picture was always as a distribution center. I never represented it otherwise.