Some interesting comments on bourbon

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Some interesting comments on bourbon

Unread postby bourbonv » Wed Nov 22, 2006 10:12 am

While working on the Taylor-Hay collection, I found an article that comes about as close to tasting notes as they ever did on bourbon in the 1890's. Here are some of the comments that I found interesting.

1) Bourbon gets its color and much of its flavor from the wood tannins while being aged in barrels. Heating the warehouse will speed up this process, but it will also give the bourbon a bitter flavor.

2) High yields of alcohol of alcohol are not desirable because you lose sweetness from the grains.

3) The whiskey is often best at 4 to 8 years of age, but can be good after 10, 12 or even greater years of age.
Mike Veach
"Our people live almost exclusively on whiskey" - E H Taylor, Jr. 25 April 1873
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Unread postby gillmang » Wed Nov 22, 2006 2:36 pm

Thanks Mike, not taste notes as we know them today, but very interesting.

The fact of modern whiskeys being less full and sweet than formerly may reside in this question of yield (something Charlie Thomason made much of in his 1960's-era recollections I mentioned earlier).

No doubt today the distilleries get a high yield through higher distillation proofs and efficient yeasts. Higher entry proofs (resulting in greater dilution for bottling, thus cutting body more) is probably the other factor. But they knew about this stuff then too, of course.

I once (can't find this now) read in a contemporary account that a circa-1900 bourbon smelled like meadow flowers. I believe similar descriptions, and even more elaborate ones, must exist.

What about lab records of the large distilleries of that time? The way BT describes its Experimental Collection is quite modern yet it uses lab-looking forms which may be templates used by the industry for a long time.

I don't know, just speculating.

Gary
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Unread postby bourbonv » Sat Dec 02, 2006 10:54 am

Gary,
I have seen lab reports from the OFC whiskey from the 1870's in the Taylor-Hay collection and all they report are chemical breakdown of the whiskey. Taylor used the fact that there were less conigers in his product than other, lesser quality products to argue its superiority. I think this is simply the culter of the era. People believed in the superiority of science and chemistry and if the chemist could prove your product more pure, then it had to be better. Taste seems to be secondary in the marketing schemes.

I also have to wonder if the same was true of wine. Do you know when wine tasting notes as we know them first appeared? I suspect that it may be as late as the 1950' or 60's.
Mike Veach
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Unread postby gillmang » Sat Dec 02, 2006 6:03 pm

Well, interesting question. The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson, of which a new edition is just out or will be shortly, has an interesting article on such wine literature.

It seems largely to be a British invention: the U.K. leisure class looked at French (initially) wine in a fundamentally different way than the denizens of the wine producing countries. They analysed and "intellectualised" it. George Saintsbury, an Oxbridge literature professor, wrote of wine in this way - and whisky - in his well known Notes on a Cellar Book (circa 1918).

This kind of literature seems to have gotten going in particular from the 1960's, and it specialised in, if not invented, wine description using commonplace metaphor and simile ("this smells like rose petals") as opposed to lab analytical and similar scientific talk. Hugh Johnson, still active, was an early, influential participant.

But I think the phenomenon of describing wine or any drink this way really goes back much further, just intermittently and non-methodically.

Buy that Oxford Companion to Wine, Mike. Even though it is devoted to a different drink it sheds light on many questions we discuss here.

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Unread postby gillmang » Sun Dec 03, 2006 2:55 pm

Postscript: today's New York Times Review of Books covers a book about Thomas Jefferson's oenophelia interest. His passion for wine is fairly well-known and no doubt Jefferson wrote lyrically about some of the wines he encountered on his journeys in France and Germany, so wine appreciation of this kind ("intellectual" interest by foreigners in French wines in particular) goes back a long time and is not purely a British phenomenon.

Jefferson liked many of the fine bordeaux and burgundies that are still known today (e.g. Haut Brion, Volnay, Mersault, Yquem, etc.).

Unfortunately for us he seems to have disdained whiskey, thinking it was not as good as fine wine and more liable to abuse.

Somehow though I think if he could show up at one of our gatherings we might change his mind in part because the aged, brandy-like bourbons and ryes of today are probably quite different from the overproof white spirits he would have known as whiskey.

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Re: Some interesting comments on bourbon

Unread postby bourbonv » Mon Aug 10, 2009 10:11 am

Since Gary is interested in historic tasting notes I thought I would post another interesting observation here. In the 1891 'Illustrated Louisville, Kentucky's Metropolis" the article describing Brown-Forman notes that the firm's major brand is Old Forester. They describe it as "This splendid whiskey is mild and mellow". Not overly descriptive by today's standards, but about as detailed as you get in the 19th century.
Mike Veach
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Re: Some interesting comments on bourbon

Unread postby gillmang » Mon Aug 10, 2009 9:35 pm

Thanks Mike! It so happens in San Francisco recently I found in the Mission District a 200 ml of Old Forester 86 proof with an embossed date of 1989, thus distilled around 25 years ago. The whiskey is rounded, soft, very flavourful - in fact quite similar to the 1890's description. I'd like to think it hadn't changed much by then.

A current 86 a friend has at home here will be essayed soon in comparison, I'll post a note soon.

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Re: Some interesting comments on bourbon

Unread postby tmckenzie » Tue Aug 11, 2009 1:14 am

From a technical point of view, I totally agree with the theory that a lower alcohol yield produces a better result as far as flavor. I have read it is the same way in cognac, they use a low alcohol, acidic wine. In bourbon, if it takes more mash to get the desired result, then the whiskey is more concentrated, therefore, more flavor.
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Re: Some interesting comments on bourbon

Unread postby bourbonv » Tue Aug 11, 2009 9:34 am

Tom,
What do you consider the best yield for flavor? Taylor would be considering a high yield about 4 gallons per bushel a high yield. By today's standard, that would be a low yield.
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