“America’s Native spirit” may sound like a reference to the ghost of a Sioux chief, but it’s actually the nickname given to bourbon, the corny whiskey – literally, as a bourbon must contain at least 51 percent maize – hailing mainly from Tennessee in the United States.
While some still snobbishly exclude Scotch and Irish whiskey’s less lauded Yankee cousin from being appreciated with the kind of reverence reserved for single malts, small batch or single cask offerings from across the Atlantic, bourbons are finding a growing appreciation among South Africa’s whisk(e)y connoisseurs, who, together with the many casual drinkers have apparently made this country the world’s seventh-biggest market by volume for whisky.
Today is National Bourbon Day in the USA, as decided by whichever mysterious force decides such things, and whiskey lover Marc Pendlebury, co-owner of Joburg’s only dedicated whisky bar, WhiskyBrother, elected to celebrate by inviting some of South Africa’s thirstier journalists to taste a few of Kentucky’s finest.
We sipped on Wild Turkey, Woodford Reserve, Knob Creek, and two non-bourbons – Jack Daniel’s Straight Rye (which unlike bourbon has at least 51 percent rye rather than corn) and Maker’s Mark 46 (which doesn’t qualify because it uses slats of French oak inserted into the traditional US oak barrels); we ate a variety of American favourites: sliders, hot dogs, French fries and ribs; and we digested Pendlebury’s explanations of why bourbon’s development was arrested decades ago, robbing it of the kind of uninterrupted tradition that has made Scotch the revered elixir that it has become today.
As a sidenote, the enormously successful Jack Daniel’s doesn’t like to be called a bourbon (though it qualifies); they prefer the far more exclusive label of “Tennessee whiskey”.
American Prohibition, a ban on the production, import, export and sale of alcoholic drinks that lasted from 1920 to 1933 – and which preceded and partly overlapped with the great depression (frankly, if I was banned from drinking I’d also be depressed) – nearly destroyed the fortunes of bourbon.
First of all, Americans were legally denied the chance to drink their own home-grown whiskey, which saw bourbon companies rebranding themselves as a form of medicine in a bid to be allowed to be sold legally at US drug stores; secondly, American tastes shifted to prefer lighter spirits such as vodka and gin because they were easier to smuggle or to make in your bathtub.
When Prohibition was repealed, American distilleries could not offer properly aged products, instead copying Canada’s penchant for underaged bourbons, the reputation of the drink taking a knock in the process. It’s understandable that Scotch, produced next to calm loches while US whiskey makers were undergoing such turmoil, has had the upper hand.
That was then, though, and now a rise in demand for properly aged, premium bourbons since the 1980s has led to bourbon entering somewhat of a golden age. In South Africa, champions such as Pendlebury argue that there’s no reason tipple from further west should not be appreciated and collected with as much enthusiasm as Scotch and Irish whiskey.
According to Pendlebury, single malts are overpriced because everyone wants them, the demand pushing up the price.
Bourbons are not yet as oversubscribed, meaning that if you love the (often sweeter) taste, and want to become a connoisseur, there’s no better time to do so than the present.
You can buy a premium bourbon for less than the price of a single malt. Whether it will match the quality of its Scottish or Irish counterparts is ultimately a matter of taste, simply because the recipes (proudly) differ and because huge 60-degree fluctuations in temperature throughout the year in the US (from -20 degrees Celsius in winter to 40 degrees Celsius in summer) mean that US whiskeys mature far more quickly than their Scottish and Irish cousins, so will never taste the same either way.
And that should be the point. Happy Bourbon Day.