As National Bourbon Day, June 14 is certainly a date of interest. Much to the consternation of our Editorial Board it hasn’t been declared a national holiday yet, but hope springs eternal. In the meantime, we will consider a bit of bourbon history and mix up the Kentucky Buck, an appropriate Drink of the Day.
Distillation came to the US through various Scots, Scots-Irish and other settlers. By the late 18th century making whiskey became America’s first cottage industry. Even George Washington had at it, belting out a lot of whiskey at Mount Vernon. Thomas Jefferson, however, was more of a wine guy.
Transport back in those days wasn’t what it is now, and people distilled whatever grain would grow because it was far easier to ship a few barrels of whiskey than an entire crop of grain. East of the Allegheny Mountains it was rye… and that’s how rye whiskey came to be. West of the Alleghenies it was corn and that ultimately led to bourbon. Bourbon is defined by using a grain mixture of at least 51% corn. It cannot be distilled to more than 80% alcohol by volume, and aged in new, charred oak barrels. Finally it must not be introduced to those barrels at greater than 62.5% alcohol by volume.
That sounds straightforward enough, but as with most things involving booze certain parts of the history are murky and disputed. After all, they were drinking and probably not writing a lot of stuff down. First, it’s simply untrue that bourbon must be from Kentucky. Sure, it started there and Kentucky remains its spiritual home, but it doesn’t have to come from Kentucky. That’s just an enduring myth.
More amusing tales revolve around the barrels. You see, when whiskey was first made in the U.S. many distillers were not terribly concerned with the taste. After all, it was medicine. So they did things like toss the distilled spirit into used fish or pickle barrels. As the astute reader might conclude, this practice was not conducive to the best-tasting spirit possible.
Just how charred barrels became the standard practice is not so clear. Elijah Craig, a clergyman turned distiller, often gets the credit. Apparently he had been using old fish barrels and decided to char the inside to get rid of the fishy remnants.
Other stories describe distillers in Pennsylvania and Kentucky charring smelly old barrels for the “export” market that they sent down the Mississippi River toward New Orleans, saving the presumably better new oak barrels for their own consumption. But then people realized that “export” whiskey ended up as the better version after spending a few months floating on a barge in that charred barrel. This in fact is a plausible reason for the whiskey becoming known as bourbon, as Bourbon Street in New Orleans was the center of the drinking festivities. When people started asking for whiskey like on Bourbon Street the name may have stuck. A Bourbon County does exist in Kentucky, so the true story may never really be known.
The emergence of the requirement that the charred barrels must be new is a bit clearer. Under intense lobbying from the powerful Cooper’s Union and lumber industry the single and important word “new” was inserted into the text of the 1935 Federal Alcohol Administration.
The Kentucky Buck
But that’s unimportant when we’re more concerned about what the Drink of the Day should be. Our Editorial Board met on this topic and decided to turn to a modern classic: the Kentucky Buck. Created by Erick Castro, a proprietor of San Diego bars Polite Provisions and Raised by Wolves, the drink apparently came into being during his days working at Bourbon and Branch in San Francisco. (By the way, we’ve covered some of his other cocktails, notably the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique cocktail in honor of Kill Bill and the Piña Verde for Gilligan’s Island. If you would like something lower in alcohol we would steer you in the direction of the Django Reinhardt.)
The Kentucky Buck is appropriate as a summer drink and pays homage to the family of cocktails known as bucks. The recipe spread to bars everywhere, and it was named a modern classic by Imbibe Magazine in 2014.
A buck is what you have when you mix ginger beer and citrus with the base spirit of your choice. The formula works across most spirits, perhaps the best known being the somewhat insipid Moscow Mule that uses vodka. Keep in mind that ginger beer has a sharper ginger flavor than ginger ale and is the way to go when mixing up anything in the buck family. A variation on a classic Whiskey Buck cocktail, the Kentucky Buck adds strawberry and bitters to create an easy drinking cocktail everybody loves.
- Collins Glass
- 2 oz bourbon
- ¾ oz Fresh lemon juice
- ½ oz simple syrup
- 1 strawberry
- 2 dashes Angostura bitters
- Ginger beer to top
- Garnish: lemon wheel or strawberry slice
- Place the strawberry in your trusty shaking tin and muddle.
- Add all other ingredients except ginger beer.
- Shake with ice until frosty cold.
- Double strain into ice-filled Collins glass to avoid putting strawberry fragments into your drink.
- Top with ginger beer and garnish as you choose.