Americans drink many kinds of alcoholic spirits, but only one qualifies as the national drink. A 1964 resolution in the American House of Representatives took pains not only to proclaim Bourbon whiskey “American’s Native Spirit” but also codified the exact standards under which this uniquely American drink can be manufactured. Bourbon can only be distilled in the United States, though in practice nearly all the major distilleries are in the state of Kentucky (whose Bourbon County, named after the French royal house, gave the drink its name). Bourbon must also be distilled from a mash containing at least 51% corn (though a greater proportion is usually used) and then be aged a minimum of two years in new charred oak barrels which may not be reused. Most Bourbons and other American whiskeys are aged four years of longer.
Crippled in terms of quality by the era of prohibition (1919-1933), Bourbon, like most American whiskeys, stood as a commodity product for many years. Over the past few decades, craft Bourbons like Maker’s Mark, Booker’s, Knob Creek, Basil Hayden’s, and Woodford Reserve have developed followings among connoisseurs; major Bourbon brands like Jim Beam and Wild Turkey have also developed their own high-end single-batch brands. Bourbon is the base for the Sazerac cocktail, long associated with New Orleans, and the Mint Julep, a signature summer drink of Kentucky and the American south.
Some confusion reigns, even in the United States, about the difference between Bourbon and Tennessee whiskey (whose primary brand is Jack Daniel’s, America’s largest selling whiskey.) Tennessee whiskey follows the same 51% corn mash and charred oak barrel aging rules as Bourbon; the main difference is that it must be filtered through a ten-foot-thick bed of sugar maple charcoal (filtering is forbidden in Bourbon production). Jack Daniel’s enjoys near iconic status among American alcoholic beverages because of its adroit advertising campaigns (stressing down-home American country values and the unrushed nature of the beverage’s production process), but also because the drink was highly preferred by American entertainer Frank Sinatra, who is in fact now buried with a flask of Jack Daniel’s by his side. The Jack Daniel’s logo appears on T-shirts, hats, barware, Jack Daniel’s brand coffee, keychains, billiard balls, mirrors, praline pecan candies and, of course, flasks.
Ironically, both Bourbon County in Kentucky and Moore County in Tennessee, where Jack Daniel’s is produced, are both “dry,” meaning they prohibit the sale, though not the manufacture, of alcoholic beverages.
Whiskey is an important spirit in American history, but it wasn’t the first; that honor goes to rum, the most widely consumed potent alcoholic beverage up to the period of American independence from Great Britain. Rum is made from sugar cane juice or molasses, a byproduct of sugar refining. Developed in the sugar islands of the Caribbean in the 17th century, rum began to be manufactured in New York and the New England states as early as 1664. Slavery was part of the economics of rum and the infamous triangular trade: the American colonies would import molasses from the Caribbean, distill it into American rum, sell the rum (which was considered the world’s best at the time) in England and Europe, use the money to buy slaves in Africa, ship them to the Caribbean, then use the proceeds to buy more molasses.
The major problem with the profitable rum, slave and sugar trade was the fact that the British did not want their American colonists to control it, or deal with the French Caribbean islands. Great Britain passed the Molasses Act in 1733, banning the trade. The Americans ignored the act, but the Sugar Act in 1764 brought British military force into the picture and was one of the sparkplugs for the American Revolution of 1775. (It should be noted that the “Boston Tea Party” of 1773 occurred long after irreconcilable commercial differences arose between the British and the Americans; the colonists who threw the tea into Boston harbor that night were undoubtedly emboldened by something stronger than that beverage.) British pressure and the rise of American whiskey production after independence spelled a decline in rum’s appeal, but rum would come back into popularity as a cocktail drink in the late twentieth century. Most rum sold today in the United States is distilled in Puerto Rico, itself an American territory with special commonwealth status.
The American whiskey story follows the early history of the independent nation. Under British rule, settlement west of the Allegheny Mountains was restricted; after independence, settlers poured into the fertile lands of Ohio and Kentucky and began to produce corn in great quantities. Before canals and railroads, it cost more to ship the grain to the commercial cities of the east than the product was worth. Rather than see their excess corn spoil, farmers began to distill the corn into whiskey (most whiskeys had previously been made from rye, and never in any amount to rival rum). Kentucky’s first commercial distillery began in 1789, the year George Washington, who himself distilled whiskey, became the country’s first president. A 1791 tax on the beverage led to the “Whiskey Rebellion” in 1794, during which Washington had to send in federal troops to reestablish order. Though federal authority to tax alcoholic beverages was affirmed in this largely bloodless conflict, the illegally distilled whiskey called “moonshine” has long played a role in American culture, especially in the Appalachian region and the south.
Despite the great heritage of American whiskey, and indeed the popularity of imported Scottish, Irish and Canadian whiskeys, whiskey declined in popularity after the Second World War as American drinkers came to prefer “white” spirits like gin and especially vodka, both of which supported the growing taste for mixed drinks and cocktails. American distillers currently produce both these spirits, and a large import market exists for premium brands, gin largely from England and vodka from Russian, Poland, Holland, Sweden, Finland, France and other European countries. American liquor marketers of course sell spirits as diverse as Brazilian Cachaça, Slovenian Slivovka, Peruvian Pisco, Italian Grappa, French Cognac and hundreds of others.
If there is an up-and-coming spirit in the United States, it is the one major spirit that cannot be legally produced in the country. Tequila is a form of Mezcal, distilled from the Mexican agave plant, but by Mexican law it must be produced from a basis of at least 51% blue agave plants harvested in a geographically limited region surrounding the town of Tequila. The best Tequilas are made from 100% blue agave and are available in varieties called blanco (un-aged), reposado (aged in oak barrels between two months and a year), añejo (aged one to three years) and maduro (aged at least three years).
The straight Tequila shot is consumed in what is frequently a social ritual: the drinkers first lick a dash of thick salt balanced on the edge of one hand, down the Tequila, then suck on slices of lime. The ritual became the inspiration for the popular cocktail, the Margarita, a fruit juice, grenadine and Tequila mixture served in a glass with a salted rim. The Tequila Sunrise mixes the beverage with orange juice and grenadine, but there are hundreds of other Tequila-based cocktails, from the Acapulco Gold (Tequila, rum, cream of coconut, grapefruit and pineapple juices) to the Zoo (gin, rum, Tequila and Bourbon with grenadine, orange and pineapple juices). The rise of Tequila and Tequila cocktails mirrors the increasing popularity of Mexican and Tex-Mex food in the United States.
In addition to the Tequila-based cocktails, popular American mixed drinks include the Daiquiri, the Zombie, the Mai Tai, and the Piña Colada (all based on rum), hundreds of variants of the Martini (at its simplest gin or vodka with a splash of vermouth), and complex, multi-spirit concoctions like the Long Island Iced Tea, the Hurricane, and the Mississippi Mud. American bartenders seem always to have room for one more spirituous creation, witness the Skylab Fallout (vodka, gin, rum, tequila, blue Curacao and pineapple juice) and the Electric Lemonade (vodka, gin, rum, tequila, triple sec, sour mix, and lemon-lime soda).