Liquid gold in dry land

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 August, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 30 August, 1996, 12:00am

Cognac sellers beware, the Americans are coming. Once popularised in the Wild West of the American frontier centuries ago, Hong Kong and China are the new frontiers for the distillers of bourbon.

The amber-coloured spirit has been gaining popularity in Europe and Japan among young people interested in all things American.

It has also been selling better in its home market where for years it laboured under the image of moonshine, the illicit and very rough drink which was distilled and sold during and after Prohibition.

While the distillers of bourbon - mostly in the north of Kentucky state - want to strengthen the existing markets, their eyes are also wandering to new fields, particularly in this region.

'China is the big one,' said Chu-pak Chu, formerly a resident of Mid-Levels and now the brand development manager for the advancing markets group of Brown-Forman, one of the largest distilling groups.

'We have to show people that it's not just another brown liquid.' Promotional events are being considered in Hong Kong to boost awareness of the drink, with distillers convinced that once people try it, they will like the taste, the image and be converted.

Bill Creason, Brown-Forman's brands development director, said: 'We see a real opportunity. Bourbon is growing dramatically and we want to do what we can to take part in that and encourage it.' Though Hong Kong and China are perhaps better known as markets for cognac, the members of the Kentucky Distillers' Association are confident Chinese people will take to bourbon.

The association, which represents Four Roses, Jim Beam, Maker's Mark and Wild Turkey among many other brands, is considering plans for a 'Kentucky week' in Hong Kong later this year featuring bourbon and horse racing.

On a recent trip to Kentucky I did what the people do - talked about bourbon, ate food cooked with bourbon and of course drank it.

Maker's Mark and Wild Turkey offer public tours and the 200-year-old Labrot and Graham distillery is to be reopened this autumn, inviting visitors to see how bourbon was made in the 1800s while also producing whiskey for the market.

At the distilleries you may run into one of the many characters that inhabit this part of the world such as Wild Turkey's Master Distiller Jimmy Russell.

After decades with Wild Turkey, Mr Russell still has a childlike wonder and infectious enthusiasm for the bourbon-making process which sees grains cooked in water to form the mash, mixed with yeast and left to ferment producing 'distiller's beer', distilled first to make 'low wine', then again to make 'high wine' when it is put into barrels for maturing. That is when free drinks are given to heaven - about five per cent of a barrel's contents evaporates every year, nicknamed 'the angels' share'.

He and every distiller is proud of the bourbon he produces which will taste different from any other bourbon. Unlike other drinks where you are considered a Philistine if you dare to have it other than how the 'experts' suggest, one of the joys of having bourbon that the distillers are also hoping to promote overseas is that no one minds how you drink it.

Purists suggest drinking it straight, with ice or a little water to appreciate the hints of charcoal, vanilla and caramel, some may wince if you add cola to the spirit.

Mint Juleps are drunk by everyone on Derby Day, if rarely at any other time. A Manhattan cocktail may sound like it is only drunk by the city folk of New York but the president of the Kentucky Distillers and a true Kentucky gentleman, Ed O'Daniel, often starts his evenings with the drinkable mix of bourbon, sweet vermouth and a couple of drops of maraschino juice garnished with a cherry.

The creation of bourbon was considered to be a mistake. In the 1770s, settlers of European origin arrived in Kentucky and started to distil whiskey, using the abundance of corn in the area to create a valuable commodity which was sold to frontiersmen and in New Orleans.

In 1789 a barrel of whiskey was shipped from Kentucky's Bourbon County to New Orleans and when it was opened it was discovered to contain an amber-coloured and much better-tasting liquid than the harsh and clear frontier whiskey.

The wooden staves for the barrel had been accidentally scorched as they were being bent into shape over a fire. Whether it was by mistake or because he was too mean to throw the barrel away, the distiller, the Reverend Elijah Craig, had created bourbon.

This liquid soaked in and out of the charred wood, picking up some of its characteristics in the colour and a slightly charcoal taste.

It became popular with merchants and frontiersmen who started calling for Bourbon County whiskey, later just bourbon.

Charred barrels are still essential to bourbon, indeed for a drink to be called bourbon, United States law requires that it be matured in charred new white oak barrels. Used barrels are often shipped to Canada and Scotland to be used for maturing their whiskies - with the Kentuckians joking that the vestiges of bourbon are the only thing giving flavour to that spirit.

Perhaps the biggest irony is that in the home of bourbon it can be hard to find a drink - about 75 per cent of the state, including Bourbon County, are 'dry' with no bars or alcohol outlets.

Regardless of the dry state of affairs, thankfully the bourbon is not affected.