Appalachian Appellations: The Quest to Protect Bourbon from Foreign Imitators

Countries the world over use Geographic Indicators—better known in the booze world as appellations—to protect regionally-important products from imitators. They first came to prominence in the early 20th century, with French wine’s appellation d’origine controlee (AOC), and are now enshrined in the WTO’s “Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights” Agreement, a.k.a. TRIP. Government does love its acronyms. Individual countries write their standards into their own laws, and negotiate trade deals with other countries using TRIP as the foundation.

Europe in general is still the leader in protecting regional agricultural brands, as you might expect, but we have plenty of our own here in the States. Our version of France’s AOC is the AVA, American Viticulture Area,and there are currently 241 of them. We also protect Florida orange juice, Idaho potatoes, and a host of other geographically-branded foodstuffs.

But perhaps no consumable product is quite so identifiably American as bourbon. It’s right up there in the American Products Pantheon, next to Fords, Harleys, Levis, and Manifest Destiny. And yet, there seems to be a good deal of confusion about what exactly the rules are: what do you have to do to call your product bourbon? In my early bartending days I regularly heard that whiskey could only be “bourbon” if it came from Kentucky, or even only if it came from Bourbon County, Kentucky. For a while I was guilty of regurgitating this misinformation to my clientele, so here I am to make amends.

Kentucky, like many early states, only had a few counties at first, which were then split up as populations grew. One of those early counties was Bourbon, which originally extended from modern Cincinnati all the way down to the Cumberland Gap. Settlers in this area were indeed making whiskey, and the county may have given our subject its name (though it may also have come from the drink’s primary shipping destination, New Orleans and its Bourbon Street). Soon enough, though, Kentucky’s counties were re-divided and rearranged. By 1800, Bourbon was a tiny fraction of its original incarnation, and eventually the major centers of whiskey production shifted west to counties like Woodford, Franklin, and Nelson. Bourbon distilleries did exist in Bourbon County until 1919, when Prohibition began. After that, the county was distillery-free until 2014.

The “only in Kentucky” rumor makes more sense since, up until the last few years, all the bourbon we drank was indeed coming from the Bluegrass State. The rise of microdistilleries across the country has, however, disabused most of us of that notion. In truth, bourbon rooted in Kentucky for four simple reasons. First, it started in the right place, at the right time: a good spot to make and distribute a domestic spirit at a time when the country was both thirsty and pretty isolationist. Second, it became engrained in the culture, an iterative relationship between the state and the drink that built over time. Third, the market consolidated, with a handful of distilleries (and families) coming to control much of the supply, especially after Prohibition put small producers out of business. And fourth, Kentucky has some good weather, and some great water, for whiskey makin’ (though so do other places).

So, bourbon’s “geography” extends beyond Kentucky. Unlike Cognac in France, or Tequila in Mexico—or, heck, Tennessee whiskey in the US—there’s nothing in American law that says bourbon has to come from a particular region within the country—nothing about the need for a particular terroir. What really gives the product its American geographic distinction is its native main ingredient, corn. Bourbon has to be at least 50% corn, as opposed to scotch’s malted barley or rye whisky’s, well, rye. The rest of the legal requirements are all process-related, and stem from tradition and economics. Barrels used for aging must be charred, new white oak, which is good for keeping coopers and lumber mills in business.[i] The raw spirit can be a maximum of 160° proof (80% alcohol) when it’s distilled, and can’t be over 125° proof (62.5% alcohol) when it goes in the barrel, a rule that has evolved over time based on tastes and the cost of barrels. If it sits in that barrel for at least two years, it gets to be called “straight”.

Those rules are really pretty strict, in comparison to international peers. Take the new barrel rule: in Scotland (which has far fewer trees), using used barrels is fine, and in some cases what was in the barrel before the whisky (be it wine, brandy, bourbon, etc.) is trumpeted on the packaging as adding to its unique character.[ii] Bourbon’s narrow rules have the effect of creating a narrow palate range: the difference between two pretty distinct bourbons is nothing like the range between a Highland and an Islay scotch. But by the same token, that narrow flavor profile can be a benefit. It’s pretty easy for the novice to get into it (if you liked one, you’ll probably like the next one), but there’s still enough of a range to keep the enthusiast interested.

So, kids, the moral of the story: that bourbon you’re sipping may be, in part, the product of “centuries of experience,” the “unique combination of tradition and innovation,” or whatever other beautiful baloney is printed on the label. But it’s also courtesy of Uncle Sam. Even if it didn’t come from Kentucky.

[i] White oak in particular is used because it is dense. Over the years of aging, the liquid would be liable to seep through softer woods.

[ii] This works out all right for the bourbon distillers, too, who can recoup part of their investment in expensive new barrels by selling them to the Scots.

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