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7 Things You Should Know About Bourbon

September 17, 2013
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September is National Bourbon Heritage Month, a celebration of America’s “native spirit.” I celebrate bourbon pretty much year-round, but it’s nice to have everyone else join in for a little while. If you’re not too familiar with the all-American whiskey, here’s a few things to catch you up to speed. 

1. First things first: Where’d the name come from? The usual explanation is that the hooch is named for the original Bourbon County, Kentucky, which covered a far larger area than the modern county (which has no distilleries today) and came to be called “Old Bourbon.” As the corn whiskey made by area distillers was shipped around the country, the barrels were stamped with the county’s name, and people started calling the Kentucky whiskeys bourbon to differentiate them from other regional styles. Bourbon County, in turn, was named for the royal House of Bourbon, which produced monarchs that ruled over France, Spain, Sicily, Naples, Spain and elsewhere.

There’s also an alternate explanation of the name that credits it to the whiskey’s popularity in New Orleans and curious drinkers seeking out the whiskey sold on Bourbon Street, or “that Bourbon whiskey.”

2. While bourbon was born in Kentucky and much of it is still made there today, bourbon doesn’t have to come from Bourbon County or the Bluegrass State. What makes bourbon bourbon, according to the Federal Standards of Identity of Distilled Spirits, is this: 

- It’s made in the U.S.
- It’s distilled from a grain mix that is at least 51 percent corn.
- It’s aged in new, oak barrels that have been charred.
- It’s distilled to no more than 160 proof (more on that in a minute), put into the barrel for aging at 125 proof or below and bottled at 80 proof or higher.

Bourbon that meets those standards, and has been aged for at least two years can be labeled straight bourbon.

3. The “proof” of a bourbon or other spirit is a measure of its alcoholic strength, defined in the U.S. as twice the percentage of alcohol by volume. So, for example, the bourbon that goes into the barrels at 125 proof is 62.5 percent alcohol. The term comes from 18th century Britain, where sailors “proved” their rum rations were not watered down by splashing gunpowder with the spirit and then igniting it. If the powder burned, the rum was legit. 

4. Last year, Kentucky’s distilleries filled 1,007,703 barrels with delicious bourbon. They hadn’t hit the million-barrel milestone since 1973, and the busy year brought their total inventory to 4.9 millions barrels. Kentucky now has more barrels of aging whiskey than it does people (the population is 4.3 million). The 2012 tax-assessed value of all that bourbon was $1.7 billion.

5. Bourbon’s origins aren’t well documented, but popular legend credits the first batch to Baptist preacher Elijah Craig. Ever thrifty, Craig supposedly re-used an old barrel to age some home-made corn hooch and sanitized it by charring—giving it a unique color and flavor. More likely, bourbon has no one creator. Corn whiskey was distilled in Kentucky before Craig arrived from Virginia, and aging in charred barrels is also documented decades earlier as a means of dealing with “sap blisters” in the wood that could alter the whiskey’s flavor. 

6. You’ll sometimes see bottles labeled sour mash bourbon. This doesn’t describe the flavor, but means that the whiskey was made using the “sour mash process,” where the mash—the mixture of grain, malt, and water that the spirit is distilled from—contains some material from a previously fermented and used mash. This helps maintain the chemical balance of the new mash, discourages growth of foreign bacteria, and maintains consistency and quality from batch to batch. 

7. Another term you might see on a bottle is Bottled-in-Bond or Bonded. This means the bourbon was made at a single distillery, by one distiller in one distillation season, aged for at least four years in a federally bonded and supervised warehouse, and bottled at 100 proof. 

Bonded bourbons came about in the late 1800s, when some distilleries were to turning a quick buck on harsher, unaged bourbons and adding anything from fruit syrups to tobacco to improve the color and flavor. As American Whiskey Reviews explains, the distilleries that churned out these “rectified whiskies” had a leg up on more proper bourbon makers in terms of production time and costs, allowing them to control much of the whiskey market. To protect themselves, distillers lobbied Congress to lay down the above standards in the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897, giving their products a mark of government-guaranteed quality assurance and a fighting chance in the market. 

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This Week's Best Amazon Deals You Can Still Get
April 30, 2017
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As a recurring feature, we share some amazing Amazon deals we’ve turned up. These items were the ones that were the most popular with our readers this week, and they’re still available.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers (including Amazon) and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Good luck deal hunting!

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When the FBI Went After Mad Magazine
April 29, 2017
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In a memo dated November 30, 1957, an agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation identified as “A. Jones” raised an issue of critical importance: "Several complaints to the Bureau have been made concerning the 'Mad' comic book [sic], which at one time presented the horror of war to readers."

Attached to the document were pages taken from a recent issue of Mad that featured a tongue-in-cheek game about draft dodging. Players who earned such status were advised to write to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and request a membership card certifying themselves as a “full-fledged draft dodger.” At least three readers, the agent reported, did exactly that.

Mad, of course, was the wildly popular satirical magazine that was reaching upwards of a million readers every other month. Published by William Gaines, who had already gotten into some trouble with Congress when he was called to testify about his gruesome horror comics in 1954, Mad lampooned everyone and everything. But in name-checking the notoriously humorless Hoover, Gaines had invited the wrong kind of attention.

The memo got several facts incorrect: Mad had switched from a comic book to a magazine format in 1955, and it was Gaines’ E.C. Comics that had “presented the horror of war” in other titles. Despite getting these crucial pieces of information wrong, Jones didn’t hesitate to editorialize: "It is also of interest to note that…it is rather unfunny.”

The agent recommended the Bureau’s New York offices “make contact” with Mad’s headquarters to “advise them of our displeasure” and to make sure “that there be no repetition of such misuse of the Director’s name.”

Less than a week later, the Feds entered the hallowed hallways patrolled by Alfred E. Neuman. Their New York office would later report to Hoover directly that they had met with John Putnam, the magazine’s art director. (Conveniently, Gaines was not in that day.) Putnam told the agents he regretted the magazine using Hoover’s name and that nothing malicious was intended:

Putnam said that the use of the membership card and the name and address of the Director at the end of the game was referred to in their business as a 'gag' or 'kicker' in the same way that a comedian like Bob Hope or Milton Berle might use it.

Putnam swore that Mad would never again take Hoover’s name in vain; Gaines sent off a letter of sincere apology to the Director.

The Smoking Gun

Just two years later, in January 1960, Agent A. Jones was forced to file a second notice about the shenanigans at Mad. A recent issue had made not one, but two derogatory mentions of Hoover, including one in which he is blatantly and disrespectfully portrayed as being associated with a vacuum cleaner, “The Honorable J. Edgar Electrolux”:  

Obviously, Gaines was insincere in this promise…and has again placed the Director in a position of ridicule…it is felt we should contact Gaines…and firmly and severely admonish them concerning our displeasure…

It was by now clear Mad was not only polluting young minds, but that Gaines had absolutely no regard for the honorable Hoover’s position.

In June 1961, the FBI’s worst fears had been realized. Detailing an investigation into a Seattle-area extortion attempt led to the following:

Investigation … resulted in gaining admissions from the victim’s 12-year-old son and an 11-year-old companion that they had gotten the idea of preparing an extortion letter after reading the June issue of 'Mad' magazine.   

Working in concert with the Buffalo field office, the FBI determined another letter had been sent by a young boy demanding money in the style of a recent issue’s extortion advice. And there was a third under review that was sent to the agent of some professional wrestlers.

Mad was quickly becoming the scourge of the federal government. The FBI suggested the magazine be brought to the attention of the Attorney General for “instructing [readers] to deliberately violate the Federal Law.” They tried reaching out to Gaines, who was on vacation. (Time and again, Gaines simply not being in the office when called upon seemed to confound the FBI.)

Agent A. Jones, having exhausted all attempts to reason with these irresponsible anarchists, filed one last memo:

Despite assurances, they have continued to publish slurring remarks about the Bureau. In view of this situation, it was deemed useless to protest all such irresponsible remarks to a magazine of this poor judgment and capriciousness … we will have to wait and see if our action will result in increased discretion by this publication.

Poor A. Jones was unable to put an end to Mad’s reign of terror. But the magazine redeemed itself somewhat. In the 1970s, when the Bureau was trying to suppress the influence of the Ku Klux Klan, an agent suggested they copy and distribute a sticker from the magazine that read, “Support Mental Illness—Join the Klan!”

Hoover said no.

Additional Sources:
The Smoking Gun.

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