America’s largest whiskey aging warehouse got extensive use in the 19th century. It was 2,350 miles long and connected 31 states and two Canadian provinces. It was more commonly known as the Mississippi River and it’s where much of America’s whiskey spent time aging.
Of course, nobody then referred to this as aging. It was just transportation. But drinkers and spirits brokers learned that whiskey that was loaded on in Louisville and other upstream ports tasted better when it was offloaded in New Orleans weeks later. Time and motion improved it.
This wasn’t breaking news: the same discovery had been made with whiskey, rum and brandy on ocean-going ships at least a century earlier.
Still, whiskey coming down the mighty Mississippi River was treasured, and it may well have been awarded a special name to distinguish it from lesser spirits. Whiskey historian Michael Veach has suggested that the name “bourbon” arose not because the spirit came from Bourbon County, Kentucky, but because the liquor sold on Bourbon Street in New Orleans was more desirable. What’s more, the river voyage in charred casks gave the whiskey a color and flavor reminiscent of Cognac, which appealed to New Orleanians.
For decades, whiskey flowed down the Mississippi River in a healthy torrent — boats were by far the most efficient way to ship bulk products from the interior of the country to the eastern seaboard. One Mississippi River traveler in 1833 wrote that every village along the river had 10 or 20 flat-bottomed boats, some 150-feet-long and capable of hauling 300 tons at a go, and were filled with “corn in the ear, bacon, flour, whisky, cattle and fowls.”
And then, almost suddenly, the torrent slackened and slowed. By the 1840s, other routes for bulk freight arose. Canals (including the Erie and Chesapeake & Ohio) offered distillers a reliable shortcut east, followed by even more reliable locomotive running over newly built rails. Riverboat whiskey was eclipsed, consigned to lore and diminishing memories.
Until now. It’s back… at least in small and symbolic amounts—with two entrepreneurs having rolled out riverboat whiskies in the past year, with a third and well-known company rumored to be following suite shortly.
Cane Land Distilling recently opened its doors in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, after four years of planning. Its founder, Walter Tharp, wanted to make rum from the sugar produced on his family’s sprawling Alma Plantation & Sugar Mill, about a half-hour west.
While getting his rum distillery permitted and built, Tharp had another itch he wanted to scratch—to bring whiskey barrels down the river, following the historic route. But what was likely a relatively simple process two centuries ago turned out to be nothing of the sort today. “Oh, man, I had no idea,” Tharp said. “I thought I’d call a shipping company and just tell them what I wanted to do.”
He ended up deep in a thicket of vexing legalities, having to figure out maritime strictures that were further complicated by the repeated crossing of state lines with a bonded product that required transfer bonds to satisfy the feds. “It was worse than trying to find someone who could ship toxic waste,” said Cane Land’s head distiller Jonny Ver Planck.
With persistence, the company finally acquired 150 oak casks filled with five-year old whiskey (made from bourbon mash at an unspecified distillery in Tennessee), and had them trucked to Owensboro, Kentucky, where they were lowered into the covered hold of a barge. Then for nearly a month the whiskey wound its serpentine way to the Port of New Orleans, following the twists of the river. On arrival it was unloaded, trucked to Baton Rogue, and the contents blended in massive wooden ex-Cognac vats. The vats, which hold the equivalent of 23,000 bottles of liquor and were formerly used by Remy-Martin, were disassembled, shipped to the U.S. and reassembled by a team of French coopers.
“We were never interested in getting into sourcing spirits,” Tharp admitted. “But for this we think we added some unique, artisanal qualities to it.” It was recently released as OMFW (Old Mississippi Floated Whiskey), and it’s been selling well at the distillery at $60 per bottle.
“I’d love to see a lot more people doing it,” Tharp says. “It’s not like there was just one guy doing it 150 years ago. Everybody was.”
And at least one other guy has gotten into the game, albeit in a limited way. Trey Zoeller of Jefferson’s Reserve Bourbon drew national press several years ago with the release of his Ocean-Aged Bourbon. He had lashed five barrels of whiskey on the open deck of an ocean research vessel—“think of it like a paint can and a paint can shaker,” Zoeller said—which he believed would mimic the effects of an ocean voyage of two centuries earlier.
After months at sea, Zoeller sampled and liked the results—the whiskey came out nearly black, with richer and deeper flavors from the constant sloshing inside the barrels, plus a slightly salty tang from the exposure to briny air. He then scaled up: shipping far more barrels in a steel cargo container set in a modern cargo vessel.
Zoeller also wondered how a Mississippi flatboat voyage might affect whiskey. So, he recruited a captain—Ted Gray—and last summer they loaded two barrels of lightly aged whiskey aboard a 23-foot Sea Pro boat. They set off from Louisville, mostly drifting with the current—the boat had an engine in order to navigate locks, but Gray opted to let the river carry them along most of the time. The casks spent 58 days in transit between Louisville and New Orleans, averaging 4.8 knots. The barrels were strapped to the rear deck and exposed to the elements, including a week of 100 degree temperatures.
The result? The bourbon that showed up in New Orleans was a darker, more complicated and more sophisticated bourbon than the whiskey that left the Kentucky nearly two months earlier. It wasn’t released, although some of it will be bottled for an auction to benefit the John Besh Foundation.
Those interested having a taste of riverboat whiskey history will currently need to head to Baton Rogue to pick up a bottle at Cane Land’s new distillery, which had its grand opening last month. Tharp has still got plenty, and he’d like to make the river trip an annual event.
Or, possibly, some may show up at a liquor store near you. Sazerac Co.—the Kentucky-based distiller famed for its elaborate experiments aging bourbon in a range of different types of oak sourced from around the globe—has been rumored to be looking at shipping casks down river as well. They may arrive next year for the 300th anniversary of the founding of New Orleans and the opening of the company’s splashy new multimillion dollar “home place” and visitor center at the edge of the French Quarter. A Sazerac spokesperson would say only that it’s “something we are looking at, but we don’t have any details to share.”
Regardless of whether Sazerac takes its bourbon to the river, I don’t think this is the end of river maturation. If anything, in the near future I can certainly imagine whiskey geeks debating the merits of liquor aged on the Hudson vs. the Mississippi vs. the Colorado and so on. It gives a whole new meaning to a current trend.