What were Swedes doing during the birth of bourbon?

18th century Swedes: unrefined imbibers, even by early American standards!

Pro-prohibition poster, leading up to the vote in 1922

In the part “Who made the first bourbon?” from the book “Bourbon Curious: A Simple Tasting Guide for the Savvy Drinker”, author Fred Minnick speculates that, although improbable, one of the precursors to bourbon might come from the Swedish production of “corn brandy”.

He continues to tell of the confusing nomenclature of the time–making it near (if not wholly) impossible to pinpoint bourbon’s origin and in the process abandons what is an unlikely tale–that Swedes would be the ancestors of bourbon whiskey.

To think that my own country played a part in the creation of the whiskey I today love made me curious, although, just as Minnick, I knew it wasn’t true.

What would throw someone off then, just as now, is the word corn. Corn in American English is the majority grain in the type of whiskey this publication is named after. Corn in British English however–is a synonym to cereal and could mean any type of grain. Since American English not being a thing yet in Europe at the time, the latter was the one used here.

So what was corn brandy? Bear with me on this one:

In the years in the beginning of the 18th century, after Sweden lost the Great Northern War — grains were hard to come by. We used it all to feed the around 400.000 men who fought for the Swedish empire. The little we had was mostly rye. Production of grain alcohol (which we got the hang of the century before, ironically legendary taught to us by the guys we were fighting) in Sweden was prohibited.

Around the same time, Eva Ekeblad, who by some is considered the first female chemist in Sweden, started spreading the craft of distilling alcohol from potatoes instead, agreeing that scarce grains are best left for food production. Being far easier to grow (but harder to store) producing brännvin (burnt wine) from potatoes later became the way household distilling really got its footing in early 19th century Sweden.

Around the same time, when newly formed American government saw that distilling became popular among the American people, they started taxing it–seeing it for the great state income it was (and is). The Swedish state did one better, banning it altogether for everyone except themselves. Although, getting back on our post-war feet, home-distillation of both grains and potatoes became allowed again about a decade later. And the Swedish people didn’t waste any time!

A documentation from 1802 containing a report of treaties of commerce between Great Britain and Sweden contains the following statements:

The corn brandy, of which the Swedes are very fond, consumes a large quantity of grain.

Which, when reading, is funny to me considering the same document later tells us:

“The climate of Sweden is unfavourable for the production of grain. […] Sweden reaps only two-thirds of what is necessary for the inland consumption. […] The Swedish poor […] make a composition of bark, or roots, with coarse meal, to preserve existence by this miserable food.”

You would think that using all the grains for food would be the obvious choice. Then again, this “preservation of existence” probably took some heavy drinking to endure.

By the time Kentucky distillers were shipping whiskey barrels by the thousands to other states, Swedes were drinking themselves senseless on unaged distillate. As a result, the temperance movement grew rapidly, and in the middle of the 18oos the Swedish government first applied heavy taxation on distilling and a couple of years later banned household distilling altogether.

Sweden then voted on total prohibition in 1922, but the vote came out against by 51% of the vote (phew…).

So, during the many rises, falls, and rebirths of American whiskey, we Swedes mostly kept quiet–drinking our monopoly-enforced, monopoly-produced brännvin, which (although no longer made by State-owned producers) still today is by far the best-selling liquor category in Sweden. I guess tradition means something to us too.

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