Bourbon’s birth does not seem to have any single event associated with it but rather a series of events, some unverified. Its history goes back to the late 1700’s when early Scotch and Irish immigrant settlers started distilling whiskey in western Pennsylvania. Eventually using corn instead of rye and other grains, this whiskey came to be known as bourbon. It currently uses a sour mash attributed to James C. Crowe, a Scottish chemist-physicist.
How did bourbon become mainly a corn product? Most stories agree early immigrant settlers used their skills to distill whiskey but were unable to find or grow enough grain. Hence, they used corn.
Another and longer version of this rich past starts with the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794. Alexander Hamilton – then treasurer of the United States – suggested taxing whiskey to pay for the revolution, which the western settlers were unable to pay since they traded in whiskey, thus causing the rebellion.
George Washington sent his army to quell the rebellion and found this to be a difficult task. To avoid further trouble and appease the settlers, Washington, along with Virginia Governor Thomas Jefferson, offered them 60 acres of land to move to Virginia (now Kentucky) and grow corn. They agreed, but there was one problem. The amount of corn was more than any family could eat and corn was too perishable to store. They decided to use the extra corn to distill whiskey, referred to as corn-whiskey at the time. The bourbon name came later.
During the 1700’s, Kentucky was a county and not a state. Kentucky county was subdivided twice in the 1780’s, with one county named after a French Royal House – Bourbon. Eventually, Kentucky became a state with Bourbon as a county.
The distinct whiskey flavor and name is mainly attributed to Elijah Craig. Although unsubstantiated, it appears that at one point a fire burned most of Craig’s barrels, leaving them charred inside. Craig, being a frugal man, used these charred barrels anyway. During the many days of transportation, the whisky ‘aged’, became mellow, and took on a light caramel color. Because the barrels were marked with the words “Old Bourbon” to indicate its source, people started asking for Old Bourbon and this is thought to be how this corn-whiskey first came to be called bourbon.
Although the large majority of bourbon whiskey is made in Kentucky (80% – 99%), bourbon can be made in any state. Only Kentucky has the legal right to have its state name on bourbon products.
America’s Native Spirit
Congress, in 1964, declared bourbon – “America’s Native Spirit” – to be the United States’ official distilled spirit. In order to separate bourbon from whiskey, Congress listed several key items, including how much corn had to be distilled (minimum of 51%), how long the bourbon needed to be aged (minimum 2 years), and what kind of barrels (new & charred). It is these key points that give bourbon its distinctive flavor and beautiful caramel color.