Issue 30

The Beginnings of Bourbon

The Beginnings of Bourbon

There are lots of reasons to be proud of America. One of my favorites is Bourbon. Bourbon encompasses the great elements of American history in liquid form. Its history is tied to the history of America itself. It’s a story of the ingenuity and tenacity of immigrants, the growing pains of a fledgling country, and a fortuitous compromise.

Let’s start with the immigrants.

The ancient Scots and Irish were the true pioneers of whiskey, or ‘uisgebaugh’ as it was known in Gaelic, having produced it as far back as the late 1400’s. Those early American immigrants of Scots-Irish descent arriving throughout the 18th century were therefore well-versed in the production of whiskey and brought these skills with them. These settlers spread throughout the 13 original states and many of them produced whiskey, but by the 1790’s, problems began to develop that would have a far-reaching impact. George Washington, who was also a whiskey producer at this time, soon found himself in the midst of a dilemma. His fledgling national government had assumed the states’ Revolutionary War debt and he needed a way to finance the payment of this debt. A tax was therefore levied on all whiskey production. This greatly upset the Scots-Irish, many of whom were poor rural settlers whose only real way to produce income from the predominantly rye grain they produced was to convert it into whiskey. To make matters worse, whiskey producers were not all taxed equally and large producers were shown significant favor over smaller ones. In a young country where unfair taxation was already a sore subject, protests, violence and civil unrest followed. The ‘Whiskey Rebellion’ culminated in armed conflict in western Pennsylvania between Scots-Irish settlers and the Continental Army.

To avoid further conflict and alleviate what was a growing political problem, Washington offered the disgruntled settlers a deal. Through his friend Thomas Jefferson, then the Governor of Virginia, settlers were offered 60 acres of land in Kentucky (a western county of Virginia until 1792) if they would build a home there and grow corn. For a pioneer family, consuming or transporting to market 60 acres of corn every year wasn’t really feasible. However, turning it into whiskey was. As luck would have it, Kentucky’s limestone underpinnings resembled the geology of Scotland and as such produced the perfect spring water sources from which to produce corn whiskey. This clear distillate would eventually give rise to Bourbon.

At the time, Kentucky was divided into a few very large counties, one of which was named Bourbon in recognition of the assistance the French royal family had given America in the War of Independence (Odd Historical Irony; The Bourbons were eventually beheaded by French Revolutionaries who were inspired at least in part by the American Revolution). The corn whiskey being produced in this region was soon being sold in other areas, and was eventually shipped regularly to the port of New Orleans in barrels stamped ‘Old Bourbon’ designating its region of origin. Soon, the process of charring the oak barrels used for shipping the whiskey was developed, which helped to remove impurities. Over time, the region and its renowned whiskey became synonymous. Other whiskey producers noticed consumers’ affinity for ‘Old Bourbon’ and began to stamp their barrels with the same designation regardless of where the whiskey was actually produced. The term ‘bourbon’ eventually came to be used to describe any corn whiskey. This practice continued until the term was finally defined by Congress in 1964.

That definition goes something like this. Bourbon must be made in the United States from a fermented mash containing at least 51% corn. Bourbon must be produced at no more than 160 proof, stored in new charred white oak barrels for a minimum of two years at a temperature of no more than 125 degrees, and bottled at no less than 80 proof.
Note: Although 99% of all Bourbon is produced in Kentucky, it is not a legal requirement.

Today, Bourbon is thriving both in the US and abroad. If you’ve been Bourbon shopping recently, you’ve probably discovered a pleasantly daunting array of options from which to choose. You may also have run into other, potentially confusing elements in this section of your favorite bottle shop. Terms like ‘straight’, ‘bottled in bond’, or ‘sour mash’ and other North American whiskies like Canadian, Tennessee, and Rye can be a bit mystifying. Allow me to attempt some clarification.

Straight: A straight whiskey must be derived from a minimum of 51% of a single grain (corn in the case of Bourbon, rye in the case of Rye whiskey, etc.) distilled to a proof of no more than 160, aged for a minimum of 2 years in new, charred white oak barrels and reduced with water to a proof of no lower than 80 at the time of bottling.

Bottled in Bond: This term has nothing to do with ensuring the quality of the whiskey. It only refers to its compliance with certain IRS excise tax regulations laid out in the Bottled in Bond Act of 1894.

Sour Mash: An element of the distillation process commonly employed in the production of Bourbon and Tennessee Whiskey. Similar to the concept behind sourdough bread, a portion of the last fermentation batch is held over and added to the next one, which helps control bacterial growth.

Tennessee Whisk(e)y: Differs from Bourbon in that it is subjected to an additional step in production called the ‘Lincoln County’ process. In this process, the distillate is filtered through maple charcoal prior to barrel aging. And it’s from Tennessee.

Canadian Whisky: Must be produced in Canada (obviously), aged at least 3 years and derived from cereal grains (typically corn, rye, wheat, barley), none of which can represent more than 50% of the grain formula, or ‘mash bill’. Note the lack of an ‘e’ in the spelling of whisky, a trait common to Scotch, Japanese and Canadian whisky, as well as one of the two remaining Tennessee distilleries.

Enough talk! Time to drink some Bourbon (in moderation, of course).

Dan Crowell

Dan Crowell

Dan Crowell, cocktail enthusiast and self-avowed ‘spirits nerd’, is the Luxury Brands Specialist for Sterling Distributing Company in Omaha. He talks incessantly (even occasionally to other people) about the virtues of what he calls ‘investigative imbibement’. An eternally fascinated student of the distillers’ art, he encourages any like-minded individuals to engage him in spirited discussion at

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