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The History of Bourbon

The distillation process dates back to before the birth of Christ, but was originally created to make perfumes. The earliest records of distillation of alcohol are in Italy in the 13th century when alcohol was distilled to create wine. The art of distillation spread to Ireland and Scotland no later than the 15th century.

The word ‘whisky’ is an English word from Celtic origin meaning “the water of life.” The word began to be used by everyone to describe this wonderful liquor. Different spellings of the word became synonymous with the country from which it was made. Scotch whisky and Irish whiskey to distinguish one from the other, and the spellings still remain different for many distillers to this day.

Whiskey made its way over to America and before the Revolutionary War; all whiskey was made from rye. But rye didn’t grow very well in the southern states, so as whiskey making moved south, it was necessary to find a new grain to use. The introduction of corn as the major ingredient also changed the flavor of whiskey. When the Colonies became the United States of America, the newly formed Government was cash poor, having racked up massive debts to finance the war with Great Britain. Alexander Hamilton, the new Secretary of the Treasury, proposed that Congress impose a tax on whiskey to help retire the debt.

This tax was not popular with the farmers who grew corn for a living, as many were distilling their corn into whiskey for ease of transport to the local market, where the whiskey could serve as a substitute for cash. In fact, during this time whiskey was the most stable currency in the U. S. and the most versatile, since each state printed its own currency and in some cases one state did not recognize the currency from other states. In 1794, when tax collectors pressed the farmers to pay the tax, seventeen hundred insurgent farmers broke into open revolt. President George Washington called up fifteen thousand troops to put down the rebellion. Even though no shots were fired, this became the first time a Commander in Chief personally let troops into battle. After what became knows as the Whiskey Rebellion, the federal government offered each settler sixty acres of land in Kentucky with the provision that they make a permanent home there and grow corn.

In 1780, Kentucky was originally divided into 3 counties, Jefferson, Lincoln and Fayette. In 1785, these counties were then divided further into Nelson, Bourbon and Mercer Counties. Bourbon County was named after the French royal family the Bourbons, to honor them for their help during the Revolutionary War. Farmers started making whiskey from corn and shipped it down the Ohio River to New Orleans, from this area in Bourbon County Kentucky. This Bourbon County whiskey was dispersed there all over the South. The whiskey was shipped in charred oak barrels to kill off any bacteria. The long journey in the charred barrels as they heated up and cooled down along with the constant movement, added color and flavor from the charred oak, giving the whiskey a very desirable result. The barrels were stamped “Bourbon County Whiskey” and subsequently this wonderful whiskey became known as Bourbon from the area it came from.

Most people believe that a Baptist minister, the Reverend Elijah Craig, was the first person to distill bourbon in 1789. There are many stories about who was the first person to distill corn to make bourbon; many tell that Wattie Boone, Daniel Boone’s cousin, was the first. This was the story that I was told when I was young. I have done a lot of research over the years and the truth is no one really knows who invented bourbon. The legend of bourbon became reality in 1964 when bourbon was officially named America’s native spirit by the U.S. Congress. Congress decreed that bourbon could be made only in the United States and that whiskey made in the United States must meet certain criteria in order to be labeled bourbon.

The requirements for bourbon are:

  • Bourbon must be made from at least 51% corn.
  • Bourbon must be aged in charred new oak barrels.
  • Only pure water may be added to bourbon.
  • Bourbon must not exceed 125 proof going into the barrel.

Bourbon is the most regulated whiskey and one of the most regulated spirits in the world, as the 4 original requirements haven’t changed in over 200 years. Although most bourbon is made in Kentucky, technically bourbon can be made outside the Bluegrass State as long as the 4 requirements are followed. I have lived my life in Frankfort and Lawrenceburg, in the heart of Bourbon country, and have tried MANY different types of bourbon over the years. I tend to lean toward the 8 to 15 year old bourbons. Anything under 8 has a little too much bite and over 15 are too smooth, as weird as that may sound.

Four Roses Single Barrel, Blade and Bow, Knob Creek Single Barrel and Noah’s Mill are some of my favorites. Wild Turkey makes a Kentucky Spirit Single Barrel that is hard to beat. I enjoy sitting on my front porch at night with my wife with a glass of bourbon on the rocks. Me with Four Roses, and her with Jack and Coke (yuck lol). I’ve tried whiskey many times and am very much a corn-fed bourbon man. Those who know me know that I can go on for hours about most any topic (haha). So now I’ll leave you to your tastings, and I hope that when you try your next 15 year old bourbon, you’ll feel a bit wiser. Thanks and please don’t hesitate to ask if you’d like some more suggestions.

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