A History of Bourbon: America’s Spirit

bourbon bottle on a barrel

We’re taking a little dip into the history behind America’s favorite spirit. Pour yourself one of your favorite sipping Bourbons (and comment below to tell us what it is!) and settle in for the history of Bourbon.

 

Our Story Starts Well Before America Was Founded

 

Wait, what? I thought Bourbon was a uniquely American spirit?

 

 

It is, but as with almost all alcohol origin stories, it relies on some important boozy predecessors and events. The devastation of most of Europe’s vineyards due to unforeseen consequences of globalization in the late 1800s, the savvy marketers of Scotland, the increased demand for spirits, and more. The history of Bourbon runs deep…particularly since it originated in a young country, but one with centuries of history and distillation to thank for its running start here in America.

 

 

The History of Bourbon in America

The first settlers brought distillation to North America, and the USA specifically. Distillation of grains had been established in the UK for at least a few centuries, and the new inhabitants used the rye that grew easily in the colonies for the first iterations of American Whiskey. After the French and Indian war ended in 1763, early American settlers ventured west by way of the Ohio River. In 1776, the Virginia legislature introduced the Corn Patch and Cabin Rights Law which deeded settlers with a significant amount of land, as long as they planted corn and built a cabin on that land.

old shed in a cornfield

The early landowners found that corn grew more easily west of the Appalachian Mountains. How did they cultivate this amazing new crop with no prior knowledge of the land? Native Americans, of course. We owe the beginnings of the history of Bourbon in America to them. 

The families that settled in this part of Virginia worked tirelessly to establish their homes and harvest their crops. Any surplus crops, which was mostly corn, could be made into beer. However, at that time beer was perishable and farmers wanted a product that would last longer. Enter: corn whiskey.

Distilling corn made a spirit insusceptible to rot, mold, rats, or other critters. It was also easy to transport, and best of all, the final product was worth more than the grain it was made with.  

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Why Is It Called Bourbon?

For the answer to this question in the history of Bourbon, we need to get into a little geography. Originally designated as a part of Virginia, Kentucky County was divided into three counties in 1780: Jefferson, Lincoln, and Fayette. As a thank you to the French royal family (the House of Bourbon) for assistance during the American Revolutionary War, the Virginia legislature established Bourbon County out of Fayette County five years later. Kentucky was eventually admitted as the fifteenth state of the Union in 1792…with Bourbon County being part of it.

historical wagon with bourbon barrels

Full whiskey barrels branded with “Bourbon County”, identifying its port of origin, shipped out on the Ohio River to neighboring states. Given most of the whiskey in America then was made from rye, recipients of these barrels noticed the sweeter flavor profile of the corn whiskey coming out of Kentucky.

This sweetness is primarily due to two aspects of Bourbon production. The high ratio of corn in the mashbill compared to other whiskey lends part of the sweetness. The removal of iron from water sources via limestone filtration in Kentucky is the other part. People who appreciated this sweetness started asking for the “Bourbon Whiskey.” Eventually, people just started asking for Bourbon. Or, at least, that’s how one version of the story goes!

Bourbon Sweeps the Nation Early On

Kentucky was truly the first “wild west” in the pioneer story of the US. They were the first to use this distinctive American grain (corn) as a base for spirits. The use of navigable waterways into the new territories allowed for the spread of Bourbon’s popularity. Ideal changes in weather for aging and the unique water qualities lent distinctive characteristics to the whiskey. Additionally, there was a savvy community of distillers in Kentucky, whose predecessors worked with wine, brandy, and cognac for years. They established that only new, charred oak barrels be used for their craft, further differentiating Bourbon whiskey.

All of these elements are central to the history of Bourbon, and provided Kentucky a solid reputation by the 1860s for that delicious “Bourbon whiskey.”

Prohibition’s Role in the History of Bourbon

For the next 60 years Bourbon continued to establish its foothold on the American whiskey palate. Until 1920 when Prohibition went into effect nationwide. For the next 13 years Bourbon and most other alcohol only existed illegally, if at all.  The entire whiskey industry was almost nonexistent by 1933. While this was mostly true of all alcohol industries in the United States, aged spirits categories suffered the most. Given the time taken to age properly, these products were risky to store on site.

By the time distilleries were able to put Bourbon back on the shelves following Prohibition, the market had shifted. The US and the world were in the depths of the Great Depression. While alcohol was in high demand then, expensive booze, like Bourbon which required aging, was more of a luxury item. Following the depression, World War II compelled distilleries to produce industrial alcohol for the needs of the War Production Board.

So now we’re nearing the middle of the 20th century! In order to recoup their losses and reinvigorate the demand for Bourbon (and really, all alcohol), marketing and packaging became priorities. From there, Bourbon’s international market grew.

whiskey with money and pipe

As a direct result of this increasing international demand, the United States Congress recognized Bourbon as a “distinctive product of the United States” on May 4, 1964, as defined in Title 27 of the Code of Federal Regulations.

Title 27 established that Bourbon be:

  • Produced in the United States
  • Made from at least 51% corn
  • Distilled at 160 proof or below
  • Put into a new, charred oak container
  • Put into a container at 125 proof or below
  • Free of added substances other than water

With Such a Long History of Bourbon, Why Is It a Seemingly Recent Darling Child?

After being officially established, Bourbon’s domestic sales declined briefly. The primary theory for this is the increasing unpopularity of the Vietnam War. A generation of young people rejected everything their parents held dear, including whiskey. If Dad drank it, they didn’t want it.

In addition to this generational rebellion and protest, consumers became more discriminating about where they spent their money starting with the recession in the 80s. They started searching out high-value, artisanally made products. This became apparent as fine wines and single malt scotches gained market share. Bourbon makers took notice and adjusted their product lines to include small and single batch offerings.

This appealed to the more knowledgeable consumers, and demand for Bourbon slowly grew. The history of Bourbon reaches the present day. Distilleries have started opening their doors to welcome visitors. The Bourbon Trail was established in 2004 and the interest in our distinctly American spirit has only grown. Whether you enjoy sipping your Bourbon straight or mixing it into cocktails, you’re tasting true American history with every pour.

Let us know what you love most about Bourbon or your favorite craft Bourbon makers that we should check out below!

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