Where did bourbon originate from?

It is only logical as a bourbon enthusiast to find out a bit more about the drink. Questions that come to mind include one such as this one we are looking at in this article. We will try as much as possible to unpack the mystery surrounding the origin of bourbon and why it has come to be known as a ‘native’ American Spirit.

You know that bourbon is a drink to be appreciated, to be enjoyed slowly, right? Learning about its history will help you to savor the drink the next time you choose to dabble.

It is fair to understand, ‘ what is this drink that has gained fame throughout’?

Bourbon is a whiskey type that requires individual specifications to qualify to be known as a ‘bourbon’ drink.

The specifications are;

  • It has to be American. Some people argue that is can only be made in Kentucky. Still, the American Law has stated that as long as it is made in any State in the U.S, it is legally known as bourbon.
  • It has to be made with a recipe (known as mash) with 51% of corn. The rest of the ingredients, known as ‘flavoring ingredients’, can be rye, barley, or wheat.
  • Bourbon must go through the process of aging. This process must take place in new barrels, made of oak, and charred. The charring of the wood gives bourbon it’s Amber color and Woody taste.
  • Bourbon must be barrelled at 62.5% alcohol by volume, and its bottling must be done at a drink by work of 40% or higher.
  • Bourbon cannot have any additives. Only water is used for the distillation process and in the dilution to get the right proof.

These regulations have not changed in the production of bourbon since they were enacted in the 1960s. This ensures that bourbon taste remains the same over the years. This is quite fascinating.

Bourbon’s origin

Did you know that the name bourbon is French? Quite impressive, no? The name was the Surname of a French dynasty family. So why would an ‘American’ drink take on a French word? Let us dig in.

A quick point to note is that it is not clear how bourbon was first made and by whom. There are, however, different views on this.

In the state of Kentucky, Bourbon County was named after the French royal family to honor them for their help during the American Revolution. In the early 1700 and 1800, the Scottish, Irish, and other European settlers that had settled in Kentucky started distilling whiskey. It is believed that they came with distilling knowledge. By this time, the state of Kentucky was growing a lot of corn, and it became the main ingredient in the making of bourbon.

Barrels of bourbon
Barrels of bourbon

A brief history of Kentucky and corn

Even before the American Revolution, whiskey was being distilled using rye as the main ingredient. The climate and topography of the southern states did not favor rye growing, so an alternative grain was discovered; corn. This grain even changed the taste of whiskey.

When the U.S merged to form a country, the resulting government was short on cash due to debts accumulated to finance the war. It was proposed that whiskey be taxed to help recover the debt. This move was not welcome by the farmers who were making whiskey used as a substitute for cash by distilling their corn. Whiskey was the most stable currency in the U.S by then because each state was printing its currency and would sometimes not accept money from other countries.

The farmers took to the streets to protest the tax imposition, and the government sent troops to disperse them. This is known as the “Whiskey Revolution.” After this, the government offered each farmer ” sixty acres of land in Kentucky with the provision that they make a permanent there and grow corn.” That is why almost every county in this state grows corn. Corn also takes a shorter period to grow than other grains.

Where does the name bourbon come from?

Some argue that it came from Bourbon County. The settlers who began distilling in this county wanted to transport it to the rest of the U.S. They did this through water transportation using wooden barrels labeled ” Bourbon County Whiskey.” They say the name was further shortened to ‘bourbon whiskey’. However, this argument is disputed because the Bourbon County was founded later after the first bourbon was ever distilled.

Another belief is that the name comes from New Orleans. They say that two French brothers came to Louisville and started to ship whiskey using the Ohio River to Louisiana. They started selling the whiskey transported in charred barrels from Kentucky to the people in New Orleans. In those times, the leading entertainment Street in New Orleans was known as ‘Bourbon Street’.

People buying the whiskey referred to it as ” the whiskey they sell on bourbon street.” This later became ” the bourbon whiskey.”

I guess the Bourbon whiskey’s fame has made people want to lay claim to being the originators of the drink.

A Bourbon Drink
A Bourbon Drink

So, who were the first people to distill bourbon?

This question may go unanswered, but it is essential to look at the different tales going around.

Samuel’s family

This family is known to be among the first distillers of bourbon in the state of Kentucky. They began to produce whiskey for commercial purposes after 1840. They closed their distillery during the Prohibition period but reopened after it was repealed. This was around 1943 when they discovered a way to make a sweeter bourbon. This was a tradition they began that is present to date.

Evan Williams

He is said to be the first person to open a distillery in Louisville,  Kentucky, along the Ohio River banks. The bourbon produced by this distillery one famous even today.

Elijah Craig

Some say that Elijah is the first to invent bourbon by aging the then already famous “corn whiskey,” although many are disputed. Most bourbon enthusiasts believe that it was not invented, but rather, it has evolved through many “hands in the barrel.” His distillery opened in Georgetown, Kentucky is known as “Heaven Hill Distillery,” and produces the “inventor’s” bourbon.

The Beam Family

Jacob Beam started the family distillery, which grew to become the family’s tradition. He sold the first barrel of “Old Jake Beam Sour” in 1795. The Beam name is a well-known name in the Bourbon industry with the famous “Jim Beam” bourbon.

These are just some of the early distillers who started production of bourbon in the early years. Although most of the early producers closed shop due to the prohibition, many continued after it was repealed and produced some of the best bourbon known in the world.

Other important events in the history of bourbon

These include,

Introduction of ‘sour mash.’

Dr. James C. Crow did this at a distillery known as the Peppery Distillery. Sour mash meant leaving a batch of yeast to use in the next fermentation process. This made the bourbon better and was adopted in the industry pretty quickly and is used to date.

The name ‘bourbon.’

Although there is contention as to the name bourbon, it was not until the year 1840 that the drink was formally known as ‘Bourbon’. Before this, it bore names such as ” Bourbon County Whiskey” or “Old Bourbon County Whiskey.”

The prohibition

In early 1920, the U.S government put a law that made the manufacture or sale of any alcohol illegal. This made many bourbon producers shut down, done never reopening again, except for the Samuel and Beam families, who came back into the industry after the ban was lifted. The ban lasted up to the year 1933.

Regulating bourbon production

In 1964, the government declared that bourbon was an ” American Native Spirit.” No other country had the right to name their whiskey ‘bourbon’. Regulations guiding the production of bourbon were established and made into law.

To sum it up,

Bourbon has a rich and valued history that is cherished by Americans. They have even named September as a month to celebrate bourbon, it is the ‘bourbon heritage month.’ They say it is a way to celebrate the historical, industrial, and economic impact that bourbon has had on its history and culture.

Bourbon is also the most widely exported whiskey in the United States and collects millions of dollars in revenue. So yes, bourbon is a big deal in the U.S.

The next time you get to enjoy a bottle of bourbon, I hope you will enjoy the history of the whiskey as well. Understand that the production of this whiskey has evolved due to changes in technology. Still, the same standards apply for it to be known as bourbon!

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