Bourbon whiskey is one of the most popular spirits in America, and it remains one of the most iconic beverages in the spirit industry. This is a whiskey with a long history, a fascinating tale, and a resilience that allowed it to not only survive the prohibition, but to thrive once again.
What is Bourbon Whiskey?
Bourbon is whiskey, but not every whiskey is Bourbon. To be classed as Bourbon, the whiskey must be made and distilled in America, and made from at least 51% corn. The mash that makes up the Bourbon contains other ingredients, but must be more than 51% corn (unlike rye, for instance, which is 51% rye).
The corn used in the mash is what creates Bourbon’s unique, sweet flavor.
Where Did Bourbon Get Its Name?
The origin of the whiskey’s name is disputed. The most common story says that the whiskey gets its name from Bourbon County, which was once known as “Old Bourbon,” and is located in Kentucky. According to Michael Veach, the “unofficial Bourbon ambassador of Louisville,” however, the timeline simply doesn’t make any sense.
Instead, Veach says that Bourbon labels didn’t appear in print until the middle of the 1870s. The unofficial ambassador claims that the name originated in New Orleans, when the Tarascon brothers arrived from Cognac, France, and began selling whiskey to Kentuckians. It was in the 19th century that people referred to the spirit as “whiskey sold on Bourbon Street,” which eventually became “Bourbon Whiskey.”
Bourbon’s Long History
In the beginning of the 17th century, when the Spanish, German, Irish, Scottish, and British began arriving in the United States, a new distillery industry began. The Europeans brought with them a long history of distilling beverages, and they began brewing alcohol using corn, apples, and rye – as opposed to the grapes and barley they were used to working with.
It was in the 1770s that whiskey began to really take off. At this time, taxes imposed by the British became so high that colonists began moving from Pennsylvania and Georgia to Virginia. An illegal alcohol trade began in the forests, where they would distill at night. Known as “moonshine,” the illegal alcohol was sold until 1794. This period was known as “The Whiskey Rebellion.”
After a period of relying on rye crops to create whiskey, distillers moved further West, where corn crops were more easily cultivated. These corn crops were used to create whiskey mash, creating a brand new industry of Bourbon distillery.
Huge Popularity Allowed Bourbon to Survive the Prohibition
By the time of the prohibition, there were more than 64 million gallons of whiskey left over from distilleries. Roughly four million gallons were used during the prohibition, and afterwards, the remaining whiskey had evaporated so much that just three million gallons were remaining.
By 1929, the U.S. government permitted the distillation of new whiskey – assuming those distillers held existing stocks and ownership of old whiskey. By 1933, more than 20 million gallons of whiskey had been produced. Production soon increased, with more than 3.5 million gallons being produced per month. This led the way for the resurgence of Bourbon in the United States.
The Bourbon Industry Boomed
The Bourbon industry is big. Really big. Kentucky still produces 95% of the world’s supply, and the industry generates 17,500 jobs in the state, with a payroll of $800 million. The industry in just this state alone is worth $8.5 billion.
The biggest distilleries in Kentucky are home to over 1,886,821 barrels of the spirit, which broke the 1967 record. The old record saw 1,922,009 barrels filled with Bourbon.
Bourbon is of course a substantial export for the United States, too. In 2013, the U.S. exported more than $1.5 billion of Kentucky Bourbon and Tennessee whiskey. This makes whiskey the largest export out of all spirits brewed in the country.