Drink it with a splash of water, go straight from the bottle, or even mix it with ginger ale. There are many ways to drink bourbon, but when it comes to the history of bourbon, it depends on whom you ask. One thing that is for sure is bourbon is an American whiskey.
There are plenty of disputes about the origin of bourbon because the name was derived from French Bourbon, and there is also the issue of Bourbon County in Kentucky versus Bourbon Street in New Orleans. So, while the origin may be up for debate, the history of bourbon and how it became a sought-after spirit in the United States is fascinating all the same.
Where it All Began
Bourbon has been around since the 18th Century. The term itself was traced back as far as the 1820’s, and it was consistently used in Kentucky starting in the 1870’s. Today, bourbon is a multi-million-dollar industry.
Who Invented Bourbon?
The real inventor of bourbon is not properly documented; therefore, numerous parties insist they were the creator of the spirit. Some say it was a Baptist minister by the name of Elijah Craig that made the first Kentucky bourbon, while others say that it was Jacob Spears from Bourbon County that labeled the product as “bourbon whiskey.”
Some say that bourbon whiskey was more likely named after Bourbon Street in New Orleans because New Orleans served as a hub where Kentucky whiskeys were sold as the budget-friendly alternative to French cognac.
Prohibition and the History of Bourbon
Distilleries were operating throughout New Orleans and Kentucky, but when Prohibition began, there were no distilleries on record.
The Legal Definition of Bourbon
The term “bourbon” is thrown around quite often, but there is a legal requirement for a distillery to name their product as a bourbon. In most trade agreements, the name bourbon is reserved for whiskeys that are made in the United States only. The United States does have regulations for labeling and advertising in place, but only those made for consumption. These regulations do not apply to bourbons that are distilled and sold as exports.
Canada even requires that a bourbon sold in their country must be made in the United States and conform to the requirements of the U.S. to be called a “bourbon.”
Through the federal requirements, bourbons must be:
- Made in the United States
- Contain a grain mash of at least 51% corn
- Be aged in brand new, charred oak casks
- Distilled to no more than 160-proof
- Entered the cask no more than 125 proof
- Bottled at 80-proof or higher before labeling
The Kentucky Bourbon Saga
In 1780, a distinct corn-based bourbon was being distilled in Kentucky by the minister Elijah Craig. It was said that Craig developed bourbon by accident after hestored his home-brewed whiskey in a charred barrel from a recent fire.
Whiskey did not gain much momentum, however, until the American Revolution. During the Revolution, the import of rum, which was America’s favorite spirit, slowed down. When the tax on liquor began in 1791, distillers in New England states began the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794.
As the high taxes on rum and the ingredients used to make it, particularly molasses, affected the consumption of rum products, whiskey started to take center stage. In Kentucky, whiskey primarily used slave labor to produce and monitor the distilleries.
While it is true that bourbon can be made in any state of the United States and legally qualify for the “bourbon” status, most connoisseurs have been quoted as saying that if it is not a Kentucky bourbon, it is not really bourbon in their eyes.