A Brief History of Bourbon

Let me begin by telling you that I have been personally responsible for the perpetration of a significant falsehood for many, many years. Not on purpose mind you... I think that I probably made the same mistake as many others who didn't know. Seems as I was always telling people that bourbon wasn't bourbon unless it came from Bourbon County, Kentucky.

Blanton's Single Barrel

Nothing could be further from the truth, although there are a few strands of that gaffe that actually do lend themselves to the truth that follows. My hope is that those I have unintentionally misled will forgive me and the rest of you will enjoy the story... along with your favorite bourbon of course.

Realizing that human existence would be absolutely no fun at all without computers and DSL, mobile phones and the ability to send 15,000 text messages a day, air-conditioning, $4-a-gallon gasoline and the 6-mile-per-gallon Hummer into which we can pour an endless supply of this fuel, and also the ubiquitous plastic bags to which we have all found that we just absolutely can NOT live without...

I still would like to have been around in the latter portion of the 18th century. After all, we had just won our independence from Britain, the American Frontier was wide open and calling out to us to settle it, and droves of immigrants were headed to America, bringing with them a treasure trove of knowledge, some of it involving the process of distillation and distilled spirits. 

Elijah Craig by Heaven Hill Distilleries

Among the many immigrants were Elijah Craig and Dr. James Crow. Price of the boat trip in those days? Four to six months wages, or five years indentured service for many folks who took the trip but couldn't afford it. Price of the knowledge they brought with them? Impossible to say. Craig, a Baptist minister who settled near Frankfort, Kentucky in 1785, may have been the first to make bourbon. He has often gotten credit for it...

Or it may have been Crow, a physician and chemist, born in Scotland in 1789 and came to Kentucky about 1825. Heck, it might have been Evan Williams, apparently the first commercial distiller around 1783 (apparently both Craig and Williams got busted for making the stuff without a license). Anyway, it kinda depends on the reading material in which you find the story. Ask around and you'll probably find that few people in Kentucky, even in the distilling industry itself, really know for sure the true explanation. So why does it really matter who was first? There are bourbons named after all three men... and many others.

Thomas Jefferson

The making of whisky had actually been around in this country for quite awhile -- having been brought to Western Pennsylvania by the Scotch-Irish -- and almost everyone seemed to know how to make it.  Even George Washington made the stuff!  So when did it get to be so special?  And what is the difference between whisky and bourbon anyway?  Hang on... first things first. 

As a result of the "Whiskey Rebellion" of 1791 to 1794, our government (another early George W. was president then) made a deal with the Scotch-Irish whisky-making settlers, offering incentives to move to Kentucky -- then a part of Virginia.  The Virginia governor (one Thomas Jefferson) offered settlers in Kentucky sixty acres of land if they would "build a permanent structure and raise 'native corn' in exchange".  This was quite an interesting turn of events, since no one could ever use that much corn in a year.  Whatever was a pioneer to do with that much corn??  For starters, how about turning it into whisky?

Now it's a kind of well-known fact that the French and the U.S. were pretty tight right around this time, especially since the French had lent a helping hand during our struggle with the British; French names were often assigned to new settlements and new counties.

One such county resulting from a part of western Virginia being subdivided was Bourbon County... so named for the royalty of The House of Bourbon, the ruling family on the French throne at the time. Unfortunately, the chain of Bourbon monarchs that had begun in 1589 was broken when Louis XVI was executed -- beheaded actually -- on January 21, 1793. Nevertheless, Kentucky became a state in 1792 and Bourbon was still a county in it.

Buffalo Trace Bourbon Barrels

With all of the whisky now being produced in Kentucky from so much excess corn (a perfectly clear distillate, and a slightly different version from earlier whisky made from other grains ) much of it began to be shipped to distant ports --  along with rope-making hemp, Kentucky's other main export.  One of those ports was New Orleans, via the Ohio River from the port at Maysville. 

Now here is where we get back to Reverend Craig... How or why he did it is a moot question at this point, but the good Reverend somehow filled some conveniently charred -- and probably slightly used -- oak barrels with his whisky from what by this time was referred to as Old Bourbon County.  The time it took to get all the way to New Orleans added some very convenient -- and tasty -- aging to the whisky, along with a delicate amber/caramel color.

Old Weller 107 Brand

It would be difficult to imagine that Craig was the only shipper of the thusly-aged whisky... now referred to as "Old Bourbon" Whiskey, and later to be simply called bourbon.  The list of those connected with the original distilling of the stuff is long and filled with the names of guys who have products named after them even today: Jim Beam, George A. Dickel, Jack Daniel, Dr. James C. Crow, Evan Williams, The Pepper Family (Oscar, Elijah & James), Edmund Haynes Taylor and William LaRue Weller, just to name a few... 

However, the bottom line is that the product that folks tasted in New Orleans became quite the hit, and bourbon soon became the drink of choice.  Perhaps you can excuse at least a bit of my blunder regarding the "Can't be bourbon unless it's from Bourbon County" thing... even if I didn't know the real story.