Bourbon, the name sounds fancy, no? You have to say it with a French accent, so they say.
What is Bourbon?
Bourbon is a type of whiskey that is made with specific regulations. The U.S law stipulates that for a whiskey to be called bourbon, it has to be made from at least 51% corn, distilled at 180 proof, with no additives, aged in barrels made of oak and charred inside. This aging process must be done at 125 proof, before being bottled at 100 proof or more.
The history surrounding the making of bourbon is quite rich and exciting.
Where is Bourbon from?
The general assumption is that bourbon mainly comes from Kentucky. This is partly true. Kentucky is known to produce 95% of America’s bourbon, although it can be produced in any other U.S state. This is according ” to the Kentucky Distiller’s Association.”
Kentucky was originally where bourbon, and in fact, whiskey, in general, was produced. The environment around this state is said to be perfect for bourbon production. How do you ask?
-The water in Kentucky is rich in limestone, a mineral that cleans out the iron from the water and adds magnesium and calcium, which are sweet tasting. The magnesium and calcium are good in helping with the mash’s fermentation process that produces the whiskey.
-The soil in this state is fertile and very good for the growth of corn. The growing of corn started in the 1700s. Early settlers, mainly from Scotland, Ireland, and Germany, who had the whiskey knowledge, took advantage of the corn farming and started distilling it.
-The climate in Kentucky is perfect for the production of bourbon, with it’s perfect winters to scorching summers. These temperature variations make the ” wood breathe, and the whiskey can move in and out of it.”
-Another factor is the Kentucky people. The families that were among the first distillers of bourbon did not keep the knowledge to themselves, but rather, they passed it on from generation to generation, enabling the bourbon industry to grow in numbers in the state and beyond.
So, where did the name ‘bourbon’ come from?
The origin of the name bourbon is a mystery that is yet to be uncovered. One theory states that the name is from a French royal family given to the Americans as gratitude to the French government for its help in the American Revolution. A County in Kentucky was therefore named ‘Bourbon County.’ This is where it is said, the name bourbon came from, as the distillers in the day would stamp the name “Bourbon County Whiskey” on the barrels that would be transported into other states.
However, there was a street named Bourbon Street in New Orleans, and it is argued that the name came from there, as the drink was very popular here. It said the lovers of bourbon in New Orleans would say “bring us more of the whiskey from Bourbon,” and the name stuck. We will never know for sure.
Who invented bourbon?
The story behind who invented bourbon is a bit shaky as it is not really known where exactly or who developed it. Though, there are stories that are believed to be true by hardcore bourbon enthusiasts about the ‘inventor’ of bourbon.
The man that earned the title of bourbon ‘inventor’ is known as Elijah Craig. His day job was as a Reverend. He was also a skilled businessman who dabbled in many businesses. He is said to have “built the first paper and wool Mills in Georgetown, Kentucky.” But of course, what puts him right at the center of bourbon history is his skill in distilling. This earned him the name “Father of Bourbon.”
Bourbon lovers believe that Elijah was the one who discovered that the charring of barrels gave bourbon a different flavor. Still, there are several stories as to how this happened. One such story tells of an accident that caused a fire in Elijah’s mill, which charred the barrels, changing the whiskey’s taste inside.
Another story tells that Elijah used “former sugar barrels” in storing the whiskey, and he became amazed when he realized that the flavor changed because of the charring inside the barrels.
A much more believable tale is that Elijah discovered that “the cheapest way to clean a fish barrel in preparation for storing whiskey, was to burn the inside of it.” He did this and shipped the initial barrels downriver. This trip took about ninety days, and when the barrels arrived, the whiskey was very different. The whiskey was said to have been smoothened and the people in New Orleans loved it and asked for more “of that whiskey from Bourbon.”
A lot of history is said to be lost, and it isn’t easy to know how Elijah discovered the charring of the wooden barrels. However, he took this knowledge and developed it, changing the world of whiskey, making forever.
Elijah Craig is given credit for being the first distiller to have his whiskey aged in charred oak barrels, thus being referred to as the ‘inventor’ of bourbon.
Some dispute the stories about Elijah Craig, stating that bourbon was not invented. They claim that bourbon evolved with time passing through many hands and barrels. Therefore, it is only fair to look at other names that made a difference in bourbon production, not so?
Other notable names in the bourbon history
Other than Elijah Craig, who is said to be the ‘inventor’ of bourbon, there are other important names in bourbon history. These are people or families that made some difference in the making of bourbon.
This is a family that claims the title of being the oldest family in bourbon history. They, however, did not start making bourbon commercially until after 1840. This was when T.W. Samuels constructed a distillery at a place known as Samuel’s Depot in Kentucky. His grandfather had developed a family ‘secret’ recipe. The distillery still produces bourbon to date, for example, ‘the Maker’s Mark’.
He opened what came to be known as the first commercial distillery in Kentucky, “on the Ohio River banks in Louisville.” The bourbon with the name Evan Williams is still one of the most popular whiskeys to date.
The Beam Family
This is a famous family name in the world of American whiskey. Jaco Beam started this family tradition by selling his “first barrel of ‘Old Jake Beam Sour’ in 1795.” The family legacy is now in its seventh generation producing bourbon. This is where the famous ‘Jim Beam’ bourbon comes from.
Dr. James C. Crow
He is known in the history of bourbon making as the person who developed ‘sour mash’ at a distillery known as Pepper Distillery (known as the Woodford Reserve Distillery). Sour mash is simply a way of using previously used yeast in your next fermentation. This has helped to bring consistency in the way bourbon tastes.
The Ripy Family
The Ripy family started a distillery in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. The family’s bourbon was chosen “from a list of 400 Bourbons to represent Kentucky at the 1893 World’s Fair.” The Ripy Family Distillery is now known as Wild Turkey Hill and produces Wild Turkey Bourbon.
Ask any bourbon aficionado about these names, and he will know most of them. They are known to have revolutionized the bourbon-making industry to what it is today. The said names made some of the world’s best known Bourbons.
While bourbon is mostly linked to Kentucky, it does not mean that it is exclusively made here. Any state in America can produce bourbon. However, it is a known fact that almost 95% of America’s bourbon is produced in Kentucky.
The early distilleries were so many, but some closed shop during the Prohibition and never opened again. The Prohibition was a time between 1920-1933 when all production and sale of alcohol was made illegal in America. This made the production of bourbon go down until the Law was repealed in 1933.
Most of the names mentioned earlier survived the Prohibition and continued to make the bourbon industry what it is today.
Bourbon soon became known as “America’s Native Spirit,” and it is the most exported spirit in American to date.