Welcome to this week’s edition of Whiskies of the World; the series that teaches you about different nations’ whiskies and how they came to be. In this edition, we’re delving into the world of American whiskey, starting with what is probably America’s best known whiskey product; bourbon.
Doubtless you’ve heard the name, and chances are you’ve probably had a glass or two in your time. But do you know your high rye from your wheater? Come to think of it, what makes bourbon, well… bourbon?
Fear not intrepid whiskey drinker! As always, we’ll be getting into the nitty gritty of it all.
So, grab your trusty spirit glass and join us on a journey to where it all started… 18th century Kentucky.
With that in mind, it probably won’t surprise you to know that Scottish and Irish settlers brought the distilling of whiskey to what is now Kentucky in the late 18th century.
It’s less clear, however, when bourbon emerged as its own entity, with its own distinct characteristics. Some attribute the invention of bourbon to Elijah Craig, a Kentucky Baptist minister who was supposedly the first to age the drink in charred oak casks, a key component in the drink’s distinctive reddish color and taste.
Early distiller Jacob Spears, meanwhile, is often credited as the first person to label his product as “Bourbon whiskey” after his native Bourbon County. In recent times, however, this has been contested, with historian Michael Veach suggesting that the name bourbon came from “Bourbon Street” in New Orleans – a major port where Kentucky whiskey was sold as a cheaper alternative to cognac.
While its origins remain unclear, bourbon whiskey as we know it today was well established, and had unquestionably taken over the American spirit market by the late 19th century. In spite of taking a massive hit during the early 20th century thanks to the ratification of the 18th amendment and the introduction of prohibition, bourbon has stood the test of time in America and the global market.
Indeed, in 1964, the United States Congress adopted a resolution that declared “distinctive product of the United States” and required “the appropriate agencies of the United States Government… [to] take appropriate action to prohibit importation into the United States of whiskey designated as ‘Bourbon Whiskey’.