Kentucky Bourbon: An American Innovation

The story of bourbon is, in a way, the story of America: the combination of Old World techniques and wholly American ingredients to create a singularly unique spirit. As the saying goes, all bourbons may be whiskey, but not all whiskeys can be bourbon.

The difference lies in how the whiskey is made. Any grain can be used to make whiskey, but by federal law, bourbon must be distilled from at least 51 percent corn. And any wood can be used to make a barrel, but bourbon — again, thanks to statute — must be aged in barrels made of oak, charred on the inside to produce a layer of charcoal. This charcoal layer not only helps purify the whiskey, but the burned oak imbues the distinct smoky character and caramel color of great, Kentucky bourbon.

Historians argue about where bourbon came from. Some claim Bourbon County in Kentucky was the birthplace of bourbon. Others suggest it was imported to America through the Port of New Orleans, and named after that city’s famous street of the same name, Rue Bourbon. As a Kentuckian, I feel confident we are responsible for this treasured spirit.

A popular local legend here in Kentucky credits Baptist minister and inventor Elijah Craig with creating the first bourbon whiskey. This legend coincides with the belief that the whiskey took its name from the area of Virginia called “Old Bourbon” which would later form part of Eastern Kentucky (Bourbon County included). Craig’s distillery was founded in 1789, and he is rumored to be the first American distiller to char the inside of his oak barrels.

The truth is no one knows for sure who made the first bourbon or where. Americans (in Kentucky and elsewhere) have been distilling whiskey for over 200 years, but many immigrants to America came from Ireland and Scotland, homes to their own great whisky distillers since the 1600s. It is not far-fetched to imagine some enterprising Scottish immigrant cooking up a batch of whisky from a recipe brought to America via the same route he himself traveled, merely adapting the recipe to use the far more common corn instead of wheat. 

Whoever first distilled it, bourbon has become an indelibly American spirit, and has been recognized as a "distinctive product of the United States" by the U.S. Congress since 1964. And whether or not Pastor Craig burned the first barrels, 95 percent of the world’s bourbons are made in Kentucky, home to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, starting on Whiskey Row in downtown Louisville. The Trail, which can take as long as a week to complete, routes throughout the state’s 38 separate distilleries, giving visitors an unparalleled experience in the heart of the Bluegrass State.

I invite you to join me in celebrating this distinctly American spirit, whether on the Trail or by the glass. Cheers.

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