The House of Bourbon
***History buffs: please excuse any generalizations or over-simplifications, but please engage and correct any glaring and significantly erroneous information***
Alcohol and Alchemy
Above: Grains in their imperfect form. Right: A copper still, designed to finish bringing grains into their perfect form thanks to alchemy. Copper still from Bardstown Distillery in Ky, courtesy of http://www.kentuckybourbonwhiskey.com/home.html
Whisk(e)y is born
Kentucky and the French
The Bourbon Whiskey Revolution
Anyway, despite our Francophilia, Kentucky had large populations of Scottish and Irish immigrants and descendants from our early founding that continue to this day. True to form, they made whisky. A lot of it. And what is the most abundant grain in Kentucky? Maize, or corn. As settlers came and built Kentucky, they fought off Native American tribes such as Cherokee, Pawnee, Seneca, Mohawk and Iroquois, dreamed of having the greatest college basketball program of all time, and distilled a metric shit-ton of whisky. If this wasn't the first corn-based whisky that people had tried, it was certainly the first time it was introduced as the norm, and in such large volumes. Somehow, the Scots-Irish couldn't drink all of it themselves and they had to sell their product somewhere. Queue the Mighty Mississippi.
First, merchants would label their products not by some marketed branding name, but by the location from which it came, usually by county. Bourbon County, Kentucky was once a huge piece of land (refer to the map above) and like most of Kentucky, boasted vast limestone deposits which naturally filtered the water used for making whiskey. Barrels of whiskey started making their way down the river labeled "Bourbon Whiskey", and the seed was planted.
Second, distillers were storing their whiskey in barrels for shipment, but barrels could sometimes be expensive or time-consuming to make while you are harvesting corn and distilling whiskey, so sometimes they bought used barrels. (See this great blog post for more on the process of making fresh barrels for making bourbon). There is no record of the first person to char the inside of a barrel prior to using it for whiskey, but it's largely thought that it would be charred to sanitize the inside after it was used for storing literally anything else.
Third, we have what is likely the beginning of the aging process being discovered. Waterways were faster and cheaper than travel on foot or wagon, but it still would take weeks or months before flatboats would reach New Orleans, and the distillers would usually have to wait for the spring for good rains for the safest travelling, and the whiskey was made in late summer and autumn after the corn harvest which led to longer amounts of time that the whiskey would sit in the barrels. Nobody intentionally held onto finished whiskey, and nobody knew that the whiskey is made smoother and more flavorful by absorbing elements of the wood, but people were drinking whiskey that was shipped in barrels labeled "Bourbon Whiskey", which used corn as its primary grain, and was sitting in charred oak barrels for months before they even got to smell it. The whiskey began to take on an amber color and had more complex flavors thanks to the charred oak barrels.
Many of the things that make bourbon great were discovered inadvertently through happenstance, accident, and many years of influence. Some of the accidents that led to the understanding of bourbon proper in its final form may have occurred in places other than Kentucky, although never all at once, nor were they consistently repeated until they became the norm. Only bourbon is made with a sour mash of grains that consist of at least 51% corn, is distilled to no more than 160 proof (80% ABV), is stored at no more than 125 proof (the whiskey is diluted with clean water after distilling to make it more pleasant to taste, limestone-filtered water, if its from Kentucky), is stored in new, charred white oak barrels (usually at least 4 years although no age requirement exists, but less than 4 years of aging requires a statement on the label) and bottled at no less than 80 proof (most are 90 proof). These practices evolved from the history of Kentucky whiskey and their distillers, and with many thanks to the loyal French drinkers in New Orleans that snatched up whiskey by the name of "Bourbon" faster than a French guillotine. Here is my case that bourbon is distinctly and exclusively a Kentucky product. Any whiskey made outside of that state is merely borrowing the name that made this style of whiskey so awesome, unique and enjoyable!
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