History of Bourbon
Bourbon is America's native spirit, but with a history and tradition steeped in the cultures of the earliest settlers. This unique American product has continually evolved and been refined over the past 200 plus years. Among the first settlers who brought their whiskey making traditions to this country were Scotch-Irish of Western Pennsylvania. Although whiskey was produced throughout the colonies (George Washington was among the noted whiskey producers of the time), these settlers of Pennsylvania are where bourbon roots began.
To help finance the revolution, the Continental Congress put a tax on whiskey production. So incensed were the settlers of Western Pennsylvania that they refused to pay. To restore order to the ensuing "Whiskey Rebellion" of 1791 to 1794, Washington was forced to send the Continental Army to quell the uprising. This turned out not to be as easy as Washington thought it might be. To save the government from a potentially embarrassing political situation and to avoid further troubles with the very tough and stubborn Scotch-Irish settlers, Washington made a settlement with them, giving incentives for those who would move to Kentucky (at that time part of Virginia). The significance of this is that the early whiskey was made primarily from rye, this was about to change with their move and "Bourbon" would be born.
The Governor of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson, offered pioneers sixty acres of land in Kentucky if they would build a permanent structure and raise "native corn". No family could eat sixty acres worth of corn a year and it was too perishable and bulky to transport for sale; if it were turned into whiskey, both problems would evaporate.
This corn based whiskey, which was a clear distillate, would become "bourbon" only after two coincidentally related events happened. The French, having at that time their own territories in North America, assisted in the War of Independence against the British. In acknowledgment of this, French names were subsequently used for new settlements or counties. In the Western part of Virginia, the then county of Kentucky, was subdivided in 1780 and again in 1786. One of these subdivisions was named Bourbon County, after the French Royal House. Kentucky became a state in 1792 and Bourbon one of its counties.
Although Evan Williams, in 1783, might have been the first commercial distiller in Louisville, Bourbon is sometimes considered to have begun with the Reverend Elijah Craig from Bourbon County. The legend goes that he was a might thrifty and used old barrels to transport his whiskey to market in New Orleans. He charred the barrels before filling them, thus after his whiskey made the long trip to market, it had "mellowed" and taken on a light caramel color from the oak. Being from Bourbon County he started calling the whiskey "Bourbon". Interestingly today, there is no whiskey produced in Bourbon County.
In 1964, a congressional resolution protected the term "Bourbon" and only since then has the product been defined. The basic elements of Bourbon are that it must be a minimum of two years old, distilled under 160 proof, and be made from a mash of at least 51% corn. It must be aged in charred new oak barrels. Though the law does not stipulate origin, 99% of Bourbon Whiskey comes from Kentucky. Most consider the unique limestone spring water found in Kentucky the only water with that "just right" combination of minerals suitable enough for the finest Bourbons.
The next stage for the Bourbon producers is how the elements of production, storage, aging and bottling are handled.
Our wonderfully varied selections of premium Bourbons vary in style, philosophy and approach to production. If the mix of small grains in the mash changes, or the yeast strain used is different, the product changes also. Many distill and age their whiskey at a different proof. Some crack the corn, some roll it. There are those that pay attention to every detail from the growing and preparation of the grain to the proper rack house barrel rotation. In all of our premium bourbons you can find a unique point of difference and it is these subtle differences in the end product that beg study and comparison.
It is also this great variety of possibilities that make Bourbon whiskey one of the most interesting classifications of distilled spirits to explore.