A Brief History of Bourbon

history of bourbon

Ah, bourbon! The favorite libation of adventurers, artists, accountants and more! The chosen drink of king and commoner alike! Except I’m not sure if the king part is accurate. There’s probably some king somewhere who likes (or liked) it, though. Sure, why not — probably pretty hard for you to fact check that at any rate, what with all the monarchies that still technically exist.

Related: Buy an Entire Barrel of Bourbon

bourbon-month-ftrFirst, a few of the finer points:

  • For a whiskey to be properly labeled as a bourbon, most purists will tell you it has to come from Kentucky. Others will say it simply must be American. (Congress has officially recognized bourbon as “America’s Native Spirit,” so there’s that.)
  • Bourbon must be created from a mash (a mixture of fermentable grain) that is at least 51% corn.
  • Bourbon must be aged in new barrels (whereas many types of whiskey, like Scotch — in which case I should in fact be spelling it “whisky” without the E — are often aged in barrels that have previously held wine, port, and so forth) made from oak, almost always with their interiors charred for added flavor and color.
  • Bourbon must be at least 80 proof (AKA 40% ABV), though some of the honey whiskeys popping up today are in fact a tad weaker. We’ll let that slide…

And… that’s about it. Some bourbons are aged for years; others are aged for only a few months. Some are perfect for mixing into mint juleps, Manhattans, or sours; others demand to be enjoyed on their own.

As for the history of Bourbon–of this American Original? Well, it’s actually a murky tale.

The type of whiskey generally accepted as bourbon today can indirectly trace its name back to a dynasty of French royals. Their surname? Bourbon. Surprise, surprise, right?

Louis_XIV_of_FranceThe House of Bourbon can be traced as far back as the mid 13th Century, and boasts descendants as famed as Louis XIV, AKA The Sun King, and Louis XVI, AKA The King Who Got Freakin’ Beheaded. However it’s important to note how unlikely it is that bourbon whiskey was named directly after French royalty; it’s more likely the booze was named for Bourbon County, Kentucky, where much of the sweet elixir was distilled in the 19th century, or for Bourbon Street in New Orleans, a street lined with taverns even way back when and always peopled with plenty of characters, as the city was for many years one of the major American ports and a massive conduit for trade.

At any rate, bourbon was born out of both necessity and ingenuity, those clever ol’ bedfellows. Scots, Irish, and other Europeans who settled and farmed the American south during the late 1700s and early 1800s brought knowledge of distilling with them from the old countries. Corn was a robust, reliable, and sugar-rich crop abundant in the new country. So what did many of these bright eyed, thirsty folks do? They started making whiskey using old world techniques and new world mash. (And by the way, a few names from among these early entrepreneurs? Try Jacob Beam, Elijah Craig, and Evan Williams. Oh yeah.)

Throughout the 19th Century, bourbon grew and grew in popularity, being cheaper than imported liquors, relatively easy to distill thanks to the abundance of corn, and because who actually needs a reason to love bourbon behind its on intrinsic quality, anyway?

bourbonFrom 1920 to 1933, stupid Prohibition ruined many bourbon distilleries. Some of the majors came back online once the country realized its awful mistake and repealed the goddamn 18th Amendment, but it would not be until the late 20th Century that bourbon saw a true resurgence, with craft distilleries and new small batch runs from the majors popping up.

Related: A Brief History of the Hot Toddy

Today, bourbon is by far the most widely exported American liquor, and total bourbon sales are near $3.7 billion dollars a year, with $2.7 billion of that figure coming from domestic sales.

In other words, bourbon is big; even the United States Senate has chimed in, declaring September as National Bourbon Heritage Month. Of course, it’s also National Guide Dog Month, Alopecia Awareness Month, and National Honey Month, to name a few…