A Brief History of Bourbon

history of bourbon

Ah, bourbon! It isn’t just the favorite libation of adventurers, artists, accountants, and more — it’s also America’s spirit! The chosen drink of king and commoner alike! Actually, let’s go with president and commoner. That sounds more appropriate for a spirit birthed in the land of the free and home of the brave. Here’s a quick — but thorough — lesson on the history of bourbon.

First, 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. (As mentioned above, we weren’t kidding about being America’s spirit — 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 percent corn. The other 49 percent is usually a mixture of barley, rye, or wheat.
  • Bourbon must be aged in new American oak barrels (whereas many types of whiskey, like Scotch whisky, are often aged in barrels that have previously held wine, port, other whisk(e)y, and so forth).
  • Bourbon must go into the barrel at no more than 125 proof and it cannot enter the bottle at anything less than 80 proof.
  • Finally, for it to be bourbon, nothing but water can be added, and that is only at the end to proof the whiskey down to what the distiller is seeking.
history of bourbon

And … that’s about it. Some bourbons are aged for years while others are aged for only a few months (there is no age requirement to be called bourbon as long as it has spent even a day in the barrel). 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?

The House of Bourbon reaches 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 (and still is) distilled in the 19th century.

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 World. 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.)

the house of bourbon

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 beyond its intrinsic amazing-ness, anyway? (Though, to be fair, the bourbon that was being made then is a far cry from what we know today due to different technologies, people out to make a quick buck, et cetera.)

From 1920 to 1933, 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.

Today, bourbon is by far the most widely-exported American spirit (factoring in Tennessee whiskeys as well), 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.