What Is Bourbon? A Brief History of America’s Whiskey

Dan Baker/The Manual

Oh, bourbon. Not only are you the favorite drink of adventurers, artists, accountants, and members of other professions that don’t start with the letter A, you’re also America’s spirit. We mean that literally. The drink revered by the uber-rich and common citizens alike. You were born in the land of the free and home of the brave and you wear that badge of honor proudly.

But, what makes bourbon America’s spirit? Is it because every batch is distilled by a bald eagle? Sadly, no. Below, we’ve put together a brief but thorough explanation on what makes bourbon bourbon and the history behind it.

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What is 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. The truth is that it can come from anywhere in America, but it must come from America. (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.) Yes, 95% comes from Kentucky, but it can come from any state and still be bourbon.
  • Bourbon must be created from a mash (a mixture of fermentable grain) that is at least 51% corn. The other 49% is usually a mixture of barley, rye, or wheat.
  • Bourbon must be aged in new American oak barrels (whereas many types of whisk(e)y, 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 (in comparison to Scotch, where caramel coloring is a common additive).
bourbon tasting
Erik Witsoe/EyeEm/Getty Images

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 — hell, even 45 seconds in a barrel would still count). Some are perfect for mixing into mint juleps, Manhattans, or whiskey 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 History of Bourbon

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? You just have to say it with a French accent.

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. (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 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.

Enjoying Bourbon Today

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.

2018 Spirit Awards Bourbon Winner
Winner of The Manual Spirit Awards 2018. Dan Baker/The Manual

Need some bourbons to try? Well, you could try these cheap whiskeys or you can branch out to the winner of the Best Bourbon category of The Manual Spirit Awards. We could keep going, but we’d prefer it if you went out and got yourself some bourbon instead.

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