Our state is known for its unique history and beautiful landscapes. However, there are a few things that stand out, giving us worldwide renown. One is the Kentucky Derby. The other is the amazing spirit called bourbon, and the colorful bourbon history in Kentucky. Since September is National Bourbon Heritage month, we thought bringing up some of the unknown or unusual history of this favored spirit might be in order.
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1. When did bourbon get its start?
That is a question that remains unanswered, though many like to take credit. We know that bourbon, or corn whiskey, was first developed by the early 1700’s settlers in Kentucky. The combination of fresh spring water and fermented sweet corn combined to make a drink enjoyed by many, especially the men folk of the era.
2. The corn’s conversion.
Many settlers sold their corn and vegetables, transporting them by wagon over the hills and mountains. This was a tedious task, as there was much waste from big hauls. The bottom of the stacks would often start to rot and mildew before the pioneers made their destination. Converting some of the corn into corn whiskey ensured easier travels and less loss. Plus, it provided a welcome distraction from the long journey as well.
3. How did bourbon get its name?
Bourbon County actually came before Bourbon Whiskey and was named in honor of a renowned French family. The distillers, aka farmers, would usually ship out their corn whiskey in Bourbon County-stamped, oak barrels. The slow river travel process along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers helped to age the clear, or lightly colored drink. During the aging process, the whiskey darkened, and the flavor mellowed from the oak. Initially some called it Bourbon County Whiskey, but eventually the name was shortened to Kentucky Bourbon.
4. In 1791, there was a whiskey rebellion.
The government had decided to tax the liquor. Many states took unkindly to that… and started a rebellion. Washington sent out federal troops numbering in the thousands to end the revolt… Whiskey was not taxed during this time in Kentucky. There were well over 500 known distillers at the time. The government chose to leave it untaxed until the Civil War. There was a brief tax period that occurred during the War of 1812 to help with ammunition and such, but no uprising occurred during that troublesome time. The image is from PA, as that is where the final meeting took place.
5. Bourbon can be medicine.
Back before they we had a pill for all ills, they had to make do with plants, herbs, roots and alcohol to stimulate the healing properties and create tonics. Some healers infused these plants in bourbon, as it was easily acquired. There is also a homemade cough syrup that utilizes honey, lemon, ginger and bourbon. I’ve actually used that one and found it to help.
6. There is more to bourbon then most people think.
It isn’t just for drinking. It is also for cooking. If you have never had a bourbon ball, Thoroughbred Pie (A chocolate walnut pie with bourbon), or bourbon basted steak… you don’t know what you are missing. It has been utilized in recipes for centuries.
7. Elijah Craig, man of the cloth, and Father of Bourbon.
That is a strange combination, but Craig made it work. He was a preacher who built a distillery in 1789. The fame surrounding him began when he started using charred barrels to age his bourbon, enhancing the flavor. There are several different variations of why. We know he was either a genius, or was too frugal to toss out charred barrels damaged in a barn fire. It is also possible his frugal nature made him want to save on cost by using barrels longer than average, so he charred the inside to prevent mold and damage.
8. Evan Williams was the first actual distiller.
Not the first of all distillers, but most were just farmers who learned to distill. Evan Williams was an actual distiller who wasn’t a farmer. Williams served two terms on the Board of Trustees for Bardstown, and was known to bring a jug of his bourbon to each meeting. Of course, the spirits weren’t opened till business was completed, but then, that jug was drained with a vigor, and everyone got a great night’s sleep.
9. Prohibition was a tedious time.
During prohibition, distilling became illegal, but many people still wanted their spirits. That made it easy for illegal distillers to get a client base. Once word got out, locals would flock to the bootleggers, sometimes for themselves, sometimes for selling to others. There was a lot of unnecessary death during the prohibition years, as distillers were known to occasionally be a temperamental sort… that didn’t take kindly to their stills being destroyed. Violence was more common than not during the prohibition years, as were “underground” hang outs for those who enjoyed their spirits. The Sealbach in Louisville had a speakeasy in the tunnels beneath the building. It was one of the most famed in our state. Al Capone and the Great Gatsby were both known to visit.
10. In 1964, our Congress deemed bourbon a traditional American product.
It was then named the official spirit of the United States. This took place a little more than two centuries since settlers started enjoying bourbon as a popular drink.
11. The Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
There are several different tours you can travel in order to experience the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. If you take them all, you would visit and experience the unique processes at Town Branch Distillery, Wild Turkey, Woodford Reserve, Jim Beam, Jim Beam Urban Stillhouse, Bulleit Experience, Evan Williams Experience, Four Roses, and Heaven Hill. Samples are also available, which is a good reason not to visit ALL the distilleries in one day.
12. Some Kentucky distilleries are no longer Kentucky owned.
Sadly, Kentucky Bourbon may be made in Kentucky, but it is no longer “Kentucky” bourbon. Now it is Kentucky made, Japan owned bourbon. The Suntory Holdings Limited is a Japanese Distillery and soda manufacturer that has been in business since 1924. They now own Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Four Roses, which has been the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby, and Knob Creek. The UK owns Diageo, and Wild Turkey is now owned by Italy’s Campari.
Some of you may be surprised by the bourbon history in Kentucky, especially the sale of some of the most renowned distilleries. You don’t have to enjoy the taste of bourbon to appreciate how it helped the first settlers with trade and economy. The medicinal qualities have also done wonders over the centuries in battles when antiseptics weren’t available. You can read more about some of
our oldest towns and the history that surrounds them.