Bourbon is a type of American whiskey – a barrel-aged distilled spirit made primarily from corn. The name of the spirit derives from its historical association with an area known as Old Bourbon, around what is now Bourbon County, Kentucky (which, in turn, was named after the French House of Bourbon royal family). It has been produced since the 18th century. While it may be made anywhere in the United States, it is strongly associated with Kentucky.
Whiskey sold as Tennessee whiskey is also defined as Bourbon under NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) and is required to meet the legal definition of Bourbon under Canadian law, but some makers of Tennessee whiskey, such as Jack Daniels, do not label their product as Bourbon and insist that it is a different type of whiskey when marketing their product.
The origin of bourbon is not well documented. Instead, there are many conflicting legends and claims, some more credible than others. For example, the invention of bourbon is often attributed to a pioneering Baptist minister and distiller named Elijah Craig. Rev. Craig (credited with many Kentucky firsts, e.g., fulling mill, paper mill, ropewalk, etc.) is said to also be the first to age the distillation in charred oak casks, “a process that gives the bourbon its reddish color and unique taste.” Across the county line in Bourbon County, an early distiller named Jacob Spears is credited with being the first to label his product “Bourbon whiskey.” Spears’ home, Stone Castle, warehouse and spring house survive; one can drive by the Spears home on Clay-Kiser Road.
Although still popular and often repeated, the Craig legend has little actual credibility. Similarly, the Spears story is a local favorite, rarely repeated outside the county. There likely was no single “inventor” of bourbon, which developed into its present form only in the late 19th century. Essentially any type of grain can be used to make whiskey, and the practice of aging whiskey (and even charring the barrels) for better flavor had also been known in Europe for centuries, so the use of the local American corn for the mash and oak for the barrels was simply a logical combination of the materials at hand for the European settlers in America.
Distilling probably arrived in what would later become known as Kentucky when Scottish, Scots-Irish, and other settlers (including, English, Irish, Welsh, German, and French) began to farm the area in earnest in the late 18th century. The spirit they made evolved, and became known as bourbon in the early 19th century due to its historical association with the geographic area known as Old Bourbon (consisting of the original Bourbon County of Virginia as created in 1785, which was a region that included much of today’s Eastern Kentucky – including 34 of today’s counties in Kentucky, one of which is the current Bourbon County of Kentucky).
When American pioneers pushed west of the Allegheny Mountains following the American Revolution, the first counties they founded covered vast regions. One of these original, huge counties was Bourbon, established in 1785 and named after the French royal family. While this vast county was being carved into many smaller ones, early in the 19th century, many people continued to call the region Old Bourbon. Located within Old Bourbon was the principal Ohio River port from which whiskey and other products were shipped. “Old Bourbon” was stenciled on the barrels to indicate their port of origin. Old Bourbon whiskey was different because it was the first corn whiskey most people had ever tasted. In time, bourbon became the name for any corn-based whiskey.
A refinement variously credited to either James C. Crow or Jason S. Amburgey was the sour mash process, by which each new fermentation is conditioned with some amount of spent mash (the wet solids strained from a previous batch of fermented mash, which still contain live yeast). Spent mash is also known as spent beer, distillers’ spent grain, stillage, and slop or feed mash, so named because it is used as animal feed. The acid introduced by using the sour mash controls the growth of bacteria that could taint the whiskey and creates a proper pH balance for the yeast to work.
As of 2005, all straight bourbons use a sour mash process. Crow or Amburgey developed this refinement while working at the Old Oscar Pepper Distillery (now the Woodford Reserve Distillery) in Woodford County, Kentucky. As of today, there are no operating distilleries within the current boundaries of Bourbon County — due to new counties being formed from Bourbon County over time.Bourbon
A resolution of the U.S. Congress in 1964 declared bourbon to be a “distinctive product of the United States.” That resolution asked “the appropriate agencies of the United States Government… [to] take appropriate action to prohibit importation into the United States of whiskey designated as ‘Bourbon Whiskey.'” Federal regulation now defines “bourbon whisky” to only include “bourbon” produced in the United States.
View recipes using Bourbon.