History of American Bourbon

Whether you are a connoisseur of bourbon or you’re just interested in learning where different types of alcohol come from, you may want to read up on the history of this popular classic drink. American bourbon is not the same as bourbon from other places, and although it’s similar to many other drinks—and it is technically a type of whiskey—it also has enough differences to make it stand out as well. Below, we’ve put together a quick rundown of the history of American bourbon to give you a good idea of just how it came to be and what makes it so special.


History of American BourbonIn order to trace the history of American bourbon, it’s first important to go all the way back to the early days of the distillation process. Distillation can be traced officially back to the late 1400s when it was first mentioned in writing. However, it is actually much older than this, although we don’t have any official written records of when it was first used. This process is key to ensuring the proper production of bourbon as well as of other whiskeys and similar types of drinks, so it’s a crucial element in the history of American bourbon.

In Scotland, distillation was eventually heavily taxed, and laws were put in place for some time to limit the process significantly. When this happened, smugglers became prominent and were responsible for keeping the process alive throughout the country as well as introducing it to other nations. Eventually, the laws and taxes were altered and the situation improved such that distilleries were able to operate legally within Scotland once again. This led to the widespread acceptance of distilling throughout the country.

In the 1800s, French vineyards suffered from an infestation of a certain type of beetle that nearly wiped them all out completely. When this happened, wine and brandy supplies around the world dwindled, and those who made whiskey saw the opportunity to take over instead. This was when the distillation process, and particularly Scotch whiskey, became as well-known as it is today. This is also when whiskey traveled to other countries and was brought to the United States—namely, the area of the United States that would eventually be known as Kentucky.

In its early years, Kentucky was home to Scots-Irish, Welsh, German, and English settlers who brought the concept of distillation with them. We understand today that this is how distillation came to the area, but there are many different stories that lay claim to the introduction of actual whiskey to Kentucky—and to the origin of American bourbon. There is no way to tell which of these stories is really true, but they all have some merit, and so it’s a good idea to examine each one in an exploration of the history of American bourbon.

Many people believe that American bourbon (and specifically Kentucky bourbon) was invented by a pastor named Elijah Craig who lived in Kentucky long ago. Supposedly, he was the first person to come up with the idea of storing bourbon in charred barrels to give it its unique and specific flavor as well as the coppery color for which it is known so well. However, there is a great deal of proof that charring the barrels used for bourbon (and whiskey) was a common practice in Europe well before this time, so there’s some dispute as to whether or not there’s much truth behind this story.

Another popular story is the one of Jacob Spears, who supposedly distilled whiskey and first labeled it as “bourbon.” As the story goes, he named his drink “bourbon whiskey” because he was a resident of Bourbon County, Kentucky. However, there is once again a flaw to this story: bourbon was already being produced in large quantities by the time it was supposedly named, so chances are very good that it earned its name long before the time of Jacob Spears. Some historians believe, instead, that it was named after Bourbon Street, where it was shipped and sold. It may also have been named for Old Bourbon, a region that included a small portion of Virginia and most of Eastern Kentucky as we know it today.

When Prohibition hit the United States, distilleries stopped legally operating. Although a very few distilleries were allowed to keep producing whiskey during this time for medicinal purposes, they were not legally allowed to sell it for any other reason. The bourbon industry almost died off completely during Prohibition, but distilleries opened up once again afterward and started producing the drink once more.

Although bourbon production was popularized in and continues to be largely associated with Kentucky, Tennessee whiskey is a close runner-up. This type of whiskey is, obviously, produced in Tennessee instead of in Kentucky, but other than that it is relatively the same thing. Even for the purposes of trade and sales, the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States does not recognize these two drinks as separate entities. The distinction is really only significant to those who have a preference for one or the other—and particularly to those who live in either Tennessee or Kentucky.

In 1964, the United States declared that the bourbon variation of whiskey was officially a product unique to the United States and separate from other types of whiskey. Because of this, the United States government recognizes the only whiskey produced in the US as bourbon whiskey for the purpose of regulations. Since this change, not much more has happened in the world of bourbon, although its popularity continues to rise. This is a drink that has withstood the test of time and continues to be used in exciting, new ways. It’s an excellent addition to your home bar, and it’s also a nice way to add a lot of flavor to baking and cooking.

All in all, American bourbon has been around for a long time and is still being made in much the same way it was centuries ago. This classic potable has many flavor variations today to help everyone find the type they’re sure to enjoy.

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