In the 1700s Kentucky was originally part of Virginia, and by promising to build a cabin and grow corn, pioneers were granted land rights in what was to become the Bluegrass State. Many of these early settlers were immigrant farmer-distillers from Scotland and Ireland, and because they were obligated to grow corn and were familiar with the distillation process, they soon figured out how to make whiskey.
By the late 1700s Kentuckians were shipping whiskey down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans. The whiskey was shipped from Limestone, a riverside port in Bourbon County, Kentucky, and was soon known as ‘that whiskey from Bourbon’. Eventually, just the word bourbon would suffice. Whiskey was often prescribed for its medicinal qualities and was used to barter with the native Americans for food, fur, and sometimes land.
Jacob Meyers and Jacob Froman from Lincoln County, Marshall Brashear of Jefferson County, Elijah Craig of Scott County, or Jacob Spears of Bourbon County may have produced the first bourbon, but it is doubtful that their whiskey was aged as our bourbons are now. It took a Scotsman, Dr. James Crow, the founder of Old Crow bourbon, to insist on aging his whiskey in charred new oak casks and for perfecting the sour-mash method of whiskey making.
The steam engine marked an explosion in the bourbon market and the railroad made it much easier to export the finished whiskey. At the time, bourbon was shipped in its original barrel but was often diluted or replaced with other brands along the way. To remedy this problem, in 1790 the Louisville druggist George Garvin Brown became the first to sell bourbon in sealed bottles. He later went on to found his own bourbon, Old Forester, and the Brown-Foreman Corporation.
Today much of the method of making bourbon is mandated by law. Bourbon must be made with a minimum of 51 percent corn and lesser amounts of wheat, rye and barley, yeast and distilled limestone water. It must also be aged in new oak barrels that have been charred on the inside which gives the bourbon its reddish color and distinctive flavor. Aging must take place for a minimum of two years, but most are aged from four to eight years — the longer the better. If aged less than four years, labeling must include age.
As a point of pride, in 1964 Congress declared bourbon to be a distinctive product of the United States — no other country in the world is allowed to produce a whiskey called “bourbon” and Kentucky is often considered the bourbon capitol of the world.