Bourbon is a type of American whiskey, a barrel-aged distilled spirit made primarily from corn.
It 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 whiskey, like Scotch whisky, are often aged in barrels that have previously held wine, port, other whiskey, and so forth).
It 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).
The name ultimately derives from the French Bourbon dynasty, although the precise inspiration for the whiskey’s name is uncertain – contenders include Bourbon County in Kentucky and Bourbon Street in New Orleans, both of which are named after the dynasty.
The Bourbons ruled France from 1589, when Henry IV succeeded to the throne, until the monarchy was overthrown in 1848, and reached the peak of their power under Louis XIV in the late 17th century.
Distilling was most likely brought to present-day Kentucky in the late 18th century by Scots, Scots-Irish, and other settlers (including English, Irish, Welsh, German, and French) who began to farm the area in earnest.
The origin of bourbon as a distinct form of whiskey is not well documented.
There likely was no single “inventor” of bourbon, which developed into its present form in the late 19th century.
There are many conflicting legends and claims, some more credible than others:
For example, the invention of bourbon is often attributed to Elijah Craig, a Baptist minister and distiller credited with many Kentucky firsts who is said to have been the first to age the product in charred oak casks, a process that gives bourbon its brownish color and distinctive taste. In Bourbon County, across the county line from Craig’s distillery in what was then Fayette County, an early distiller named Jacob Spears is credited with being the first to label his product as Bourbon whiskey.
In 1783, Evan Williams opened first commercial distillery on the banks of the Ohio River in Louisville, it was the first commercial distillery in Kentucky. The bourbon that still bears the distiller’s name is one of the popular bourbons today.
In 1783, Samuels family tradition begins. The Samuels family claims the title of the oldest bourbon family still going strong. Prior to 1840, the Samuels family did not produce bourbon commercially. It wasn’t until T.W. Samuels (grandson of Robert Samuels who created the “secret” family recipe) came along and constructed a distillery at Samuels Depot, Kentucky that the family made a business of bourbon.
The Beam family has one of the best-known names in American whiskey. The man that started what would be a family legacy and is now in its 7th generation, was Jacob Beam who sold his first barrel of “Old Jake Beam Sour” in 1795.
The world’s oldest operating bourbon whisky distillery is Maker’s Mark in Loretto, Kentucky, which has been distilling bourbon since 1805 and has been recognised as a National Historic Landmark.
In 1821, first known advertisement using the word “bourbon” to describe whiskey appears in Kentucky’s Western Citizen newspaper, when a firm known as Stout and Adams offers it for sale by the barrel.
In 1835, the “father of modern bourbon,” Dr. James Crow, begins experimenting at a distillery along Glenns Creek in Kentucky’s Woodford County. In freely sharing his scientific discoveries, he helps to popularize the sour mash process.
The name “Bourbon” was not applied until the 1850s, and the Kentucky etymology was not advanced until the 1870s.
Prohibition in the United States was a nationwide constitutional ban on the production, importation, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages from 1920 to 1933. The majority of bourbon distilleries were closed, many to never reopen, but a few, like the Samuels and Beam families, came
back after the repeal of Prohibition and resurrected the craft of bourbon distilling.
In 1947, with the world still reeling from WWII, President Harry Truman—who liked his bourbon with water or ginger ale—shuts down the nation’s distilleries for 60 days in order to conserve grain, which is sent overseas to feed hungry Europeans.
In 1964, Congress declares bourbon a “distinctive product of the United States,” giving it special trade protection in overseas markets.
In August 2007, the United States Senate declared that September is recognized as National Bourbon Heritage Month. While this may not have much impact on the average consumer, it is an honor for the craftsmen in the bourbon industry.
There’s no law mandating that bourbon must be produced in Kentucky, although it might seem that way given the state’s dominance in distilling bourbon. According to the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, the Bluegrass State produces and ages approximately 95 percent of the world’s bourbon whiskey.
Bourbon is served in a variety of manners, including neat, diluted with water, over ice (“on the rocks”), with cola or other beverages in simple mixed drinks, and in cocktails, including the Manhattan, Bourbon Smash, the Old Fashioned, the whiskey sour, and the mint julep. Bourbon is also
used in cooking and was historically used for medicinal purposes.
Bourbon can be used in a variety of confections such as a banana bourbon syrup for waffles, as a flavoring for chocolate cake, or in fruit-based desserts like grilled peach sundaes served with salted bourbon-caramel or brown sugar shortcake with warmed bourbon peaches. It is an optional ingredient in several pie recipes traditional to American cuisine including pumpkin pie, where it can be combined with brown sugar and pecans to make a sweet and crunchy topping for the creamy pumpkin pie filling. It can also be used as a flavoring in sauces for savory dishes like grit cakes with country ham served with bourbon mayonnaise, Kentucky bourbon chili or grilled flank steak.