Unless you’ve real­ly been hid­ing out for the last few years, you’ve no doubt noticed that Kentucky Bourbon has explod­ed in pop­u­lar­i­ty.  Sales are grow­ing rapid­ly at home and abroad.  New “spe­cial edi­tion” labels are appear­ing reg­u­lar­ly, accom­pa­nied by high­er prices asked for small-batch and sin­gle-bar­rel offerings. 

Willett Pot Still Reserve in a still-shaped bottle.
Willett Pot Still Reserve in a still-shaped bottle.

Sales of these super-pre­mi­um bour­bons dou­bled between 2015 and 2020.  The industry’s prof­itabil­i­ty spawned a lot of con­sol­i­da­tion over the past few decades.  The largest bour­bon dis­tillers now include Beam Suntory, Brown-Forman, Diageo, Four Roses, Heaven Hill, Kentucky Bourbon Distillers/Willet, and Sazerac. The top-sell­ing brand in the U.S. in 2021 was Bulleit, fol­lowed by Maker’s Mark, Woodford Reserve, and Jim Beam. (My brand, Old Forester, is way down the list.)

Kentucky dis­tillers expect the boom to con­tin­ue.  Companies are con­struct­ing a host of new ware­hous­es, and new dis­til­leries are open­ing.  Castle & Key, one of the newest, reopened the Old Taylor dis­tillery near Frankfort.  By the way, the bour­bon industry’s spokesman, Eric Gregory, pres­i­dent of the Kentucky Distilling Association, is a for­mer Winchester resident.

If you wish to join the grow­ing ranks of bour­bon con­nois­seurs, you should know some basic facts about your prod­uct.  There are a few pop­u­lar myths about bour­bon that need to be cleared up before you can talk about the sub­ject like an expert.

#1:  Bourbon must be distilled in Kentucky

In 1964, Congress rec­og­nized bour­bon whiskey as “a dis­tinc­tive prod­uct of the United States” and set spe­cif­ic require­ments for its pro­duc­tion.  The main ones include the following:

  • must be made of a grain mix­ture that is at least 51% corn
  • must be dis­tilled to no more than 160 proof (80% alcohol)
  • must be aged for a min­i­mum of two years in new, charred oak barrels
  • only whiskey pro­duced in the United States can be called bourbon.

#2:  The first bourbon was produced in Bourbon County, Kentucky

This seems plau­si­ble since the prod­uct and coun­ty share the same name.  Surprisingly, the ear­li­est use of the word “bour­bon” to describe whiskey that any­one has found is in 1821, when a Maysville firm placed an ad in the Paris Western Citizen to sell “bour­bon whiskey” by the bar­rel or keg.  By mid-cen­tu­ry Maysville was reg­u­lar­ly ship­ping whiskey “from Old Bourbon.” 

Henry Crowgey, in Kentucky Bourbon, sur­mis­es that the whiskey may have got­ten the name from Maysville once being locat­ed in Bourbon County (though only for a peri­od of three years, 1786 until 1789 when Mason County was formed).  However, Crowgey goes on to state that the Old Bourbon being sold in the ear­ly- to mid-1800s could not pos­si­bly meet today’s spec­i­fi­ca­tions for bour­bon, which push­es the argu­ment off on a tech­ni­cal­i­ty.  Most impor­tant­ly, dur­ing the first half of the 19th cen­tu­ry, no one ever men­tioned aging their whiskey in charred bar­rels, which is chiefly respon­si­ble for bourbon’s dis­tinc­tive taste and color.

#3:  Kentucky’s first bourbon was made by Elijah Craig

The source for this claim is Richard Collins’ History of Kentucky which states, “The First Bourbon Whisky was made in 1789, at Georgetown, at the fulling mill at the Royal spring.”  On the same page, Collins attrib­uted the first fulling mill to the Baptist preach­er Elijah Craig.  From #2 we know that no one was pro­duc­ing bour­bon in 1789.  Whiskey, yes; but that col­or­less, fiery con­coc­tion of ear­ly Kentucky stills bore almost no resem­blance to today’s bourbon.

#4:  Elijah Craig was Kentucky’s first whiskey distiller

This state­ment is what’s left after you take “Bourbon” out of Collins’ claim in #3.  The prob­lem is that many oth­er names have been put for­ward as the pos­si­ble “first dis­tiller.”  Claims have been made for Evan Williams, Jacob Myers, Samuel and James Daviess, William Calk, Isaac Shelby, and the list goes on.

Crowgey con­clud­ed that “any argu­ment as to the iden­ti­ty of Kentucky’s first dis­tiller should be con­sid­ered pure­ly aca­d­e­m­ic.”  Virginians brought their folk­ways to Kentucky with them.  One of these was mak­ing whiskey from sur­plus grains, espe­cial­ly corn.  Settlers could eas­i­ly trans­port a small still across the moun­tains on horse­back, and many did.  It was so com­mon, in fact, no one both­ered to men­tion it.  The ques­tion of who brought the first one and used it is unlike­ly ever to be resolved.

Bourbon has a long and fas­ci­nat­ing his­to­ry.  It’s too bad there is no room here for more.  But you should be armed now with enough facts to debate some of the myths with your bour­bon-sip­ping friends.

  • Harry is a Mt. Sterling native who has lived in Clark County since1999. He has a pas­sion for the past and has researched and writ­ten exten­sive­ly about the his­to­ry of this area.