When you think of bourbon, it’s impossible not to think of Kentucky. The state is synonymous with bourbon and without Kentucky’s overwhelming contribution to the spirit, we wouldn’t be enjoying the plethora of choice that we have today. But how did Kentucky become the de facto state of Bourbon? And what makes Kentucky so special that as of 2020, they currently make 95% of the entire world’s supply?
A humble start
The history of bourbon in Kentucky can be traced back to the late 1700’s and early 1800’s. During the 1700s there was an influx of settlers that came to Kentucky who discovered that the state had excellent fertile soil for growing corn. Corn of course is one of the main ingredients in bourbon, and the use of corn was a clear distinction between other states like Pennsylvania and Maryland who were relying on rye. Pair the fertile soil with the Virginia 1776 Corn Patch and Cabin Rights Act, offering 400 acres to all settlers who built cabins and planted corn in its territory of Kentucky, and you start to see a flood of immigrants from Germany, Scotland and the north of Ireland who brought their whiskey-distilling knowledge with them.
By the late 1700s, Kentucky was producing its own unique style of corn based whiskey. Distillers were also starting to discover that Kentucky happened to sit atop of enormous deposits of blue limestone, which naturally filters their water sources and filters out hard iron while imparting sweet-tasting calcium and magnesium. This proved to be especially beneficial in creating a clean tasting bourbon, as the water filtration process had already been completed by Mother Nature.
Given all of these factors, bourbon production started to take firm root in Kentucky, but it hadn’t yet taken hold of the American collective consciousness; it would take a war to do that.
The American Revolution’s impact on alcohol
Prior to American Revolution, the colonies benefitted from an influx of trade from around the British Empire, which also meant a steady supply of rum. Rum was in fact the preferred drink of choice for most colonies, and could have remained so if it were not for the war. Naturally, rebelling against the British meant a drastic reduction in supplies from other colonies, making rum a much harder commodity to acquire. Drinkers started looking within the states for other opportunities, and started discovering rye and bourbon producers.
The war also left a lot of debt, so much so that the government resorted to an incredibly unpopular liquor tax, which led to a fairly significant event called the Whiskey Rebellion. The rebellion is considered one of the first major tests of the newly formed republic and required thousands of troops to end once and for all. The rebellion is important, as no government was eager to repeat taxing alcohol production in fear of another uprising and instead started levying taxes against imported alcohol and ingredients, a further blow to the rum industry.
This left an opening for the Kentucky bourbon industry to thrive, and it began establishing legacy names like Elijah Craig, E.H Taylor, Old Forrester and more. These bourbon families were passionate and worked together to solidify Kentucky’s place as the leader in bourbon production.
The modern day appeal continues
When it comes to locale, it’s almost as if Kentucky was designed for bourbon production. Not only do they have the pure water, and corn production, but the states weather creates the perfect conditions for barrel aging the spirit.
Kentucky’s warm summers and cold winters provide the perfect change in temperatures for the spirit to move fluidly in and out of the charred oak barrels, imparting the critical flavour elements that bourbon is known for. It’s this swing in temperature changes that is crucial to good bourbon production, and Kentucky provides the perfect environment for doing so.
Bourbon has become such a staple industry in Kentucky that the state produces $8.6 billion dollars worth of bourbon, employing more than 20,000 jobs with an annual payroll topping $1 billion. Spirits production and consumption pours more than $235 million in state and local taxes every year, not to mention the fact that bourbon aficionados from around the world pour in to the tune of 1.7 million stops to Kentucky distilleries in 2019.
Thanks to the significant impact of the Kentucky bourbon industry, Bourbon was declared as America’s only native spirit by Congress in 1964. While there is no mandate to say bourbon has to come from Kentucky, the foundation is so strong that nowadays Kentucky and bourbon go hand-in-hand.