Birth of American Bourbon Posted by: Aaron Stearns | 1 Comment
While whiskey was first billed as a medicinal substance — aquavitae or “water of vitality”, with the Scots and Irish using the Gaelic name for whiskey meaning “water of life” — regardless of its naming, whiskey soon gained popularity and became one of the most popular drinks in the world.
Whiskey as we know it was probably first distilled in the 1400s, and probably in Scotland, according to the best hard evidence we have. Especially in England and Ireland, it became its own form of currency and the drink of choice, and through taxation, came to contribute 30%-40% of the nation’s revenue.
With the colonization of the states, the popular beverage crossed the Atlantic, and George Washington himself counted whiskey as his favorite vice. He even opened a distillery at Mount Vernon, which ended up being one of the largest in the young nation. They continue to make whiskey at Mount Vernon today.
The development of Bourbon as an exclusive United States liquor was born out of the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791. During the presidency of George Washington the government imposed a “whiskey tax” as a means to generate revenue for the debt incurred during the Revolutionary war. Most farmers were accustomed to using their excess foodstuffs (grains such as rye, barley, wheat, corn) to make whiskey for their own consumption as well as for sale.
Many of the farmers were also were veterans of the Revolutionary War and understood the concept of “taxation without representation.” They reacted violently to the new whiskey tax, seeing it as bullying from the newly formed federal government.
Much discourse proceeded for the next couple of years over the issue with the federal government finally offering farmers land rights in Kentucky in return for taxes on the Whiskey that could be produced with Corn, the easiest grain to grow in Kentucky. Kentucky, as a region also provided Limestone substrates that filtered the spring water, making it ideal for soft water distillation of whiskey. Thomas Jefferson later repealed the Whiskey Tax in the 1800’s.
Elijah Craig was a Baptist preacher from Virginia who migrated to Kentucky and purchased 1,000 acres in Georgetown, Kentucky. Craig became a successful businessman and local magnate. He built the first clothing mill in Kentucky as well as its first paper mill, lumber mill, and gristmill.
Craig also built a whiskey distillery, one of many that had sprung up in Fayette and Bourbon County due the bountiful supply of corn and access to the Ohio River for distribution down the Mississippi River. He recognized that New Orleans was a large purchaser of his Whiskey, however complaints began to return that by the time the clear alcohol made it down river to the Crescent City, a large percentage had evaporated. Looking to solve the problem he came up with the idea to “char” the inside of the Oak Barrels, thus inhibiting the absorption and evaporation of the barrels precious cargo. Soon after attempting this process reports begin to return from New Orleans to ship more of the “brown liquor”. The reports stated the barrels were more full than previous and the caramel toned liquor had sweet overtones, with a mellowness not found in the clear whiskey alcohol. Since most of the Whiskey in Kentucky was being distilled in Bourbon County, Kentucky, a territory named in honor of the French who had supported the new country in its independence with England, the requests were for more of the brown water from Bourbon. There you have it – the fascinating story of the Baptist Preacher Elijah Craig and the birth of the uniquely American Bourbon Industry.
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