Aqua vitae. Uisge Bethea. Uske. Whiskey: “the water of life.” As long as there has been whiskey, there have been those who have sung its praises. With such accolades, one might imagine that whiskey entered the world at the peak of perfection, and yet through a combination of happy accidents and wily innovations, the original would appear to have been improved upon. What happens when you take something as celebrated as whiskey, filter it through pure limestone, age it in caramelized oak casks, and throw in a touch of Southern magic? A little bit of heaven, art in a barrel: Kentucky Bourbon whiskey.
Whiskey has been the name of the game in Kentucky since the first settlers traversed the Appalachian Mountains and took root on the other side at the end of the eighteenth century. Upon arrival, those who settled in the area that was to become Bourbon County found their soil, climate, and inclination perfectly suited to the cultivation of corn, and not too many seasons had passed before their bumper crops of the grain were generating a surplus to sell. After taking stock of the steep mountain bluffs and narrow trails that stood between them and their market, however, the future Kentuckians determined that lugging solid, perishable foodstuffs to town would be a great deal of trouble. Transporting their crops in liquid form, they decided, would be far simpler.
Even easier still was bypassing the troublesome terrain all together; the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers flowed conveniently towards the bustling market of New Orleans, and the tempting ease of this transport would prove to be a serendipitous first step in developing the unique character of Kentucky Bourbon. Local farmers spent the summer growing and harvesting corn, the fall distilling it into whiskey, and the next few months waiting for the tumultuous waters of the two rivers to settle into springtime navigability. Fortunately, a Kentucky winter lasted just long enough for the sitting spirits to snuggle in, sigh, and pull a little something special from their casks. By the time they reached their destination ports, the barrels stamped “Bourbon County” had matured into a whiskey unlike any other: sweet, smooth, honey-colored, and unique enough to be asked for by name.
Accounts vary on the specific steps that led to Bourbon’s next development, though local legend crowns Elijah Craig—a Baptist minister and penny-pincher of epic proportions—as the first to store his whiskey in barrels that had been charred on the inside. Some accounts claim the penurious preacher was attempting to remove residual flavors from recycled containers, others that he refused to throw away barrels that had been scorched in a barn fire, but whatever his inspiration, the result was absolutely divine: when the aging whiskey seeped beneath the char, it absorbed the flavors of the warm layer of caramelized wood that waited beneath, imparting the sweet smokiness that sets Bourbon apart.
As time went on, Bourbon whiskey continued to grow and evolve. Brand names—a term derived from distillers quite literally branding their names into barrels—ensured the safety and consistency of a product, tiered warehouses allowed far more barrels to be stored and aged with proper circulation, and the arrival of the Louisville-Nashville Railroad and the Louisville-Portland Canal freed traders from their dependence on the whims of local guides and fickle weather. Ironically, even the outlaw of alcohol itself proved more boon than bane for bourbon producers. Though prohibition strictly banned the sale of alcohol, concessions were made for “medicinal whiskey,” and of the six permits issued for its production, five were awarded to bourbon distilleries in Kentucky. Not surprisingly, when 1933 rolled around and laws prohibiting alcohol were repealed, Kentucky was first out of the gate. Within five years of prohibition’s repeal, over seventy-seven whiskey distilleries had opened shop across the state.
Today, with an estimated 4.7 million barrels of whiskey mellowing in warehouses across Kentucky—a number that greatly overshadows the 4.3 million folks who call the state home—barrels of bourbon appear to outnumber people. Historical breweries and newly-crafted, boutique bourbons continue the two-hundred year old legacy of the libation, providing 95% of the world’s Bourbon and tempting droves of tourists to visit, sample, and sip it from the source each year. Bourbon continues to play an indelible role in the economic and cultural identity of not only Kentucky but the nation itself. As a finely crafted, historically tuned, intricately-evolved product, “America’s Official Native Spirit” is one of a kind.