Humble Beginnings: The Dawn of Bourbon Whiskey
By F. Paul Pacult
Member Bourbon Hall of Fame
Bourbon whiskey is America's official native spirit and, as such, is an elemental part of our unique history. In the last half-century much has been made about who "invented" bourbon whiskey. Some people have, without substantiation, put forward a late eighteenth century Baptist minister who also happened to be a distiller of corn mash. One of the more ridiculous myths even puts forward the name of legendary frontiersman Daniel Boone as the initial bourbon distiller. All claims are patently false.
Here's the reality check on bourbon's pedigree: Nothing in the historical records of the late eighteenth century points to any one Kentuckian as being the undisputed Father of Bourbon Whiskey. About the time that the first grain-based bourbons were being distilled by farmers in the early 1780s, Kentucky was a wilderness that was still a territorial part of Virginia. A mere two hundred settlers inhabited the fertile area influenced by the mighty Ohio River that is now referred to as north-central Kentucky. Except for the Long Hunters, the adventurers who opened up the Kentucky territory by establishing travel routes, all of the other settlers were farmers.
Since Kentucky's environment was particularly conducive to the growing of corn, a sweet grain that did poorly along the eastern seaboard states, recordings from the 1780s indicate that north-central Kentucky harvests were bountiful and reliable. The crop volumes were so large, in fact, that one of the most profitable ways of utilizing the excess corn was to distill it in farm distilleries. The earliest bourbon whiskeys were powerful elixirs that were used as everything from liquid currency to trade commodities to medicines to libations that sealed land deals, affirmed christenings, and toasted marriages. The point is, virtually every agricultural concern in early Kentucky owned a still and virtually every farmer knew what to do with one.
So, who invented bourbon whiskey? Probably at least a hundred late eighteenth century farmer-distillers who all at the same time perceived the raw, clear spirit later to be called "bourbon" as a necessity as much as they did a boost to living. As a whiskey historian and critic, that's the best that I believe anyone can do in response to that query. In the end, I think, "Who cares?" The important thing is that after over two centuries we have bourbon whiskey around to savor life's best and most memorable moments. Not bad.
Next, I'll discuss how to gain maximum pleasure from drinking bourbon whiskey. Until then, bottoms up.