Sunday School: The history of bourbon

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The following is a part of a guest series authored by Lauren Gutshall on discovering new wines and beers.

Bourbon is the quintessential American liquor. Some would argue it is the only truly American spirit.


It’s also a bit misunderstood.

Bourbon is a type of whiskey, produced in the United States and primarily associated with Kentucky. Several years ago, Nate and I did the Kentucky Bourbon Trail and visited several large distilleries. Every single one touted Kentucky’s iron-free water and limestone rock as part of the reason so many bourbons are produced in the commonwealth. Approximately 95 percent of all bourbon is produced there.

Kentucky Bourbon Country from GK Visual on Vimeo.

The origin of bourbon is often debated, but there are several people involved in its evolution. European settlers clearly had a history with distilling, so it’s not surprising that many Scottish settlers were producing bourbon-like whiskey.  Corn was used as the primary ingredient because that is what farmers were growing and harvesting in the region.


Evan Williams is credited as becoming the first commercial distiller when he rolled out his whiskey barrels in 1783. Many credit Elijah Craig, a Baptist minister and distiller, with revolutionizing the creation of bourbon. In 1789, he aged his whiskey in charred oak barrels (now one of the tenets for producing bourbon).

To honor these two men, Heaven Hill distillery produces labels under both the Evan Williams and Elijah Craig names. By the early 19th century, bourbon whiskey was associated with the region known as Old Bourbon, which covered most of Kentucky and parts of Virginia.

In 1964, Congress recognized bourbon whiskey as a “distinctive product of the United States”. Most people know that there are specific rules for calling something a bourbon, and a few people get at least one of the rules wrong: bourbon does not have to be made in Kentucky. It just has to be made in the United States.


Beyond that the rules are straight-forward:

  1. Bourbon has to be made with a grain mash that is at least 51 percent corn. The other grains used in the mash bill are primarily rye, barley, and as is the case with Maker’s Mark, wheat.

  2. Bourbon has to be aged in new charred American oak barrels.

  3. The spirit has to be distilled to no more that 160 proof.

  4. It must be entered into the barrel at 125 proof.

  5. Bourbon must be bottled at 80 proof or more.

To be considered a straight bourbon, it must be aged for at least two years and contain no additives.

One would think that with all of these rules, every bourbon would taste similar, but in reality, bourbons display an amazing variety of flavors. Master distilleries handcraft their bourbons to be unique and special.


Many of the primary flavors associated with bourbon come from the oak. Charred American oak barrels impart bourbon’s rich amber color and caramel, chocolate, vanilla, cedar and molasses flavors. Depending on how long bourbon is aged, the flavor characteristics change. The longer bourbon is in the oak the more complex and smooth the liquor becomes.

Where a barrel is located in a distillery’s barrel house also plays a role in the flavor profile, as does whether the barrels are rotated, and whether the barrels are blended together.

Over the past several years, bourbon has grown in popularity and it has undergone a bit of a renaissance from being a Kentucky farm drink to being a high-end universal libation. There has been an increase in single-barrel and select bourbon products, as well as an increase in craft bourbon distilling.  Both large commercial producers, like Buffalo Trace, and small batch distilleries are experimenting with bourbon variations.

And it’s hard to argue that bourbon’s richness and complexity cannot compete with some of the finest scotches when you have a sip of Pappy Van Winkle, one of the most sought-after and expensive bourbons in the world.

Sara Bozich
Author: Sara Bozich

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