It's a golden era for Kentucky's signature spirit. Bourbon has never been more popular in the U.S. or throughout the world. Bourbon's colorful history is shrouded in mystery, with a lot of tall tales and legends popping up throughout the years.
Michael Veach put bourbon under the microscope and put his skills as an historian to work in his new book, Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: An American Heritage. Veach is the associate curator of special collections at the Filson Historical Society in Louisville.
He spoke to WKU Public Radio's Kevin Willis about how the term "bourbon" first became applied to Kentucky whiskey, where the idea of charring barrels came from, and who we should thank for the current popularity of bourbon:
There are a lot of legends surrounding bourbon that you have to debunk as an historian looking into the origins of Kentucky’s famous whiskey. One of those legends is that bourbon is named after Bourbon County, Kentucky. What did you find out?
“You know, I would love to have been able to prove that bourbon was named after Bourbon County, but the more I looked at it, the more I realized I just couldn’t do that.”
“So, my theory—and it’s just a theory, because I have no concrete proof—is that it’s probably named after Bourbon Street in New Orleans, instead of Bourbon County. The earliest reference I found to Bourbon County being the origin of the name bourbon was in the 1870s. The legend has it that it was named bourbon because there were invoices from Bourbon County on flatboats that were shipping goods out of Maysville, which was called “Limestone” at the time.”
“The problem is, Limestone was only part of Bourbon County for a couple of years, and in those years there was very little trade going on between Kentucky and New Orleans. The Spanish were using that trade as a bargaining chip with the United States and were preventing trade. If you’re familiar with the Kentucky Resolutions—those were resolutions written by Thomas Jefferson saying that Kentucky had the right to secede from the Union if the government did not address its needs.”
“And the need that needed to be addressed was trade with New Orleans. So that’s why I believe that people starting drinking aged whiskey in New Orleans because that’s what Kentucky was sending down there to them. And they were sending this whiskey because they wanted something that people down there would drink. And what people were used to drinking in New Orleans was French brandy—cognac and Armagnac, aged in charred barrels.”
“So someone gets the idea of making their whiskey taste like French brandy, and starts aging it in charred barrels. So, especially after steamboats become popular in the 1820s, people get down to New Orleans and start drinking this whiskey. Then they’re on their way back and they’re telling the bartender on the steamboat, ‘I’d like to drink some more of that whiskey I was drinking on Bourbon Street. Give me some of that Bourbon Street whiskey.’”
“Or eventually, just ‘bourbon whiskey.’”
You mentioned charred barrels, something that is a must for whiskey to be called bourbon. What did your research find in regards to how that came about?
“The earliest reference that I have found to charring barrels was in 1826. And the reference to charring barrels was actually a letter written John Corliss, a distiller in Bourbon County, from a Lexington grocer who says, “I really like your whiskey, and I’ll take another hundred barrels. But I have been told that if you will burn or char the inside of your barrels as little as one-sixteenth of an inch it will much improve the flavor.’”
“So here’s a Lexington grocer telling a Bourbon County distiller how to make bourbon.”
In your book you note that bourbon’s worldwide popularity has never been higher than what we see now. Is there any one person, distiller, company, or event that we have to thank for the continued growth here in the U.S. and overseas of bourbon sales?
“There’s not any one person that you could give credit to, because it’s a lot of things.”
“But to be honest with you, to start with, the credit should go to the scotch industry. In the 1960s, people weren’t drinking whiskey, and that included scotch whiskey.”
“So the scotch distillers decided to get together and release their single malt scotches into the American market. And the way they decided to do this was to play up on the fact that this was a generation that was drank a lot of wine and beer. People were joining wine and beer clubs and had magazines dedicated to drinking wine and doing wine and cheese pairings, and pairing wine with food.”
“So they decided to do the same thing with scotch. So they took their single malt scotches and convinced people they could be enjoyed for their flavor. And when they did that, it started bringing interest back into the ‘brown spirits’ as they call them—the whiskeys, the aged spirits."
Our thanks to Michael Veach for taking the time to speak to us about his new book. Veach told WKU Public Radio that the first printing of his book was nearly sold out, with a second printing planned in the near future.