Power  /  Journal Article

Bourbon Country

Examining the ingredients—time, grain, government regulations—that have made bourbon an enduring national favorite.

On May 4, 1964, the United States Congress resolved that bourbon is a distinctly “national” product. Unsurprisingly, it was pair of politicians from the land of Maker’s Mark—Kentucky’s Senator Thruston Morton and Representative John Watts—who introduced this resolution; it called for a prohibition on the importation of anything designated as “Bourbon whiskey.” It was not the first time nor the last that arguments over bourbon’s ingredients and provenance entered the public fray.

Indeed, such debates began centuries earlier, before the American Revolution in the region that would become New England. In the seventeenth century, colonists there tried to distill everything from berries to pumpkins to corn. They also experimented with making rum, using molasses exported from the Caribbean, a pipeline that dried up after the Revolution effectively ending rum distillation in the North American colonies.

Distilling whiskey, as the colonists learned, is uncomplicated; there are but three ingredients: grain, water, and yeast. It is time, however, that fourth “metaphysical ingredient” that “completely changes whiskey’s taste,” observes journalist Clay Risen in Bourbon: The Story of Kentucky Whiskey. In American whiskey, the “mash bill” is the recipe each distiller uses as the basis of their brew—the percentages of corn, rye, wheat, or barley. After it is mixed with water and yeast (which produces the alcohol), it is run through a still. At this point, the liquid is a clear liquor and is not yet considered whiskey. Poured into barrels, this liquor then is left to age and mix with both oxygen and chemicals in the wood, turning what was clear into a drink the color of gold.

From the very start of U.S. history, whiskey played a key role in shaping American consumption habits and its political and legal culture. The end of the eighteenth century saw the settlement of a large number of Scots-Irish immigrants in Maryland and Pennsylvania. According to writer Seán S. McKeithan, these newcomers brought with them “the strongly held opinion that whiskey, not bread, was the staff of life, the equipment for distilling, and an expert knowledge of the distiller’s art.” Rye was a central crop for them—while corn “grew like wildfire in Kentucky.” Farmers around the country found it easy to distill, ship, and earn profits from whiskey made from surplus crops, and records from colonial legislatures nationwide reveal how pervasive such distilling was, contradicting the claims of Kentuckians that their own Elijah Craig was America’s first real “bourbon” distiller. Moreover, strong evidence identifies colonial Virginia—where corn was the primary crop—as its birthplace.