Bourbon Facts (for National Bourbon Heritage Month)

America's 'official native spirit' deserves its due recognition

Bourbon is a distinction of whiskey, but not all whiskeys are bourbons. Bourbon is the product of grains, mostly corn, yeast, and water. In order for a whiskey to be considered a proper bourbon, there are a few standards that it must meet.

• Must be produced in the U.S.
• Must be made of a grain mix of at least 51 percent corn
• Must be distilled at less than 160 proof (80 percent ABV)
• Must have no additives (except water to reduce proof, if necessary)
• Must be aged in new, charred white oak barrels
• Must be aged for a minimum of two years (a bourbon must meet this specific requirement if it is to be considered a "Straight Bourbon")

The production of bourbon began in the 1700s with the first settlers in Kentucky. After a lot of time spent transporting crops to market over narrow trails and steep mountains, the settlers learned that converting the corn and grains to whiskey made them easier to transport. It also prevented the excess grain from rotting and gave them a diversion from life on the frontier. The first whiskey distillery in Kentucky was started by Evan Williams in 1783 in Louisville, securing him the title of the first commercial distiller in the state.

The name bourbon comes from Bourbon County, one of Kentucky’s three original counties, established in 1785. Farmers shipped their whiskey in oak barrels from Bourbon County down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans. The long trip aged the whiskey, giving the spirit the distinct amber color and flavor. Whiskey from Bourbon County soon gained popularity and became known as Bourbon whiskey.

In 1964, Congress declared Bourbon a distinctive product of the United States, it often being referred to as "America’s Official Native Spirit."

While Louisville was an important focus of distilling activity through the 19th and early 20th centuries, it is actually Bardstown, Kentucky’s second-oldest city, that is known as "The Bourbon Capital of the World." Bardstown saw its first distillers in the 1770s as people began to migrate there because of the limestone-rich springs and streams, which were ideal conditions for making good bourbon.

The six bourbon distilleries in Kentucky make up what is now known as the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. These distilleries include Woodford Reserve, Four Roses, Heaven Hill, Maker’s Mark, Wild Turkey, and Jim Beam. The Bourbon Trail was formed in 1999 by the Kentucky Distillers Association, serving as an educational way for visitors to see the art, science, and rich history behind bourbon production.

Click here for boubon tasting notes. 

— Sara Kay, The