The History of Bourbon Whiskey

The first settlers (15th and 16th century)

Back in the day, Native Americans, knew neither fermented plant juices nor distilled spirits. The only alcoholic foods were probably fermented fruit. The distillation of alcoholic liquids only came to the New World along with the immigrants from Europe.

After the English settlers, it was mainly the Scots and Irish who did not want to do without the Whisk(e)y they were used to from their old home in their new homeland. Since the American continent was first settled in Central America and the Caribbean, rum was the predominant spirit in North America. Famous families such as the Roosevelts (two members of whom were US Presidents) based their wealth on the distillation of imported molasses at the beginning of the 17th century.

The dominance of rum came to an end when more and more Northern European immigrants came to North America, who did not want to give up their favourite food and drink. North America was settled from the east coast with its large immigration destinations Boston, New York (formerly New Amsterdam) and Philadelphia. Since rye and wheat thrived on the soil, there was soon a surplus of grain, which farmers made more durable and easier to transport with the help of distillation. With this refinement of the grain, farmers could earn a nice extra income to their otherwise meagre existence. The first rural distilleries were thus established in the states of Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

But until the time came, farmers had to work hard to find the right ingredients for the production of Whisky. The barley required for fermentation grew very sparsely on the soils and did not bring good harvests. Corn had already been cultivated to a great extent by Native Americans and therefore promised better results. Very soon people found that corn could be easily mixed with barley, rye and wheat. There was no peat to fuel the fires for drying malted barley. But there were enough forests to cover the demand for heating. Unfortunately one had to do without the peaty taste in the Whisky. American Whiskeymakers tried to compensate for the lack of peat by the addition of hops, the use of rye and the charring of casks. And in the unspoilt wilderness of the new continent they found plenty of clean water which was iron-free and low in minerals.

The transition from rural distilleries to pure Whisky distilleries took place in the late 18th century. By 1850, there were over 3,000 registered stills in Pennsylvania alone.

The Revolutionary War (April 19, 1775 - September 3, 1783)

Following the Revolutionary War against England, the young American nation needed an additional state income to pay its debts. So George Washington, the first President of the United States of America, levied the first taxes on alcoholic distillates in 1791. George Washington knew very well the possibilities that this tax offered, since he himself ran a distillery.

For the large distilleries in the East, these taxes did not pose a major problem. The taxes were based on the capacity of the stills, not on the amount of Whisky produced. The six cents per gallon that distilleries with large stills had to pay was therefore a trivial matter compared to the nine cents per gallon for the farmers with small stills. The large distilleries in the East did not have high shipping and production costs and were able to increase their production.

For small agricultural distilleries the situation was different: distillation was not just a nice side dish for the farmers - because of their geographical position, isolated from the east by the Allegheny Mountains, they had great difficulty getting their grain to market. It was a much more economical solution to distil the grain and sell it as Whisky. So, farmers in Western Pennsylvania felt the new tax system was unfair and refused to pay. The situation came to a head, when in 1794 people started the so-called 'Whiskey Rebellion'.

The origin of Bourbon

American Whiskey was given the name Bourbon indirectly with French help in the young nation's war of liberation against the English crown. After the victory over the English troops, a county in the border area between today's Indiana and Kentucky was named Bourbon in honour of the French royal family out of gratitude (Bourbons - French Royal Family 1579-1792). First, the region of origin of the Whiskey was noted on casks with the Bourbon logo. The addition of the name Bourbon became more and more common for Whiskey from the entire region, as Whiskey from Bourbon County soon became famous for its good quality. The Bourbon County was divided and shifted several times in the following centuries. However, even today there is still a county east of Lexington, which is called Bourbon. Unfortunately there is no distillery left in the entire county. It was not until 1964 that the American Congress passed a resolution clarifying the conditions under which an American Whiskey may be called Bourbon.

The origin of today's distilleries

Each of the distilleries still in existence today is associated with the famous names of the American Whiskey pioneers and their dynasties. Be it the first great scientist Dr. Crow from the Old Pepper Distillery (today Labrot & Graham) or the Beams, who are now in the 7th generation and personally take care of their Whiskey. Around 1850, mainly Pot Stills were in use, which could produce 100 to 10,000 litres of alcohol in single distillation processes. Only the introduction of continuous column stills allowed the production of Whiskey in larger quantities by individual distilleries. This paved the way for the optimisation of the Whiskey production, until it reached its current high level around 1900.

First World War (1914 - 1918)

Many distilleries were forced to switch their production to gunpowder instead of Whiskey. Thus, Whiskey was becoming increasingly scarce.

The Prohibition and Prohibition Whiskey (1919 - 1933)

Prohibition Poster
Prohibition Poster

Again it was politics that made life difficult for American Whiskey connoisseurs. In the beginning of the 20th century, the large ethnic group of Puritans managed to dry up America in the truest sense of the word. Initially, in 1917, the production and possession of alcoholic beverages was only banned for the duration of the war. After the end of the war, some states stuck to this rule (e.g. Tennessee). These states were also called the 'dry states'. In 1919, the time had come for the entire United States: The Prohibition forbade all consumption of alcohol. Even beer was prohibited. The Volstead Act became the 18th Amendment to the Constitution in 1920.

From today's and Central European point of view, one cannot understand this aspiration of one single group of people in a country. All supplies of Whiskey were destroyed. The facilities of all distilleries were expanded and used for other purposes. Famous distillery families like the Beams had to earn their living with a laboriously built bus factory. Other distilleries, such as Early Times, managed to maintain at least an emergency operation, during which alcohol was produced for medical purposes.

This so-called 'Prohibition Whiskey' was only available by prescription if ordered by a doctor. The necessary diagnosis to enjoy this medicinal Whiskey was, for example, high blood pressure, pneumonia, digestive problems or tuberculosis. In terms of production and flavour, these Whiskeys did not differ from those produced before Prohibition. However, all Prohibition Whiskeys were the same in the following respects: 50% ABV and bottled in bond in a Government stamped bottle.

While prohibition was devastating for the American distilleries, it allowed other Whisky producers (Canada, Scotland) to massively expand their production. Smuggling at the great American border flourished. In the north, the Canadians supplied the USA with Rye Whisky. In the East, it was mainly the Dutch who took care of illegal import. Ships from the Caribbean states landed in Florida and on the American south coast. At that time, Prohibition was just as unable to prevent the consumption of alcoholic beverages as America nowadays is unable to stop the import of drugs in the long term. The sheer size of the border made this venture pure utopia.

In 1933, America took the consequence and repealed the failed Prohibition Act with the 21st Amendment to the Constitution.

Second World War (1933 – 1945)

The Second World War brought more and more Bourbon to Europe. The US Armed Forces were an integral part of everyday life in Europe. And American GIs sold Bourbon to Germans to gain extra income.

This is where the history of American Whiskey ends for the moment. After some ups and downs in the history after the Second World War, Bourbon has conquered a special place in the hearts of connoisseurs. The dismantling of artificial trade barriers and the increasing globalization have also enabled German merchants to increase its offer of American Whiskey to over 100 different bottles for you. Although uninterrupted so far, a current trend away from mass products like Jim Beam or Jack Daniel's can be seen. Small Batch and Single Barrel Bourbons are increasingly found on our shelves.