The History of American Bourbon: What’s so Special About Kentucky?

Map of Kentucky

Bourbon Whiskey is as American as bald eagles, apple pie, and baseball. The origin of bourbon is still a bit of a mystery; no one knows for sure who invented it. The original recipe was likely the result of a Scotch or Irish whiskey brought over from the UK and altered in the Kentucky region.  

What’s So Special About Kentucky?

When settlers began creating bourbon, Irish and Scottish settlers began by importing malt and barley, but soon realized that making their own recipe was much cheaper. They began using America’s native corn to create the first batches of Kentucky style Bourbon. But they could find corn anywhere. What made Kentucky so special?

First, the limestone water in the area filters iron deposits and adds sweet-tasting calcium and magnesium. As whiskey historian Fred Minnick explains, “To this day you can go to an open stream in Kentucky, and it will taste better than 90 percent of tap water in the country.”

Weather patterns also help create Bourbon characteristics. The changing temperatures of Kentucky bring out caramelized sugars in Bourbon, creating richer flavors. Lastly, the landscape supports Bourbon distilling. The surrounding woods have plenty of oak trees to make the barrels used to age Bourbon and there are more waterways in Kentucky than anywhere else in the country.

Science and Technology Intervenes 

At the beginning of the 19th century, Louisville Kentucky was an American shipping hub. An Irish inventor named Aeneas Coffey invented the Continuous Still, and suddenly, whiskey production was no longer a daily chore. It was quicker, cheaper, and in the center of a transportation hotspot.

Other inventors and innovators helped improve the distilling process as well. Catherine Spears Frye Carpenter is credited with discovering the first recipe for sour mash. A twice-widowed mother of nine children, Catherine raised cattle and distilled whiskey near the Shenandoah Valley. She discovered that adding some of the already fermented mash to activate yeast prevented bacteria and ensured that the ending whiskey isn’t toxic. 

Dr. James Crow was a Scottish chemist and physician who moved to southwest Kentucky in 1823. Dr. Crow used litmus paper testing to discover the pH levels of whiskey distilling. He also tracked factors like alcohol levels and temperature at each step of the process, leading to a more consistent product and accurate distilling process.

Since its beginnings, Bourbon has been changing, improving, and keeping up with the trends of the era. Today, there are more than 2,000 craft distilleries throughout the United States, and many have Kentucky to thank. A perfect storm of innovation, natural resources, and inherited knowledge led to an American tradition that has lasted three centuries.  

To learn more about Bourbon, whiskey, and the art and history of distilling, check out our blog on Thebarrelmill.com.