A Brief History of Bourbon

Thursday May 16, 2024

In the 1770’s, the state we now know as Kentucky, was being discovered and settled. The Irish and German settlers, with their culture of distilling and hard liquor, found its fertile land and pure water sources, an ideal place to stake their claim in the New World.

It can’t be overstated how important distilling was to the settlers of the New World. Not only was their whiskey used for the only medicines available, it also served as currency being used to barter and trade for much needed supplies. It was a way to turn any left over perishable corn crop into a non-perishable commodity. If the settlers didn’t bring their stills with them, they soon fabricated one from anything they could lay their hands on, so important was distilling and whiskey in the new settlements and smallholdings.

Due to the massive debts accrued from the revolutionary wars, treasury secretary Hamilton, suggested placing a tax on whiskey as a means of settling debts. President George Washington was doubtful, however, after consulting with State Governments, he was persuaded into approving an excise tax in 1791. If the Governments of the day were in favour, the farmers and settlers most certainly were not. Not only was the taxation seen as more oppression, from which many settlers had fled, it was also seen as unfair taxation due to the larger producers paying 0.6 cents per gallon and the small ‘farm distillers’ paying 0.9 cents per gallon. To add insult to injury, the new tax was required to be paid in cash. Since the vast majority of the fledgling economy centred around trading and bartering, this practically rendered the small scale distilling of whiskey impossible.

Tensions finally boiled over in Pennsylvania, when what is known today as ‘The Whiskey Rebellion’ erupted in 1791. Tax collectors were routinely intimidated and assaulted, some even ‘tarred and feathered’ in some incidents. The whole situation became so volatile, that Washington amassed 12,000 soldiers to march on Western Pennsylvania, in an attempt to quell the uprising.

In a bid to ease tensions in the region, Governor Thomas Jefferson, offered the disgruntled rebels sixty acres of land, if they agreed to move South and grow corn in what is now modern day Kentucky (which was still part of Virginia at the time). Jefferson, in an attempt to gain political favour, named the newly settled region ‘Bourbon County’ after the French dynasty of the day. To further his political standing, Jefferson campaigned for the presidency, promising the abolition of the new whiskey tax. In 1803 when he became elected president, he did just that. Consequently, the whiskey began to flow again. Production increased and before long, the new ‘Bourbon County’ whiskey was on riverboats heading down the Mississippi River for the booming port of New Orleans. The trip however, took several months. As the new whiskey was shipped in barrels that had been burned on the inside for sterilisation, by the time the whiskey arrived in New Orleans, it had taken on a golden hue from the charred barrels and was remarkably smoother and tasted noticeably better than the clear corn whiskey of the day. Demand exploded for this new ‘Bourbon whiskey’, the rest as they say, is history……..

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