Following on from our Short History of Scotch Whisky, today, we’re taking a look at another country with a rich whiskey heritage… America. The country’s most prominent styles, bourbon and rye whiskey, both have their roots in immigrants from Europe in the 18th and 19th century. Both have had their ups and downs since then but are now more popular than they have ever been and not just in the US; the world is waking up to the quality of American whiskey

Corn growing in Kentucky

Kentucky corn makes good whiskey. Photo from KYgrains

The history of bourbon

In the 1700s, Irish and Scottish immigrants brought distilling knowledge to Kentucky and Tennessee but America’s whiskey pioneers weren’t just from these two countries. Jacob Beam, also known as Jim Beam, was German and started making whiskey in Kentucky in the 1790s. Evan Williams, who gives his name to a bourbon brand now owned by Heaven Hill, was Welsh. 

There wasn’t much barley about but there was a native crop, corn (maize) which early Americans used to make their unique whiskey. Corn grows particularly abundantly in the rich soil of Kentucky and Tennessee so this became the whiskey heartland. Distilling was a great way to preserve crops and because cash was scarce on the frontier whiskey became a valuable commodity. 

Bourbon Street

Bourbon Street in New Orleans where bourbon gets its name (possibly)

Why is it called bourbon?

This basic spirit distilled mainly from corn (with some rye, wheat and barley) evolved into what we know as bourbon. No one quite knows the reason for naming America’s premier spirit after the French royal family. Some people believe it originated in Bourbon County, Kentucky, named after the French who assisted in overthrowing British rule. While others say it originated from Bourbon Street in New Orleans, a major port that shipped whiskey.

In the 19th century, Kentucky and Tennessee had a successful industry making spirits from corn, rye, and wheat. One of the first whiskey makers was Reverend Elijah Craig (1743-1808) whose name is still on whiskey bottles today and it is claimed that he was the first to put spirit in charred barrels – an important part of the unique flavour of bourbon today. 

Most of these ‘whiskeys’, however, would have almost certainly been drunk young with no or minimal wood ageing. But merchants noticed that the spirit improved and mellowed in the American oak transport casks used during the trip to New Orleans on the Ohio river. This led to a preference for a more mature style which started to replace imported spirits like Cognac in early cocktails such as the Old Fashioned and Sazerac.

George Washington

George Washington – loved freedom and rye whiskey

Pennsylvania rye

Whereas Kentucky and Tennessee were corn country, it was rye, a crop brought over from Europe in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, that thrived in Pennsylvania. By the late 1700s, Pennsylvania had become a leading producer of rye whiskey, with the spirit being recognized for its distinctive spicy flavour that was quite different to other American whiskeys.

The Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 was a pivotal moment in the history of Pennsylvania rye. The uprising was sparked by the federal government’s imposition of an excise tax on distilled spirits, which was part of Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton’s plan to centralise economic power, pay off the national debt, and inspire hit musicals centuries later. Ok, the last one we made up. But what really did happen is Western Pennsylvania, a hotbed for rye whiskey production, became the centre of resistance against this tax. The rebellion highlighted the importance of rye whiskey to the region’s economy and culture, as well as the tension between the federal government and rural frontier communities.

Throughout the 19th century, Pennsylvania rye continued to flourish with distilleries like Bombergers (later Michter’s). Philadelphia was a crucial hub for its distribution. The industry benefited hugely from the growth of cocktails. Most of the classic whiskey cocktails in books like 1930 Savoy Cocktail Book by Harry Craddock and the Jerry Thomas’s Bartenders’ Manual would have been made using rye rather than bourbon. Rye was also made in other parts of the US, George Washington’s own distillery at Mount Vernon in Virginia would have made rye whiskey.

Four Roses fermenting

Batches fermenting at Four Roses bourbon

The sour mash process 

In 1834 a Scottish chemist called James Crow invented the sour mash process which is still used today in most American whiskeys. Or it might be better to say, he perfected and explained the process as it was probably something that some distillers were doing before. In the sour mash process, we add a bit of the last ferment to the next one to start it – similar to sourdough bread. This makes the fermentation more acidic, making it difficult for bacteria to survive, reducing the chances of spoilage. The sour mash process meant getting a consistent ferment every time.

Pioneers like E.H. Taylor (founder of the company that would become Buffalo Trace) and James E. Pepper were building names for themselves in the 1860s and 1870s. During the American Civil War (1861-1865) many distilleries thrived supplying the Union army. After the war, distillers used new technology like the Coffey Still to make whiskey faster and better. Fakes were common but bottling helped producers make sure their products were consistent and reliable.

Regulators were starting to oversee the whiskey industry, even though there was no clear definition of what ‘bourbon’ was. In 1897, a law said whisky must be at least four years old to be called ‘bottled in bond.’ To be ‘straight whisky,’ it must be aged, tax-free, and have 100 proof (50% ABV) for two years.

Cutty Sark whisky

During Prohibition Americans developed a taste for light Scotch whiskies like Cutty Sark

Prohibition strikes

Prohibition wiped out this embryonic whiskey superpower when it came into force in January 1920. During Prohibition, six distillers, like Brown-Forman, kept making alcohol by calling it ‘medicinal’ to stay open. Sometimes old bottles of Prohibition bourbon turn up at auction and go for a lot of money. When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, the giant Kentucky and Tennessee distilleries resumed production but the smaller farm-based industry of Pennsylvania didn’t.

There was very little aged stock and furthermore Americans had got a taste for Scotch whisky in the meantime. Whiskey takes time and much of the young spirit rushed to market in the 1930s did no favours to the reputation of domestic whisky. Meanwhile the Canadian and the Scotch industries that had profited so much from Prohibition had warehouses full of aged spirits. US production stopped during the Second World War so well into the ‘40s there was a shortage of good quality American whiskey.

Best whisky at any price - Old Fashioned

Why not try your whiskey in an Old Fashioned?

Bourbon recovers but rye wanes

The authors of old cocktail books from the ‘40s and early ‘50s, like Bernard de Voto’s The Hour lament the lack of good aged American whiskey at the time. It wasn’t easy to get hold of. But as the industry built up stocks, bourbon recovered in ‘50 and ‘60s America as the country itself prospered after the war. This was the Mad Men era of Old Fashioneds and long lunches. 

What is and isn’t bourbon was still very loosely regulated until 4 May 1964 when the United States Congress passed a resolution stating that “Bourbon Whiskey is a Distinctive Product of the United States and is unlike other types of alcoholic beverages, whether foreign or domestic.” It also set out that bourbon had to be made from a minimum of 51% corn and, here’s the really important bit, aged in charred new oak barrels at 125 proof (62.5% ABV) or less. Before that, bourbon might be aged in used casks. What it didn’t specify is exactly how long the liquid had to spend in oak, something we’ll come on to shortly.

But by the ‘70s as younger drinkers turned to wine and vodka, bourbon and its cousin rye whiskey became deeply unfashionable. While bourbon survived, though the market was in decline, rye nearly disappeared. It was difficult to make, rye produces a sticky mashbill which makes equipment hard to clean. The big bourbon brands would make a little rye every year for old timey customers. According to the late great Dave Pickerell: “By 2006, there were only about 150,000 total 9-litre cases of rye whiskey sold in the United States, compared with 14.7 million cases of bourbon.”

Dave Pickerell

It’s the late great Dave Pickerell, one of drivers of the rye revival

The great American whiskey revival

Distilleries closed and the industry consolidated, only to be revived in the late ‘90s and ‘00s as a new generation of drinkers discovered the joys of dark spirits. Today, there are dozens of young brands, some of which even have their own distillery, and the bourbon’s capital, Louisville, Kentucky is a popular tourist destination.

American whiskey’s rather chaotic history means that though many old brands have been revived, there’s usually very little link between the pre-Prohibition distillery and the modern product. Furthermore the proliferation of new names without their own aged whiskey means that it’s not always clear what is made from bought-in stock and what has been distilled by the brand. It’s not really a problem as long as you take most bourbon or rye origin stories, new and old, with a healthy pinch of salt. Trust your taste buds.

Whisky vs whiskey

Not all American whisky is spelt with an ‘e’

What are bourbon and rye today?

As per the 1964 ruling, bourbon must be made from 51% corn (the rest can be rye, wheat, and/or barley) and aged in new charred American oak barrels. There are other rules, the main ones being that it can’t be distilled to more than 160 proof (80% ABV), it can’t go into barrels higher than 125 proof (62.5% ABV), and it must be bottled at a minimum of 80 proof 40% ABV. As long as it has spent any amount of time in new charred oak barrels, which could be as little as months, then it can be classed as bourbon but to be classed as ‘straight bourbon’, it must spend two years ageing. As EU and UK laws state that whiskey must be aged for a minimum of three years, much of what is classed as whiskey in the US can’t be sold as such here. Finally, here’s the big one: as long as you follow the rules, you can make bourbon anywhere in the US, it doesn’t just have to come from Kentucky.

Rye whiskey follows exactly the same regulations but it must be made from a minimum of 51% rye. Distillers tend to use enzymes to release fermentable sugars from starch, something that is not allowed in Scotland. Column stills are ubiquitous but there are some mavericks like Woodford Reserve that use pot stills.

Finally, a word on spelling. In the US, whiskey is typically spelled with an ‘e’. However, some producers, such as Maker’s Mark and Balcones in Kentucky, spell it ‘whisky’. This is just a variation in spelling, so there’s no need to worry. 

Right, that was a bit of an epic, wasn’t it? Probably time for a drink. Mine’s a Manhattan made with Michter’s US*1 Straight Rye.