American Whiskey had its genesis in the late 1700s as Irish and Scots settlers in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia started distilling the native grains to try and replicate an old home comfort. These states were all big grain producers, so there was plenty spare for these pioneers to dabble in the alcoholic arts. Whiskey gradually became as much as a part of American culture as big hats, spiky things that go on the back of boots, and pies made with apples. Just as Scotch whisky and Irish whiskey have their own distinct identities, so American whiskey became an institution in its own right and bourbon, that most uniquely American of all whiskies, is today an instantly and unmistakably recognisable as the peaty malts of Islay.
Whereas 'old world' whiskies are made with predominately barley, the Free World was free to use whichever grains it damn well pleased. At least until laws began to be passed on the subject. American whiskey is largely made with corn, wheat and rye, and regional preferences vary. Kentuckians and Tennesseans fell madly in love with the supple sweetness of corn, whereas northern states, Marylanders and Pennsylvanians, preferred the robust rugged individualism of rye. Kentucky's first commercial distillery was opened by Evan Williams in 1783. So great was its impact, that the locale was dubbed 'Bourbon County' only two years later.
Something as culturally important as American whiskey never stood a chance of evading that ancient enemy of all good things - politics! In 1791, the newly founded American government tried to offset the exorbitant cost of ridding themselves of British rule by levying a tax on whiskey. Unsurprisingly, the fiercely libertarian distillers of the day were not all keen on on such government tyranny. After all taxation was the catalyst for the War of Independence, and the American people looked no more favourably on all American taxes than they had on British ones. This was still a narrow elite trying to profit from the hard work of others, and the distillers were dammed if they were going along with it. Hence they abandoned the newly formed Union in their droves, to go and conduct their business in the libertarian utopia of the Southern States, where pretty much anyone could do pretty well whatever they liked. This is why American whiskey will always be more closely associated with rocking chairs on whitewashed porches, jars of peaches , lazy rivers and lazier southern drawls than with Washington Memorials and Wall Street, towering skyscrapers and pinstripe suits. It will always be more Colonel Sanders, less Ronald McDonald. General Lee, not General Motors.
Finally, the thrill of an etymological post-script. Why is Bourbon thus called? The two main theories seem to be that it was named for the French Bourbon dynasty. Mississippi, Louisiana and New Orleans were all French territories at one point, the latter two reflecting their Frankish foundations in their names. The second is an inversion of what was mentioned earlier, that Bourbon whiskey took its name from its home of Bourbon County, and not the other way around. How then Bourbon County came by its name is another question.
Blog post written by Rob Yeatman Assistant Manager (Slurp Banbury)