The history of bourbon goes back hundreds of years to a time when American settlers would distill their corn into whiskey and use it as currency to barter, as well as to enjoy it with friends and family.
But whiskey had a different look and taste than it does now, as it was flavored with sugar and fruit to take the edge off the liquor and make it more palatable.
As the American frontier expansion crept westward, the aging and distilling process of whiskey evolved. The discovery that storing the spirit in charred barrels not only changed the color and the flavor of the whiskey, but gave birth to the elixir we now know as America’s native spirit: bourbon.
Who invented bourbon?
A Baptist minister who was jailed at least twice for preaching without a license, the Reverend Elijah Craig was an educator, a road-builder and an entrepreneur who brought many great contributions to Kentucky. He is often given credit as the man who invented bourbon.
There are stories that say the history of bourbon began in Royal Spring near Georgetown, Ky., where Craig established the first fulling mill. There are also stories that tell tales of a barn fire in which the storage barrels were accidentally charred then used for storing his whiskey.
Some accounts say he reused old shipping barrels that once shipped fish and nails, so he charred the inside of the barrels to remove the residue of the previous contents. And that was how the whiskey he stored developed the golden color and profoundly distinct flavor of bourbon.
But his role in history is disputed
The likelihood of any of the Reverend Craig stories being true are slim...and bourbon history probably played out very differently.
James Veach, bourbon historian and author of Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: An American Heritage says the Royal Spring theory is likely inaccurate based on a toast given by Lewis Sanders, a distiller in Frankfort, Ky. He once raised his glass to the many great things that Craig had done, but being the man who invented bourbon was not one of them.
Considering Sanders was a part of that industry and part of bourbon history, himself, it only makes sense that he would have credited Craig for creating bourbon, had he done so.
Likewise, the burning barn theory that often connects Reverend Craig to the history of bourbon is probably false. As Veach points out, if the barrels were charred in a barn fire, it would have been the outside of the barrels that were damaged...not the inside where the whiskey is stored and aged.
And in addressing the likely falsehood of the reused fish and nails barrels, Veach says those barrels would not have been watertight, further dismantling the theory that Craig should be called the man who invented bourbon.
If not Craig, then who?
We may never know for sure who “invented” bourbon, but there is evidence that gives some credit to a pair of brothers who moved to Louisville, Ky., from Cognac, France.
The Tarascon brothers brought with them the knowledge of spirit storage established as far back as the Roman Empire. They knew storing Kentucky whiskey in charred barrels would develop a taste that the immigrants in New Orleans would love. The French, especially, were accustomed to storing other spirits in this way.
The brothers understood the notes and flavors would leach into the whiskey, creating a taste similar to that of cognac and brandy, making it more palatable for their countrymen.
Around 1807, they began shipping Kentucky whiskey aged in charred barrels down the Mississippi to what is now known as Bourbon Street—New Orleans’s entertainment district.
The evidence of this being the key factor in the “invention” of bourbon, however, is scant. While can’t say for sure this is how the history of bourbon played out, we can say that we’re glad it happened.