Bourbon and Colonels

Before it was Bourbon

It was called "whiskey" before they called it bourbon. Bourbon whiskey is a type of American whiskey, a barrel-aged distilled spirit made primarily from corn. The name ultimately derives from the French Bourbon dynasty, although the precise inspiration for the whiskey's name is uncertain; contenders include Bourbon County in Kentucky and Bourbon Street in New Orleans, both of which are named after the dynasty. Bourbon has been distilled since the 18th century. The name "Bourbon" was not applied until the 1850s, and the Kentucky etymology was not advanced until the 1870s. Although bourbon may be made anywhere in the United States, it is strongly associated with the American South and with Kentucky in particular.

In 2021 "Old Kentucky Colonel" bourbon will become available again through the Neely Family Distillery in Sanders, Kentucky, they also make the precursor of bourbon which is known as moonshine.

Kentucky Colonel

Role of the Colonels with Bourbon

Colonels are undoubtedly the first distillers, horse breeders and planters in Kentucky, all three of these things were a high priority from 1775-1780, it was during this time that the first distillery was built. Alcohol production was probably the least essential, but alcohol beside being an inebriant was also an important medicine. By the 1880s the Kentucky colonel became known as being bibulous, we see this from many jokes that were created around the colonel and bourbon through the 1920s. In the late 1860s we first heard the quatrain, in Kentucky, "the corn is full of kernels and the colonels full of corn."

Records indicate that distilling in Kentucky started at the Buffalo Trace Distillery in 1775 by Col. Hancock Lee and his brother Willis Lee who died in 1776. In approximately 1789, Rev. Elijah Craig founded a distillery, an enterprise that led to his subsequent dubious reputation as the inventor of bourbon whiskey. Craig has sometimes been claimed to have been the first to age the distillation in charred oak casks, "a process that gives the bourbon its reddish color and unique taste". Craig built his distillery in what was then Fayette County. The location later became part of Woodford County in 1789, and then Scott County in 1792.

The first commercial distillery was constructed in 1812 by Col. Harrison Blanton. In 1870 the distillery was purchased by Col. Edmund H. Taylor and given its first name, the Old Fire Copper (O.F.C.) Distillery. Taylor sold the distillery eight years later to George T. Stagg along with the Old Oscar Pepper Distillery. This second distillery was sold within the year to James Graham, in order to add more land to the O.F.C. Distillery. In 1886, Stagg installed steam heating in the storage warehouses, the first climate controlled warehouse for aging whiskey in the nation.

The Kentucky colonel title is seen in the ongoing historic association between Kentucky and bourbon whiskey production. As of 2013, approximately 95 percent of all bourbon was being produced in Kentucky, and the state had 4.9 million barrels of bourbon in the process of aging. The historic distiller James B. Beam is referred to as "Colonel James B. Beam" for the marketing of the Jim Beam brand (the largest-selling brand of bourbon). The Sazerac Company similarly refers to the distiller Albert Blanton as "Colonel Blanton" for their marketing of the Blanton's brand. In both cases, the "Colonel" title refers to being a Kentucky colonel. A brand of Kentucky bourbon called Kentucky Colonel was produced in the 1980s, and at least two current brands of Kentucky bourbon have the word "Colonel" in their name, the Colonel E. H. Taylor and Colonel Lee bourbon brands.

The History of Bourbon

Distilling was most likely brought to present-day Kentucky in the late 18th century by Scots, Scots-Irish, and other settlers (including English, Irish, Welsh, German, and French) who began to farm the area in earnest. The origin of bourbon as a distinct form of whiskey is not well documented. There are many conflicting legends and claims, some more credible than others.

The invention of bourbon is often attributed to Elijah Craig, a Baptist minister and distiller credited with many Kentucky firsts (e.g., fulling mill, paper mill, ropewalk) who is said to have been the first to age the product in charred oak casks, a process that gives bourbon its reddish color and distinctive taste. Across the county line in Bourbon County, an early distiller named Jacob Spears is credited with being the first to label his product as Bourbon whiskey.

Although still popular and often repeated, the Craig legend is apocryphal. Similarly, the Spears story is a local favorite but is rarely repeated outside the county. There likely was no single "inventor" of bourbon, which developed into its present form in the late 19th century. Essentially, any type of grain can be used to make whiskey, and the practice of aging whiskey and charring the barrels for better flavor had been known in Europe for centuries.

Bourbon bottle from 19th century Kentucky.

Another proposed origin of the name is the association with the geographic area known as Old Bourbon, consisting of the original Bourbon County in Virginia organized in 1785. This region included much of today's Eastern Kentucky, including 34 of the modern counties. It included the current Bourbon County in Kentucky, which became a county when Kentucky separated from Virginia as a new state in 1792.

When American pioneers pushed west of the Allegheny Mountains following the American Revolution, the first counties they founded covered vast regions. One of these original, huge counties was Bourbon, established in 1785 and named after the French royal family. While this vast county was being carved into many smaller ones, early in the 19th century, many people continued to call the region Old Bourbon. Located within Old Bourbon was the principal port on the Ohio River, Maysville, Kentucky, from which whiskey and other products were shipped. "Old Bourbon" was stencilled on the barrels to indicate their port of origin. Old Bourbon whiskey was different because it was the first corn whiskey most people had ever tasted. In time, bourbon became the name for any corn-based whiskey.

Although many distilleries operated in Bourbon County historically, no distilleries operated there between 1919, when Prohibition began in Kentucky, and late 2014, when a small distillery opened – a period of 95 years. Prohibition was devastating to the bourbon industry. With the ratification of the 18th amendment in 1919, all distilleries were forced to stop operating, although a few were granted permits to bottle existing stocks of medicinal whiskey. Later, a few were allowed to resume production when the stocks ran out. Distilleries that were granted permits to produce or bottle medicinal whiskey included Brown-Forman, Frankfort Distillery, James Thompson and Brothers, American Medical Spirits, the Schenley Distillery (modern-day Buffalo Trace Distillery), and the A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery.

Also see: Mint julep