Conquest of the West: the story of Bourbon

19 November 2020

What could be better in this recent period of American elections, when the topology of the Midwestern states is in everyone’s mind than to discuss about the Bourbon history. Although bourbon can theoretically be produced anywhere in the country, Kentucky is widely regarded as its birthplace. “Good old Kentucky, state of bluegrass, state of tobacco, state of Hemp”, but above all “State of Bourbon”, a market of 3.6 billion dollars, 1.7 million barrels produced per year, and 7.5 million dormant barrels peacefully in their cellars, the bourbon is at its best!

Colonization and Conquest of the West

When the first pioneers settled on the fertile land offered by the Union in the 18th century, they began by planting what would make the reputation of the state: tobacco and hemp. Soon corn will appear, and it takes little to push descendants of Irish-Scottish settlers to distill grain … This community of deeply Protestant farmers, fervent in their offices, attaches great importance to the cultivation of cereals (corn, wheat, barley, rye, etc.), because they see through the production of nourishing bread its religious symbolism. Myth, or marketing? It is said at Bulleit, that the founder of the distillery, the patriarch Augustus Bulleit, offered his family breads produced from blends of different flour : the tastiest will be chosen to become the original recipe for the “mash bill”, the famous mix of cereals at the origin of the style of the house. Elijah Craig, Baptist preacher in Virginia, founded his distillery in Kentucky, Scott County in 1789. He is considered to be the father of bourbon as we know it: a “mash bill” composed mainly of corn, to differentiate itself from the eastern states’ Rye (Pennsylvania and Maryland), and especially aging in heavily toasted oak barrels. The term “Bourbon” appears around 1850, before we speak of “whiskey” quite simply. This refers to the county of Bourbon (whose capital is Paris), this French-sounding term is common in these states of the South and the American Midwest which belonged to France. At the time, Louisiana was a much larger area than the current state, it returned to the Union in 1803 sold by Napoleon who needed a budget to conquer Europe …  

Industrial revolution and legislation

You’d think a landlocked Midwestern state like this would struggle to sell off its stock, but Kentucky was also one of the most successful river trade networks of the day. Indeed, thanks to the nearby Ohio River, it accesses the Mississippi River, which flows from the north to the south of the country, crossing ten states. A river distribution method that is reminiscent on a much smaller scale, of Cognac / Armagnac in France. And that’s how you will find this elixir of the Midwest, from Chicago to the famous “Bourbon Street” of New Orleans.

Growth accelerates for the Bourbon, driven by a rapidly expanding rail network, the “Trans-American line” which connects the east to the west of the country was inaugurated in 1869. It is found in all saloons, and other bars, he chases Apple jack (a cider alcohol) and even the rum of the New Yorkers. A period of growth followed, reaching 3.7 million hectoliters in 1911! In the meantime, the “Taft Decision” of 1909 ruled on mentions and production, in order to shed light on a historically wild market.

Prohibition: the harder they fall

From success, the Bourbon will switch directly to purgatory. On November 16th, 1920, following a powerful push from religious moralist lobbies (and the KKK), the Volstead law was passed and adopted: prohibition of consuming, producing, transporting, selling, and importing alcoholic products. This is Prohibition. The production falls into the hands of the underworld and turned into an adulterated alcohol, produced in a clandestine manner, the famous “moonshine”. This new distribution “network” is also forcing frontiers, passing through Canada or the coasts to bring in foreign production: Canadian Whiskey and Rye, but above all Irish whiskey and Scotch Whisky. These liquors will be sold at a high price in underground bars, which will take the name of “speakeasy”, the best known being the “21 Club” of New York, where even the mayor of the city will go to empty a few glasses. We are right in the “Roaring Twenties”, this is the golden age of Jazz and cocktails. whiskey bourbon In the end, Prohibition is a failure, consumption has certainly decreased, but at what cost. A toxic alcohol is sold illicitly and makes the fortune of the Mafia. Chicago by its geographical position has become the hub of this business, the Genna family and Al Capone wage a bloody war, which will end with the intervention of Eliot Ness and his Untouchables. The amendment was repealed on December 5, 1933, by President Franklin Delano Roosvelt, who saw it as an opportunity to rise new taxes, a pretty good idea from a man who would have to lead his country to the most important conflict in its history …  

Redemption: an american success story

It would take little time for the Bourbon industry to restart production, as in 1935 it was already running at full capacity. However, Prohibition had a double perverse effect on its local market: it has biased the quality of Bourbon (with adulterated alcohols), and introduced the taste of Scotch Whiskey, more refined. What will result in creating a gap between Bourbon and its market, this rupture will last almost thirty years. In the 60s, bourbon had a bad reputation, sometimes alcohol of peckers, sometimes business of thugs … But in 1964, a senator will awaken the consciences by pushing for the recognition of Bourbon whiskey as “America’s Native Spirit”. Before that, despite of the Taft Decision 1909, Bourbon was not guaranteed “made in the USA”, after this date it becomes a national pride
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Consequently, bourbon knows a strong growth and a real recognition: in 2007 the senator Jim Bunning (from Kentucky), declares the month of September as being “National bourbon heritage month”. The development of its industry is astonishing, between 2009 and 2014 production jumped by + 29% (DISCUS), in Kentucky since 2012 there was only 10 distilleries operating, now we have passed 50! Nothing seems to be able to stop this growth, the Bourbon encroaches on an increasingly capricious Scottish market, and surf on the Mixology with great ease. For Bourbon the best is yet to come. More learning experiences with our specialized spirits courses.

Written by a WiSP spirits specialist Hugo Plault

Équipe WiSP

Équipe WiSP


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