Today marks the start of Bourbon Heritage Month. Celebrated each September, Bourbon Heritage Month highlights this authentic American spirit from the South.
Bourbon didn’t start out as the American spirit. Before the revolution, rum from Britain’s trade in molasses dominated our drinking. However, starting with the Boston Tea Party in 1773 and continuing through the revolution, Americans left rum for an American spirit – and that was whiskey made from rye.
Rye was the most planted grain in the American colonies, especially in Pennsylvania. This led to the Pennsylvania, or Monongahela, style of rye whiskey (no corn). Farther south in Maryland where some corn was grown, they developed the Maryland style of high rye with some corn. This sweeter, Maryland style was the mash bill George Washington used for his whiskey production.
In 1791, congress passed the whiskey tax – a levy on distilled grain spirits – to help pay off the debt from the revolution. The whiskey task took a toll on production, especially in Pennsylvania. However, Kentucky was exempt from the tax. A number of distillers pulled up stakes and moved to Kentucky. Here, corn was cheap and plentiful. Kentucky Bourbon was born.
Still, rye whiskey remained the preferred style in the United States until prohibition. When prohibition ended, foreign whiskey flooded our markets. Because domestic producers didn’t have any aged store of whiskey available, the only way to compete was in cost of production. Corn-based bourbon whiskey could be made much cheaper than rye – and now you know how bourbon became the national drink. Today, Bourbon outsells rye whiskey by ten to one, although small-batch rye is starting to make a comeback.
An American whiskey can be labeled bourbon as long as the mash bill contains at least 51% corn and the distillate is aged in new, charred American oak barrels. Some distillers use the minimum corn and bring up the complexity with barley, wheat, or rye. Other distillers emphasize the sweetness of corn.
There are quite a few high-quality offerings available right now, each with a different mash bill or aging program. This is a good month to explore the world of bourbon whiskey and discover why bourbon remains America’s spirit.