Master Distiller Gary Gayheart taste-testing bourbon at Buffalo Trace, formerly Ancient Age Distillery, Frankfort, KY, 1989. Photo: Bob Gates, Kentucky Folklife Program
Kentucky's Bourbon Tradition
Bourbon production is one of the bluegrass
state's most important and enduring legacies, reaching back to
early settlers. Ninety-eight percent of all bourbon is made in
Kentucky, according to the Kentucky Distillers
Though historians cannot pinpoint exactly when and by
whom bourbon was invented, most agree that settlers to Kentucky at
the end of the 18th century brought their whiskey-making knowledge
with them. Because corn grows better in Kentucky than rye or wheat,
distillers substituted corn for those grains found in traditional
whiskey recipes. Folklorist Gerald Alvey estimates that by 1812 at
least 2,000 stills dotted the bluegrass landscape, and one in five
farmers produced some type of "corn whiskey" to supplement their
Whiskey served a variety of purposes in antebellum
Kentucky. It was used to treat medical conditions, such as snake
bites, fever, and teething. Used-up mash proved to be a valuable
nutritional supplement for livestock. Because of whiskey's
portability and long shelf live, it also functioned as currency. By
the 1840s the term "bourbon" had come into common usage. Around the
same time, Kentucky distillers discovered that storing "corn"
whiskey in charred white oak barrels imbued the spirits with a
unique color and flavor; white corn whiskey turned a rich brown and
picked up a smoky oak flavor.
Because of the Civil War and later during
prohibition, the production of bourbon and all spirits suffered. By
the 1950s, the bourbon industry rebounded, then lagged because of
the popularity of scotch, gin and vodka. In recent years,
Kentucky's distinct whiskey has enjoyed a renaissance as
contemporary distillers, including Buffalo Trace, Wild Turkey, and
Labrot and Graham, have focused on the production of premium
bourbons intended for connoisseurs rather than the mass market.
Bourbon has had a flavorful role in Kentucky culture.
The mint julep, made from mint, sugar, water and bourbon, is
perhaps best known as the unofficial drink of the Kentucky Derby.
For most Kentuckians, julep making is a folk ceremony, a heritage
of the Old South, and is best performed by a Kentuckian. Bourbon is
also a key ingredient in many regional culinary traditions, such as
the "bourbon ball" chocolate confection, and bread pudding with
Documentation comprises a six-page report and 24
Originally submitted by: Ernie Fletcher, Representative (6th District).
The Local Legacies project provides a "snapshot" of American Culture as it was expressed in spring of 2000. Consequently, it is not being updated with new or revised information with the exception of "Related Website" links.