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Community Roots: Selections from the Local Legacies Project
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Master Distiller Gary Gayheart taste-tests bourbon at Ancient Age Distillery, 1989
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 Association.

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 incomes.

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 bourbon sauce.

Documentation comprises a six-page report and 24 photographs.

Originally submitted by: Ernie Fletcher, Representative (6th District).

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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.

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