Barrel-aged bourbon whisky might just be America’s favorite tipple, although this could give rise to spirited arguments among lovers of fine wines and classic beers. It is made primarily from Kentucky corn of which 60% goes into livestock feed. Think about this next time you down a bourbon whisky at a barbeque. You might have something in common with the T-bone sizzling on the grill.

Whisky made Scotland famous – although they make it from malt or rye there – and there’s a good chance a canny Scot was making it behind the Pilgrim Fathers’ backs after they landed in 1620. The first American bourbon was produced in 1789 by – wait for it – Baptist minister Elijah Craig who distilled corn whiskey in charred oak casks that gave it its classic reddish color and unique taste. Talk about a phoenix rising from the ashes of a fire!

Where'd That Corn Go?

Where’d that corn go?
Photo by Nebojsa Mladjenovic

Prophets are not always recognized in their home towns, and that went for the reverend’s Fayette County customers’ too. A fellow across the border in Bourbon County named Jacob Spears shafted the minister by stealing his idea and branding it bourbon whisky. Come to think of it, Fayette whisky might have sounded a little camp in those pioneering days.

Bourbon County’s name harks back to when it was part of the French province of Louisiana. Its county seat is still called Paris, although somewhere along the line it became part of the Lexington-Fayette, Kentucky statistical area. This is totally irrelevant but I thought I’d mention it just in case. Ironically, they don’t make Bourbon whiskey in Bourbon nowadays, any more than Kentucky Chicken is still coming from the colonel’s kitchen.

Elijah Craig soldiered on until he passed away in 1808. Someone wrote down that his preaching was “of the most solemn style; his appearance as of a man who had just come from the dead”. The Kentucky Gazette added, “If virtue consists in being useful to our fellow citizens, perhaps there were few more virtuous men than Mr. Craig,” and I would add especially when it comes to bourbon.

Got a moment?

Got a moment?
Richard George Davis

By contrast, the Royal House of Bourbon was a more riotous collection of kings and queens and upstarts. They kicked off in France, but later muscled into Spain, Naples, Sicily and Parma. One offshoot popped up in the form of Phillip IV of Spain, who for all I know enjoyed his whisky as much as Elijah Craig and the rest of the gang.

Another French connection named Louis XVI had a thing about snookering the British at every opportunity, and supported America during the Revolution. This bought the Bourbons a lot of mileage in the United States. However by the time the reverend came up with his idea the peasants had already started chopping off their heads, so they may have never had a taste of bourbon whiskey that was not named after them anyway.