By Chris Middleton

Laying claim

Who made Bourbon first – Kentucky or England?
Let’s look at a provocative proposition: could Bourbon whisky have been made in England before Kentucky? There is the tantalising proposition that England was producing proto-Bourbons during the 17th century.

Distillation of proto-Bourbon recipes is documented among the 13 American colonies, before settlers traversed the Appalachian Mountains to settle in Kentucky and Tennessee. Pennsylvania’s first spirits writers recommended distilling corn-dominant recipes, mashing two-thirds corn and the rest a balance of rye and malt. They also suggested burning the cask interior to sweeten the wood. Grain distillation in North America reaches back to 1620 when America’s first locally-made ceramic still and an imported glass alembic bubbled with mashes in Jamestown Virginia. The seasonal cycle of converting excess corn and rye into ardent spirits on copper pot stills, even log stills became an annual provisioning habit for many 18th-century farmers and millers.

The premise for England’s claim is the weight of evidence of American colonies, exporting all the ingredients necessary to make Bourbon-style whisky in England. Since the 1650s the imports of corn and ‘English’ grain (wheat, barley, oats) had grown to such as extent that Britain passed the 1666 Corn Law, banning grain not shipped on British vessels from the American colonies.

"It was not until June 1821 the seminal words first appeared in a Kentucy newspaper"

Before the Revolutionary War, in the year 1770, England imported 578,349 bushels of Indian corn, along with wheat, rye and other grains with quantities of this grain destined for distilleries. In Peter Shaw’s 1731 Essay of Distillation in the Hands of the Malt-stiller, he referenced the use of American grain by English distillers, notably Indian corn and Virginia wheat.

By 1743, England distilled 36 million litres of grain spirit, much of which was rectified and compounded into gin. Considerable amounts of this grain came from the American colonies. These grain bills continued to be bought by English and later Scottish distilleries through the first half of the 19th century. Andrew Ure wrote that Scottish distilleries made whisky from ‘wheat, rye, barley and oats, as well as buckwheat, and maize or Indian Corn’.

The protective Corn Law tariffs between 1821 and 1846 limited the quantity of imported American grain used by distilleries. When it came to containers, what casks did they store these proto-Bourbon grain recipes in? American white oak casks of course. Since 1644, one of the major colonial exports to England was American oak staves. Every year, millions of white oak staves gave British traders leverage over the European stave market.

Demand for European oak caused significant deforestation by the 15th century reducing supply. England and Scotland’s ancient woodland had shrunk to 12 per cent of the landscape by 1600, only two per cent remained by 1800. A ban on felling oak trees since 1559 furnished British coopers with a much-needed supply of bountiful new American oak to craft ‘tight’ liquid containers, from beer kegs to spirit hogsheads and puncheons.

Historians agree Bourbon County Kentucky is the likely etymological source for this whisky. However, there’s another possible claimant, the city of New Orleans. After the Spanish restricted Mississippi River trade, about 20 flatboats made the long trip south from Pittsburg to New Orleans during the 1780s. In 1790, trade recommenced with half of the early river trade in whisky originating from western Pennsylvania. By the 1820s increasing volumes of ‘western whiskey’ arrived in New Orleans.

It was not until June 1821, the seminal words ‘Bourbon whiskey’ first appeared in a Bourbon County Kentucky newspaper. By the 1840s, Bourbon whiskey entered the American lexicon. In the late 18th century, Rue de Bourbon, Anglicised to Bourbon Street after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 was the town’s tavern and saloon boulevard, as it remains today. Here they served western whisky shipped downriver from distilleries in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee.

Could the western whisky served at Bourbon Street bars also have its linguistic fingerprint on Bourbon’s first whisky glass?