From the very start of European settlement in North America, the new arrivals brought their various alcohol making skills with them. The most profitable early colonies were in the Caribbean; where sugar and tobacco were making the merchants back in Glasgow, Liverpool and London very, very rich. One of the key markets for the sugar were the emerging towns and cities in England’s thirteen Colonies, such as Philadelphia and Boston. So, with the colonies awash with sugar it was natural that rum became the principal spirit produced, and the poison of choice. Whiskey, produced from grain, was also being made in the Americas, but on a miniscule scale by comparison; and usually by Scottish or Irish emigrants.
In 1603 James VI of Scotland inherited the English throne, and headed off to London. During his reign he oversaw the ‘plantation’ of tens of thousands of Lowland Scots into the Irish province of Ulster, essentially as an experiment of social restructuring. The Protestant Scots were granted lands, which meant the forcible eviction of the native Catholic Irish population – the root of much of Northern Ireland’s problems today. The incomers, filled with the work ethic of Calvinism transformed the bog and heathland of the province into a rose-garden – a breadbasket of grain production. Whisky making was a big part of the economy, but the divide between those who had and those who had not in Ulster was widening. Due to various economic reasons, droughts and subsidised opportunities in the New World many of these Ulster-Scots sailed across the Atlantic to a new home: perhaps as many as 100,000 in first half of the 18th century alone. There was also a constant flood of migration from Scotland at the same time, which would increase dramatically in the decades following the Battle of Culloden in 1746, and the ravages of the Highland Clearances that came after.
Many of the Scots and Ulster Scots (now generally referred to as Scotch-Irish) settled in the familiar-looking farmland of Pennsylvania or New York, where they raised their crops, which in the main was rye. The traditions and work practices of the old country came with these new arrivals, and whisky making was a mainstay of many of these farming communities. Production was relatively high, but the markets generally local – and although some would get through to the bigger populations along the coast, it was no match for king rum. That was all about to change.
During the American Revolution the Royal Navy blockaded the main ports; which at a stroke all but cut the supply of sugar and molasses, the key ingredient in rum production. Thirsty revolutionaries and loyalists alike turned to a spirit being made inland, and with home-grown raw materials. Whiskey, as it was now spelt, took over from rum as the mainstay liquor of the soon to be United States. It was sought over enough that it became a substitute currency in many regards. Congressional leaders and senior army officials, including George Washington himself, took to making their own whiskey – with which they could either supply the soldiers at a lower cost, or trade to purchase other essentials and provisions.
After the war, the United States of America found itself saddled with significant debt, accrued in the cost of operating a war machine. Washington looked again to the value of whiskey production to help. Congress levied a tax on whiskey making, but this incensed the Scottish/Irish settlers of western Pennsylvania to such a degree that they refused point blank to pay. Being stubborn Celts, they really dug their heels in and wouldn’t budge an inch – even after the government sent in the troops during what became known as the ‘Whiskey Rebellion’. Faced with such an immovable object; and one holding plenty of trump cards,Washington had to offer a deal.
The Governor of Virginia was the great statesman Thomas Jefferson, and at the president’s invitation he devised a re-settlement plan for the pesky Scotch-Irish farmers. In the 1790s Kentucky was a large frontier county in western Virginia, and Jefferson saw this open land as the perfect solution. Clear out the natives and shoehorn in the wild moonshiners. Kentucky is a verdant, fertile corner of the world, and the settlers were offered sixty acres each to carve out as their own, as long as they built a permanent dwelling and planted corn. It was a fair deal, and thousands took the Federal Government’s offer. With the move from rye to corn, whiskey making in the States headed off down a new path.
Back during the revolution the French had been such a help to the Americans, that in the years following the war new settlements and counties that popped up adopted French names. So, as the population of Kentucky County increased, the State split it into several smaller entities: and one of these was called ‘Bourbon County’, named after the French royal family. With a rich soil and fair climate combined with its limestone filtered water, the county was ideal for whiskey making
The distillate is produced as a clear liquid, and like all other spirits in the whisky family it requires time in an oak barrel to mature; and there was plenty of virgin forest to go around. Wood was also a substitute for the peat used back in Scotland and Ireland to heat the grain during malting, and this of course meant that the American stuff would be smoke-free: a further differentiation from many Scotches.
According to a story, which is in all probability untrue the Reverend Elija Craig, a famed whiskey maker, was a bit on the thrifty side – so, instead of using new barrels for each batch he would reuse the ones he already had. In order however, to impart flavour and colour to the spirit he would char the inside of the cask. A process which is today used in the Scotch industry, as virgin oak is too full of tannin for the gentler spirit produced in Scotland’s distilleries, was then revolutionary. It helped with the mellowing of the spirit, especially on the long-haul trips to far away markets like New Orleans. He, coming from the county named this more mature spirit Bourbon. Whether this is true or not is really neither here nor there; the county was producing large quantities of spirit and the name stuck.
By 1810 there was an estimated 2000 distilleries, and then as now the majority were in Kentucky and neighbouring Tennessee– and in the years that followed, as new markets opened up with the ever-westwards advance of the United States and the industrial growth of the eastern cities, Bourbon was the drink of choice across the nation. The 1820s saw one last Scottish input into the process: in the person of Dr James Crow, an immigrant from Inverness. Crow refined the art of adding spent mash – that is an unfermented grain-soup, with yeast still active, into the new batch. This gave the brew a bitter edge, and so was coined the term ‘sour mash’, which is so associated with Bourbon. With this, the evolution from single malt Scotch was complete. Within twenty years the Federal Government officially classified ‘Bourbon Whiskey’, and adopted it as the ‘Native Spirit of America’.
The 18th amendment, enacted into law in 1920 all but destroyed the Bourbon industry. Better known as Prohibition, the amendment forbade the production and selling of alcoholic liquor and beverages throughout the United States for nearly 13 years. It was a crippling blow, and virtually every distillery was closed and broken up (a meagre handful were legally kept open to produce alcohol for medical purposes). The stories of bootleg booze, gangsters like Al Capone and speakeasies are legion and legend; but with the Kentucky distilleries in bits, the drink had to be smuggled in from abroad – and the only producers able to meet the demand were the big Scotch companies. The Whisky Barons, like Johnny Walker and Tommy Dewar had revolutionised the whisky industry with their blended brands, and were distilling on an industrial scale. As virtually the only gig in town, Scotch became the default hard liquor of choice in the States. Prohibition was the greatest market opportunity ever gifted the Scotch industry; and all at the detriment of America’s home grown labels.
Only now is Bourbon recovering from the hammer-blow dealt by the 18th amendment; for less is still produced and sold today than in 1919. Once the restrictions were lifted, people in America had become not only accustomed to Scotch whisky, but loved it. Furthermore, as the law was swept away demand for alcohol went through the roof, and once again Scotch was the only industry big enough to meet that demand. Both Bourbon, which had to rebuild completely, and Irish whiskey were outmuscled to such an extent that they nearly went extinct. Thankfully, in the last twenty to thirty years Bourbon whisky has seen a rebirth – ironically part of this is on the back of the fashionable growth in Scotch malt whisky, which is so individualistic. Americans are now looking to explore their own spirit heritage, and brands: the Bourbon trail, established in 2004, is part of that; new micro-distilleries are popping up all over the place; and old names are being resurrected as once again a fiery phoenix rises from the ashes.