Article by Fred Minnick
Bourbon’s roots run deeper than the charred barrels and corn that make it unique. It’s truly an iconic American product that’s had some help along the way. These four big moments in history helped shape what you drink today.
4. The Louisiana Purchase
Still in its infancy, the USA became a trade force to be reckoned with when President Thomas Jefferson completed the Louisiana Purchase, a land deal between the US and France. For $15 million, the US acquired some 827,000 square miles of land west of the Mississippi.
But Jefferson really wanted this deal to acquire New Orleans, saying, “There is on the globe one single spot, the possessor of which is our natural and habitual enemy. It is New Orleans.”
New Orleans was a lot like it is today: People loved to drink there. And with the Louisiana Purchase, distillers could trade freely in a major port of the New World. New Orleans would become a major hub for Kentucky bourbon.
3. The Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897
Throughout the 1800s, so-called rectifiers added materials such as prune juice to barrels of whiskey to enhance its color. Distillers, doctors, and druggists were concerned with the quality of the whiskey. The doctors, who prescribed a lot of whiskey, wanted to trust that they were giving patients unadulterated spirit, while distillers wanted to protect their quality interests.
Despite opposition from blenders, Congress passed and President Grover Cleveland signed the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897, which is still on the books today, guaranteeing consumers that “bottled-in-bond” spirit was at least 4 years old, 100 proof, and distilled at one distillery in one distilling season, with notations on the labels that indicated when it was distilled and bottled. While the law has been amended over the years, bottled-in-bond still is largely the same.
2. The Taft Decision
When President William Howard Taft took office in 1909, there was mass confusion as to what whiskey was. The Pure Food & Drug Act had placed some limitations on medicinal marketing and given consumers an added layer of protection, but it really didn’t define whiskey types. So many distillers were adding food coloring to distilled molasses and calling it bourbon. In what became known as the Taft Decision, the president gave whiskey its first federal definitions. In his lengthy writings, he specifically called out the quality, noting:
“Some time during the Civil War it was discovered that if raw whiskey as it came from the still, unrectified and without distillation, and thus containing one-half to one-sixth of 1 percent of fusel oil, was kept in oak barrels, the inside of the staves of which were charred, the tannic acid of the charred oak which found its way from the wood into the distilled spirits would color the raw white whiskey to the conventional color of American whiskey, and after some years would eliminate altogether the raw taste and the bad odor given the liquor by the fusel oil and would leave a smooth, delicate aroma, making the whiskey exceedingly palatable without the use of any additional flavoring or coloring. The whiskey thus made by one distillation and by the aging in charred oak barrels came to be known as “straight whiskey,” and to those who were good judges came to be regarded as the best and purest whiskey…”
For this decision, Taft is in the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame.
1. Congressional Declaration
After World War II, bourbon distillers struggled to export their products, having to deal with high tariffs. When they approached foreign governments about the seemingly unfair advantages they were giving Scotch, international tradespeople told distillers that there was nothing that made bourbon unique to America.
So distillers banded together to pursue an unprecedented feat in American history. For nearly a decade, distillers worked with Congress behind the scenes—no doubt in lobby bars around Washington, D.C.—to make bourbon a unique product of the United States. One Congressman tried to block it, but he was unsuccessful.
In 1964, bourbon became a unique product of the United States, giving it the same geographical protection as Champagne, Scotch, and Cognac. It remains the US’s only geographically protected beverage.
For more on bourbon history, check out Fred’s book, Bourbon: The Rise, Fall & Rebirth of An American Whiskey.