The Basics History & Trends

Behind the Bar: Bourbon

Bourbon Old Fashioned / Tim Nusog

September is, of course, National Bourbon Heritage Month and a good time to remember how the alcohol became so popular in the United States and around the world. For the answer, we have to go back to the beginning of the country’s history.

Rye whiskey, made by Scottish and Irish immigrants, was actually our forefathers’ original favorite. Those early distillers found Puritan colonial New England life to be uncomfortable and settled further west, in the frontier territory of Pennsylvania.

During the Revolutionary War, rye was sought-after by General George Washington to fortify his troops when the British blockade made molasses—the base of American rum—impossible to obtain. (While rum was invented in the Caribbean, the New England colonies were famous for their rum production. In fact, rum produced in the colonies was a highly profitable commodity that helped to fuel the Atlantic slave trade. Read Wayne Curtis’ story for more details.) As a result, rye ended up the liquor of choice in the new republic.

So why isn’t it National Rye Heritage Month? Well, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton’s unpopular post-war excise tax on spirits drove many distillers even further west, to places like Bourbon County, Kentucky, land perfect for growing corn. The grain quickly became the base of their whiskey, which was not only more shelf-stable than corn itself but also quite a bit more profitable.

Thanks to advances in shipping, bourbon was widely available in big cities in the Northeast in the latter half of the 19th century. The combination of a sweeter corn mash and a long trip to market in oak barrels created a mellow and easy-drinking liquor.

Cocktail culture was well-established by that time, and bartenders used bourbon and Irish whiskey for tipples including the Manhattan and Old Fashioned instead of rougher and spicier rye.

While there has been a recent resurgence in the popularity of rye whiskey neat and in classic elixirs, I would urge you to have a Manhattan made with bourbon and see why I like featuring our national spirit. Cheers!