“I’m for anything that gets you through the night — be it prayer, tranquilizers, or a bottle of Jack Daniel’s.” – Frank Sinatra
American whiskey is the by-product of years of European migration into the Americas, rebel ingenuity, and our ugly “Manifest Destiny” era. The winding story of the nation’s favorite spirit has a place amongst the big moments in the very history of this nation. Rye whiskey and Bourbon were created out of a necessity of place and time. Eventually, they became the backbone of the Federal government’s western expansion, and helped fuel a movement that would lead to Prohibition.
This is that story.
During British colonial expansion, rum was king. Plantations in the Caribean processed sugar cane into molasses. In turn, that molasses made its way to the American colonies along the Atlantic coast where early British-American distilleries processed it into rum. Rum was so popular that Rhode Island alone was receiving 1,000,000 gallons of molasses from El Carib yearly by 1770.
There was another spirit starting to make a mark at this time, largely thanks to a Scottish preacher in Virginia. Even in these early days, there was a large contingent of European migrants fighting the evils of alcohol via Puritanical laws. The proponents of spirits recruited Elijah Craig to be their champion and maintain the ancient link between church and spirits in the New World.
Craig ran his own stills in Fayette County, Virginia at the time, and is often credited with the invention of bourbon whiskey. Let’s not fool ourselves here. There were undoubtedly other stills behind plenty of farms and churches that were likely also distilling grain spirits, but given Craig’s involvement in popularizing American style whiskeys with corn and rye as primary ingredients in the mash bill, he tends to get the bulk of the credit for ‘inventing’ the style. As with all of American history, the myth always trumps the fact.
Craig’s distillery in Georgetown, Virginia (now located at Heaven Hills in Kentucky), did have one big advantage: He was — again, allegedly — the first to age his whiskey in new charred American oak casks which is what makes bourbon bourbon. Ironically, Bourbon County, Kentucky, has little to nothing to do with the invention of bourbon. Basically, bourbon was made in the western reaches of the American colonies with a distinct corn-fueled mash bill. At the same time, rye mash was being used to make the very popular rye whiskey in the eastern reaches of the American colonies and Canada. Craig’s slave-labor-fuelled lands would eventually become Kentucky in 1792. But if we’re using Craig’s distillery as the inception of the bourbon … well, that means it was invented in Virginia technically. All of that being said, by the time the American Revolution rolled around American style whiskey was being distilled all over the American colonies in one respect or another, mostly in unofficial home stills.