How Bourbon Rose From a Humble Grain To Embody American Exceptionalism
BOURBON COUNTY, Ky. -- About 250 years ago, farmers looking for a way to make their surplus corn crop profitable decided to distill it. Today, that leftover grain has become a billion-dollar industry and a symbol of the Bluegrass State's identity, economy and culture.
"How bourbon came about is (what) ... the American spirit looks like: business, independence, freedom, a little bit of luck and a lot of perseverance," said Justin Thompson.
Thompson and his colleague Justin Sloan are the proprietors of The House of Bourbon, the world's largest bourbon store, located on West Main Street in Lexington right across from Mary Todd Lincoln's childhood home.
And right now, business is booming.
Thompson and Sloan started collecting rare and vintage bottles of bourbon 20 years ago, when the drink was out of favor. Then, four years ago, the state passed a law allowing the resale of distilled spirits and the duo opened their store, selling not just their stockpile but the history of the drink itself.
Bourbon is concocted from a strict formula. "By law it has to be made with a minimum of 51% corn, aged in charred new oak barrels and stored at no more than 125 proof and bottled at no less than 80 proof," Thompson said.
But its sweet, rich flavor was actually born out of happenstance. In the early days, the best market for bourbon was on the East Coast, so farmers had to ship their barrels down the Mississippi to Louisiana then around Florida and up the coast. The trip took months but also allowed the whiskey to age beautifully.
"When merchants along the East Coast started marveling about this red whiskey with its unique flavor, that marked the beginning of the bourbon industry," said Thompson.
In 1964, Congress deemed bourbon the nation's native spirit, and there's nothing more American than enjoying a sip of the brown stuff in a classic cocktail like a mint julep or an Old-Fashioned on the Fourth of July weekend.
But it's only in the past 10 years that America's appetite for bourbon has really skyrocketed -- and Kentucky tourism along with it.