This Day in History — May 4

On May 4, 1964, Bourbon whiskey was recognized as a distinctly American product by the U.S. Congress. The invention of bourbon is often attributed to a pioneering Baptist minister and entrepreneur named Elijah Craig, but an early distiller named Jacob Spears is credited with being the first to label his product “Bourbon whiskey. There likely was no single “inventor” of bourbon, which developed into its present form only in the late 19th century.

Distilling probably arrived in what would later become known as Kentucky when Scottish, Irish, English, and German settlers began to farm the area in earnest in the late 18th century. The spirit they made evolved and gained a name in the early 19th century. It is named for Bourbon County, Kentucky, which itself is named for the House of Bourbon from French history. Corn was a native crop growing abundantly in Kentucky. Farmers on the frontier soon began distilling their surplus corn, producing a new kind of whiskey and during the 1800s, whiskey produced in Central Kentucky came to be known as Bourbon whiskey.

The Federal Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits (27 CFR 5) state that bourbon must meet these requirements:
• Bourbon must be made of a grain mixture that is at least 51% corn.
• Bourbon must be distilled to no more than 160 (U.S.) proof (80% alcohol by volume).
• Bourbon must be aged in new, charred oak barrels.
• Bourbon may not be introduced to the barrel at higher than 125 proof (62.5% alcohol by volume).
• Bourbon which meets the above requirements and has been aged for a minimum of two years, may (but is not required to) be called Straight Bourbon.
• Bourbon aged for a period less than four years must be labeled with the duration of its aging.
• If an age is stated on the label, it must be the age of the youngest whiskey in the bottle.

Bardstown, Kentucky, is called the Bourbon Capital of the World and is home to the annual Bourbon Festival in September. Visitors to Kentucky can experience the rich history and proud tradition of America’s native spirit by visiting eight well-known distilleries: Buffalo Trace (Frankfort), Four Roses (Lawrenceburg), Heaven Hill (Bardstown), Jim Beam (Clermont), Maker’s Mark (Loretto), Tom Moore (Bardstown, added to the trail on August 27, 2008), Wild Turkey (Lawrenceburg), and Woodford Reserve (Versailles). Buffalo Trace distillery was one of the only distilleries in the country with permission to continue operations during Prohibition.

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