LEXINGTON, KY - Fairly recently, the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky Special Collections Research Center got “bourbon whiskey” recognized as an official Library of Congress Authorized Heading. That probably won’t mean a lot to you if you don’t work in a library, engage in some sort of historical research, or just really like libraries; when I found this out (I work in a library) I was amazed that it wasn’t one already, especially seeing as bourbon was declared America’s native spirit in 1964.
Since turning twenty-one, I’ve been meaning to make myself into a “whiskey person”, and by “whiskey”, I really mean bourbon. Long after my actual birthday, I finally went to bar and ordered an old-fashioned (because that’s what Don Draper drank on TV). “Which bourbon?” said the bartender, gesturing behind him at a row of bourbons. Having only been given occasional sips from relatives, I was afraid of most of them, and eventually settled on Jim Beam because I liked the nice, simple name. (If you met a man named Jim Beam, you’d sort of automatically trust him—I’m picturing an average height, just past middle age, “friendly redneck” sort of fellow.)
Bourbon is not technically defined as “whiskey made in Kentucky,” despite what literally any Kentuckian (including my relatively bourbon-neutral self) will say when faced with someone from out-of-state holding the federal regulations. It is, however, a very particular kind of whiskey. Among other requirements, such being made from a 51% minimum corn content grain mixture, it cannot have any added colorants—its warm brown color comes entirely from being aged in new charred oak barrels. I grew up hearing of “charred moonshine” and having the bourbon-making process explained to me multiple times, and it absolutely never occurred to me that whiskey could be made any other way.
Furthermore, the etymology of the name is also up for grabs. Kentuckians say the name came from Bourbon County, near Lexington and named after the French royal family. Bourbon County locals began making the whiskey we now call bourbon but bourbon historians such as Michael Veach dispute this, saying instead that the timelines don’t match up. It is also suggested that the name is derived from New Orleans’ infamous Bourbon Street, also named after the French royal family, where Kentucky whiskey was sold as an alternative to cognac, another oak barrel-aged liquor.
Either way, my home state is the birthplace of America’s spirit. Maybe a Kentuckian’s blood consists of cells and platelets suspended in bourbon rather than plasma? I jest, I jest—that’d be what we in the biology world call a lethal mutation.
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