The late Ova Haney, former Master Distiller at Four Roses, was once asked “why is Bourbon made from Corn?” His reply was “Because that is what grows in Kentucky. If Kentucky grew rice it would have been made from rice.” This is a very true statement but people often wonder why “51% corn” is part of the regulations for Bourbon. The fact is that until the 20th century there was no regulation about how Bourbon was made and no corn requirement.
The first written record of “Bourbon” is from a 1821 newspaper. Bourbon is 195 years old and very different from what was being sold in 1821, Bourbon is whiskey aged in charred oak barrels. In 1821 there was no requirement that it had to be made from corn and you can bet that many barrels of rye whiskey was being sold as “Bourbon” in New Orleans in the early 19th century. Rye whiskey was making the trip down river from Pittsburgh the same as corn whiskey from Kentucky. When aged in charred barrels they both look very much alike and it would easy to call all aged whiskey “Bourbon” if it helped sell the barrel. Soon people began to prefer the whiskey that was made in Kentucky and that was made from corn. There are many hand-written recipes for making whiskey from the late 18th and early 19th centuries at the Filson Historical Society and the Kentucky Historical Society. They all have corn in common, a majority of corn, with rye or wheat added as a flavoring grain and malted barley.
James C. Crow perfected his distilling methods at the Old Oscar Pepper distillery in the 1830s and his recipe was a majority corn recipe. His whiskey gained a great reputation and became the whiskey all other whiskey was judged by. Men who learned to distill under Crow learned to make this corn based whiskey and took it to several other distilleries such as the OFC distillery in Frankfort. Corn was the base of Bourbon by tradition by the 1870s.
By the end of the 19th century there were many products in the market calling themselves “Bourbon” that were rectified whiskeys often with little or no aged whiskey in the blend. To make matters worse they often used neutral spirits made from molasses, giving the product a sweetness from the sugar cane that helped hide the fact that there was little or no aged whiskey in the product. The Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897 helped separate straight whiskey from these blends, but it is not until the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 that we see a move to regulate what could be called Bourbon. In his 1909 “Decision on Whisky”, President William Howard Taft states that Bourbon is made from a majority of corn.
After the repeal of prohibition in 1933, the government set down clear regulations about distill spirits and what they were made from. It is here that the regulations were codified and Bourbon was made from at least 51% corn. These rules have been modified over the years but the 51% corn has remained constant. The tradition has always been that Bourbon was made mostly from corn and the regulations reflect that fact.
Photos Courtesy of Maggie Kimberl