The first written mention of Bourbon is in 1826. There were no regulations on what is Bourbon at that time. In fact, there was only the idea that Bourbon was a corn whiskey made in Kentucky. There was not even a Federal tax on whiskey. It took James C. Crow to create a standard method to make Bourbon in that his Bourbon was so good, everyone wanted to make their whiskey like he made whiskey. Then came the American Civil War. The war brought back the Federal tax and the creation of “Bonded warehouses” where whiskey could age before the taxes were paid.
After the war, there was a huge boom in distilling as people invested in whiskey distilleries as the demand for whiskey grew. This led to many rectifiers taking short cuts in making “Bourbon”. They were adding neutral spirits to the whiskey they were selling and many of them were settling in Kentucky in order to call their whiskey “Kentucky Bourbon”. They were hurting the distillers that were making straight Bourbon by undercutting the price in the retail market and flooding the market with cheap whiskey. In 1897, many of the distillers from Kentucky, led by E.H. Taylor, Jr., went to Washington and advocated for the passage of the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897 passed. This was the first attempt to define what is “straight whiskey”. However, it took the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 to bring about a definition of “straight whiskey”. The next question was “What Is Whiskey” and it took until 1909 to answer the question when President William Howard Taft made a decision that defined “straight whiskey”, “blended whiskey” and “imitation whiskey”. This regulation worked well up to Prohibition.
It is after Prohibition that the government put into writing the regulations we know today, defining Bourbon as a whiskey made from at least 51% corn, distilled at no higher than 160 proof, aged in charred oak containers and barreled no higher than 110 proof, and bottled at least at 80 proof with nothing but pure water added to adjust the proof. This set the standard for all distillers making Bourbon. In 1938, another requirement was added requiring first use charred barrels. It was a jobs bill introduced into Congress by Wilbur Mills of Arkansas, but before Prohibition much of the whiskey was sold directly from the barrel and that meant most Bourbon was aged in new cooperage.
The bonding period had increased over the years for one year when it was introduced in the American Civil War, until eventually it became an eight year bonding period in the 1890s. It remained at eight years until 1958, when the government raised it to twenty years. This was done because of overproduction in the early 1950s due to the fear of another world war starting in Korea. During the previous World Wars the distilleries were not allowed to distill beverage alcohol and had to make high proof alcohol for the war effort. The fear that it was going to happen again caused distilleries to increase production so that they would have Bourbon in the time that they could not make beverage alcohol. The wartime prohibition never happened and distilleries found that they had more whiskey than they could sell before the eight year bonding period ran out, so they prompted the government to increase the bonding period to twenty years.
The last piece of regulation was in 1964 when Bourbon was made a product of the United States. They also raised the barrel entry proof to 125. In 1986, President Reagan led an effort to deregulate the industry. The most notable change to the public was the loss of the green tax stamp on bonded whiskey.
This is a concise history of Bourbon regulations. I hope this makes it clear as to when and why the regulations came about.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller and Wikimedia Commons