The bourbon industry has been skyrocketing since the turn of the 21st century. Today, the industry is valued at $9 billion — a 250 percent increase from 1999. And growth doesn’t seem to be slowing anytime soon. The Kentucky bourbon industry is currently undergoing a $5.1 billion capital investment overhaul that seeks to expand the amount of bourbon produced and thus create new jobs and improve tourism experiences.
While bourbon education continues to expand, a plethora of myths continue to be widely believed even by learned connoisseurs. From where the spirit can be produced, to how it is produced, to aging regulations, rumors fly in the bourbon industry. To clear things up, we broke down seven of the most common bourbon myths to unravel their falsities — and uncover the truths within them.
The Myth: Bourbon Can Only Be Made in Kentucky
It’s no myth that bourbon is intrinsically linked with the Bluegrass State. Kentucky is said to be responsible for producing 95 percent of the world’s supply of the spirit, filling nearly 2.5 million barrels of bourbon last year — a record number. While bourbon has an ingrained presence in Kentucky distilling, there is actually no rule mandating that the spirit must be produced or bottled on Kentucky soil. According to the United States Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), bourbon is classified as a whiskey produced within the borders of the United States, distilled from no less than 51 percent corn, barreled with an ABV of no more than 62.5 percent, and aged in charred new oak containers. The TTB makes no mention of where the spirit must be produced in order to be labeled bourbon, meaning any spirit distilled following these guidelines — even if distilled in Idaho, North Dakota, or otherwise — can be labeled as bourbon.
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Despite the lack of location requirement, the Kentucky Distillers Association proudly declares that the state produces the best bourbon, and the distillate’s importance to the Kentucky economy cannot be understated. Each year, the bourbon industry pours approximately $9 billion into the state’s economy and has generated over 22,500 jobs. The industry also brings in $286 million per year in tax revenue that then goes on to benefit both state and local governments.
The Myth: Bourbon Got Its Name From Bourbon County, Ky.
As bourbon is so ingrained in Kentucky’s history and culture, it makes sense that many infer that the spirit got its name from Bourbon County, Ky., which was once a part of a large swath of land known as Old Bourbon. However, according to Michael Veach, Louisville’s unofficial bourbon ambassador, this is not only a myth, but an impossibility. Bourbon has been printed on labels dating back as far as 1850, but the idea that its name comes from Bourbon County didn’t emerge until the 1870s.
Instead of taking its name from Bourbon County, Ky., Veach argues that bourbon is named after Bourbon Street in New Orleans, which got its name from the House of Bourbon, a French dynasty (Louisiana was a French colony until 1800). In the 1800s, two men known as the Tarascon brothers arrived in Louisville from Cognac, France, to begin shipping whiskey down the Ohio River into New Orleans. However, the two brothers realized that if Kentucky distillers aged their whiskey in charred barrels, it would taste more like Cognac, which would attract more popularity among New Orleans’ drinkers — a large swath of whom had French heritage. Veach explains in an interview with Smithsonian Magazine that in the 19th century, “people started asking for ‘that whiskey they sell on Bourbon Street,’” which eventually shortened into people asking for “bourbon whiskey.”
The Myth: Elijah Craig Was the First Bourbon Producer.
Beginning distilling in 1789, Elijah Craig and parent company Heaven Hill Distillery proudly proclaim Elijah Craig as the “Father of Bourbon,” stating that Craig was the first distiller to age his whiskey in charred oak barrels — now a requirement for all bourbon aging. Despite this claim, the true origins of bourbon production are impossible to tie to one individual. In “The History of Kentucky,” published in 1874, authors Lewis and Richard Collins argue that “by 1789, there were other distillers in the area who would have been using indigenous corn and other crops to make whiskey.” The writers argue that these names may be forgotten in bourbon history simply because they lacked the influence Craig had across multiple industries.
Outside of distilling whiskey, Craig was a Baptist minister who preached until his death in 1808. According to the Whiskey Advocate, it could have been Craig’s influence that has made him stand out among bourbon’s founding fathers. Other pioneers include men such as Jacob Spears, who contributed to the building of the first distillery in Bourbon County sometime around 1790, and Daniel Shawan Jr. who, according to “The History of Jackson County, Missouri,” built the first still in Bourbon County. Despite the brand’s claims, it is impossible to trace each bourbon’s origins to Elijah Craig only. Rather, the creation of the spirit should be credited to a group of distillers who all worked to form the spirit, and its industry, into what we recognize today.
The Myth: Old Forester Was the First Bourbon Brand to Be Bottled.
Displayed front and center on each bottle of Old Forester Bourbon is a label reading “The First Bottled Bourbon.” But it is a myth that Old Forester is the first bourbon to ever be packaged in glass. Rather, Old Forester was the first bourbon brand to be exclusively sold in glass bottles.
In the 1800s, manufacturing glass bottles was unreliable and incredibly expensive, so it was regular practice for spirits to be distributed in the barrels they were aged in. Those who wished to acquire some would bring a glass or container of their own and have the distributor fill it for them, fresh from the barrel. While a wonderful and sustainable idea in theory, in practice, this led to a decrease in bourbon’s quality as distributors would top off barrels with water and other coloring agents like kerosene, prune juice, or creosote to save some extra cash. So, to ensure product quality, George Garvin Brown, the founder of Old Forester, declared that each batch of his bourbon would be packaged in sealed glass bottles, making him the first producer to bottle exclusively in glass.
However, the practice had been established on a small scale prior to Garvin. As noted by Veach, the Filson Historical Society owns a scrapbook of labels printed by a Louisville printer in the 1850s with labels reading “Old Bourbon Whiskey.” These labels indicate the existence of bottles for them to be placed on.
The Myth: Bourbon Continues to Age in Bottle.
The rumor that bourbon’s aging process continues once bottled likely originated from the fact that wine does continue to age, even after it has been bottled in glass. However, unlike vino, bourbon’s aging process stops immediately once the spirit is placed in its bottle and sealed. In fact, bourbon has an indefinite shelf life and a bottle will stay good, even if opened, for decades without the flavor of the spirit changing in any meaningful way. There are some folks who still claim that they can detect subtle changes over time, but the American Bourbon Association confirms that no maturation of the spirit occurs once it’s bottled.
The Myth: For Bourbon, Older Is Always Better.
Some of the most sought-after, and thus some of the most expensive, bourbons in the world are also some of the oldest bourbons on the market. Take, for example, Old Rip Van Winkle, which has been aged for 25 years and sells for $45,000 at a minimum. Or the Willett Family Estate Bottled Single-Barrel 21 Year Old, which can retail for up to $9,000. While these are two of the best bourbons on the market, their age does not indicate that old bourbon is always better. As stated by the American Bourbon Association, “As bourbon matures, it absorbs flavor from the charred oak barrels” — and sometimes, this can be overpowering. It cautions that “older-aged bourbons can taste dry, woody, or bitter.” Expanding on this idea is Barrell Bourbon’s founder Joe Beatrice, who explains that over-aging causes the wood flavors to take over whiskey’s distinct notes of grain. He describes the flavor of 30-year-old bourbon as something akin to “boiled sticks.”
The Myth: Bourbon Barrels Are Reused to Age More Bourbon.
One may be inclined to believe that as oak barrels give bourbon its notes of vanilla, oak, and caramel during the aging process, these barrels would be reused to age future batches of the spirit. However, in order to be called bourbon, the whiskey is mandated by the TTB to be aged in new oak barrels. In new oak, bourbon interacts with the highest concentrations of hemicellulose, tannins, lignin, and the toasted wood itself, which provide the distillate with its distinct flavor profile. If the barrels are reused, the spirit cannot be labeled as bourbon, of course, but producers also risk diluted flavors and inconsistency between batches. While the barrels cannot be reused to age bourbon, they don’t get tossed when the spirit is transferred to glass bottles. After the aging process is complete, the barrels are often shipped out to be used for aging wine, beer, or other spirits like Scotch, tequila, and even some gins.