Many people have asked me why Kentucky became bourbon country, and the answer includes five specific reasons.
Kentucky was part of Virginia before becoming a state in 1792. Many Scots-Irish settlers spread west to the eastern portion of Kentucky to begin farming in earnest. This migration west also included English, Welsh, and French pioneers who were looking for tillable land and new beginnings. American farmers were growing corn, and it became a crop that prospered in Kentucky. If you were a farmer in the early 1800s and you had a surplus of corn you had a challenge storing and transporting the excess grain.
One way of turning corn into a commodity that could be stored and transported without worry about spoilage was to distill it and make corn liquor. As you can imagine, these early pioneers could use whiskey as medicine and barter with it as a form of currency. Life was hard, and farmers used excess corn grown in the outstanding Kentucky soil to improve their lifestyle.
Water Ideal for Whiskey
To create whiskey, you need a good water source. Because Kentucky rests on a mass of limestone the water has some unique characteristics. It has higher pH levels, very little iron content, with some additional beneficial minerals like calcium and magnesium. Back in the day, early distillers would not have known or cared about mineral content, but they did realize that Kentucky water did not taste bad and because of the low iron did not discolor their whiskey.
Vast Oak Forests
In the early days of distilling, barrels were not used for aging but were considered a valuable container for transporting all types of goods. No one truly knows when barrel charring was discovered to enhance the aging process and bring out flavor profiles. However, the fact that Kentucky was home to great forests of oak was another reason for a distilling industry to thrive and take hold.
If you study barrel aging at all, you will know that seasonal weather changes are critical to the process of creating amazing bourbon. Kentucky has four very distinct seasons, and you realize by the vast rickhouses throughout bourbon country why ninety-five percent of the world’s bourbon is from Kentucky. The temperature swings create the perfect amount of pressure to force the liquor in and out of the wood.
Today distillers go to great lengths to store and propagate specific yeast strains that are vital to the success of their various brands. Pioneer farmers could not buy distillers yeast, so they were at the mercy of allowing environmental yeast to start the fermentation process. Most people do not talk about wild fermentation as much as soil, water, oak, and seasonal weather changes. It remains an important factor in why Kentucky became bourbon country.