How Kentucky Became the World’s Bourbon Capital

There’s no law mandating that bourbon must be produced in Kentucky, although it might seem that way given the state’s dominance in distilling the distinctive corn-based, barrel-aged whiskey.

According to the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, the Bluegrass State produces and ages approximately 95 percent of the world’s bourbon whiskey.

The bourbon industry in Kentucky flourishes, in part, due to the fact that the state sits atop vast deposits of blue limestone, which filters out hard iron and imparts sweet-tasting calcium and magnesium. Pictured above the Kentucky River as seen from the Wild Turkey visitor center. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The bourbon industry in Kentucky flourishes, in part, due to the fact that the state sits atop vast deposits of blue limestone, which filters out hard iron and imparts sweet-tasting calcium and magnesium. Pictured above the Kentucky River as seen from the Wild Turkey visitor center. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

So is there something in Kentucky’s water that has caused the bourbon industry to flourish? In fact, there is. The state sits atop vast deposits of blue limestone, which filters out hard iron and imparts sweet-tasting calcium and magnesium.

“To this day you can go to an open stream in Kentucky, and it will taste better than 90 percent of tap water in the country because the limestone filters out unwanted minerals,” says whiskey historian Fred Minnick.

Kentucky’s wide temperature swings—from chilly winters to hot summers—are also conducive to producing bourbon because they cause the charred oak barrels, which give the spirit its amber color and distinctive taste, to alternately absorb and release the whiskey.

Tours range from 45 minutes to an hour, depending on distillery, and are followed by the breathlessly awaited tastings. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tours range from 45 minutes to an hour, depending on distillery, and are followed by the breathlessly awaited tastings. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“We have the ideal climate to age bourbon probably,” says Wild Turkey master distiller Jimmy Russell, a member of the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame who grew up less than five miles from the distillery where he has worked since 1954.

“You need the hot summers and cold winters so that the wood can breathe and the whiskey can move in and out of it.”

Another factor that makes Kentucky fertile ground for bourbon production is literally its fertile ground. The influx of settlers who crossed the Appalachian Mountains in the late 1700s soon learned the Kentucky soil was perfect for growing bourbon’s second main ingredient—corn. Drawn in part by Virginia’s 1776 Corn Patch and Cabin Rights Act, which offered 400 acres to any settlers who built cabins and planted corn in its then-territory of Kentucky, immigrants from Germany, Scotland, and the north of Ireland were among those who arrived with the whiskey-distilling knowledge from their homelands in tow.

After the mash has been cooled down to approximately 77° to 86°F, it is put into a fermenter (along with a larger amount of yeast). Pictured above fermenter at Woodford Reserve. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After the mash has been cooled down to approximately 77° to 86°F, it is put into a fermenter (along with a larger amount of yeast). Pictured above fermenter at Woodford Reserve. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There’s one fact about bourbon, though, that can’t be disputed according to Russell. “You can make bourbon anyplace in the country,” he says, “but if it’s not Kentucky bourbon, it’s not bourbon.”

Stretching from Louisville to Lexington, then southwest along the Bluegrass Parkway, the Kentucky Bourbon Trail is a trademarked destination made up of nine member distilleries. Over several days, we toured four of the chosen nine and then veered off to a new craft distillery. Like the one that we feature here, each had a unique story to tell, interlaced with a rich history and distinctive style.

Tours range from 45 minutes to an hour, depending on distillery, and are followed by the breathlessly awaited tastings. Guides typically pour two or three single shots, often topped off with a lip-smacking chocolate bourbon ball, before sending samplers to the gift shop.

Each distillery has its own recipe for the grain mixture. The law requires a Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey to have a corn content of at least 51 percent. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Each distillery has its own recipe for the grain mixture. The law requires a Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey to have a corn content of at least 51 percent. Photo above from a Buffalo Trace tour. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Buffalo Trace Distillery, Frankfort

Buildings from 1881 still stand, used in the production of brands such as Blanton, Stagg Jr., and Van Winkle, whose rare 23-year-old bourbon, Pappy Van Winkle, fetches more than $1,000 a bottle.

Founded in the late 1700s, Buffalo Trace claims to be the oldest U.S. distillery that has continuously produced bourbon. The reason being, during Prohibition (1920 to 1933), it was one of six distilleries licensed by the federal government to sell whiskey for “medicinal purposes.”

“A person could get a prescription from his doctor and receive 2 quarts per month,” said our tour guide. And, of course, the head of the household might ask his wife if she needed a prescription too.”

Touring Buffalo Trace Distillery near Frankfort. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Touring Buffalo Trace Distillery near Frankfort. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Some 6 million prescriptions for medicinal whiskey were filled during Prohibition, he added. And when Prohibition was canceled, Kentucky was the healthiest state in the Union.

Worth Pondering…

Heaven must be a Kentucky kind of place.
―Daniel Boone

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