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Issue 49 - The birth of American whiskey

Whisky Magazine Issue 49
July 2005

 

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The birth of American whiskey

How did bourbon get established, and who were the people who perfected it? Charles Cowdrey looks back to frontier times

American whiskey as we know it today was cooked up in the same cauldron as the modern American nation itself. Though they started out using Old World rye, America's distillers soon switched to indigenous corn (maize) to craft the unique spirit we now call bourbon.

The men who made the first whiskey on the western frontier also built the first cabins, shot the first bears, and planted the first crops. To succeed, a pioneer had to do a bit of everything. There were no specialists.

That was a wild time, little more than two hundred years ago. With independence from England barely and only tenuously achieved, the people who now called themselves Americans finally began to venture west from the Atlantic coast, crossing the mountains into the vast, perilous interior.

Along the way they fought the terrain, the elements, the natives and each other. All that fighting and pioneering was thirsty work, and they fortified themselves with whiskey.

Innocent of oak and made mostly from rye, this whiskey was hot and harsh, usually mixed with something sweet and fruity when served in the fine homes and taverns of the tidewater. Out here on the frontier, though, you weren't so picky.

With independence, the former English Colonies became sovereign states and two of them, neighbors Virginia and North Carolina, almost came to blows early on over a small patch of land on their western borders, claimed by both. It became known as “Squabble State” and just happened to be where the easiest pa...

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