Food + Drinks

6 Bourbon Myths: Busted (Just in Time for the Kentucky Derby)

The average Kentucky Derby party involves three hours of drinking mint juleps in exchange for two minutes of horse racing, giving you ample opportunity to pepper your cocktail conversation with these newly revealed facts about bourbon.

The 2013 book Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: An American Heritage disproves pretty much every previously held belief about the birth and early history of this American-born booze. Author and historian Michael R. Veach has been studying the subject for his entire professional life and finally decided to drop some knowledge on the rest of us. Now it's your turn, but remember not to be a jerk about it: Myth-busting shouldn't be buzz-killing.

Myth No. 1: Bourbon got its name from Bourbon County.

While Veach doesn't disprove this outright, it seems more likely that it was named after Bourbon Street in New Orleans, where French people raised on Cognac preferred the charred-barrel-aged whiskey sold there.


Myth No. 2: Elijah Craig invented bourbon as we know it.

The Baptist minister is often credited with being the first distiller of bourbon and the first to age his whiskey in charred barrels. Veach points out that the first reference to charring barrels doesn't appear until 20 years after his death, and it wasn't until 60 years after his death that someone claimed Craig invented bourbon. Further proof? In a toast to his accomplishments by a fellow distiller after Craig's death, whiskey wasn't even mentioned.

Myth No. 3: The Kentucky-bourbon industry was formed by Pennsylvania distillers fleeing the Whiskey Rebellion.

Veach says nope: America's first federal tax, imposed by George Washington, was on whiskey. Small farmer-distillers got a raw deal on it, so they tarred and feathered a few tax collectors and refused to pay. No battle was fought between these insurgents and the government troops sent to quash the rebellion, but many rebels fled south to Louisiana, not west to Kentucky. Plus, they were already distilling in Kentucky long before this incident.

Myth No. 4: Evan Williams was the first distiller in Kentucky.

He wasn't even in the country until the year after he supposedly first began distilling in 1783, and there are records of other people having stills in Kentucky in 1779. We don't know who the first distiller in the state was (and probably never will), but it wasn't Williams.

Myth No. 5: Trying to cheat time is a modern thing.

Every start-up micro-distiller seems to be selling barely aged whiskey rested in comparatively tiny barrels to make it taste older faster. Some are even using modern methods like pressure aging and ultrasonic technology. But making younger booze taste older actually has a long history. Mid-1800s rectifiers added flavor-altering ingredients to whiskey to make it seem more mature, including tea, wintergreen, starch, and cochineal, a coloring made from ground-up bugs.

Myth No. 6: Cherry whiskey was invented by Kid Rock.

With the massive success of Jim Beam's four-year-old Red Stag black-cherry whiskey endorsed by Kid Rock, you'd think that nobody had thought to add fruit to bourbon before. But in the early days of distilling in America, flavorings were often added to whiskey to improve the taste; Cherry Bounce is just one of many liqueurs made from a bourbon base.

—Camper English is an international cocktails and spirits writer and the publisher of

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Mint Julep photo by Donaldson Benjamin
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