Gov. Mike Parson last month signed the new Missouri Bourbon law that “requires products labeled ‘Missouri Bourbon’ or ‘Missouri Bourbon Whiskey’ to be mashed, fermented, distilled, aged in oak barrels manufactured in Missouri, and bottled in Missouri. Also, beginning January 1, 2020, all corn used in the mash must be grown in Missouri.”
Like many a fellow Midwesterner, bourbon has always been my whiskey of choice. The warm, smooth flavor is all that most people need to know to form this preference. A lot of people don’t know much else about it other than that it’s made from corn and Kentuckians claim it as their own. But bourbon bleeds far deeper into our nation than a single state. The legacy of bourbon is woven into much of the American story. The spirit has burned through many of the great stages of U.S. history, from the colonial rebellion that became the Revolutionary War to the shop local movement of the modern day.
The term bourbon stems back to the last dynasty of the French Monarchy. The House of Bourbon was a powerful force in Europe for centuries. King Louis XVI was one of them. He allowed France to aid the colonial rebels during the American Revolution. Americans were so grateful to Louis that Bourbon County, Kentucky, was named in his honor.
In a tidbit of irony, the resulting taxes placed upon the French people to refund the debt accrued during the war helped spark the French Revolution and Louis’ eventual beheading.
Bourbon whiskey was named for that Kentucky county, which legend has it was the birthplace of the liquor, though Americans had been experimenting with corn whiskeys since before the revolution. American-made corn liquor got a big bump after the British implemented a sugar tax that put a dent in the rum industry. Oak barrels didn’t come into play until after the technique was imported from Cognac, France, in the early 1800s. The addition of oak barrels paid off for Missouri, which is credited with growing some of the best oak in the world. Many Kentucky distillers get their barrels from the Show Me State.
The first published use of the term bourbon whiskey wasn’t until 1821 in an advertisement by Stout and Adams in the Kentucky Western Citizen.
Bourbon, and whiskey in general, also had a role in the Civil War. The South prohibited bourbon distilling to save corn for the war effort, while the North established a whiskey tax that collected a substantial amount of money to pay for arms and men. Meanwhile, President Abraham Lincoln gained a legendary appreciation for Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s whiskey of choice, Old Crow Kentucky bourbon. Ever heard of it?
While some people will say only the Kentucky-made variety can be called bourbon, the U.S. Congress denies this claim. Congress named bourbon America’s Native Spirit in 1964, stipulating that it had to be made in the United States, any state. Missouri’s bourbon has the same right to the title as Kentucky.
And those rights could pay off in multiple ways, such as the amount of corn the industry can consume when tourists are attracted to a prosperous bourbon destination. The craft distillery industry began a boom of sorts during the “shop local” movement beginning circa 2009. But small distilleries didn’t receive quite the boost that breweries and wineries experienced. So Missouri distillers decided to do something about that.
A group of Missouri’s bourbon distillers came together to promote their product in the state government and got the wheels turning toward the official creation of Missouri Bourbon. They hope to continue partnering with the state’s corn industry and tourism department to promote and expand the craft in the legislature and marketplace.
In a story headlined “Missouri Bourbon: Craft whiskey makers laud new label rules,” we highlighted three area distillers invested in Missouri Bourbon, but there are many other distillers large and small throughout the state. Many are members of the Missouri Craft Distillers Guild, which played a big role in promoting Missouri Bourbon to the state legislature.
The guild began the Missouri Spirits Expedition on May 14. Expedition participants collect stamps at each distillery and earn rewards along their journey. Those who reach the end will earn a free bottle of Missouri Spirits Expedition Missouri Bourbon Whiskey.
The Missouri Spirits Expedition is designed to promote tourism and support other local businesses like restaurants, highlighting the benefits of a thriving distillery industry in Missouri.
There are also several other trails and expeditions to choose from throughout Missouri, and they all make for a great excuse to enjoy the fruits, or mash, produced by the labors of our Missouri corn growers and distillers who are carrying on an American tradition that helped shape our nation.
Allen Fennewald is a GateHouse Missouri regional editor. He can be reached at email@example.com. “Regional Review” is the column form of the “Mid-Missouri Regional Review” podcast, which highlights regional issues that affect our communities. The podcast can be found online at omny.fm/shows/mid-missouri-regional-review.