An Incomplete History of Scotch Whisky, Bourbon Whiskey, and Tennessee Whiskey


On This Day in History — June 1 — Whiskey, Whisky, and More Whiskey

In most countries that import or export whiskey (or whisky), the drink is actually defined by law. The EU has a definition, USMCA defines whiskey for the US, Mexico, and Canada. Ireland and Scotland have definitions as well. Most of them are pretty similar, though. They typically mandate that whiskey must be a distilled alcohol at least 80 proof (40% alcohol). Typically, it must be distilled from at least 51% corn, have no ingredients added after distillation, and be aged a certain amount of time in a certain way. Lastly, there is likely a place of origin required. 

For example, Jack Daniel’s is Tennessee whiskey; that’s a legal definition. It must be brewed from at least 51% corn, aged in new charred oak barrels, and filtered through charcoal. Tennessee requires the whiskey be aged in Tennessee but doesn’t specify how long; Jack Daniel’s is aged for about four years. Supposedly, they taste it and only bottle it when it tastes up to their standards. 

Which brings us to Scotch

Scotch whisky is a favorite of everybody looking to sound snobby. Scotch is whiskey distilled in Scotland. By law, Scotch must be distilled from malted barley (other whole grains can be used but nothing malted), matured in oak barrels in Scotland for at least three years, and be at least 80 proof. 

The first reference to Scotch whisky was recorded on June 1, 1494. A monk named John Cor was issued a voucher for seven bolls of malted grains to produce aqua vitae, Latin for “water of life.” It’s a pretty short reference, but it’s the first evidence we have of Scots producing the drink that makes people with leatherbound books feel really good about themselves. 

Famous Scotch Whisky distillery, Lagavulin.

Kentucky Has Entered the Chat

Exactly 298 years after John Cor was issued his voucher — June 1, 1792 — Kentucky was admitted to the Union as the 15th state. Kentucky is most famous for bourbon whiskey. This is whiskey made from corn, aged three years in new charred oak barrels, containing at least 40% alcohol. Bourbon was likely produced all over the United States, but it became most synonymous with Bourbon County, Kentucky. 

In the days before refrigeration and highways, farmers needed a way to keep their corn from going bad before it could get to market. Distilling it into whiskey is a reliable method. They would distill it, barrel it, and send it all over the new country. 

Whiskey is clear as water when it’s first distilled. Legend has it that it took so long to get to New Orleans that it had turned brown from the barrels. The New Orleanians loved it so much that it became the preferred way to drink bourbon. 

There’s no way of knowing if this is true, but it’s just like New Orleanians to claim they improved how people get drunk. 

Tennessee Would Like a Word

Exactly four years later — June 1, 1796 — Tennessee was admitted to the United States as the 16th state. Tennessee whiskey differs from bourbon in that it must be distilled and aged in Tennessee; also, it must undergo the Lincoln County Process named for Lincoln County, TN. Before being aged, the whiskey is filtered through maple charcoal. 

A bottle of Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whiskey.

Scotch, Tennessee whiskey, and Bourbon whiskey all predate this day in history; however, three of the greatest producers of three of the greatest whiskies stepped onto the world stage on this day in 1494, 1792, and 1796. 

It should be noted, the Irish claim they invented it around 1000 AD. So, slainte.