Whiskey (Bourbon whiskey) is an American native spirit, with a history steeped in the cultures of the earliest settlers.

This unique American product was involved in the history of the first use of armed force by the new post-Revolution United States of America.

The Liberty Flag of the Whiskey Insurrection
The Liberty Flag of the Whiskey Insurrection was much like the Sons of Liberty flags used by the colonists in their rebellion against England, but note the fifteen stripes for the then fifteen states.

Although whiskey was produced throughout the colonies (George Washington was among the noted whiskey producers of the time), the Scotch-Irish settlers of western Pennsylvania are where bourbon roots began, and where rebellion to the United States first occurred.

After the American Revolution the nation suffered unsettled economic conditions and a severe depression. Paper money was in circulation, but little of it was honored at face value. Most of those who were harmed by the depression were property-less and thus unable to vote. In Massachusetts the “sound money” merchants and bankers men controlled the government. The quarrel grew until thousands of men in the western counties of Massachusetts rose in armed revolt. They were led by Daniel Shays (1747-1825), a captain during the American Revolution. Shays’ Rebellion lasted from August 1786 to February 1787.

The agitators objected to heavy land and poll taxes, the high cost of lawsuits, high salaries of state officials, oppressive court decisions, and dictatorial rulings of the state senate. In Northampton on August 29 the mob succeeded in keeping the courts closed so debtors could not be tried and put into prison. Fearful of being tried for treason for this action, Shays and his men broke up the state Supreme Court session at Springfield the following month. The revolt took a more serious turn when Shays and a force of 1,200 men returned to Springfield in January to capture the arsenal. Action by the national government prevented the attack on January 25. Most of the insurgents were captured in early February, ending the rebellion. The leaders were condemned to death for treason but were later pardoned. Shays himself later received a war pension for his service in the American Revolution.

Shays’ Rebellion was one of several disturbances in different states. It hastened the movement for a federal government strong enough “to ensure domestic tranquility,” as stated in the preamble to the Constitution, which established the United States. And this Constitution brought the first use by the new federal government of its constitutional power to uphold the government of each state, as the Whiskey Rebellion broke out.

Western Pennsylvania had a history of wanting to be separate. As early as 1775 the Transylvanians petitioned the Continental Congress to be recognized as the fourteenth colony. In 1776 the people in the region claimed by both Pennsylvania and Virginia, announced that they were the new state of Westsylvania. They said that “no country or people can be either rich, flourishing, happy or free … whilst annexed to or dependent on any province, whose seat of government is … four or five hundred miles distant, and separated by a vast, extensive and almost impassible tract of mountains…”

On January 15, 1788, Lord Dorchester, the governor-general of Canada, sent John Connolly (previously in charge of Ft. Pitt) to Western Pa. to talk to General John Neville, General Samuel Parsons and other Pittsburghers sympathetic to the British cause to determine the likelihood of the West separating from the East. After receiving the report Dorchester then sent a letter to Lord Sydney advising him to aid the West in separating from the Union.

Indians led by the British raided the Pennsylvania areas west of the mountains. The United States sent two major military expeditions against the eastern Indians. The first, in 1790, was led by General Josiah Harmer and the second, in 1791, was led by General Arthur St. Clair. Both expeditions were defeated by the Indians! It wasn’t until 1794 that General Anthony Wayne defeated the British at Fallen Timbers and the British actually withdrew from the region, giving up on any hope of claim to the areas west of the mountains. To pay for the military activity against the Indians and British in the western counties, the federal government decided to put an additional tariff on the sale of whiskey at the source.

The settlers of Western Pennsylvania refused to pay, and broke out in armed rebellion in Pennsylvania. At some times, the rebellion had a force of seven thousand armed militia troops. To restore order to the ensuing “Whiskey Rebellion”, Washington sent the Continental Army. The 13,000 federal troops sent to the western Pennsylvania area was the first test of the power of the new government.

Although the army was successful in temporarily ending the rebellion the political problem remained. To avoid further troubles with the tough and stubborn Scotch-Irish settlers, and break up their center of resistance to taxation, Washington made a settlement with them, giving incentives for those who would move to western Virginia.

Although it was Washington who first offered incentives, it was the then Governor of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson, who was offering offered pioneers sixty acres of land in Kentucky (at that time a western part of Virginia). To gain the land all the settler had to do was build a permanent structure and raise “native corn”. No family could eat sixty acres worth of corn a year and it was too perishable and bulky to transport for sale. The Scotch-Irish in Pennsylvania knew well how to make whiskey, and they used the rye of Pennsylvania to make the beverage. By switching the base of the beverage to corn, the problem of getting rid of a bulky grain that was too expensive to ship evaporated.

This corn based whiskey, which was a clear distillate, would become “bourbon” only after two coincidentally related events happened. The French had assisted in the War of Independence against the British. In acknowledgment of this, French names were subsequently used for new settlements or counties. In 1780, in the Western part of Virginia, the then huge county of Kentucky, was subdivided, in 1780 and again in 1786. One of these subdivisions was named Bourbon County, after the French Royal House.

Being on the Ohio River, the town of Marysville, Bourbon County, Kentucky, became a primary shipping port. Bourbon County thus became associated with the shipping of Whiskey. The name of the spirit became synonymous because of this location and the enterprise of the Reverend Elijah Craig from Bourbon County. He used old barrels to transport his whiskey to market in New Orleans. To get rid of the residue of previous contents of the old barrels, he charred the barrels before filling them. As his clear corn based whiskey made the long trip to market, it “mellowed” and took on a light caramel color from the charred oak. Being from Bourbon County Rev. Craig started calling his mellowed whiskey “Bourbon”. His whiskey became sought after more than the “white lightening” of the other producers. Soon all whiskey producers were claiming they also had “Bourbon”, and any corn whiskey that had aged some in charred barrels and shipped from Bourbon County was called Bourbon.