The legend of bourbon – "America’s native spirit" – "obscures the actual history of the trade," reports Max Watman in a Wall Street Journal review of Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey by Michael R. Veach. The mythology starts with the story that, "in the late 1780s, the Rev. Elijah Craig bought barrels from a fish merchant and cleaned them out by charring the insides … before he put his whiskey on board a boat bound for New Orleans, where the formerly clear whiskey was found to have an appealing amber glow and a taste mellowed by interaction with charred oak."
The problem with the story is that "barrels made to store fish wouldn’t have been watertight." What’s more, Rev. Craig was already a successful distiller at the time, and certainly "would have known that distillers in France had been aging brandies in charred barrels since the 15th century. At some point, they started doing the same in Kentucky. It’s not as romantic as accidental revelation, but it is the truth." The mythology continues with the way "the nation’s distillers" market bourbon, as "one part olde apothecary (look at the labels) and one part log-cabin folklore."
Bourbon recipes supposedly are "family secrets, closely guarded while generations stirred the same small pot and proudly bottled their whiskey in the family cave." In some cases, however, the whiskey was faked, with clear spirits flavored "with tea and wintergreen, colored with cochineal and burnt sugar." This led James E. Pepper to seal his corks with a stamp, and market his whiskey as "Genuine Pepper." Meanwhile, the label on bottles of Evan Williams claim "Since 1783" and "Kentucky’s 1st Distiller." Wrong and wrong: The bourbon is actually from a distillery called Heaven Hill, established in 1935. In other words, bourbon labels should be thought of as "works of art, not public record."