More than any other, the thing that makes Bourbon unique is that it’s aged in newly-made, charred oak barrels. But why are they charred, and who ever thought to do that? It wasn’t whiskey-makers in Kentucky, it was Cognac makers in France. For indeed Cognac is the only other spirit in the world that is aged this way. The reason: because the charring process draws out more bitter tannins from the barrel wood and gives the liquor more complexity.
So were Kentuckians trying to emulate Cognac? Yes and no. It seems that back in the mid-1800’s, when whiskey sellers were looking for a market for the corn whiskey they were making, they found that corn whiskey in New Orleans was selling for the same price as it was at home. That meant that once the price of transportation was added in, Kentucky whiskey makers would earn a lot less money for their product.
Still, New Orleans was the largest market for whiskey in America. If Kentucky distillers could find a way to make their corn whiskey product unique, they could sell it at a higher price. Emulating Cognac was the Kentucky way of creating a different, and in their minds more sophisticated, product.