Bourbon History

The History of Bourbon

Portrait of Louis XVI of France, Château de Chambord [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

1783 – Even Williams

In 1783 Evan Williams was a Welsh immigrant who opened Kentucky´s first commercial distillery on the banks of the Ohio River in Louisville. The bourbon that still bears the distiller’s name is one of the popular bourbons today.

1784 – Robert Samuels

Originally, the Samuels family did not produce bourbon commercially. Former Revolutionary War captain, Robert Samuels was appointed as George Washington´s master distiller and created the “secret” family recipe. His grandson T.W. Samuels first made a business of bourbon constructing the first distillery at Samuels Depot, Kentucky. The originally recipe was destroyed in 1943 by Samuels Sr. who wanted to create a smoother bourbon without the bitterness. Samuel Sr.’s new recipe is today known as Maker´s Mark.

1785 – Bourbon County

Bourbon County was named after the French House of Bourbon because Louis XVI of France supported the American Revolutionary war. The modern borders of Bourbon County, Kentucky are not the way it was originally established; “Old Bourbon County” is comprised of 14 modern counties and has no significance for the production of bourbon. Bourbon production plants are rather concentrated in the Louisville, Frankfort, and Bardstown areas.



Elijah Craig
Woodcut depicting Elijah Craig, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

1789 – Elijah Craig

Elijah Craig was a Baptist preacher in an area of Virginia that later became the state of Kentucky. He was a capitalist entrepreneur and Elijah Craig has been said to have invented bourbon by aging the popular corn whiskey, or moonshine.

Modern research though suggests that bourbon was not invented by one single person rather than many who were involved in its early production. Many distillers emigrated from Pennsylvania because of the Whiskey Excise Tax, and, as a fact Elijah Craig opened a distillery in Georgetown, Kentucky in 1789. Today Heaven Hill Distillery produces a bourbon named after the “inventor” of bourbon.




Whiskey Rebellion
Metropolitan Museum of Art [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

1791-94 – Whiskey Rebellion (Whiskey Insurrection)

The so called “whiskey excise tax” was the first tax imposed on farmers by the newly formed federal government of the United States. Primarily in western Pennsylvania the protest started against the tax the 1791.

This whiskey rebellion was a first test for the new government, so that President Washington himself enforced the taxation with and dispersed before any further conflicts. Historically, these events have encouraged Kentucky and Tennessee distillers, who were not subject to the federal law at the time.



Jim Beam
By Ieduardob (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

1795 – The Beam Family

The Böhm family emigrated from Germany to Kentucky during the late 18th century. They changed their surname to “Beam” and began to produce whiskey on their farms. In 1795 Jacob Beam sold his first barrel of “Old Jake Beam Sour” from the distillery known as “Old Tub” starting his family’s legacy.

Since that time David Beam, David M. Beam, Col. James Beam (the Jim Beam), T. Jeremiah Beam, Booker Noe (Booker’s Small Batch) and, now, Fred Noe have carried the family craft into what it has become today. The Beam family has also played a major role in the history of the Heaven Hill Distillery. All of the Master Distillers at Heaven Hill since its founding have been members of the Beam family.

1821 – First Bourbon Advertisement

The first advertisement known for bourbon was printed in the Western Citizen Newspaper in Paris, Kentucky, in 1821.


Pepper Distillery
By Art Photogravure Co., 1898Smith, J. Soule, 1848-1904 [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

1818-1823 – The Perfection of Sour Mash

Doctor James C. “Jim” Crow may be loosely credited as the perfecter of the sour mash process used in creating bourbon whiskey. Despite many sources claim that Crow developed sour mashing at the Pepper Distillery (now the Woodford Reserve Distillery) this is known to be untrue.

In fact, Catherine Carpenter of Casey County in Kentucky is the first documented user of the sour mash method at her family’s distillery as the Filson Historical Society in Louisville proves. It is likely that she invented this method.


1840 – Naming it simply “bourbon”

History called and labeled “Bourbon County Whiskey” or “Old Bourbon County Whiskey.” Beginning in 1840 sources start to abbreviate the product name to simply “bourbon” for the first time.


Buffalo Trace Distillery Tower
By Kittugwiki (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

1861-1865 – Major Benjamin Blanton

The Civil War caused thirst and a shortage of whiskey. Major Benjamin Blanton, who lost all of his wealth from the California gold rush in the civil war understood this business opportunity for a product with a steady demand. Shortly after the war he opened a distillery in Kentucky (the George T. Stagg Distillery, later known as Buffalo Trace Distillery), producing Blanton’s Bourbon Whiskey.

1869-1891 – Thomas Beebe Ripy Distillery

Lawrenceburg, Kentucky is home to what was originally called the Old Hickory Distillery, which was built on the former site of the Old Moore Distillery and what is now to be known as Wild Turkey Hill. In 1940 Austin Nichols and Thomas McCarthy both executives of the distillery, took some warehouse samples on a wild turkey hunting trip. The bourbon proved so popular among their friends so that they continued to ask him for that “wild turkey bourbon”. The bottling of the brand “Wild Turkey” started in 1942.


Bourbon Barrels
By Lauraparkes102 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

1870 – Shipping Revolution

In 1870 the first jugs of bourbon were shipped from the Ohio River ports. The idea was to bottle bourbon due to a matter of convenience for the consumer. Barrels are less easily transported than jugs, and from the sales perspective easily distributed to a groups with smaller demands.


George Dickel Distillery
By Brian Stansberry (photographer) (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

1872-1910 – Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Distillery

After 15 years working for the liquor wholesaler W.L Weller & Sons, Julian “Pappy” van Winkle Sr. he and another seller bought the firm. In 1910 the acquired A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery in Louisville which was known for his excellent sour mash whiskey produced since 1872. The distillery had to close during prohibition and was restarted as Stitzel-Weller Distillery in 1972. Pappy’s son, J.P. Van Winkle, Jr., resurrected the original Old Rip Van Winkle brand, which lives on today.

Temperance Parade Eustis Florida
By State Library and Archives of Florida [No restrictions or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

1920-1933 – The Volstaed Act

During the 19th century alcoholism, domestic violence and saloon-based political corruption were used by the Temperance Movement to end the sale of alcoholic beverages. In 1920 the U.S. Congress passed with the Volstaed Act the 18th Amendment, prohibiting the manufacture and sale of alcohol. The shut down the complete adult beverage industry and started the so called “noble experiment”.

This law caused the majority of bourbon distilleries to close, many were never reopen, and a lot of recipes and knowledge simply vanished. The government issued 10 licenses to whiskey production for medical treatment during 1920-1933, though interestingly only six of those were activated. One of those companies was Brown-Forman, which now produces Woodford Reserve Bourbon on the site of the Prohibition era distillery.


1964 – “America’s Native Spirit”

Despite the common belief that Congress declared bourbon first as “America’s Native Spirit” and the country’s official distilled spirit in 1964, the wording was in fact different. In its resolution the US Congress declared bourbon to be a “distinctive product identifiable with the United States”. The resolution was passed again in 2008.

2007 – National Bourbon Heritage Month

In August 2007, the United States Senate passed a resolution by Senator Jim Bunning officially declaring the month of September as National Bourbon Heritage Month. The designation is designed to celebrate “America’s Native Spirit” and the significant historical, economic and industrial role the bourbon industry has played in the country’s history.