Bourbon has a fascinating heritage. Therefore, in this guide, you will learn everything you need to know about bourbon whiskey history:

Use the links above to jump ahead or scroll down to read it all. You’ll find our other bourbon whiskey guides in the menu below.

Bourbon Whiskey History - Old Distillery Staff

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Early Bourbon History

Old Frontier Saloon

Whiskey production spread throughout the present-day USA during the 18th century largely due to the convenience and availability of surplus grain. In most cases, whiskey was distilled by farmers of Scots-Irish origin.

Since it was the most prevalent crop in Kentucky and along the Western Frontier, corn was often the primary whiskey ingredient in the region. Furthermore, beer often spoiled due to the region’s warm climate and was difficult to transport. Therefore, distillation was the best method to preserve a beverage.

Throughout its early history, whiskey was both a form of currency for bartering as well as a cheap commodity to stock in taverns and public houses. Indeed, whiskey’s association with saloons and gunslingers is largely rooted in practicality but has since become an icon of American history.

Bourbon’s Historical Context

Whiskey Insurrection In Pennsylvania

Whiskey production grew in the American colonies in response to the British Sugar Act of 1764. This law sought to heavily tax molasses imports from French and Spanish plantations and greatly affected rum, which was the preferred American liquor up to this point.

Indeed, the Sugar Act was one of the main grievances that led to the American Revolutionary War. American Independence came with a hefty war debt that the newly-formed federal government needed to repay.

Ironically, it targeted distilled spirits as a source of revenue. Since whiskey had now become the most popular liquor in America, it was referred to as the “whiskey tax”.

Although some regarded the legislation as a “sin tax” that encouraged social reform, frontier producers felt personally targeted. Many produces resisted it and their actions became known as the “Whiskey Rebellion”.

Since these events affected all American whiskey, we’ll cover it in greater detail elsewhere. However, the insurrection helped define Kentucky as a frontier whiskey region before it was suppressed in 1794.

How Did Bourbon Whiskey Get Its Name?

Bourbon Street New Orleans By Grant L

After settling in Kentucky with his “Travelling Church”, baptist minister Elijah Craig founded his eponymous distillery in 1789. Although whiskey production was already well-established in the region, he is often mistakenly credited for its creation.

However, it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that bourbon whiskey earned its name. In fact, the origin of such a French name for an American product is often disputed and the following namesakes have been suggested:

  • Bourbon County in modern-day Kentucky.
  • The “Old Bourbon” County shared by modern-day Virginia and Kentucky.
  • Bourbon Street in New Orleans where it was sold as a cheaper alternative to cognac.
  • The French House of Bourbon, which assisted in the American Revolutionary War.

Whiskey producers did (and indeed continue to) operate in Kentucky’s Bourbon County, which was founded in 1785. It was part of the larger county of the same name, which was broken into smaller ones and split between both Virginia and Kentucky.

Modern-day Bourbon County was created from a section of Fayette County where just as many distillers were based, including Craig’s distillery. Incidentally, both counties were named after the House of Bourbon General Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette.

Since the region had a shared history, it sometimes used the name “Old Bourbon” and it’s believed that this term was stencilled on whiskey barrels shipped from the area.

Meanwhile, Rue Bourbon in New Orleans was created by French royal engineer Adrien de Pauger as early as 1721. Therefore, it’s likely that the New Orleans theory holds more credibility as put forward by historian Michael Veach.

Nevertheless, it’s generally agreed that bourbon was adopted in order to distinguish this predominantly corn-based variety from rye-based whiskey made in the eastern USA.

Who Invented Bourbon Whiskey?

Elijah Craig Small Batch Whiskey

Legend has it that a 1790s fire in Elijah Craig’s distillery burned his barrels. Rather than replace them, he turned the barrel staves around so nobody would notice. He then sent them to New Orleans via the Ohio River and by the time they arrived, the whiskey had developed its iconically sweet flavour.

The story itself is a fanciful tale and it often contributes to the widespread belief that the baptist minister personally invented bourbon whiskey. However, the earliest evidence that Craig charred his barrels is from 1826. Nevertheless, it’s anchored in enough truth to make it credible.

In fact, the most likely reason that bourbon whiskey barrels are charred is far more interesting.

As mentioned earlier, New Orleans was an important trading hub for bourbon whiskey. When French brothers John and Louis Tarascon settled near New Orleans, they established a warehouse along the Ohio River.

Since they came from near the Cognac region, they adopted its centuries-old technique called “bousinage” whereby a barrel’s interior is charred by a naked flame.

The whiskey from Kentucky was received in uncharred barrels, which they transferred to their own before sending it on its way.

How Did Bourbon Become Popular?

Steamboats Transporting Whiskey Barrels

It seems strange today that bourbon would be sent south in order to be then shipped back to destinations that were geographically closer to the distilleries themselves. However, much of its early success is owed to this early trade route.

As illustrated in the research of aforementioned historian Michael Veach, steamboats were essential to early trade. Railways were largely undeveloped and travelling by river drastically shortened travel time.

Therefore, it proved quicker to send whiskey barrels via the Ohio River to New Orleans. Upon arrival, the cargo could either travel by train to inland locations like Kansas City.

Meanwhile, clipper ships were used to transport barrels to coastal destinations either straight up the Atlantic to New York or all the way around to San Francisco on the Pacific. Incredibly, it was faster to travel from Louisiana to California by circumnavigating South America via Cape Horn!

By the time the barrels arrived at the various establishments where they were sold to consumers, the charred oak would have imparted its characteristic flavour. It proved very popular, especially since the process resulted in a resemblance to cognac but was a far more affordable liquor.

The technique was picked up by the producers and the whiskey was soon directly casked in charred barrels at their distilleries. Since glass would be too fragile until the late 19th century, it was still shipped and delivered in these casks, which only improved the flavour.

As it maintained its low price and continued to develop its iconic flavour, bourbon eventually became one of America’s favourite whiskeys.

Glass Bottles Replace The Barrel

Throughout most of its history, bourbon whiskey was distributed directly to various retailers in their oak barrels. Even today, glass is notoriously fragile but it was far more so during the 19th century and before. Furthermore, it was very expensive and breakages during shipping was an unthinkable additional cost.

However, technology allowing for cheaper and more resistant glass had become available. Bottles could now be blown by machine rather than by hand. Similarly, coal-fired glass was far stronger than that made from a typical wood fire.

Nevertheless, glass bottles remained expensive. In fact, they were worth more than the whiskey itself! When pharmacist George Garvin Brown (the founder of Brown-Forman) decided to bottle his Old Forester whiskey in the 1870s, it would set a revolution in motion.

In those days, doctors often prescribed whiskey to their patients and it was a commodity sold in pharmacies. They often complained that it varied in quality, which was likely due to the varying lengths of time it spent in oak barrels.

In order to ensure a specific level of quality, Brown’s whiskey was exclusively sold in bottles, which also prevented adulteration. While indeed pricier than barrel-stored whiskey, the guarantee of quality proved popular among other pharmacists and liquor stores who soon stocked his product.

It would eventually lead to the 1897 Bottled-in-Bond Act, which offered government-approved certification that recognised and further guaranteed the conditions in which whiskey was aged and bottled. This legislation would be the first step towards a federal standard.

Glass bottles weren’t yet as widespread as today, though. In fact, they wouldn’t almost exclusively replace the barrel until after Prohibition when trucks and highways presented a smoother and cheaper shipment method.

Prohibition’s Effects On Bourbon Whiskey

Destroyed Whiskey Barrels During Prohibition

As you may know, the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution was signed in December 1917 and established the prohibition of alcohol in the United States. Although it was ratified in 1919, it took effect a year earlier in Kentucky.

Compared to other varieties of alcohol, which occasionally found ways to survive it, prohibition proved utterly disastrous for the American whiskey industry. All of Bourbon County’s 26 distilleries were permanently shut down.

Meanwhile, some distilleries in other counties were able to obtain permits to produce “medicinal whiskey”. These include Brown-Forman in Jefferson County and what is now known as Buffalo Trace in Franklin County. Although they hardly thrived during this period, they were at least able to survive until 1933.

Old Taylor Castle & Key Distillery

The 1887 Old Taylor Distillery was famously abandoned until 2012

Unfortunately, the 21st Amendment that repealed prohibition didn’t bring back many of the distilleries that had closed. In fact, a distillery wouldn’t open in Bourbon County again until 2014.

Bourbon’s Renaissance

George T Stagg Buffalo Trace Distillery Today

In 1964, US Congress recognised bourbon as a “distinctive product of the United States”. It marked the first step towards regulations that would define bourbon whiskey as a distinctive liquor albeit with a wide denomination of origin.

Indeed, bourbon whiskey can technically be produced anywhere in the USA. Nevertheless, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau drafted its Federal Standard of Identity for Distilled Spirits, which would help preserve its quality and prevent imported counterfeits.

You can learn about these standards by reading our guide to the different types of bourbon whiskey.

Although the official recognition helped solidify its position, bourbon’s popularity steadily declined in the 1970s in favour of imported clear spirits like vodka. However, an unparalleled renaissance followed in the late 1980s.

Although a historically affordable liquor, bourbon whiskey was gentrified with small-batch and single-barrel productions. It renewed interest in bourbon by establishing it as a premium whiskey.

Meanwhile, the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed in 1994 and trade improved with the European Union following the dissolution of the USSR. These resulted in an emerging global market with trade agreements that allowed bourbon to compete with Scotch and other international beverages.

The Rise & Fall Of The Age Statement

Rebellion 8 Year Old Bourbon

While age statements certainly existed before the 20th century, they were usually unreliable. As you’ll have learned, whiskey was often sold in barrels and listing its age wasn’t a legal requirement. There were stamps that indicated when the taxes were paid, but these provided little insight.

Therefore, customers would have to ask the barrel’s owner or some would already have been bottled with hand-written age statements. These would often only inform customers how long the pharmacy or shop proprietor had owned the barrel.

Once bottled whiskey became popular, age statements became more prevalent and transparent. Typically, they tended to follow the government bonding periods and were rarely older.

In 1958, the bonding period increased from 8 to 20 years, which resulted in a wave of older whiskeys on the market. Until then, it was very rare that an age statement was older than 8 years but now double figures were not uncommon. However, they became exceptionally prominent in the 1990s.

When the bourbon boom struck, bourbon was selling faster than the distillers could replenish their stocks. With low reserves of older whiskey, producers renamed their expressions to remove age statements.

Today, many of them remain rebranded, but with some stocks having recovered, age statements are on the rise again.

Bourbon In The 21st Century

Branton's Bourbon Whiskey In FX's Justified

Branton’s Bourbon Whiskey in FX’s Justified

Bourbon’s renaissance coincided or may have even contributed to the growing cocktail culture. With Don Draper of the 2007 AMC series Mad Men often brandishing an Old Fashioned, consumers and bartenders also rediscovered classic early-20th century cocktails.

It would also frequently appear in FX’s Justified as the favourite beverage of Timothy Oliphant’s gunslinging US Marshal. Furthermore, the Rockstar video game, Red Dead Redemption, and its sequel would only add to the contemporary interest in old west drinking.

Thanks to its integration into popular culture, bourbon essentially became cool again. Consequently, it was embraced by a younger generation of men of which over a quarter are from black or ethnic minority communities.

Yearly sales have continued to consistently grow and the “bourbon boom” has shown little signs of slowing. Even amid the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic, sales jumped an additional 30%!

What Next?

Now that you have read about the history of bourbon, learn more about the celebrated American whiskey!

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