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History of Bourbon | Defining Moments in Bourbon History

Bourbon Barrels in a rich house

The history of bourbon plays a crucial role in the United States distilling culture – more so because this history is interwoven intricately with the social, economic, and political developments in the country. People would bring jugs of whiskey to social events as well as barter it for supplies.

However, at that time, people did not age spirits in barrels. They would also use sugar and fruit to flavor the bitter edges of the whiskey. As such, the whiskey of the past was different from what we call bourbon today. The invention of bourbon may have been a result of moonshine experiments, accidents, or the process of evolution.

History of Bourbon: Defining Moments

Although there is no exact documentation on the origin of bourbon, there are many stories and legends about how the whiskey came to be. Experts agree that it is likely that there was no single inventor of bourbon. Rather, this unique alcoholic drink may have been a result of many distillers experimenting with whiskey over a period of time.

1789: Possible Invention of Bourbon by Elijah Craig

Some historical data points to Kentucky as bourbon’s place of origin. Many people believe that bourbon evolved in Kentucky through the efforts of various distillers rather than a single individual. Kentucky has several distilleries, but it also has superior-quality Indian maize corn. In addition, Kentucky has limestone-rich water, which gives bourbon its distinctive taste. The state is also located on the Ohio River, where distillers could load barrels of corn whiskey onto flatboats and send them down to New Orleans.

Some of these sources also credit the invention of bourbon to Elijah Craig. Elijah Craig was a Baptist minister and distiller who, people claim, was the first person to use charred oak barrels for storing whiskey. Cleaning out fish barrels by burning their interior was a cheap method to store whiskey. By the time the whiskey came to port three months later, it would be pleasantly flavored by the caramelized interior of the barrels and become deep mahogany in color.

There are also various stories about where the name “bourbon” came from. Some people believe the name comes from Bourbon County, which got its name from the reigning French royal family. Bourbon County was divided and shifted many times, but people living in the original county continued to call it “Old Bourbon.” This place was a major Ohio River port, and as such, distillers used it to transport barrels of whiskey painted with the word “Old Bourbon” as their place of origin. Since most of the whiskey during that time was made from corn, people started associating the name of any corn whiskey with bourbon.

1818: Invention of the Sour Mash

Most people credit the invention of the sour mash to Dr. James Crow, who owned a distillery in Woodford County. However, some records trace the sour mash much further back.

In the early 19th century, distillers started to sour their mash by adding sour acidic liquid strained out from previous leftover mash. This gave the bourbon a more nuanced flavor and inhibited the growth of bacteria.

Today, almost all bourbon contains sour mash.

1821: The First Bourbon Advertisement

The very first advertisement for bourbon happened in 1821. The newspaper Western Citizen took out an advertisement that used the word “bourbon” to describe whiskey made in the city of Kentucky, Paris. The name of the newspaper was Western Citizen.

1840: Bourbon Gets Officially Named

The year 1840 was a significant year in the history of bourbon. This year, corn-based whiskey stored in charred barrels officially became known as bourbon. Before this time, many brands used names like Old Bourbon County Whiskey. This was the first time when the whiskey was formally recognized as bourbon.

1870: Bourbon is Bottled

George Garvin Brown was the first person who sold his bourbon in glass bottles. The pharmaceutical salesman-turned-distiller had the great idea of selling bourbon from inside sealed glass bottles. This was a very smart move on the part of Garvin Brown since his brand, Old Forester, is now the longest-running bourbon brand in the history of bourbon.

1897: Bottled-in-Bond Bourbon

E. H. Taylor Bottled in Bond

Not all bourbon sold during the 19th century was high quality. During that time, there were many bottlers and distillers who were not above adding anything from fruit juice to tobacco juice to their whiskeys and labeling it bourbon. As such, there was a need for quality assurance, and legitimate distilleries pushed Congress to pass the Bottled-in-Bond act.

To get a Bottled-in-Bond label, a single distiller had to make whiskey in one distillery during a single season. They then had to age the whiskey in a federally-bonded warehouse for a minimum of four years before it had to be bottled at 100 proof.

1920 to 1933: The Volstead/Prohibition Loophole

The Prohibition period was a dark and despairing time in the history of bourbon. The Volstead Act started in early 1920, prompting distillers to stop their production and shutting the doors of liquor stores and bars.

The Prohibition Act ended on Dec 5, 1933; however, six major Kentucky distillers were still able to produce the liquor during Prohibition on the pretext of making “medicinal whiskey.”

The whiskey producers would stick prescription labels on the bourbon bottles and “sick” people would go to them to have their prescriptions. The producers would give a bottle to anyone who had a complaint of one of 27 ailments.

They would also advise the consumers to return every 10 days to get more whiskey. By the time Prohibition was over almost 14 years later, companies like National and Seagram had capitalized on this trend and already bought many distilleries.

1958: Premium Bourbon Was Created

Bill Samuels Sr. was the first person to launch a premium variant of bourbon in elegant, high-class packaging. The introduction of a premium brand at a time when people were disinterested in bourbon paid off. In just a few years, Maker’s Mark became a high-end bourbon, recognized by its square-shaped bottle and red-waxed cap.

1958: Formation of the Bourbon Institute

The Bourbon Institute was formed in 1958 to ensure that other countries do not try and steal the US’s homegrown product. The institute aimed to create recognized regulatory standards enjoyed by categories like champagne and cognac. After lobbying efforts with Congress, bourbon became “America’s Native Spirit.” This means only distillers in America could produce bourbon. The spirit is not just made in Kentucky, but all other states of the US, except Hawaii. It also meant that distilleries who followed the regulations and guidelines of bourbon would be the only ones who would be recognized as bourbon crafters.

1984: Arrival of Single-Barrel Bourbon

Blanton's Single Barrel Bourbon Whiskey

The credit for making single-barrel bourbon goes to Elmer T. Lee, the master distiller of the Ancient Age distillery. The distillery wanted to impress the Japanese consumer market and asked the master distiller to craft a unique bourbon. Lee handpicked some primo “honey” barrels and bottled them without blending with content from other barrels. The single-barrel bourbon, known as Blanton's, became the world’s first commercial single-barrel bourbon.

The bourbon was not a big success domestically but was a hit with Japanese consumers. However, other bourbon distilleries were inspired by it. By 1988, Jim Beam launched its Booker’s, which was the first small-batch, barrel-proof bourbon.

1999: Creation of the Bourbon


By the late 20th century, the success of major bourbon producers had sparked a renewed interest in whiskey. As such, many distilleries began offering engaging experiences by offering public tours of their premises and opening gift shops. In 1999, the Kentucky Distillers’ Association launched the official Kentucky Bourbon Trail.

Originally, seven of the eight major distilleries became part of the trail, but today eight more artisan distilleries also participate. In 2021, the Kentucky Bourbon Trail announced its best year of tourism ever, with over 615,000 people participating in its craft tour.

2007: National Bourbon Heritage Month

One of the biggest defining moments in the history of bourbon occurred on August 2007. This was the first time when the US celebrated the spirit of bourbon. The National Bourbon Heritage Month recognizes homegrown liquor and its crucial role in the history, economy, and politics of the US.

2007: The Arrival of Non-Kentucky Bourbon

Kentucky is not the only state where bourbon is made. As the culture of bourbon started ramping up in the United States, other states also started showing interest in this distilled alcoholic beverage. Tuthilltown Spirits in Hudson Valley, New York, was one of the first places to craft bourbon outside of Kentucky. Today, almost every state in the US produces one or two types of bourbon.

Bottom Line

The business of bourbon is huge in the United States. In 2021, the US sold 76 million 9-liter cases of bourbon. Although there are many distilleries outside the US, almost all bourbon is produced by the state of Kentucky. The bourbon industry has also become part of the politics, culture, and economy of the US. From 2007 onward, other states have followed Kentucky in creating their own brands of bourbon. This has allowed for an even wider variety of bourbons to be produced throughout the country. With its rising popularity, it’s likely that the business and culture of bourbon will continue to grow in the US.


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