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Bourbon history from Rootsweb

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I enjoy genealogy and receive a Kentucky oriented newsletter from Rootsweb. The most recent posting is the history of whiskey. This is going to be a long post but, I thought it would amuse you. I see several things I could dispute...particularly in the listing of whiskeys. Just proves "tee-totlers" should stick to what they do best... smirk.gif .


Although I am a "tee-totler" when it comes to alcohol, whiskey distilling

has always been an important commerce in Kentucky. It was logical since

corn was the primary crop in Kentucky from the earliest times. But, there

was an abundance of corn and the market value was not enough to sustain the

settlers. When distilled, it was. Kentucky had difficult in shipping

because of the mountains to the east; they couldn't ship south because of

the Spanish control of the Mississippi River near Natchez. But distilled

whiskey was desired and easier to transport. According to the Kentucky

Encyclopedia, one mule could transport only four bushels of corn but as

many as 24 bushels in the liquid form.

One of the earliest recorded distillers was William Calk from Fort

Boonesborough. In 1795 he settled at the fort and later moved to Montgomery

County and brought his distillery equipment from back home in Virginia.

Stephen Ritchie was on Cox Creek in what is now Nelson County and had a

distillery. James E. Pepper operated a distillery in Lexington and sold

"Old Pepper Whiskey". Evans Williams of Louisville was another very early

distiller (see below). By 1810 there were 2,200 distillers operating in

Kentucky as shown on the census records. Dr. James Crowe, 1835, was an

Englishman who did experiments in Woodford County and from this was born

"Old Crow" (see below).

Kentucky distillers used the techniques they had learned in the Old World

for making their whiskey. Scotland and Ireland were already well known for

their ability to produce fine whiskeys and Kentuckians followed their

techniques. The grains used are corn, rye and barley which was ground and

mixed with water or stale beer. This produced a "sour mash". The mash was

put in a tub and scalded while being stirred with a paddle. After mixing,

it was left overnight where fermentation began and then malt (germinated

grain) was added. Then came the yeast and another 72-hour fermenting

period. When this was complete the product was known as beer or wash. This

wash was poured into a copper-lined pot and put over an open fire to be

distilled. After several phases, a clear liquid was produced than ran

between 140 to 160 proof. In the earlier days, the distillers had no way of

judging the "proof" of the batch produced which determined the strength of

the whiskey. They just mixed whiskey and gunpowder and set it afire. If the

gunpowder didn't explode, the whiskey was too weak! If the flame was blue

and the burn even, it was just right. They said the whiskey was proved,

from which came the term of proof.

By 1860, there were only 207 distilleries in Kentucky; and after the Civil

War, many home distillers were either forced out of business by cost, or

merged with larger and larger companies. Moonshiners were flourishing

throughout the state, cutting more into the profit of the legal

distilleries. By 1880, new techniques were making their influence felt and

production increased. Roll mills were built which broke the grain into

uniform parts; companies began using copper-lined vats for more consistent

fermentation. However, there was a depression in 1893 and saw many

distillers reeling from the high taxes and lowering of sales. An act called

the Wilson Act of 1890 helped the distillers somewhat as it placed the

taxation under state rather than federal rule. Distillers were given eight

years to pay their taxes on whiskey already produced; then the distiller

could sell whiskey in bulk to retailers. In 1897 the Bottle-in-Bond Act

came into effect as a federal law saying that the whiskey had to be aged

for four years to be known as full-proof.

Bourbon whiskey contained 51 percent of corn and earlier could be distilled

to 160 proof. It was aged in charred oak barrels which is what gives

bourbon it's distinctive color and taste. Early settlers making bourbon

whiskey included Jacob Meyers and Jacob Froman from Lincoln County; Marshal

Brashear of Jefferson County, Elijah Craig of Scott County; Jacob Spears of

Bourbon County. Bourbon was likely named this for Bourbon County, KY. A

Maysville, KY firm of Stout and Adams published ads in a Bourbon Co

newspaper in 1921. In 1826 there were ads from Hughart and Warfield for

Spears and Williams Best Old Whiskey - named for Solomon Spears and Samuel

Williams. H. C. Bowen sold H C Bowen's Old Bourbon.

Some of the early whiskeys produced early and still in production include

the following:

Blantons: A "single barrel bourbon." Each bottle comes from a single barrel

and is never blended with whiskeys of other ages.

Wild Turkey: Thomas McCarthy, Sr., then head of Austin Nichols Company, a

grocery company founded in 1855, joined a group of businessmen each year

for a turkey shoot; McCarthy brought along his own special bourbon to the

event. This tradition resulted in the preservation of wildlife, since shots

of bourbon were usually the only ones taken. Hence, Wild Turkey was named.

Kentucky Gentleman: Produced in Bardstown by Barton's Distillery.

Very Old Barton: Produced also in Bardstown since the early 1800's.

Jack Daniels: Produced since 1866 when Jack Daniel established America's

oldest registered distillery. Aged in unheated warehouses which develops

the color and taste.

Woodford Reserve: No date found, produced in Versailles, Kentucky, has a

reddish amber color, a hint of vanilla, caramel, fruit and oak flavor.

Four Roses: Named possibly for a romantic story where a young man was going

off to fight in the Civil War. He had proposed to a shy young lady and she

replied that if her answer was yes, she would wear four red roses in her

hair at the next ball. Produced in 1888, known for it's unusual full-bodied

taste by being fermented in cypress tubs centuries old and aged in white

oak barrels.

Evans Williams. Reportedly the oldest bourbon in Kentucky. Evan Williams

came to Kentucky from Virginia about 1781 and settled at the Falls of the

Ohio River. He opened his distillery in Louisville in 1783 and the bourbon

is still produced using a 200-year-old recipe.

Elijah Craig: This was originally made by the Rev. Elijah Craig in the

earliest days of Kentucky. He aged the bourbon in charred bottles which he

felt enhanced the flavor.

Jim Beam: This bourbon began in 1788 with Jacob Beam who followed Daniel

Boone's path through he Cumberland Gap from Virginia. Beam's Distillery was

founded in 1795. His grandson, James, entered the business in 1880, naming

it for himself.

Maker's Mark: This distillery used winter wheat instead of rye as a

flavoring. Seven generations of the Samuels family have been producing

Maker's Mark in Loretta, KY.

Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey: Produced in Franklin Co

Kentucky, no origination date found.

W. L. Weller: William LaRue Weller began bottling his bourbon in 1849 using

corn, malted barley and wheat.


A whiskey rebellion in 1791 led to moonshining. The rebellion was the

result of higher and higher taxation on the Kentucky distillers as noted

above and led to the closing of many home-run distilleries. Moonshiners

took the place of many distilleries and the moonshiners became heroes to

many. They were well known for their ability to hide from the "revenuers"

They were simply unlicensed distillers on a smaller scale. In 1862 another

excise tax was imposed by the federal government and the moonshiners were

hunted down and prosecuted.

The federal government attempted to give them a blanket pardon in 1878 if

they promised to stop the manufacturing. The moonshiners agreed, filled the

courthouses waiting to sign the agreement - and then went out and made more

moonshine! In 1881, 102 illegal stills were raided and closed. By 1914, 214

were raided and closed. But it was a profitable business and during World

War times, a good moonshiner could make up to $300 a month. During the

prohibition time of 1920-1933, the moonshiners became the prey and partner

many times of the racketeer with the racketeer taking most of the profits.

It might be noted that the infamous Al Capone bought moonshine (whiskey)

from eastern Kentucky and Golden Pond whiskey from western Kentucky. With

the repeal of prohibition, the moonshiner's business came to a grinding

halt. Most has disappeared from Kentucky and some turned to a new lucrative

business, marijuana.


Crowgey, Henry G, Kentucky Bourbon, The Early Years of Whiskey Making,

Lexington, KY 1971.

Downard, William L., Directory of the History of America Brewing and

Distilling Industries, Westport, CT, 1980.

Kentucky Encyclopedia, University of Kentucky, 1992, Betty B. Ellison.

© Copyright 17 October 2002, Sandra K. Gorin, All Rights Reserved.


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