Kentucky & Bourbon (Part 1) | Pioneer through Prohibition

Baker, TJ, Booker, and Carl outside a government office.

Story by Carla Carlton
Introduction by Justin Thompson

Part I of a two part series. Read Part II here.

Kentucky will celebrate 225 years of statehood June 1st of this year. Many of the Bluegrass State’s first settlers brought with them their knowledge and equipment to make whiskey which means it will also be celebrating over two centuries of Bourbon making as well. Author Carla Carlton recounts Bourbon’s history, from the pioneer days to the current “Bourbon Boom” in her new book, “Barrel Strength Bourbon: The Explosive Growth of America’s Whiskey.” We have included some excerpts from the book, to give you an idea of how the Bourbon industry’s roots were formed in Kentucky in this first of a two-part series.

With over 30 distillery experiences to see and many more opening soon, now is the time to make the pilgrimage to Bourbon Country. Please share your adventures from your favorite distilleries via our Instagram, Facebook or Twitter accounts with pictures using the hashtag #KY225. We’ll be reposting as many as we can, along with giving away Bourbon-themed swag from our Bourbon Outfitters shop.

Join us in the #ky225 tag, celebrating 225 years of Kentucky’s distilling heritage.

Excerpt from Carla Carlton’s “Barrel Strength Bourbon: The Explosive Growth of America’s Whiskey” (Clerisy
Press, 2017)

TRUE OR FALSE: Bourbon can be made only in Kentucky. If you answered “true,” you’re not alone. You’re also wrong. But don’t feel bad; I’ve encountered plenty of people who firmly hold that conviction—including bartenders in Kentucky who should know better. The truth is, you can make bourbon in any state, as long as it’s one of the United States of America. The confusion is easy to understand, however, as Kentucky produces all but about 5% of the bourbon in the world.

Now let’s further test your knowledge of bourbon with a short multiple-choice quiz.

1. Who made the very first bourbon?
a. Jacob Beam
b. Elijah Craig
c. Evan Williams
d. I don’t know.

2. When was the very first bourbon made?
a. 1783
b. 1792
c. 1821
d. I don’t know.

3. Where did bourbon get its name?
a. Bourbon County, Kentucky
b. Bourbon County, Virginia
c. Bourbon Street in New Orleans
d. I don’t know.

The correct answer to all three: d. Don’t be offended, by the way—I don’t mean that you don’t know the answers to these questions; I mean that I don’t. The truth is, despite what you may have read or heard elsewhere, nobody knows for sure who “invented” bourbon, or when or how it got its name. People were too busy just trying to survive back then to write much down. What we do know is that people have been making bourbon in Kentucky since before there even was a Kentucky, when the land that is now the Bluegrass State was part of Virginia.

Get the full story in Barrel Strength Bourbon: The Explosive Growth of America’s Whiskey, by Carla Harris Carlton

The Birth of Bourbon

The earliest settlers brought stills with them to the land that would eventually become Kentucky when they migrated west in the 1770s. Fort Harrod, the first permanent settlement in this new territory, soon became known as Harrodsburg, and when the Virginia legislature established Kentucky County in 1776, Harrodsburg became the county seat.

An influx of Scots-Irish and German immigrants helped to lay the foundations for the whiskey industry. One of them was Jacob Beam, who was attracted to the Nelson County area by its plentiful limestone-rich streams. Nelson County’s seat, Bardstown, which was established in 1780 and is Kentucky’s second oldest city, would eventually become known as the Bourbon Capital of the World.

In those early years, though, just about every farmer would have been distilling his excess grain harvest into whiskey, which became a form of currency.

Corn was especially plentiful in this new world. It grew so successfully on Dunmore’s Island, a small island in the Ohio River settled by George Rogers Clark in 1778, that residents renamed it Corn Island. Five years later, in 1783, those settlers moved ashore and founded the city of Louisville, named for King Louis XVI of France, whose government had aided the colonists against England in the Revolutionary War. Farther east, another area of what was still Virginia had been given a French name in gratitude to and honor of Louis XVI’s royal house: Bourbon County. In 1792, it became part of the new state—or, if you want to be technical, the new commonwealth—of Kentucky.

Around about this time, a man whose name you’ll recognize from a bourbon bottle, Evan Williams, built a distillery on the banks of the Ohio in Louisville. Williams is often referred to as Kentucky’s first distiller, but this claim cannot be proved. “The fact is,” bourbon historian Michael Veach writes in Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: An American Heritage, “that we may never know the identity of Kentucky’s first distiller.” Because distilled spirits weren’t taxed, there are no government records from these early days.

We do know that in 1797, Williams was elected to Louisville’s Board of Trustees, and, more important, he was appointed harbormaster, one of the most in influential positions in the city. The same limestone rock shelves that made Kentucky’s streams so good for bourbon-making had also made Louisville a mandatory stop for southbound river traffic: the Ohio River had carved out a series of rapids here that, over 2 miles, dropped the water level 26 feet.

Boats were unloaded at a harbor above the Falls of the Ohio, and they and their freight were portaged below the falls to continue their journey. The harbor was small and heavily used; as a result, boats had to be unloaded and moved within 48 hours. The harbormaster was in charge of making sure this happened. Louisville was already a major shipping center, and it was about to become even more important.

In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson decided to buy Louisiana, a purchase that opened up trade routes all the way to New Orleans. At this point, whiskey, and anything else someone wanted to sell or trade, was transported by flatboat. These simple vessels could easily be built by farmers to take their harvest downriver. With nothing to power them but the current, however, flatboats were a one-way ticket.

To get back home, sellers faced a long and often dangerous trek; if someone was hiking north from New Orleans, chances were good that he was carrying a sack of money. To increase their odds of arriving alive, many Kentuckians bought horses—the fastest ones they could find—to make the trip. Some say this was the beginning of the Thoroughbred industry in Kentucky.

Fortunately, a man named Robert Fulton was busy working on a boat that would be able to make the round-trip. He developed the first commercial steamboat in 1807, and in 1815, a steamboat made the first excursion upriver from New Orleans to Louisville. Steam would also be harnessed to distill alcohol as distilleries adopted new technologies during the 19th century.

The French had long been aging brandy and cognac in oak barrels charred on the inside to give them flavor and color. At some point in these early 1800s, Kentucky distillers began using this same method to make whiskey, which added caramel, vanilla, and oak flavors to the spirit and gave it a distinctive amber color.

One popular legend holds that the man who came up with the idea of charring the insides of barrels to enhance the flavor of bourbon was the Reverend Elijah Craig. Now, the Reverend Craig was a real person, a man of the cloth who fled from Virginia to Kentucky because of religious persecution and built a distillery in 1789. But there is no proof that he intentionally charred barrels to improve his whiskey’s flavor.

According to Veach, the earliest known mention of charring a barrel is found in an 1826 letter to a distiller from a Lexington grocer ordering more barrels of whiskey and adding, “if the barrels should be burnt upon the inside, say only a 16th of an inch, that it will much improve it.” Veach thinks it’s more likely that a grocer or wholesale whiskey merchant, not a distiller, came up with the idea of aging American whiskey in charred barrels after noticing that the large French population of New Orleans favored imported brandy and cognac, both barreled-aged spirits, over local unaged corn whiskey.

“Wall Street for Whiskey”

To accommodate the growing number of steamboats, the city of Louisville built a canal that allowed the boats to bypass the Falls of the Ohio. River traffic grew exponentially with the opening of the Portland Canal in 1830, as did Louisville’s population. By 1850, Louisville was one of the 12 largest cities in America. Whiskey interests from all over opened offices and warehouses along a 12-block stretch of Main Street near the Ohio River that became known as Whiskey Row.

Whiskey Row was also the home of rectifiers, who created new products either by blending several whiskeys together or by blending whiskey with neutral grain spirits. While some of these products were legitimate, it was easy to tamper with them since bourbon was sold directly from a barrel.

In 1870, a young Louisville distiller named George Garvin Brown landed on a solution to the problems of consistency and potential tampering. His Old Forrester Bourbon, named for a Union Army hero, Dr. William Forrester, was the first bourbon to be sold exclusively in bottles. At some point in history, Old Forester lost one of its Rs, but it is still the flagship brand of the Brown-Forman distillery.

George Garvin Brown, the first distiller to sell bourbon exclusively in bottles.
The office at Brown – Forman

Several other measures enacted in the late 1800s and early 1900s were designed to protect consumers and ensure authenticity in bourbon production. The Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897 developed “Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits,” among them that spirits had to be produced by one distiller in one distilling season at one U.S. distillery, which was to be identified on the label; had to be aged in a federally bonded warehouse for at least four years; and had to be bottled at 100 proof.

Bonded warehouses were padlocked, and only U.S. Treasury agents had a key. In 1906, the Pure Food and Drug Act required that all products, including whiskey, carry a label that listed their contents. But what was “pure whiskey”? The chief chemist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture decided it was a spirit distilled from grain that was aged in oak barrels and had nothing added but pure water; anything else would have to be labeled as “imitation whiskey.” This upset the rectifiers, who were putting neutral grain spirits, flavoring, coloring, and who-knows-what-all into their whiskeys. President William Howard Taft finally settled the question “What is whiskey?” with the Taft Decision of 1909, which said that “straight whiskey” was to be made only from grain (not fruit or molasses) and water, and that whiskey flavored with other spirits would be defined as “blended.”

Willett Bonded Warehouse

By the turn of the 20th century, there were nearly 100 whiskey-related concerns operating on and near Whiskey Row in Louisville. “This was the greatest accumulation of whiskey companies in the world in one place at one time,” says Brown-Forman Master Distiller Chris Morris. “It was like Wall Street for whiskey.” Unfortunately for both Wall Streets, big crashes were coming.

From Famine to Feast to Famine

The growth of distilling—and of cities, for that matter—in the early 1900s was not welcomed by everyone. A new temperance movement that blamed alcohol consumption for society’s ills was gaining momentum. Ironically, one of the most well-known members of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union was a native Kentuckian. Carry A. Nation, whose first husband was an alcoholic, smashed up saloons with her famous hatchet from December 1900 until her death in 1911.

Joining religious protestors were some wealthy business owners who believed that sober workers were harder workers. Prohibition supporters got a boost when the United States entered World War I in 1917 and President Woodrow Wilson instituted a temporary wartime prohibition during which distillers could produce only industrial alcohol. That same year, Congress submitted for state ratification the 18th Amendment, which banned the manufacture, transportation, and sale—but not use—of intoxicating liquors. The amendment received the support of the required three-quarters of U.S. states in 11 months.

The 18th Amendment was ratified on January 16, 1919, and took effect a year later. In October 1919, Congress passed the National Prohibition Act—commonly known as the Volstead Act, in reference to Rep. Andrew Volstead of Minnesota, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee—which provided guidelines for enforcing Prohibition.

Prohibition cost the country lots of jobs, not just in the distilling industry but also in ancillary businesses such as cooperages, bottle manufacturers, and taverns—even farmers were affected. By the 1932 presidential election, with the country in the midst of the Great Depression, it was clear that the so-called “Noble Experiment” had failed, and candidates for both major parties promised to do away with it. Under President Franklin Roosevelt, Congress proposed the 21st Amendment, which repealed the 18th, in February 1933, and the states ratified it in December 1933.

The distilling industry as a whole had really no more than started gearing back up when the United States entered World War II and the federal government once again halted beverage alcohol production, this time so that distilleries could switch to 190-proof industrial alcohol for use in ammunition, plastics, antifreeze, and the like. After the war, Americans once again had money to spend, and distilleries cranked up production to provide them with bourbon to spend it on. The 1950s were a golden age of bourbon production in Kentucky.

On May 4, 1964, Congress passed a resolution that declared bourbon whiskey to be “a distinctive product of the United States.” Then, as now, Kentucky was producing the lion’s share of America’s bourbon: By 1968, there were almost 9 million barrels of it aging in warehouses in the Bluegrass.

But the times were not the only things a-changin’ in the late 1960s. So was the nation’s drink of choice. And it wasn’t bourbon.

Read Part II here.

Carla Carlton covers the bourbon industry on her website, Her first book, Barrel Strength Bourbon: The Explosive Growth of America’s Whiskey (Clerisy Press, 2017), will be published in spring 2017 and is available for pre-order at

Caroline Paulus is the Senior Editor for The Bourbon Review. She lives and writes in Lexington, Kentucky. Follow her on Instagram @misswhiskeyhistorian to keep up with her latest in bourbon news - and a few old finds, too.