Bourbon Whiskey

Historical Marker #2295 in Paris notes the influence of bourbon whiskey on Kentucky's history.

When one considers what Kentucky is known for, at least three things quickly come to mind: horses, basketball, and bourbon. Whiskey has been distilled in Kentucky since the state's earliest settlers came across the Appalachian Mountains. Those first pioneers from Virginia, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina brought with them their knowledge of how to produce distilled spirits and found a region particularly well adapted for its production.

Some of the earliest whiskey distilled in Kentucky was produced in Bourbon County. The county was the fifth established in what would eventually become Kentucky, and was formed from Fayette County in 1785, when the region was still part of Virginia. Bourbon County, located in the Bluegrass Region of the state, proved especially well suited for growing corn, the major ingredient in whiskey. In the county, men like Jacob Spears combined corn and other grain ingredients such as wheat, barley or rye with the fresh water produced by local limestone springs into a distinctive brand of whiskey that earned the name of bourbon.

Early-nineteenth century Kentucky distillers produced their whiskey for both home use and market consumption. Bourbon often appeared in early Kentucky newspaper advertisements. One early notice, in the Paris "Western Citizen," offered "Bourbon whiskey by the barrel or keg." Bourbon County distiller Jacob Spears and his partner Samuel Williams readily marketed their particular brand as "Best Old Whiskey." By the middle of the nineteenth century, Bourbon was a nationally-recognized type of whiskey, distinct from other corn-only variations.

By the late 1800s, Kentucky was the leading producer of bourbon in the nation. At that time, federal law established standards for aging and manufacturing processes. After Prohibition, the present standards were set, and, in 1964, Congress determined bourbon to be a distinctly American product by prohibiting importation of any bourbon whiskey.

Today, the Bluegrass State still reigns as the nation's leading distiller. About seventy percent of all spirits produced in the United States are made in Kentucky. Kentucky's notoriety for bourbon has manifested itself in the historic preservation of notable distilleries. In addition, this signature product has influenced tourism through the state's popular Bourbon Trail.

Images

Distillery Advertisement

Distillery Advertisement

This advertisement for a Kentucky bourdon distillery was placed in the Western Farmer's Almanac in 1876. Courtesy of the Kentucky Historical Society. View File Details Page

Bourbon Bottle

Bourbon Bottle

Originally only sold by barrel or keg, bourbon began being sold by bottle directly from the distilleries in the late nineteenth century. Courtesy of the Kentucky Historical Society. View File Details Page

Hermitage Distillery

Hermitage Distillery

This nineteenth century lithograph shows Hermitage Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky. Courtesy of the Kentucky Historical Society. View File Details Page

Anderson Distillery

Anderson Distillery

This trade sign from the 1870s advertised the Anderson Distillery's "Hand Made Sour Mash." Courtesy of the Kentucky Historical Society. View File Details Page

Julep Cup

Julep Cup

Silver drinking cups such as this one have a long Kentucky tradition. Cups were often given away as prizes at livestock shows and sporting events. Courtesy of the Kentucky Historical Society. View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Tim Talbott, “Bourbon Whiskey,” ExploreKYHistory, accessed May 26, 2017, http://explorekyhistory.ky.gov/items/show/418.
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