Historical Marker #2295 in Bourbon County explains the history of bourbon whiskey and Jacob Spears, one of the first distillers in the county.
Early settlers first came into central Kentucky in the 1770’s. One thing they often did after staking their claims to the land was to grow corn to feed their families and their livestock. Soon farmers produced more corn than they needed or could sell conveniently. Using early American resourcefulness, the pioneers made corn whiskey. Many of these settlers were of Scots-Irish descent and had been distillers for generations. They brought their traditions and expertise with them to Kentucky.
Although the Revolutionary War interrupted the lives of even those on the frontier, as soon as the war was over, Kentucky's citizens again took up farming and distilling in earnest. Many farmers constructed their own stills or took their corn to a neighbor to process. By 1792 there were 500 stills in Kentucky, and by 1812 there were 2000. By this time, distillers had started to transform the raw "white lightning" product into a smooth, sophisticated brown whiskey, aged in charred oak barrels.
Whiskey proved to be an important commodity to early Kentucky. It was sometimes used in place of money. Many people were paid their expenses with barrels of whiskey. As a preventative, this "holesome beverage" was also believed to be good for snake bites, fallen arches, chills and fever, women's complaints and babies' ills. In early Kentucky whiskey was almost as essential as milk, meat, salt, flour, and cornmeal.
The 1810 Bourbon County census shows 128 distilleries that produced over 146,000 gallons of whiskey valued at over $48,000. Every community in Bourbon County had at least one large distillery, making bourbon whiskey.
Jacob Spears (1754 – ca. 1825) was a man who engaged in several occupations. He was a farmer, distiller, dealer in bluegrass seed, and breeder of fine horses. As a distiller he had his two sons, Abraham and Noah, load barrels of whiskey on flatboats at Cooper's Run, which led to the Licking River, and thence to the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans where they sold the popular product for a fine price.
Along with horses and basketball, bourbon whiskey has become one of Kentucky's most enduring identities. Bourbon has also become one of the most popular spirits nationwide and around the world. The image of a southern Kentucky Colonel in a white suit and black string tie sipping a cool mint julep is one that is likely to last for generations to come.