Evan Williams, 1755-1810

Historical Marker #2445 commemorates Evan Williams (1755 – 1810), an early Kentucky whiskey distiller in Jefferson County.

A native of Wales, Williams came to Kentucky around 1780. He settled in Louisville, which had been established two years earlier. Upon his arrival, Williams noted a problem in the state’s agricultural industry—Kentucky’s rich soil was capable of producing massive crops, but there was not enough infrastructure to support its transportation. This resulted in significant surpluses of corn and other grains. Williams saw opportunity, and in 1783, built his distillery on the banks of the Ohio River, distilling whiskey from purchased corn surpluses on the East side of what is now 5th Street. It is said to have been the first commercial distillery in Kentucky, shipping barrels by flatboat down the Ohio River. In 1801, his federal distilling license indicated that he owned three whiskey stills licensed at 141, 130 and 93 gallons.

Despite his eventual success, Williams had a rocky start. Early drinkers would rely upon the beverage as “a good medicine for chills and fever,” but decried it as a “bad whiskey.” Furthermore, the distiller also encountered legal troubles when he claimed the right to sell his whisky without license, and was indicted of this offense by a grand jury in 1788. In 1802, city officials also condemned his facility’s sanitation practices, labelling discharged water and other industrial byproducts (“slop”) a nuisance. Ironically, Williams himself was serving as Louisville’s elected Harbormaster and was in charge of the wharf’s cleanliness at the time.

Williams also held several civic leadership positions, including serving as one of Louisville’s seven elected city trustees. According to legend, he would bring a bottle of his whiskey to the Board of Trustee Meetings, from which all the members present would partake. Louisville, located at the Falls of the Ohio River, was a major port for river traffic. Boats were unloaded above the Falls and the freight, carried over land, was then reloaded on boats below the Falls to be shipped to New Orleans. The Louisville harbor was small and needed supervision to avoid overcrowding. As the wharf or harbor master, one of Williams’ duties was to ensure that boats complied with a regulation stipulating that all boats had to be unloaded and moved out of the harbor within forty-eight hours after their arrival.

He was also a master stone mason and builder who oversaw construction of the first jail and courthouse in Jefferson County.

Williams died on October 15, 1810 in Louisville.