America’s Native Spirit
Nearly every American story is an immigrant story, and Bourbon’s tale is just that. When the first European settlers arrived in Harrodsburg some 250 years ago, they came with something crucial in tow: the first rugged stills and the knowledge from their homelands to use them.
Further settlement of Virginia’s Kentucky County was incentivized by the Corn Patch & Cabin Rights Act in 1776 which offered 400 acres to any settlers who built cabins and planted corn. This led to the wholesale cultivation of corn and thus provided the foundation for the classic Bourbon mashbill.
To pay off the significant debt incurred by the American Revolution, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton proposed an excise tax “upon spirits distilled within the United States…” Despite opposition, Congress passed legislation in 1791 imposing the first tax ever on a domestic product.
The farmers eking out a living on the Western frontier of the newly established United States, who often distilled excess grain into whiskey, felt unfairly targeted by the federal government. They immediately rebelled by refusing to pay the tax. By 1794, the protests turned violent, and President Washington called up a militia of nearly 13,000 men to march against U. S. citizens. The show of force essentially quashed the “Whiskey Rebellion,” and the United States survived the first real challenge to federal authority.
In his book Travels of Four Years and a Half in the United States of America (1803), author John Davis defines a mint julep as “A dram of spirituous liquor that has mint in it, taken by Virginians of a morning.” Today, the Mint Julep is made with Bourbon and is a staple of the legendary Kentucky Derby® at Churchill Downs in Louisville. Each year, the track typically serves nearly 120,000 juleps over Derby weekend.
The Louisiana Purchase opened markets for trade in Southern states along the Mississippi River. This meant that whiskey could now be shipped downstream from Kentucky and sold further South, all the way to the bustling Port of New Orleans. By making it easy and affordable to ship barrels of whiskey, steamboats played an important role in the growth and distribution of Kentucky Bourbon.
Speaking of steamboats, the Northern Kentucky town of Maysville–once known as Limestone–was a critical shipping port of whiskey and other goods.
Fun fact: Louisville is home to the oldest Mississippi River-style steamboat in America still operating today: the Belle of Louisville.
Photo credit: Lexington History Museum
It was 1818 when Catherine Carpenter of Casey County recorded the first known recipe for sour mash, a game-changing technique that enabled a more consistent whiskey-making process and product.
While James C. Crow went on to industrialize the method in the 1830s, Catherine is credited with documenting the sour mash process itself, which paved the way for a process that’s used worldwide today.
Few things are shrouded in as much mystery as the origins of how Bourbon got its name. Going way back, the name “Bourbon” actually originated from a long lineage of French royalty. In fact, Bourbon County was named in honor of the French royal family who had provided military and financial assistance to the colonies during the Revolutionary War.
Though the first known reference to Bourbon is believed to have appeared as early as 1821, until the 1840’s, whiskey generally was referred to generically or given name of the closest town i.e. “Bardstown whiskey.”
Some believe that Jacob Spears (pictured)–distiller and Bourbon County resident– may have been the first to label his product as “Bourbon whiskey” in 1840. Others maintain that since New Orleans was the final destination for 95% of whiskey exports, Bourbon Street may have lended the title. The Kentucky spirit was reportedly referred to as “that whiskey they sell on Bourbon Street.” Moreover, there are some folks that think it was just good marketing to use a French word that sounds as lovely as the whiskey tastes. At least that’s something we can all agree on.
Up through the late nineteenth century, distillers packaged their whiskey in barrels and kegs for commercial sale to bars and saloons where it would be sold by the drink or in generic glass bottles. Needless to say, tampering was rampant. Whiskey was often watered down, diluted with other, cheaper spirits and coloring or tainted with a variety of agents.
George Garvin Brown, who got his start as a pharmaceutical salesman, innovated the Bourbon packaging process by producing the first Bourbon sold exclusively in sealed, glass bottles to ensure consistency and quality. Dating back to 1870, Old Forester labels still bear the trademark “America’s First Bottled Bourbon.”
To protect America’s spirit from “needless and obstructive laws and regulations,” Bourbon distillers met in Louisville to effectively form the Kentucky Distillers’ Association (KDA)—one of the most powerful lobbies in the Commonwealth. For decades, the group has fought tirelessly to reduce whiskey taxes, shrink insurance fees and address other important measures of the time. Ironically, it was Prohibition that catalyzed the KDA’s rebirth in 1935.
Fun fact: The KDA is one of the oldest trade associations in the US – older than 13 states, the Statue of Liberty, and even zippers!
The invention of arguably the world’s most popular whiskey cocktail is hotly debated. One legend has it that Col. James E. Pepper, a prolific distiller of the time, had this delicious concoction at the Pendennis Club in Louisville. When asked what the drink’s name was, “an old fashioned cocktail” was the answer he was given. He took the drink and its name to NY and from there it spread around the world. The Pendennis Club was founded in 1881, but mentions of the Old Fashioned date back as far as 1806. Here in Kentucky, we do love our stories.
American Marvin C. Stone patented the modern drinking straw, made of manilla paper, in 1888, to address the shortcomings of the rye grass straw. He came upon the idea while drinking a mint julep on a hot day. The taste of the rye from the straw was mixing with the drink giving it a grassy taste and leaving a gritty residue in his glass. Stone actually marketed his new invention as “Stone’s Patent Julep Straws” which, according to the ads, were “sweet, clean and perfect.”
Before Prohibition, counterfeit, rectified and tainted spirits sold as “whiskey” flooded the unregulated marketplace, compromising the integrity and heritage of authentic Bourbon. To protect consumers and legitimate distillers, the federal government passed the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897. Often credited as the first consumer protection act in U.S. history, it set forth Standards of Identity, some of which included: must be aged in a federally-bonded warehouse for at least four years, must be at least 100 proof (50% ABV) and must be made in the U.S. with the distillery location printed on the label.
Bullock was a bartender at the Pendennis Club and is the first known African-American author to publish a cocktail manual The Ideal Bartender. His book is notable as one of the last cocktail manuals published before Prohibition, providing a rare view into pre-Prohibition cocktail recipes and drinking culture in America.
Since the publication of The Ideal Bartender, the next cocktail book would not be penned by an African-American for almost a full century until Shannon Mustipher released Tiki: Modern Tropical Cocktails in 2019.
Photo credit: Michigan State University Libraries Digital Repository
Prohibition: a time when Bourbon barons fell, bootleggers ran wild and you needed a doctor’s prescription or speakeasy password to get your hands on some whiskey. Prior to the 18th amendment, Kentucky was home to over 200 distilleries. By the time it was all said and done, only 34 went on to re-open. Just six distilleries were able to operate at all during Prohibition, and that was only thanks to a little something known as a medicinal whiskey permit.
When the 21st amendment was ratified in 1933, Prohibition was repealed and “the Great Experiment” finally came to an end. By 1938, the number of distilleries operating in Kentucky had climbed back up to 70 and the industry was back with a vengeance.
Ruth Hanly Booe and her friend Rebecca Gooch, both in their 20s, left teaching in 1919 to start a candy business – Rebecca Ruth Candies in Frankfort, Kentucky. It is said that it took them two years to perfect the process for blending Bourbon and candy. Today, the family-owned company still sells the famed Bourbon Balls, but don’t bother asking for the recipe – it’s a secret.
Fun fact: The Gooch House where the boozy confection was invented now serves at the headquarters for the Kentucky Distillers’ Association.
Just as distilleries were recovering from Prohibition, WWII presented new challenges. Grain rationing completely shutdown distillation of spirits from 1942-46, but most distilleries were busier than ever producing high proof industrial alcohol – and in some cases penicillin for the war effort.
One gallon of industrial alcohol was required to manufacture every 155-millimeter howitzer shell, while the construction of a single jeep required twenty-three gallons. In total, roughly 126 million gallons were used just for antifreeze, and the synthetic rubber for tires, hoses and the rayon for parachutes required over a billion more gallons.
The spirits industry supplied 44% of the 1.7 billion gallons of 190-proof industrial alcohol used during the war and referred to their wartime production as “cocktails for Hitler.”
(excerpt from Bourbon Empire by Reid Mitenbuler)
It’s hard to imagine Maker’s Mark without their iconic dripping red wax topper, unique bottle shape and handcrafted label. And it’s all thanks to co-founder Margie Samuels, who knew from the very beginning that like the taste of their Bourbon, their bottle needed to stand out.
From coming up with the name “Maker’s Mark” to using a home fryer to melt wax and hand-dip the very first bottles in her kitchen—it was Margie who created the brand behind the Bourbon you know and love today. Did we mention she also went on to become the first woman involved with a distillery to be inducted into the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame? Now that’s truly re-mark-able.
When Congress recognized “Bourbon whiskey a distinctive product of the United States” by Congressional Resolution on May 4, 1964, it became official: No other country in the world can produce Bourbon. It’s our native spirit, and ours alone. But we’ll share it with anyone, of course.
As the U.S. underwent a multitude of cultural and societal changes in the 70s, demand for whiskey hit an all time low. The amber nectar was largely viewed as your “grandfather’s drink” and most young drinkers were trending toward clear spirits. In 1976, vodka sales surpassed those of whiskey and many distillery operations across Kentucky and the country shuttered their doors. Drinking grandpa’s whiskey wouldn’t be cool again for another 20-some years.
In an attempt to reignite consumer interest in whiskey, American distillers sought to benefit from the practices of their Scottish counterparts, who had begun to market single malt Scotch in the U. S. with relative success. The word “single” on the label seemed to work magic, and Bourbon brands got to work marketing hand-picked, single barrels of whiskey. In addition, producing “small batches” of Bourbon mingled from select barrels got the attention of consumers who had become more selective with their spirit of choice. The success of the single barrel and small batch selections paved the way for the hundreds of premium Bourbon offerings we know and love today.
On November 7th, 1996, the Heaven Hill production plant was almost completely destroyed by fire. The fire spread with such fury due to the 70mph winds that it was referred to as a “raging inferno” ultimately claiming the distillery, seven rickhouses and leaving the employees of Heaven Hill in a state of devastation. But even with the unfathomable loss and uncertainty of the company’s future, Heaven Hill’s president Max Shapira put everyone back to work the next day determined to persevere through this hardship.
Luckily, the Bourbon industry is like no other, and competitors came to their aid by offering to produce Heaven Hill’s signature mashbill. The Bourbon distillate was then aged in barrels charred to Heaven Hill specifications and in rickhouses on Heaven Hill’s campus. Set on producing their own whiskey again, Heaven Hill purchased the fully automated and streamlined Bernheim Distillery in Louisville in 1999, tripling the capacity of the Bardstown location and providing renewed hope for the future.
After years of informal tours, the Kentucky Distillers’ Association (KDA) created the Kentucky Bourbon Trail® tour as a destination experience, where Bourbon lovers can go behind the scenes at Kentucky’s signature distilleries. For the very first time, people from all over the world were invited to get a glimpse of our world, from grain to glass.
As the world’s fascination with Bourbon continued to grow, so did people’s interest in small craft spirits distillers. And so in 2012 the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour® was born, inviting visitors to go deeper than ever into our unrivaled culture and craftsmanship. From moonshine flavored with local ingredients to barrel aged vodka, brandy, gin and—you guessed it—Bourbon, these craft distillers have changed the game in homegrown spirits and the stories behind them.
2007 marked the invention of one of the most famous modern-day Bourbon cocktails from bartender Sam Ross. Obsessed with the little-known Amaro Nonino, an Italian amaro described as equal parts bitter and sweet, Ross tried combining the traditional herbal liqueur with different spirits in a simple equal-parts formula similar to the gin-based cocktail the Last Word. He eventually found the perfect complement in Bourbon because of its “big body, extra sweetness and caramel notes,” and his easy-to-mix Paper Plane took off on social media and in bars worldwide.
(Photographer: Daniel Dorsa/Bloomberg)
In 2007, Mad Men first aired on AMC and so began America’s fascination with mid-20th century culture — and the Old Fashioned. Watching Don Draper in his 1960s tailored suit throwing together a cocktail with careless ease made the world pause and rewind to replicate it at home. Bartenders around the world reported a noticeable rise in demand for classic whiskey cocktails such as Manhattans and whiskey sours in addition to Don’s classic Old Fashioned.
It’s no secret that the distilling industry has been a white-male-dominated industry for generations. Over time, women who had been confined to support roles began to rise through the ranks to become some of the most outstanding professionals in the business. Today, Kentucky boasts many female executives, distillery owners, master distillers, operations managers, lead chemists, tasting experts, hospitality directors, marketing professionals and so much more. Anywhere there’s a job in Bourbon, there’s a woman qualified to do it.
Women now make up a growing consumer demographic. In 2011, The Bourbon Women Association was founded to bring together women who are passionate about Bourbon culture. Today, the association boasts members in 30 states as well as Australia and Canada.
Founded in 2014, the Stave & Thief Society is the first Bourbon certification program to be recognized by the industry. Developed by professional distilling and spirits educators, the Bourbon Steward certification has become recognized nationwide. Today, the number of Bourbon Stewards in their membership has surpassed 3,300 individuals and almost 150 establishments from around the globe, and the Executive Bourbon Steward challenge coin has become a revered token of expertise.
For the first time ever, Kentucky Bourbon Trail® and KBT® Craft Tour distilleries gave visitors more than 1 million tours in a year, confirming that it’s not just what’s inside the bottle that draws people to Kentucky Bourbon. The makers, the iconic brand homes and the Commonwealth’s legendary hospitality are all part of a culture that welcomes everyone and invites you to stay just a bit longer. Hitting the million-tour-mark was a win-win for our distillers, our state’s tourism industry—and the local economies they drive.
With great success comes great responsibility–and our distillers agree. In 2016, the industry took an essential step in creating the next-generation of hospitality experiences at Kentucky distilleries and in the community. These industry-wide efforts to create a safer, more inclusive and stigma-free drinking culture include programs, initiatives and partnerships for promoting mindful consumption habits, preventing underage access to alcohol, respecting the individual’s choice not to drink and curbing drunk driving.
Sober rides are the only safe rides. That’s why in 2017, the KDA created Safe Ride KY—an initiative to end impaired driving in Kentucky, one safe ride at a time.
Backed by an alliance of passionate local organizations, Safe Ride KY has since provided nearly 10,000 safe rides (and counting) during high-traffic holidays.
In 2018, the Frazier History Museum in downtown Louisville opened the new Kentucky Bourbon Trail® Welcome Center. Since it is the Official Starting Point of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail®, guests love stopping in to get trip planning advice, peruse the displays and even enjoy a tasting flight. The Spirit of Kentucky Exhibit is a must-see, as is their famous Bottle Hall.
In 2018, the US and Canada reached a deal called The United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) pact of 1994. The new “modernized” deal retained duty-free access for US spirits exports to Canada and Mexico. The agreement also reaffirmed commitments concerning the internal sale and distribution of distilled spirits and tariff-free trade in spirits, and protected product recognition for ‘Bourbon’ and other distilled spirits in the US.
The export of American whiskey hit an all-time high of $485 million in 2019, making Kentucky the nation’s leading exporter of the spirit. This total marked a 326.5% increase since 2004 and was fueled by the exponential international demand that had been well underway for more than a decade.
As a multi-billion-dollar signature industry, Kentucky Bourbon provided families with over 20,000 jobs and an annual payroll topping $1 billion—with no signs of slowing down.
The KDA’s Kentucky Spirits Collaborative launched in 2020 as a working collaboration between KDA member companies and representatives from colleges and universities across the Commonwealth for the purpose of industry sustainability. The Collaborative works to ensure the future of our Kentucky spirits industry through four areas of focus: Research, Education, Social Responsibility and Workforce Development.
2020’s silver lining? Kentucky distillers were settin’ back the good stuff. With nearly 10 million barrels of Bourbon and other distilled spirits aging in warehouses across the state—the largest number recorded since we started keeping track in 1967—it was a record-breaking year for barrel inventory. And with distillers filling some 2 million barrels, Kentucky distillers reached the highest annual production in history.
Fun fact: There are now more than two barrels aging in Kentucky for every person in the state!
While the COVID-19 pandemic did prompt a drastic 66% drop in attendance for the Kentucky Bourbon Trail® and Craft Tour™ distilleries—which was the first time in the attraction’s 21-year history that visitors decreased—it also brought Kentucky distillers closer to their communities and the people working in the thick of it every day.
At the peak of the pandemic’s PPP shortage, Kentucky distillers produced and donated nearly 125,000 gallons of desperately needed hand sanitizer across the Commonwealth to frontline workers, hospitals and healthcare facilities.
The KDA created the Lifting Spirits Foundation in 2020 to educate the public about the Commonwealth’s signature Bourbon and distilled spirits industry through charitable, educational, literary and scientific research efforts. The 501(c)(3) non-profit Foundation also supports workforce development issues and initiatives, including scholarships and programs aimed at increasing diversity and removing barriers to entry for entrepreneurs into the distilled spirits industry.
In December of 2020, Brough Brothers Distillery, the first and only Black-owned, licensed and operating distillery in Kentucky, officially opened their doors for business. Founded by Victor, Bryson, and Christian Yarbrough—three brothers born and raised in Louisville—this milestone signified a long-overdue step toward diversity, equity and inclusion in our industry.
Located in Park Hill, a historically underserved area of Louisville’s West End, Brough Brothers Distillery will provide job opportunities and economic growth in the heart of one of Kentucky’s cultural hubs.
From supporting initiatives that protect and regenerate American white oak forests to collaborating with the state’s leading universities on sustainability research and conservation programs, the KDA is taking big steps to decrease the environmental footprint of our industry. Whether it’s through pilot programs that test innovative tech to reduce waste and upcycle distillers spent grains, or by benchmarking the energy and water used at our distilleries, we’re always looking for ways to help our distillers do more while taking less from the Earth.
No matter where life takes us post-pandemic, one thing will never change: Kentucky Bourbon is about sharing a love of whiskey—and the people, places and stories behind it—with friends and family. So as things slowly get back to “normal,” we’re expecting Bourbon tourism to make a full comeback, with distillery tours and experiences that are safer and more organized than ever.
For far too long, there have been too few diverse voices in our industry. To change this, we’re taking active steps to cultivate a more diverse, equitable and inclusive future for Kentucky Bourbon and the distilled spirits industry. Through diversity scholarships and internships in distilling for people of color, women and other minority groups, we’re building a workforce that’s more representative of more cultures, communities and Bourbon lovers around the world. We’re also working with Kentucky distillers to provide education and training opportunities aimed at eliminating bias and increasing inclusion across the board.
Kentucky’s passage of in-person shipping from distilleries in 2018 sparked a national conversation on the growing direct-to-consumer movement among consumers and regulators. It quickly became clear that Kentucky needed to reform its laws to keep up with increasing consumer demand for our signature spirits as well as the shipment of wine into Kentucky. HB 415 removed the in-person provision and allowed all alcohol manufacturers in Kentucky to ship its products “direct-to-consumer” and set up the necessary regulatory, licensing and taxing structure. Kentucky’s spirits shipping law is now a model for other states to adopt.
Any whiskey lover knows that there’s no shortcut to making Bourbon just right. But there are ways to make the process smarter and more efficient.
From adding IoT sensors to equipment to storing barrels in experimental aging warehouses and using high-tech control rooms to test it, distillers will continue to balance new technologies with time-honored traditions to elevate their craft.
The next wave of Bourbon innovation is being shaped by creative barreling and finishing casks. Expect to see distilleries continuing to explore the use of different types of casks across different product categories, as well as more nuanced barrel finishes that bring complex flavors to life.
From custom toasting to using varying levels of char, one thing is sure: trends in barreling techniques are far from finished.
As Kentucky Bourbon culture continues to soar, so does the potential for growth in international markets.
Which countries will be greeted with a Kentucky hug next? That remains unclear. But with continued investment in the future of our industry, Kentucky distillers and affiliated businesses are working together to meet rising global demands.
The Kentucky Bourbon Tales Oral History Project full documentary and individual interviews can be viewed on the University of Kentucky’s Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History website.