7 things to Know About the History of Bourbon in Kentucky

7 things to Know About the History of Bourbon in Kentucky

With distillery tourism on the rise in recent years, we thought it would only be appropriate to offer you some background information on America’s biggest alcohol staple – bourbon. By covering some of the most crucial facts about the history of bourbon in Kentucky, we hope to give you a better understanding and appreciation of this delicious spirit. The history of bourbon is storied, and we certainly won’t be covering everything in this article, but the facts you learn about here should inspire you to look into this staple further and maybe even go on a distillery tour yourself.

We don’t know who invented it

When talking about the history of something, it’s usually best to start from its origin story. However, this is a bit trickier to do with bourbon. There are several popular theories about the origin of this drink. However, we don’t have enough evidence to conclude that they are true. One of the most popular theories is that the inventor of bourbon was Elijah Craig. He was a Baptist minister and distiller from Kentucky. People believe he was the first to ever age corn whiskey in charred barrels made from oak. If this story is authentic, it will date the origin of bourbon to the late 1700s.

Vintage copper pot stills
It seems most plausible that bourbon in Kentucky came about over time rather than being created by one person.

However, most people dispute this theory on the count of the fact that there isn’t much information to support its authenticity. Most experts today argue that this drink evolved rather than being created by a single person. They believed the drink came about when people started moving from Pennsylvania to Kentucky to avoid the Whiskey Excise Tax. As they started experimenting with new distilling and aging processes, bourbon was born.

We’re also not sure how it got its name

There are several debates about the history of bourbon in Kentucky. One of the most popular ones, other than its origin story, is the debate about how the drink got its name. One of the most popular (and most interesting) legends is that it was named after Bourbon Street in New Orleans. Just like any other legend, the story varies slightly depending on whom you ask, but the general synopsis would go as follows. Two French brothers came to Louisville and started shipping the local variation of whiskey to Louisiana. Since they thought the drink was very similar to cognac, they started shipping it to New Orleans, where cognac was very popular at the time. They sold it in a few bars on Bourbon Street, and over time people started ordering ‘that whiskey they sell on Bourbon street.’ Eventually, people shortened this order to ‘that bourbon whiskey.’

While this story is fascinating, people usually dispute it with evidence showing that some people also referred to bourbon as ‘Bourbon County whiskey’ and ‘Old Bourbon County whiskey.’ Some people even believe this proves that the drink was named after Bourbon County in Kentucky. One thing we know with a bit more certainty is that in 1840 the drink known as bourbon whiskey officially got the name bourbon.

Prohibition era and WWII

Two moments in the history of bourbon caused mass production halts. The Prohibition and World War II. From 1920 to 1933, all bourbon distilleries shut down because of Prohibition. Thankfully 13 years isnt long enough for people to forget such an iconic recipe.

A knocked-over glass with alcohol spilled out
One of the darkest times in the history of bourbon in Kentucky is the prohibition era.

In 1933 they finally reopened, only to shut down once again during WWII. During the war, the government converted many distilleries into labs to help with the mass production of the newly discovered, life-saving medicine penicillin. If you’re wondering why they would convert a bourbon distillery of all places into a penicillin factory, the answer is simple – fermentation. Since fermentation is part of the penicillin production process, alcohol distilleries were the perfect place for producing it.

It’s “America’s native spirit”

The year 1964 is, without a doubt, the most important in Kentucky’s bourbon history. Congress declared bourbon as ‘America’s Native Spirit’ during this year. This paved the way for making the official rules that a distillery must follow to call their drink bourbon. One of the rules is that ‘America’s Native Spirit’ must be made in America.

When you go on distillery tours, you’ll get a different experience in each one you visit. Some distilleries offer hands-on history lessons about this fantastic drink, while others focus on sharing the distillery’s story or the distilling process. However, if there’s one thing you can count on hearing about every time, it’s the story of the year 1964.

The official bourbon criterion

Many people believe that bourbon must be made in Kentucky. 95% of the world’s bourbon is indeed made in Kentucky. However, that doesn’t mean that you have to make bourbon here. A distillery has to follow several rules for their drink to bear the name of bourbon:

  1. They have to make it in the US,
  2. They have to make it from at least 51% corn (although the industry standard is around 70%),
  3. Each batch has to be aged in a brand-new, charred white oak barrel,
  4. It must be aged for at least two years,
  5. They have to bottle the drink between 80 and 125 proof,
  6. The drink cannot contain any additional flavor or pigment – this means they can only add water at the bottling.
Kentucky bourbon barrels
True bourbon has to be aged in a charred white oak barrel for at least two years, although the industry standard is about seven.

There is a National Bourbon Heritage Month

In 2007, the senate officially named September “National Bourbon Heritage Month.” This celebrates the history of bourbon in Kentucky and the US as a whole. It commemorates the massive impact that the drink has had on American culture, economy, and industrial history.

The Urban Bourbon Trail was created in 2008

The tourism board of Louisville created the Urban Bourbon Trail in 2008. They were attempting to increase Louisville’s income from the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. This is because, before the introduction of UBT, many visitors of the KBT weren’t spending enough time in Louisville. If you plan on moving to Kentucky in the future, experts from thegentlemanmover.com strongly advise visiting attractions like these to get to know the area better in a fun and engaging way before taking the plunge.

Final thoughts

Even today the bourbon industry continues to grow. The history of bourbon in Kentucky is amazing and rich. And there is no better place to learn about it than the state it calls home. If you’re a true fan of bourbon, there are several distilleries you simply must visit. But not all of them are old and vintage. New distilleries which use modern production practices open every day in Kentucky and all of America.

Let us help you make your next family or friend gathering special, educational, and memorable.

Visit www.tourwithusky.com to see more details about the B-Line Trail Southbound as well as our other tour packages.

Bourbon Tours Northern Kentucky