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Bourbon History Timeline

Times Remembered, Times Disputed


As one might expect, the history of bourbon is a little sketchy. Many important dates are disputed, many were forgotten (a few on purpose) and still more may have become hazy due to the nature of the subject at hand. In an attempt to create a picture of bourbon whiskey's heritage, especially that in Kentucky, I've put together a timeline of those important moments, or supposed moments. Many of these events had an impact that reached beyond those who make and drink "America's Native Spirit."

1783- Samuels Family Tradition Begins

Bottle of 10 Downing Street Bourbon - Maker's Mark Bourbon Whiskey
Photo Credit: © Shannon Graham
The Samuels family claims the title of oldest bourbon family still going strong. Prior to 1840 the Samuels family did not produce bourbon commercially. It wasn't until T.W. Samuels (grandson to Robert Samuels who created the "secret" family recipe) came along and constructed a distillery at Samuels Depot, Kentucky that the family made a business of bourbon. In 1943, after a break during Prohibition, Bill Samuels Sr. burned that famous family recipe. Bill Sr. wanted to create a bourbon without the bitterness, and so he did: Maker's Mark. The company is now in the hands of his son, Bill Samuels Jr., who continues the family bourbon tradition today.

1783- First Commercial Distillery in Kentucky

Tugboat pushing a coal barge up the Ohio river.
Andre Kudyusov / Photographer's Choice RF / Getty Images
When Evan Williams opened his distillery on the banks of the Ohio River in Louisville, it was the first commercial distillery in Kentucky. The bourbon that still bears the distiller's name is one of the popular bourbons today.

1785- Bourbon County, Kentucky is Established

Whiskey Barrel Wagon at Maker's Mark Bourbon Whiskey Distillery
Photo Credit: © Shannon Graham
The stories are unclear as to how the whiskey distilled in the Kentucky area came to be named "bourbon." The modern borders of Bourbon County Kentucky are not the way it was originally established; "Old Bourbon County" is comprised of 14 modern counties. Current day Bourbon County has little significance in the production of bourbon whiskey, instead most production is concentrated in the Louisville, Frankfurt and Bardstown areas.

1789- Elijah Craig

Whiskey barrel at Maker's Mark Bourbon Whiskey Distillery.
Photo Credit: © Shannon Graham
It's been said that Elijah Craig invented bourbon by aging the already popular corn whiskey, or moonshine. This is a disputed fact; many believe that bourbon was not invented, but instead evolved with many hands in the barrel, so to speak, such as those who emigrated from Pennsylvania because of the Whiskey Excise Tax. It is a fact that in 1789 Elijah Craig, Baptist minister, opened a distillery in Georgetown, Kentucky. Heaven Hill Distillery produces a bourbon named after the "inventor" of bourbon.

1794- Whiskey Rebellion

Whiskey Rebellion of 1794
Photo by Fotosearch/Getty Images
Farmers, primarily in western Pennsylvania, protest against the 1791 Whiskey Excise Tax. President Washington called up 13,000 militia to deal with the rebels, but the band disperse before any conflicts. These events encouraged Kentucky and Tennessee distillers, who were not subject to the federal law at the time. The Whiskey Rebellion was the first real test of the federal government's ability to enforce laws.

1795- The Beam Tradition Begins

Jim Beam Single Barrel Bourbon Whiskey
Photo Courtesy: © Jim Beam
The Beam family has one of the best known names in American whiskey. The man that started what would be a family legacy, that is now on it's 7th generation, was Jacob Beam who sold his first barrel of "Old Jake Beam Sour" in 1795. Since that time David Beam, David M. Beam, Col. James Beam (the Jim Beam), T. Jeremiah Beam, Booker Noe (Booker's Small Batch) and, now, Fred Noe have carried the family craft into what it has become today.

1821- Bourbon Advertising Begins

Bourbon Advertising 1861
Photo by Buyenlarge/Getty Images
The first advertisement for bourbon was printed in the Western Citizen Newspaper in Paris, Kentucky.

1823- Sour Mash Developed

Fermentation tank at the Maker's Mark Bourbon Whiskey Distillery.
Photo Credit: © Shannon Graham
Dr. James C. Crow developed what is known as sour mash at the Pepper Distillery (now the Woodford Reserve Distillery). This method of recycling some yeast for the next fermentation revolutionized the way most bourbons and Tennessee whiskies have been produced since.

1840- It's Officially "Bourbon"

Advertisement for Robertson's Genuine Bourbon Cordial, from Harrison Company in Kentucy, 1847.
Photo by Buyenlarge/Getty Images
Although bourbon whiskey had been distilled in the Old Bourbon County area for decades, it was not until 1840 that it officially became known as Bourbon. Prior to this it was often labeled "Bourbon County Whiskey" or "Old Bourbon County Whiskey."

1861-1865- The Civil War

oldiers from the 134th Illinois Volunteer Infantry playing card
Photo by John Carbutt/Buyenlarge/Getty Image
The Civil War caused a shortage of whiskey. Not only were many men drawn from their day jobs to fight in the war, but many battles were fought in the major American whiskey distilling regions. Major Benjamin Blanton, who before the war hit it big in the California Gold Rush and owned a large portion of downtown Denver, Colorado, sold everything to buy Confederate War Bonds. Those bonds were worthless after the fall of the South, leaving Blanton broke. Shortly after he opened a distillery in Kentucky (later the Stagg Distillery), producing Blanton's Bourbon Whiskey.
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