The History of Kentucky Bourbon

Thank you for your contributions to the Kentucky Bourbon Timeline. Bourbon Historians: Chuck Cowdery, Dixie Hibbs, Chris Morris, Mike Veach & Al Young, The Belle of Louisville, The Filson Historical Society, The Kentucky Historical Society, Members of the Kentucky Distillers' Association.

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1774-08-01 00:00:00

1774 Early American Stills

The first still likely came with the first settlers to Harrodsburg in 1774. The early still consisted of a copper pot, a goose neck, and a copper worm (or coil).

1790-08-01 00:00:00

1790 Revolutionary War Debt

At the recommendation of Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, Congress voted to assume remaining war debts of the states in 1790. The combined state, foreign, and domestic war debts totaled $80 million. In order to pay these debts, the US Government levied a tax on alcohol. War debts paid by alcohol taxation began during the Revolutionary War and persist throughout American History. With the exception of the Spanish American War, debts from every American War have been paid with alcohol tax revenue.

1803-08-01 00:00:00

1803 Louisiana Purchase

The Louisiana Purchase opened markets for trade in southern states along the Mississippi river. Whiskey was shipped downstream from Kentucky on flatboats, headed for their final destination of New Orleans.

1811-08-01 00:00:00

1811 Steamboat

Using the design patented by John Fitch, Robert Fulton built the first steamboat in 1807. Four short years later, the steamboat arrived in Louisville, KY. Louisville is now the home of the only remaining authentic steamboat from that era, the historic 100 year old Belle of Louisville. For information, visit

1816-08-01 00:00:00

1816 Steam Power

The Hope Distillery is the first known distillery to experiment with steam power distillation in 1816. Ten years later, steam power was widely used in the distilling industry.

1818-08-01 00:00:00

1818 Sour Mash

Catherine Carpenter, of Casey County, continued operating her family’s distillery after her husband’s death. She recorded her recipe for sour mash and sweet mash in 1818. For more information, visit this link:

1821-01-01 14:49:08


The term “Bourbon” was first printed in the Western Citizen Newspaper (Bourbon County), with the firm Stout and Adams advertising “Bourbon Whiskey by the barrel or keg.”

1826-08-01 00:00:00

1826 Charred Barrel

The earliest known mention of charring a barrel is found in a letter from a Lexington grocer to Distiller John Corlis. In the letter, the grocer orders more barrels of whiskey and suggests, “if the barrels burnt upon the inside, say only a 16th of an inch”, then the whiskey will be much improved.

1830-05-27 22:05:43

1830s Brand Name

Brand Name – It is a long-standing tradition among distillers to burn the distillery name onto the barrelhead. Early saloons stored barrels above the bar with the branded names visible to customers. This is how the term “brand-names” originated. Brand names such as Old Crow started to gain recognition in the 1830’s. Distiller E.H. Taylor took special care to ensure his Bourbon was distinctive by using brass rings on his barrels that he polished before each shipment. E. H. Taylor also had an elaborate trademark designed for his barrels.

1830-08-01 00:00:00

1830 Louisville & Portland Canal

The opening of the Louisville and Portland Canal in 1830 marked the first major river improvement project to be successfully completed in the US. This two mile canal near Louisville Kentucky bypassed the Falls of the Ohio. Prior to the construction of the canal, shippers and boatmen relied on locals to assist in navigating the Falls of the Ohio. Furthermore, navigation in this area was exceptionally difficult during summer, fall, and winters months when the flow of the river was low. The completed canal decreased shipping costs and extended the shipping season.

1850-06-26 16:55:35

1850 Railroad

The Louisville & Nashville (L&N) Railroad was chartered by the state of Kentucky in 1850. The first track extended just south of Louisville, but, by 1859, the track construction finally reached Nashville (180 miles). For more information, visit this link:

1870-08-01 00:00:00

1870 Old Forrester

In 1870, George Garvin Brown recognized that bottling Bourbon in consistent packaging gave his product legitimacy, discouraged tampering, and boasted safety to consumers. Old Forrester, named for Union Army Surgeon, Dr. William Forrester, was the first Bourbon to be exclusively sold by the bottle. For more information, visit

1879-08-01 00:00:00

1879 Tiered Warehouses

Frederick Stitzel patented a system of tiered storage racks that increased air circulation and made it easier to move barrels. In 1960, Seagram constructed one story warehouses at Cox’s Creek. For more information, visit

1880-08-01 00:00:00

1880 Kentucky Distillers' Association Established

The Kentucky Distillers’ Association traces its roots back to 1880, when 32 distillers met at the Galt House in Louisville and organized to protect our signature spirit from “needless and obstructive laws and regulations.”

1897-08-01 00:00:00

1897 Bottled-in-Bond Act

The passage of the Bottled-in-Bond Act placed the responsibility of authenticity guarantor on the government and developed the “Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits”. Some of the Standards of Identity include: must be aged in federally bonded warehouse for at least 4 years, must be 100 proof, and must be produced in the US with the distillery location printed on the label.

1904-08-01 00:00:00

1904 Automatic bottle making

Michael J Owens patents an automatic bottle making system that can produce four bottles per second, inexpensively and with uniform quality. For the first time, bottling of distilled spirits becomes routine.

1906-08-01 00:00:00

1906 Pure Food and Drug Act

The Pure Food and Drug Act required that products be accurately labeled with contents, thereby creating a safer consumer environment.

1909-08-01 00:00:00

1909 Taft Decision

In 1909, President William Howard Taft weighed in on the definition and composition of whiskey. According to the Taft Decision, whiskey should be made from grain (not from fruit or molasses). Whiskey flavored with other spirits would be defined as “blended”. Taft allowed the terms “Bourbon” and “Rye” for identifying the dominate grain. In 1941, the list of acceptable mash bill grains was expanded from rye, corn and malted barley to include other small grains such as wheat. For more information, visit this link:

1919-08-01 00:00:00

1919 Volstead Act

The power to enforce prohibition came with the Volstead Act. Gerald Carson, in his book The Social History of Bourbon explains, “the Volstead Act, named after Representative Andrew J. Volstead of Minnesota, the devoted dry who introduced the bill, provided drastic penalties for making or selling liquor”.

1919-08-01 00:00:00

1919 Prohibition

On January 29th, 1919, Congress ratified the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution, prohibiting the production, transportation and sale of alcohol. Enforcement of prohibition began on January 17, 1920.

1920-08-01 00:00:00

1920 -1933 Prohibition Permits

Only six permits were granted during prohibition for the bottling of medicinal whiskey. The following distilleries obtained one of the permits: Brown-Forman, Frankfort Distillery, James Thompson and Brothers, American Medical Spirits, Schenley Distillery, and A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery. For more information, visit this link:

1928-08-01 00:00:00

1928 Distiller’s Holiday

In order to replenish dwindling medicinal whiskey stock, the US Government allowed for 100 days of distilling. Three million gallons of medicinal whiskey were produced during this “Distiller’s Holiday”.

1933-08-01 00:00:00

1933 Repeal of Prohibition

On December 5th , 1933, Congress ratified the 21st Amendment to the US Constitution to repeal prohibition. As the country rejoiced, the distillers got back to work. By 1937, there were 77 registered distilling companies in Kentucky!

1941-01-17 21:52:58

1941 WWII

According to Mike Veach, “After the United States was drawn into the war by the attack on Pearl Harbor, the War Production Board assumed control of the distilling industry and oversaw a transition from the production of beverage alcohol to the production of industrial alcohol… the distilling industry was responsible for 44% of the 1.7 billion gallons of industrial alcohol produced during the war”. To learn more about the impact of whiskey on our nation’s history, pick up Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: An American Heritage by Mike Veach. For more information, visit this link:

1984-10-01 00:00:00

1984 Single Barrel

Blanton's is released as the first Bourbon to be mass marketed as "Single Barrel".

1988-08-01 00:00:00

1988 Small Batch Bourbon

The process of mingling a few select barrels of whiskey to achieve a desired flavor profile is an art form few have mastered. This method produces “Small Batch” bourbons, a term coined by Booker Noe, 6th Generation and former Jim Beam Master Distiller, when he released Booker's Bourbon.

1999-05-01 00:00:00

1999 Launch of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail (R) Adventure

In 1999, the Kentucky Distillers’ Association formed the Kentucky Bourbon Trail® tour to give visitors a firsthand look at the art and science of crafting Bourbon, and to educate them about the rich history and proud tradition of our signature spirit. The popularity of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail (R) experience has grown exponentially. Last year nearly 500,000 people visited at least one legendary Kentucky Bourbon Trail (R) distillery tours.

2000-10-01 00:00:00

references & further reading

The following books and resources provided content for the Kentucky Bourbon Timeline. If you are interested in learning more about America's Native Spirit, check out these books. Social History of Bourbon by Gerald Carson, The Evolution of the Bourbon Whiskey Industry in Kentucky by Sam Cecil, Bourbon Straight by Charles Cowdery, Before Prohibition: Distilleries in Nelson County Kentucky by Dixie Hibbs, Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey an American Heritage by Mike Veach, Four Roses the Return of a Whiskey Legend by Al Young. Photographs and images were provided by the Brown-Forman Corporation, the Belle of Louisville, the Filson Historical Society, Four Roses, Jim Beam, the Kentucky Historical Society.

The History of Kentucky Bourbon

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