For people who enjoy drinking spirits, the name "bourbon" has become synonymous with the state of Kentucky. A full 95% of the world's bourbon is produced in this relatively small geographical area, and bourbon has gained a reputation as one of the most American of all drinks. If you're a bourbon fan, you might have wondered how this spirit got its start and whether it's always been associated with the Bluegrass State. While a lot of bourbon's early stages appears to have been lost to time, there's still quite a bit we do know about a history of bourbon in Kentucky.

Defining Bourbon


First of all, what exactly is bourbon? It's easy to get bourbon and whiskey mixed up. Bourbon is a type of whiskey, and not all whiskeys meet the legal standards that define bourbon. The thing that distinguishes bourbon from other whiskeys is that its mash must be made of at least 51% corn, as opposed to rye, wheat, and other grains. Corn is a sweet grain, so bourbon tends to be sweeter than other whiskeys, in general. In addition, bourbon must be aged in a brand-new barrel made of white oak with a charred interior. The charred part of the barrel lends bourbon its distinctive tawny color and brings out vanillins and toasty notes in the finished beverage.

Kentucky Origins

It's not a coincidence that bourbon-making got its start in Kentucky. Indeed, Kentucky is one of the best places in the United States - and perhaps even the world - to create high-quality bourbon. The secret lies in the state's water quality. A huge slab of limestone lies underneath most of Kentucky, and water filtered through this limestone is low in iron, but high in calcium and magnesium. This pure, clean-tasting water makes an excellent starting point for creating world-class bourbon. The climate of Kentucky also plays a role in its bourbon production. Kentucky experiences hot, humid summers and cold, snowy winters, and the large temperature swings every year cause bourbon to be alternately absorbed and released by the charred oak it mellows in. This helps the bourbon absorb all the oaky flavors from the barrels.

The Pre-Bourbon Era  

Although bourbon is a quintessentially American drink today, before the American Revolution, most people in the colonies favored rum as their alcoholic beverage of choice. This rum was mostly distilled in Boston or shipped from England. But as Scottish and Irish immigrants arrived in the New World, they brought their traditional distilling methods with them, and began to make whiskey out of barley, wheat, rye, and corn. Whiskey was easy to produce locally, so it became the new drink of choice for many Americans and grew rapidly in popularity.

The Rise of American Whiskey

The home-grown whiskey industry actually gave the new United States government the first test of its authority. After the American Revolution, the new country was left with a hefty amount of war debt, and the government decided to tax alcohol to pay it off. This did not go over well with the people, many of whom still felt they were being taxed without representation, so many of the whiskey producers in the western states simply refused to pay. This led to protests and violence. In 1794, armed protesters attacked a tax inspector's home, prompting George Washington himself to ride out and address the problem. The Whiskey Rebellion, as it's now known, highlights how important whiskey has been in the United States ever since its earliest days as an independent country.

Kentucky Origin Stories

There are many stories about how bourbon was first produced from whiskey. Unfortunately, none of them can be verified - it simply occurred too long ago to know for sure how it happened. Nevertheless, one of the most popular stories about the origins of bourbon is that it was first made by a Baptist minister named Elijah Craig, who lived in Bourbon County, Kentucky. Legend has it that Craig decided to burn out the insides of old fish barrels so he could use them for aging whiskey. The charred barrels produced an unusual whiskey with a particularly smooth taste. It became known as the whiskey from Bourbon, or simply as bourbon whiskey.

What's In A Name?

The name "bourbon whiskey" could also have originated quite a bit farther south than Kentucky. Another theory is that the spirit takes its name from Bourbon Street in the famous city of New Orleans. Proponents of this theory think that Kentucky whiskey, stored in charred barrels to imitate the taste of cognac, were shipped down the Ohio River to New Orleans and sold in bars on Bourbon Street. Eventually, people began associating the whiskey with the area, which led to it being known as bourbon whiskey.

Regardless of who invented bourbon and where its name came from, people liked it, and by the 1800s, the term was in wide use. The first printed use of the word "bourbon" to refer to whiskey occurred in an 1821 newspaper published in Bourbon County, Kentucky, advertising the sale of bourbon whiskey by the keg or barrel. In 1870, distiller George Garvin Brown of Louisville started selling bourbon in individual bottles, kicking off the modern trend of buying alcohol in smaller quantities, rather than by the barrel.

The Effects of Prohibition

The nation's enthusiasm for bourbon was dampened during the Prohibition era, which lasted from 1919 to 1933 in Kentucky. However, Prohibition didn't hurt bourbon in the long term. In 1964, Congress honored bourbon by calling it a "distinctive product of the United States," and declared that only bourbon produced in the United States could legally be considered real bourbon. Ever since then, the bourbon industry has been going strong, and the spirit only continues to get more popular.

A Long History and A Bright Future

Bourbon has a long and storied history in the United States, and especially in Kentucky. From the fiery whiskeys that the first immigrants distilled themselves to the many small artisanal distilleries that have sprung up today, it's clear that Americans' thirst for bourbon hasn't been quenched yet. Next time you pour a glass of this full-bodied spirit or mix a cocktail with it, thank the earliest Kentucky distillers who perfected its creation, as well as the fine water and weather conditions of Kentucky that keep the bourbon industry thriving.