"The history of the Bourbon industry is a rich one that mirrors the history of America" - Michael R. Veach, Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: An American Heritage

The Origins of Bourbon Whiskey

During the westward expansion, whiskey was favored over rum and gin since the ingredients could be produced locally.  It even became a substitute currency in the frontier west due to a shortage of coinage in the late 18th century. Bourbon whiskey, however, was not produced on a large scale for another hundred years.

It is thought that the profitable markets of New Orleans were the driving force behind the move to large-scale Bourbon whiskey production. Un-aged whiskey could not compete with imported brandy and cognac so Kentucky distilleries adopted the practice of charred oak barrel aging to add sweetness, flavor and color to their whiskey. Indeed, the name “Bourbon” may have been a marketing tool designed to appeal to the largely French population in New Orleans.

Once established, word of Kentucky bourbon whiskey spread fast and the state was soon recognized nationally as a producer of quality whiskey. Factors such as the region's climate, which provides optimal conditions for flavor acquisition during aging; and the state's river systems, which enabled efficient transport of the product; almost certainly contributed to the widespread popularity of Kentucky Bourbon, which continues to this day.

The First Family of Bourbon

While there is no definitive answer to the question of who invented bourbon, a handful of Kentucky families can lay claim to building the foundation of the American whiskey industry. Chief among them: the Beams.

When Jacob Beam sold his first jug of unaged whiskey in 1795, he had no way of knowing that he was starting a business that would stretch more than two centuries and include eight generations. Making whiskey was a common practice on what was then considered the western frontier, a small business for farmers who could turn their excess corn into a product that could be enjoyed, sold, or bartered.

For the Beams however, whiskey production was more than a sideline business. By the early 1800s, Jacob’s whiskey had developed a reputation for taste, quality and consistency. Consequently, whiskey become a way of life for them.  By the time his son David joined Jacob at the distillery in Washington County in 1820, the business was firmly established and the Beam name respected and recognized throughout the Commonwealth. 

Over the years, both the business and the name would grow. From Jacob and David and David M., to the legendary Jim Beam who started the business up after Prohibition and Booker Noe, who took bourbon to a new level with his Small Batch Bourbon Collection, the Beams have had a lasting imprint on the bourbon industry, an imprint that is destined to grow in the years to come.

The Father of Modern Bourbon

Dr James Crow, a Scotsman educated in medicine and chemistry, immigrated to Kentucky in the 1820s and began working at Old Oscar Pepper Distillery in Woodford County. His scientific background led him to take pioneering approach to whiskey production, using thermometers, hydrometers and litmus paper to record the changes in temperature, alcohol levels and pH during each step of the process. These observations enabled distillers to understand what caused whiskey to taste good or bad and resulted in the production of a better and more consistent product.

Dr Crow also recognized that using good quality water in the production of whiskey was key to achieving a beverage with the desired aromas and flavors. He insisted that the pigs and cattle that were often reared alongside distilleries (to make use of the spent grain) should be moved a good distance away to avoid contaminating the water source. This meticulous scientific approach led to the production of high quality Bourbon Whiskey - known as "Crow" or "Old Crow" - that gained national acclaim and is said to have been the favorite tipple of Kentucky Senator, Henry Clay.

Bourbon Whiskey Today

The production of bourbon whiskey is an important driver of Kentucky’s economy, and there is tremendous potential for expansion. Boutique craft distilleries are flourishing, the premiumization of bourbon brands has enhanced innovation and the Bourbon Trail continues to attract tourists by the thousands. According to the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, billions of dollars are currently being invested in capital projects, such as new distilleries, aging warehouses, bottling facilities and tourism centers. These investments will lead to the creation of thousands of new jobs across the state.