Bourbon Whiskey History and Timeline

Key Events and Personalities in the Story of America's Native Spirit


Getty Images / MakiEni's photo

As one might expect, the history of bourbon is a little sketchy. Many important dates are disputed, quite a few were forgotten (sometimes on purpose), and some are a bit hazy due to the nature of the subject at hand. This timeline celebrates "America's Native Spirit," exploring a handful of key moments and the family legacies behind bourbon's biggest brands and distilleries.

  • 01 of 18

    1783: Samuels Family Tradition Begins

    Maker's Mark Bourbon Whiskey Distillery

    The Spruce / S&C Design Studios

    The Samuels family claims the title of the oldest bourbon family that is still going strong. The story says that the family began making whiskey in 1783 when Robert Samuels created a "secret" family recipe. The family made a business of bourbon around 1840 when T.W. Samuels (Robert's grandson) constructed a distillery at Samuels Depot, Kentucky.

    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, so he switched from rye to red winter wheat and created Maker's Mark. The brand name, bottle design, and signature red wax were his wife Margie's ideas. The couple's son, Bill Samuels Jr., took over the family business in 1975 and retired in 2011. He was succeeded by his son, Rob Samuels, who carries on the family tradition as the eighth generation in whiskey.

  • 02 of 18

    1783: First Commercial Distillery in Kentucky

    Evan Williams Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey

    Heaven Hill Brands

    In 1783, Evan Williams opened his distillery on the banks of the Ohio River in Louisville. This is said to have been Kentucky's first commercial distillery. The bourbon that still bears the distiller's name is one of the popular bourbons today.

  • 03 of 18

    1785: Bourbon County, Kentucky Is Established

    Kentucky Map - Bourbon Whiskey History
    Tarik Kizilkaya / iStock / Getty Images Plus

    Though still part of Virginia at the time, Bourbon County was established in 1785. The name honored a French royal family who aided the colonies during the Revolutionary War. The modern borders of Bourbon County, Kentucky, are not the way it was originally established; "Old Bourbon County" is comprised of 34 modern counties.

    In the late 1700s, many German, Irish, and Scottish settlers migrated to the land that would become Kentucky in 1792. It was perfect for growing corn and other grains. Some knew how to make whiskey, and the local limestone-filtered water became integral in making the whiskey that would take on the bourbon name.

    Current day Bourbon County has little significance in the production of bourbon whiskey. Instead, most modern production is concentrated in the Louisville, Frankfurt, and Bardstown areas.

  • 04 of 18

    1789: Elijah Craig, The Father of Bourbon

    A cut bourbon whiskey barrel is used to demonstrate the charring inside at Maker's Mark Distillery.

    The Spruce / S&C Design Studios

    It's been said that Elijah Craig invented bourbon by aging the already popular corn whiskey (moonshine) in newly charred oak barrels (a requirement of bourbon to this day). There are various stories about how it happened: an accidental fire, using char to clean out fish barrels, and the intriguing taste of whiskey stored in former sugar barrels.

    This is disputed, and many believe that bourbon was not invented but instead evolved with many hands "in the barrel," so to speak. It is a fact that in 1789 the Baptist minister Elijah Craig opened a distillery in Georgetown, Kentucky. Heaven Hill Brands produces a bourbon named after the "father" of bourbon.

    Another story of barrel charring moves into the 1790s. It says that burning the interior was an attempt to sterilize the reused barrels before they were filled with corn whiskey and sent down the Ohio River to New Orleans. By the end of the 90-day journey, the whiskey's new taste was enough for people to realize that this was a finishing method to look into.

    To contradict this, there's also the story of Louisville's Tarascon brothers, immigrants from Cognac, France. This account jumps to 1807 and says that they started shipping whiskey in charred oak barrels to New Orleans to compete with the area's love for brandy.

    Continue to 5 of 18 below.
  • 05 of 18

    1794: Whiskey Rebellion

    Whiskey Rebellion of 1794
    Pennsylvania tax rebels tar and feather a federal tax collector.

    Kean Collection / Staff /Getty Images

    The Excise Whiskey Tax was passed in 1791 to offset some of the federal government's war debts. By 1794, farmers and distillers in western Pennsylvania had enough, and rebellious anger grew into violence, resulting in the Whiskey Rebellion.

    President Washington called up 13,000 militia to deal with the rebels, but they dispersed before any conflicts occurred with the troops. It was the first real test of the federal government's ability to enforce laws.

    Kentucky and Tennessee distillers were not subject to federal law at the time. Kentucky may have had around 500 distilleries in operation, and it's believed that some had already emigrated from Pennsylvania and other states to avoid the whiskey tax. Slave labor and access to waterways to ship whiskey helped the area's whiskey business boom.

    After the rebellion, the government didn't tax whiskey again (rum was taxed) out of fear of another uprising. The War of 1812 was the only brief tax exception until the Civil War.

  • 06 of 18

    1795: The Beam Tradition Begins

    Jim Beam American Stillhouse in Clermont, Kentucky
    Luke Sharrett / Stringer / Getty Images News

    The Beam family has one of the best-known names in American whiskey. The man who started the family legacy (now in its 8th generation) was Jacob Beam. He sold his first barrel of "Old Jake Beam Sour" in 1795.

    Since that time, the family of distillers included David Beam, David M. Beam, Col. James Beam (the Jim Beam), T. Jeremiah Beam, Booker Noe (Booker's Small Batch). Today, Fred Noe and his son, Freddie, carry on the family craft of producing Jim Beam bourbons.

    Other members of the Beam family also found a place in bourbon's story. Jack Beam (Jim's uncle) founded ​Early Times. Parker Beam was renowned for his great whiskeys as well. These receive a tribute every year with the annual release of Parker's Heritage Collection from Heaven Hill.

  • 07 of 18

    1821: Bourbon Advertising Begins

    Advertisement for Robertson's Genuine Bourbon Cordial, from Harrison Company in Kentucy, 1847.

    Buyenlarge / Getty Images

    The first known advertisement for bourbon was printed in the Western Citizen newspaper in Paris, Kentucky. In an 1821 edition, the firm of Stout and Adams debuted the word "bourbon" in an advert offering barrels of whiskey for sale.

    It was just the beginning of whiskey ads. A few 19th-century bourbon ads were archived, but many of the vintage ads that are still available date to the 1930s. Prohibition in the U.S. was a big blow to whiskey distillers. Once it was repealed in 1933, those that remained in business or were able to reopen increased advertising to reach consumers and make up for lost time and profits.

  • 08 of 18

    1823: Sour Mash Developed

    Fermentation tank at the Maker's Mark Bourbon Whiskey Distillery.
    Fermentation tank at the Maker's Mark Bourbon Whisky Distillery.

    The Spruce / S&C Design Studios

    Dr. James C. Crow developed what is known as sour mash at the Pepper Distillery (now the Woodford Reserve Distillery) in 1823. The technique revolutionized the way most bourbons and Tennessee ​whiskeys are made, and the majority continue to use sour mash.

    Sour mash doesn't mean that the whiskey tastes sour. Mash is the mixture of grain, water, and yeast that is fermented to produce the alcohol that will become beer or grain-based liquors such as whiskey. The sour mash method recycles a portion of spent mash from one round of fermentation and adds it to a new batch of mash. This regulates bacterial growth and maintains an ideal pH level to ensure the distillery's whiskey retains the same taste.

    Continue to 9 of 18 below.
  • 09 of 18

    1840: It's Officially "Bourbon"

    Bourbon Barrel at Woodford Reserve Distillery
    Bob Krist / The Image Bank Unreleased / 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. Before this, ​it was often labeled "Bourbon County Whiskey" or "Old Bourbon County Whiskey."

  • 10 of 18

    1861-1865: The Civil War

    Replica of a circa 1864 army whiskey barrel. Whiskey was used to treat wounds and disease.
    Replica of a circa 1864 army whiskey barrel. Phil Cardamone / E+ / Getty Images

    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. The whiskey was also used to treat soldier's wounds and the many diseases that came along with them.

  • 11 of 18

    1872: A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery Established

    Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon Whiskey
    Buffalo Trace

    Though established in 1872, it was not until the early 1900s that the A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery became significant in bourbon whiskey's history. That's when Julian P. Van Winkle, Sr., or "Pappy," and a partner acquired the distillery, which was known for its excellent sour mash whiskey.

    Just before Prohibition, Pappy began producing Old Rip Van Winkle Bourbon and he later became the oldest active distiller at age 89. During the country's dry period, the Stitzel-Weller Distillery held one of the few licenses to produce medicinal whiskey. When the country was once again wet, they produced brands like Old Fitzgerald, Cabin Still, and Rebel Yell.

    It was not until 1972 that Pappy's son, J.P. Van Winkle, Jr., resurrected the original Old Rip Van Winkle brand. The whiskey remains a family business, with Julian Van Winkle III and his son, Preston, ensuring it lives on today, though it can be hard to find. Since 2002, it has been distilled at the Buffalo Trace distillery.

  • 12 of 18

    1869: Ripy Family Distillery Opens

    Wild Turkey Bourbon Fermenter on the American Whiskey Trail
    Distilled Spirits Council / David Handschuh

    Lawrenceburg, Kentucky is home to what was originally called the Ripy Family Distillery. The Ripys began a long tradition of bourbon production on the site and their whiskey was chosen from a list of 400 bourbons to represent Kentucky at the 1893 World's Fair. Today it is Wild Turkey Hill, the home of Wild Turkey Bourbon.

    Continue to 13 of 18 below.
  • 13 of 18

    1870: Shipping Revolution

    Moonshine Jugs
    allanswart / iStock / Getty Images Plus

    The story goes that in 1870 the first jugs of bourbon were shipped from the Ohio River ports. The decision to bottle bourbon was a matter of convenience for the consumer as jugs were more attractive and portable than barrels.

  • 14 of 18

    1920-1933: U.S. Prohibition

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    The Temperance Movement finally got what they wanted when the U.S. Congress passed the 18th Amendment, prohibiting the manufacture and sale of alcohol. The entire adult beverage industry was shattered, hundreds of businesses were shut down and many went underground.

    The majority of bourbon distilleries were closed, many to never reopen. A few, like the Samuels and Beam families, came back after the repeal of Prohibition and resurrected the craft of bourbon distilling.

    The government issued 10 licenses to produce whiskey for medicine at the time, only six of which were ever activated. One of those companies was Brown-Forman, which now produces Woodford Reserve Bourbon on the site of the Prohibition era distillery.

  • 15 of 18

    1964: "America's Native Spirit"

    Whiskey and the American Flag
    lucentius / iStock / Getty Images Plus

    In 1964, Congress declared bourbon as "America's Native Spirit" and the country's official distilled spirit. The current regulations defining bourbon whiskey were also established. This includes the percentage of corn required in the mashbill and aging in new charred oak barrels (since bourbon can't reuse them, they're often sent to rum, tequila, and other whiskey distilleries). Though Kentucky is considered the "home" of bourbon, it can actually be distilled anywhere in the U.S.

  • 16 of 18

    1973: Outshined by Vodka

    Premium Vodka Brands That Make Great Cocktails

    The Spruce / S&C Design Studios

    For the first time in history, 1973 saw more vodka sold in the U.S. than whiskey. Many factors played a role, including effective marketing campaigns from imported vodka brands like Smirnoff, the James Bond films, and an increase in younger women looking for a lighter drink.

    Continue to 17 of 18 below.
  • 17 of 18

    2004: American Whiskey Trail Launches

    Woodford Reserve Bourbon Whiskey Stills
    Distilled Spirits Council / David Handschuh

    Established in 2004, the American Whiskey Trail is an entertaining and educational journey. It guides visitors to many distilleries and other historical sites in Kentucky, New York, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Virginia. There's also an extension to rum distilleries in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

    The focus of the continental section of the trail is the history of distilling whiskey. The trail includes distillery tours of Jim Beam, Jack Daniels, and Maker's Mark in Kentucky, and George Dickel and Jack Daniels in Tennessee. Beyond commercial brands, a highlight is the resurrected George Washington's Distillery at Mount Vernon and the Fraunces Tavern, where he gave his farewell speech.

  • 18 of 18

    2007: National Bourbon Heritage Month


    Getty Images / MakiEni's photo

    In August 2007, the United States Senate declared that September is officially recognized as National Bourbon Heritage Month. The designation is designed to celebrate the significant historical, economic, and industrial role that the bourbon industry has played in the country's history.

    While this may not impact the average consumer, it is an honor for the people who have crafted bourbon over the years. It is a perfect excuse for the rest of us to talk about bourbon for an entire month and sample many of the great bourbon cocktails available.

    You may also think about attending the Kentucky Bourbon Festival in the heart of bourbon country. This week-long party takes place in Bardstown, Kentucky, typically during the second week of September.