Bourbon Time Line – From Unaged Corn Whiskey to Aged Bourbon Whiskey

Louisville, KY in 1778

Timeline from Unaged Corn Whisky in 1700’s, to Single Barrel & Small Batch bourbons of today.

July 4, 1776 – America declares its independence from Kingdom of Great Britain ruled by King George III

May 27, 1778 – George Rogers Clark and his Kentucky Militia settle on an island at the falls of the Ohio River. The native crop grew so well there they called it Corn Island.

1780 – The Virginia General Assembly approves a town charter to found the city of Louisville named after King Louis XVI of France who aided the Americans in the Revolutionary War. King Louis family name is Bourbon. Three separate counties are carved out of the Virginia county of Kentucky; Jefferson, Fayette, and Lincoln.

1783 – The Treaty of Paris is signed ending the Revolutionary War. That same year or around there Evan Williams sets up a distilling operation in Louisville.

1784 – The population of Kentucky was approximately 30,000.

1785 – Basil Hayden Sr. led a group of twenty-five Catholic families from Maryland into what is now Nelson County, KY and starts distilling a few years after.

May 1, 1786 – Bourbon County is established and shortly after tavern rates were set for apple brandy, peach brandy, and whiskey.

1789 – George Washington is elected as the first President of the United States. In Georgetown, KY, a Virginia Baptist preacher Elijah Craig starts distilling whiskey, and Woodford County is created this same year.

1792 – Kentucky becomes the 15th State in the Union and actually a Commonwealth. There are 3 other Commonwealth’s; Virginia, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania.

1794 –The Whiskey Rebellion took place in Washington County Pennsylvania as a protest to the excise tax on whiskey imposed by President Washington to help retire the debt of the Revolutionary War.

1797-1799 – George Washington finishes his second term as President and retires back home to Mount Vernon where he starts a distilling operation run by a Scot named James Anderson. Mount Vernon becomes the nations #1 distiller selling 11,000 gallons in 1798, until Washington’s death in 1799.

1802 – President Thomas Jefferson repealed the excise tax on whiskey imposed by Washington.

1810 – Distilled Spirits by state (in gallons)
Pennsylvania 6,552,284
Virginia 2,367,589
Kentucky 2,200,773
North Carolina 1,386,691
Ohio 1,212,266
Tennessee 801,245 (source – Kentucky Bourbon – Henry Crowgey)

1812 – Elijah Pepper builds a log cabin distillery in Versailles, KY

1816 – A big distilling operation funded by northern businessmen opens in Louisville under the name Hope Distilling Company. They close only a few years later…perhaps they went too big too soon.

1820 – 1835 – By 1830 every male over the age of 15 drank an average of 90 bottles of whiskey each year. The need to ship bourbon causes the implantation of barrels in to the whiskey equation. Regardless of how the practice started of charring the inside of the barrel instead of toasting, charring becomes essential in making Kentucky Whiskey, or Old Bourbon as it will later become known. Old Bourbon is the county named after the French Royal family and the Port of Old Bourbon Kentucky where a lot of whiskey started out their journey downstream was Maysville.

1831- Aenaes Coffey is awarded a patent on his continuous still in Britain

1836 – Joseph Washington Dant starts a distilling operation in Dant Station, KY using an old fashioned log still.

1838 – Oscar Pepper takes over the distilling operation in Versailles from his father Elijah and then makes the best decision of his career by hiring Dr. James Crow as his distiller who implements many scientific practices that are still used today. (sour mash process, hydrometers, cleanliness practices)

1840-1855 – George T. Stagg, T.W. Samuels, William Larue Weller, and Henry McKenna open distilleries in Kentucky.

1857 – BOURBON is established: Ben Parley Moore is so struck by his business trip to Kentucky he writes his employer this letter; “Everywhere sir I am greeted by gentleman with their hearts in their right hand, their right hand in mine, and certainly in their left a bottle of unequalled old bourbon.” In this short letter we see that good whiskey is a part of the culture in Kentucky and that the word “bourbon” is being used to differentiate Kentucky whiskey from any other whiskey.

1861 – 1865 – Civil War. Distillation ceases in the South. Kentucky continues distilling, but their major markets are in the South and difficult to ship to.

1870 – George Garvin Brown buys the best quality whisky he can get, and puts Doctor William Forrester’s name on the label and sells their whisky through doctors Rx and Old Forrester is born. That same year, Col. Edmund H. Taylor opens the OFC Distillery (Old Fashioned Copper) in Frankfort, KY.

1879 – Frederick Stitzel receives a patent on an improvement on the tiered rack system allowing many barrels to be stored on top of each other without damaging the barrels below.

1880 – The beginning of the “new immigration” where the flood of Southern and Eastern European immigrants, as well as Asians from Japan and China. By 1920, some twenty million people came through Ellis Island in New York and Angel Island in San Francisco.
To supply this influx of thirsty folks with enough alcohol, larger rectifier and blenders of whiskey would use cheap grain spirits and mingle them with younger whiskies and then add colors like iodine and flavoring like cherry and prune juice.

1880’s – By this time the saloon has become the average Joe’s gentleman’s club. Many got their mail there, paid their bills, learned about a job, attended fraternal organization meetings, or immigrant association functions. The saloon became the center of many folks universe.

1897 – Distiller Edmund H. Taylor and Ezra Brooks from Kentucky along with the Secretary of State of the U.S., John Carlisle (also from Kentucky) are the galvanizing forces behind the passing of the first consumer protection legislation in the U.S. in the Bottled In Bond Act.

1906 – Following the Bottled In Bond Act, the Pure Food & Drug Act is passed requiring the active ingredients be placed on the label of a drugs packaging, and that drugs could not fall below purity levels established. Whiskey was prescribed by doctors as well, so it was also affected by this law and many distillers advertised the fact that a whiskey followed all the regulations of the Pure Food & Drug Act and used this as a selling point.

1909 – After the legal battles between whiskey rectifiers and blenders and makers of “straight” whiskey, President William Howard Taft drafts the Taft Decision defining Blended Whiskey, and Straight Whiskey. Blended whiskey may add colors and flavors, and straight whiskey can only have water added to it, and must be aged for at least two years in brand new charred oak barrels.

1914 – 1918 –Whiskey production ceases in order to produce high proof alcohol for smokeless gunpowder and fuels to run war machinery in WWI.

Jan 17, 1920 – to Dec 5, 1933 – PROHIBITION

1934 – Shuttered and new distilleries open up to capitalize on the repeal of Prohibition. Col. James B. Beam and his backers buy the old Murphy Barber Distillery in Cleremont, KY. Heaven Hill opens in Bardstown, KY. Stitzel-Weller and Brown-Foreman in Louisville. Sam Bronfman from Seagrams in Canada opens a massive distillery in Lawrenceburg, IN and starts producing blended whiskey there. Schenley Distillers out of New York also open a distillery in Lawrenceburg, IN. Glenmore opens in Owensboro, KY.

1938 – Churchill Downs offers the mint julep as the official drink of the Kentucky Derby and serves it in a commemorative glass that year, and all the years to follow.

1939 – After aging for four years, the pre-prohibition style of Bottled In Bond whiskies are available and Old Heaven Hill Bottled In Bond becomes the #1 selling bourbon in Kentucky. Most all distilleries producing straight whiskies produce one or more Bottled In Bond marques.

1941 – Just when shelves were starting to get replenished with bourbon, rye, and other straight whiskies, WWII breaks out and distilleries once again produce high proof alcohol for the war effort.

1945 – The most popular way to travel the county is by train. Just as you fly today, you can’t get out of your seat until the place reaches a safe altitude, you had to remain in your seat on a train until it got up to speed and became more stable. There were two lights in every passenger car. When the lower light was lit everyone had to remain seated, but when the upper light was lit or “high ball” then it was OK to get up and go to the bar car for a drink.

1950’s – 1960’s – – Tiki bars and entertaining at home was very popular. Cuba Libras, Hurricanes, Vodka Gimlets, Mojito’s, The Aviation, Martinis, Harvey Wallbangers made with rum, gin, or vodka were very popular. Ex GI’s from WWII also had a taste for London Dry gin and other spirits they discovered there.

1964 – The 88th Congress of the United States declares bourbon a “distinctive product” of the U.S. Bourbon cannot be produced outside the U.S. The Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits is written bringing all the laws together. Container ships are created, thus making the world a smaller place and protecting your countries style and distinctive whisky is important.

1976 – Vodka overtakes whiskey as the most popular spirit category. Many bourbons and straight whiskies lower their proofs from Bottled In Bond to 86, or 80 proof, or switch to used barrels to match the lightness of vodka and gins.

1984 – Ancient Age’s master distiller Elmer T. Lee releases Blanton’s Single Barrel Bourbon, the first single barrel bourbon offered creating a new sub-category of bourbon. This is followed by Parker Beam and Heaven Hill in 1986 with Elijah Craig 12 year old and his cousin Booker Noe at Jim Beam with his Booker’s Bourbon in 1987. Booker coined the term “small batch” to describe what he and Parker and Jimmy Russell over at Wild Turkey were doing by mingling choice barrels together instead of using one single barrel where each barrel tastes a little bit different than the next. So Single Barrel and Small Batch were established, however the consumers are confused of the meaning of this, the distilleries get behind it, and it was really

1991 – Malt Advocate Magazine is launched covering whiskies from around the world. The magazine thrives today under their new name; Whisky Advocate.

1992 – The first Bourbon Fest is held in Bardstown, KY where hundreds of people attend to celebrate in the “Bourbon Capital of the World”. Today 60,000 people attend from all over the world the third weekend of September.
That same year, Parker Beam and Heaven Hill introduce Evan Williams Vintage Single Barrel; the only vintage dated single barrel bourbon.

1993 – Jim Beam’s grandson and Distiller Emeritus Booker Noe hit the road along with spirits writer Paul Pacult and “the nose” Richard Patterson from Whyte and Mackay Scotch. They traveled the country introducing people to the new Jim Beam Small Batch Bourbon Collection. This collection was the first nationally promoted and offered small batch bourbons and helped awareness and spark enthusiasm for bourbon, especially when Booker and Richard held their “Great Whisk(e)y Debates” on which was the better whisk(e)y, scotch or bourbon.

1996 – Brown-Foreman and Master Distiller Lincoln Henderson release their small batch bourbon; Woodford Reserve.

1998 – Malt Advocate holds their first Whiskey Fest in New York City. It becomes so popular it expands Whiskey Fest to Chicago and San Francisco and so popular they sell out well in advance.

2003– The American Distilling Institute is founded by Bill Owens “To promote and defend the art and enterprise of craft distilling”.

2007 – The United States Senate unanimously passed a resolution declaring September “National Bourbon Heritage Month”.

2014 – There are 4.3 million residents in Kentucky and 4.9 million barrels of bourbon aging in rickhouses. So there are more barrels than people in Kentucky!

About bernie
-Whiskey Professor for Heaven Hill -2009 and 2012 Icons of Whiskey Award Winner - Whiskey Ambassador of the Year US and Global

2 Comments on Bourbon Time Line – From Unaged Corn Whiskey to Aged Bourbon Whiskey

  1. Kinichi Ohmuro // July 30, 2015 at 5:25 am // Reply

    Dear Professor,
    You said above that Bourbon County was established in May 1, 1786. But on the web site of ‘1785 Bourbon Society’, Bourbon County was formed in 1785.
    Who is right?
    Best Regards,

    • My research indicates 1786….

      From Henry Crowgey’s book “Kentucky Bourbon – The Early Years of Whiskey Making”‘Bourbon County came in to being on the first of May 1786” and he references the BOURBON COUNTY ORDER BOOK 1786-1789 of court records.

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