History of Bourbon
The origin of bourbon is not well documented. There are many conflicting legends and claims, some more credible than others. For example, the invention of bourbon is often attributed to Elijah Craig, a Baptist minister and distiller credited with many Kentucky firsts (e.g., fulling mill, paper mill, ropewalk) who is also said to have been the first to age the product in charred oak casks, a process which gives bourbon its reddish color and distinctive taste. Across the county line in Bourbon County, an early distiller named Jacob Spears is credited with being the first to label his product as Bourbon whiskey. Spears’ home, Stone Castle, warehouse and spring house survive; one can drive by the Spears’ home on Clay-Kiser Road.
It’s been said that Elijah Craig invented bourbon by aging the already popular corn whiskey, or moonshine.
This is a disputed fact; many believe that bourbon was not invented, but instead evolved with many hands in the barrel, so to speak, such as those who emigrated from Pennsylvania because of the Whiskey Excise Tax.
It is a fact that in 1789 Elijah Craig, Baptist minister, opened a distillery in Georgetown, Kentucky. Heaven Hill Distillery produces a bourbon named after the “inventor” of bourbon.
Although still popular and often repeated, the Craig legend is apocryphal. Similarly, the Spears story is a local favorite, rarely repeated outside the county. There likely was no single “inventor” of bourbon, which developed into its present form only in the late 19th century. Essentially any type of grain can be used to make whiskey, and the practice of aging whiskey and charring the barrels for better flavor had also been known in Europe for centuries. The late date of the Bourbon County etymology has led Louisville historian Michael Veach to dispute its authenticity. He proposes that the whiskey was named after Bourbon Street in New Orleans, a major port where shipments of Kentucky whiskey sold well as a cheaper alternative to French cognac.
Distilling probably was brought to present-day Kentucky in the late 18th century by Scots, Scots-Irish, and other settlers (including English, Irish, Welsh, German and French) who began to farm the area in earnest. The spirit they made evolved, and became known as bourbon in the early 19th century due to its historical association with the geographic area known as Old Bourbon (this consisted of the original Bourbon County of Virginia as organized in 1785, a region that included much of today’s Eastern Kentucky – including 34 of today’s counties in Kentucky). This area included the current Bourbon County of Kentucky, which became a county of Kentucky when Kentucky was separated from Virginia as a new state in 1792.
The Samuels family claims the title of oldest bourbon family still going strong. Prior to 1840, the Samuels family did not produce bourbon commercially.
It wasn’t until T.W. Samuels (grandson to Robert Samuels who created the “secret” family recipe) came along and constructed a distillery at Samuels Depot, Kentucky that the family made a business of bourbon.
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, and so he did: Maker’s Mark. The company is now in the hands of his son, Bill Samuels Jr., who continues the family bourbon tradition today.
When Evan Williams opened his distillery on the banks of the Ohio River in Louisville, it was the first commercial distillery in Kentucky. The bourbon that still bears the distiller’s name is one of the popular bourbons today.