Bourbon Pioneers

Bourbon Pioneers

The Birth of Bourbon

Nobody knows for sure who first had the idea to make whiskey out of corn and good Kentucky water, but it probably took little more than one bite from a summer ripened ear of corn to know that sweetness had to be right for whiskey.

If corn and limestone-rich water were all it took, Bourbon would have been invented right then. But that’s not all there is to Bourbon. It also has to be aged.

Accidental Aging

At first, aging whiskey was very likely a happy accident.

Did You Know?

The Falls of the Ohio was a major challenge to shipping in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Over a two mile stretch of rapids, the river dropped a rough 26 feet.

Farmers harvested their corn in late summer and made whiskey in autumn. Before they could ship it down the Ohio and Mississippi to New Orleans, they had to wait for the spring rainy season when the currents ran faster. Besides that, once their barrels were loaded for shipping, the trip downstream could take several weeks and sometimes even months.

All the waiting meant wonderful things were happening inside those barrels. By the time the whiskey reached its destination, aging had turned it an amber color and evened out the flavor so it was smoother, richer, and a whole lot more pleasing to the palate than un-aged whiskey.


In 1964, when the United States Congress recognized Bourbon as a uniquely American product, they were just acknowledging what a lot of people already knew as a fact. As America’s only native spirit, Bourbon stands in a class by itself.


Evan Williams rolled the first barrel out of his Louisville distillery in 1783, thereby assuring himself a place in history as Kentucky’s first commercial distiller.

A little over 200 years ago when farmers began making whiskey out of native corn, they were unaware that their labors would ultimately play a role in American history. Regrettably, many of the particulars of their stories have been lost to time, since those who live history don’t always take time to write it down.

What has been preserved, however, is a colorful and important part of our nation’s story that details how “corn liquor” evolved to become Bourbon and why it deserves to be called The True American Spirit.

The heart of Bourbon has always been Kentucky where, over 200 years ago, immigrant farmers chose this land to become the birthplace of America’s only native whiskey.

Thanks to George Rogers Clark and a band of soldiers and settlers, Louisville began in 1778 on Dunmore’s Island, a fertile rising of soil in the Ohio River at the head of the Falls. That first spring, while Clark and his soldiers set off to rout the British from Illinois territory, the settlers stayed behind and planted corn. The success of their crop led them to rename the spot “Corn Island.”

Did You Know?

A pack horse could carry only about four bushels of corn, but it could manage 24 bushels—if that grain was distilled into a couple of barrels of whiskey.

Within a few short years, that primitive settlement had moved ashore and the rude cluster of houses had been transformed into the bustling river port of Louisville.

From the last quarter of the 18th century onward, distillers settled throughout Kentucky. Many of them chose to put down roots in areas where other distillers were practicing so that, over time, these enclaves of distillers became the state’s predominant whiskey producing centers.

Bardstown, Kentucky’s second-oldest city, saw its first distillers arrive in the 1770s, as Jacob Beam and others were drawn to Nelson County because of its plentiful limestone-rich springs and streams. And most historians agree that by the time Louisville was founded in 1783, some of its earliest inhabitants were already distilling whiskey. Farther east in the broad region known as Old Bourbon County, distillers’ exports helped create an identity for Kentucky corn whiskey, making it known world-over as “Bourbon,” while a few other distillers chose the areas around Frankfort and Owensboro to set up shop.

Although Louisville continued to be an important focus of distilling activity and a crucial distribution hub throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, it was Bardstown that emerged as Kentucky’s prominent distilling center, ultimately earning distinction as “The Bourbon Capital of the World,” a title it still holds today.

A Unique Way to Govern

Did You Know?

Manually powered flatboats transported Bourbon well into the 19th century. They could travel only downstream, however, so once they reached their destination, they were broken up for firewood.

Evan Williams was a civic-minded fellow who served two terms on the city’s Board of Trustees.

As part of his service to the city (or maybe just to keep meetings short), Williams brought along his jug of whiskey on Board meeting nights. The city fathers, we’re told, refrained from imbibing until the city’s work was done. But once the cork came out, they enthusiastically drained the jug.

However, one member of the Board was unimpressed with the quality of Williams’ liquor. The distiller was ready with a sharp retort—surely the critic was nothing but an aristocrat, he spat, destined to be unsatisfied by the elixir of ordinary mortals.

Unlike most distillers of the time, Evan Williams wasn’t a farmer—he was a professional distiller. In his distillery at the foot of Fifth Street near the Ohio River, he cooked up farmers’ produce. When his barrels were ready to ship, he rolled them down the embankment to the wharf. There they were loaded onto outgoing vessels bound for St. Louis and New Orleans.


A lot of things we take for granted today were pretty big obstacles to folks like Evan Williams. Getting to Kentucky was hard enough, but transporting goods was even harder.

The distiller who wanted a bigger market for his product had to ship his goods. And whether he was in Louisville, Nelson County, or Old Bourbon County, the only way out of Kentucky in the early days was by flatboat, down the Ohio to the Mississippi.

Elijah Craig

Maybe it seems strange that a man of the cloth would become known as “The Father of Bourbon,” but Reverend Elijah Craig was given that title because of something he did with whiskey barrels at the distillery he built in 1789.

He charred the inside of them.

How he came up with that idea, we can’t say for sure. By one story, the whole thing was an accident—some new barrels were charred in a barn fire and frugal Reverend Craig couldn’t bear to toss them out. Another version claims that his frugality led him to use old barrels, so he charred the insides to kill any flavors from the barrels’ original contents.

Did You Know?

When whiskey is aged in charred oak barrels, the liquid seeps under the layer of char where it interacts with the caramelized wood beneath, making it smooth, mellow, and distinctly amber.

A few folks just say he was a genius and intuition led him to suppose that charring might enhance the flavor. No matter how he happened upon the idea, charring the inside of oak whiskey barrels was a discovery that set a milestone for creating what would become Bourbon, and earned Elijah Craig the title of “The Father of Bourbon.”

Fleeing religious persecution in Virginia where they had been imprisoned for their beliefs, Elijah Craig and his brother Lewis led a congregation of several hundred into Kentucky in 1785. They came to be called the “Traveling Church” because the congregation traveled from Virginia to Kentucky. Still standing today, the Old Providence Church in Clark County was one of the congregation’s churches.

The Many Achievements of Elijah Craig

Elijah Craig was responsible for a whole lot of “firsts” in Kentucky. He built the first hemp factory, made the first rope walk, built the first paper factory, started the first mill for woolens and established the first classical school west of the Appalachians, the forerunner of Georgetown College. When he wasn’t busy with firsts, he laid out the plan for the settlement of Lebanon, Kentucky (modern-day Georgetown), and still managed to operate a general store, a grain mill, a tavern, and a distillery.