Bourbon’s roots are tied to the migration of settlers west from the original colonies, in the 18th and 19th centuries. They included Scots-Irish descendants of the men who invented Scotch and Irish whiskies, but they also included other English, Welsh, German, and French settlers. There is no single person or family credited with inventing bourbon. Elijah Craig, a Baptist preacher and distiller, sometimes gets attributed with the creation of the spirit, but that’s open to debate.
The Bourbon name comes from Bourbon County, a large Kentucky district founded after the American Revolution. This county was ripe for crops and corn especially. According to Charles K. Cowdery, by the time Bourbon County was formed in 1785, there were dozens if not hundreds of small farmer-distillers making whiskey throughout the region. In those days, with few roads and even fewer local markets for farm products, the only practical way for farmers to sell their corn crop was by first distilling it into whiskey. If they did not have a still, they found a neighbor who did and traded some percentage of the output in payment for the distilling services.
Along with Kentucky’s other main export product, hemp, surplus whiskey was loaded onto flatboats and shipped via the Ohio River to New Orleans for sale. The barrels were stamped with the words Old Bourbon, what residents commonly called Bourbon County, and the name stuck. Certain political, social and cultural events helped shape the development of this liquor. Prohibition, which took place from 1920 to 1933, made life difficult for American whiskey makers. During World War II, bourbon distilleries were retrofitted to make fuel alcohol and penicillin. Since penicillin is a by-product of fermentation, bourbon distilleries were a natural choice to make it in large quantities.
By the late 1800s, there were hundreds of distilleries in Kentucky. Now, ten major whiskey makers produce hundreds of brands, including many of the top-priced single-barrel, small-batch, and cask-strength variations.
Lyndon B. Johnson gave bourbon his presidential stamp in 1964 when he signed an Act of Congress that designated bourbon as “The Official Spirit of America”.
Bourbon sales reached their low point in the 1970s and ‘80s. But this popular spirit has definitely bounced back!
In 2010, amidst a record economic low point, the American whiskey industry (which includes bourbon and Tennessee whiskey) sold 15.4 million cases, accounting for $1.9 billion in revenue. Export sales are higher than ever, up 286% just in France. Bourbon makers are finding huge potential markets in China and India, and they’re exploring new markets elsewhere in Asia and in Africa. The money flooding the market has led to plant expansions at Wild Turkey, Jim Beam, and Maker’s Mark. Four Roses, Buffalo Trace, and Woodford Reserve have all expanded and updated their visitor centers.
The spirit’s popularity has impacted Kentucky tourism, prompting a boom with nearly two million people visiting the Kentucky Bourbon Trail in the last five years. Maker’s Mark recently reversed its decision to alter the spirit’s proof from 90 to 84 in order to produce enough bourbon to meet orders. The reversal came after strong customer backlash. Maker’s Mark blamed unforeseen issues in its supply chain for its original decision. Typically, the company sells bourbon that has been aged between five years nine months and seven years before bottling it. But rising international demand for the spirit made it impossible for the company to meet demand so it has had to limit supply to some overseas markets.
Cheers to the ongoing strength of the Bourbon market!
A listing of National Bourbon Day Celebrations, New Countdown Clock widgets, and our exclusive Bourbon Day T-Shirts and more...