The Little-Known History of Bourbon

The Little-Known History of Bourbon

By Peyton Whittington Published August 2023

Sure, you’ve sipped a frosty Mint Julep on Derby Day and suffered a severe case of sticker shock after hunting for that rare bottle your son-in-law really wanted for his birthday (“What do they put in this stuff, gold?”), but how much do you really know about bourbon, America’s only native spirit?

Join us as we explore the little-known history of how bourbon came to be and share fun facts about the spirit to have in your back pocket at cocktail parties.

Jump to Facts About Bourbon

Bourbon Is Born

Bourbon’s story begins with rebellion (this is American history, after all).

But first, let us set the scene: it’s the 1770s and the American Revolution is a powder keg about to explode. The part of the country we know today as Kentucky was “discovered” by settlers to have fertile land (especially for growing corn, bourbon’s star ingredient), plenty of trees (for barrels, of course) and pure water sources. Post-1776, a flood of Irish and German immigrants arrived in the newly formed states, and they brought with them their culture of distillation and taste for hard liquor, not just beer or cider.1

It can’t be understated just how normalized and ingrained (get it, grain?) distillation was in the everyday lives of early Kentucky’s settlers. If they didn’t bring a still with them from their home countries, they’d fashion one from copper, logs, barrels or whatever they could get their hands on. Crude whiskey was used for barter and trade; it was the obvious answer for what to do with leftover grains after the family had eaten their fill and enough was harvested to be taken to market.

So, when individual states accrued massive amounts of debt after the Revolution, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton suggested an excise tax on whiskey as a no-brainer remedy for the new nation’s financial woes. President George Washington was apprehensive about the tax, but he journeyed throughout Virginia and Pennsylvania to take the pulse of local government officials’ feelings toward Hamilton’s proposal. Washington was met with enthusiasm, so Congress passed the bill in 1791.2

The only problem is that Washington was talking with local big wigs, not the farmers in the fields developing this new nation with their own blood, sweat, tears and whiskey. And if there’s two rules of American history, it’s 1) Don’t mess with the little guy, and 2) Don’t tax our beverages.

Protests and revolts immediately ensued. The new law was unjust in that large producers paid the tax annually at a rate of six cents per gallon, and the more they produced, the bigger the tax breaks got. Small producers, however, paid nine cents per gallon in taxes, and the tax could only be paid in cash. For folks used to barter and trade as a means of doing business, this wasn’t it.

Tensions turned violent when tax collectors and their families were assaulted and intimidated by aggrieved distillers. The Whiskey Rebellion got so bad that Washington assembled over 12,000 militiamen to march into western Pennsylvania. Local rebels didn’t dare retaliate against a militia of that size and they begrudgingly returned to business as usual.

To let Pennsylvania cool off, Washington incentivized disgruntled rebels to move southward to Kentucky, which was still part of Virginia. Governor Thomas Jefferson offered 60 acres of land to any Pennsylvania transplant who agreed to plant native corn (see also: whiskey) on their land. Jefferson, a French fanboy, dubbed the new settlement Bourbon County after the powerful French Bourbon dynasty, which ruled over Spain and most of Italy at the time. Jefferson also campaigned on the promise to repeal the whiskey tax when he was elected president in 1802, and he did just that. Once the whiskey started flowing out of Kentucky and down the Missouri and Ohio rivers with “Bourbon County” emblazoned on every barrel, America’s favorite spirit got its name.3

Quite the story, no? Let’s wash it down with a few bite-sized fun facts about bourbon and, more importantly, bourbon drinkers.

Facts About Bourbon

  1. Evan Williams founded the first whiskey distillery in the U.S. in 1783 – and that’s not all he did.

    Evan Williams, a Welsh immigrant, arrived in Louisville, Kentucky in 1780 and founded the new nation’s first commercial distillery on the banks of the Ohio River just three years later in 1783. Williams had a hand in plenty other firsts for Louisville, too; he was the city’s first wharf master and operated as one of seven of the city’s early trustees (Louisville lore tells that the man would bring a bottle of whiskey to his board of trustee meetings, and everyone would partake in a tipple). A master stonemason and building contractor, Williams also built Jefferson County’s first clerk’s office and courthouse and Louisville’s first brick home.4

    Evan Williams remains one of the most popular whiskey brands to this day. To that, we raise a glass to Mr. Williams, one of American history’s true renaissance men

  2. Bourbon is America’s only native spirit.

    We’ve mentioned it a few times here, and it’s true: on May 4, 1964 Congress resolved that bourbon is “a distinctive product of the United States” and no whiskey made outside the U.S. can be labelled or described as bourbon. No other spirit has this designation.5

  3. Bourbon led to the invention of the drinking straw (sorry, turtles).

    In the 1880s, gentlemen slurped their cocktails through tubes of natural rye grass that tinged every drink it touched with an unpleasant grassy flavor. Marvin Chester Stone was enjoying (or rather, wasn’t enjoying) a mint julep and noticed that his rye straw was coming apart in his cup. He wound paper around a pencil to make a tube, slid the pencil out one end, and applied glue in the openings to keep it all together. It was a first draft, but it was his eureka moment.

    In 1888, he patented a machine that wound paper into a tube and coated the outside with paraffin wax that wouldn’t melt in his precious bourbon. Et voila: the drinking straw was conceived as a better way to drink bourbon cocktails.6

  4. You could legally get your hands on bourbon during the Prohibition – if your doctor wrote you a prescription for it.

    Prohibition had many well-documented loopholes that drink lovers exploited to get their fix, but perhaps the wildest one is that, within certain limitations, physicians could write patients prescriptions for whiskey that could be filled at a pharmacy like any other medication.7 Ten medicinal licenses were approved by the federal government, but only six entities applied for and received them. Of the six, the only one that still exists with the original family at the helm is Brown-Forman. Brown-Forman's portfolio boasts some of the best-known names in bourbon and whiskey, including Jack Daniel’s, Old Forester, Woodford Reserve and more.

  5. Yes, the Paper Plane is named after M.I.A.

    The Paper Plane is a relatively new name on the cocktail scene that’s becoming a modern classic. This simple, yet complex cocktail is composed of equal parts bourbon, lemon juice, amaro and Aperol. It got its start back in 2008 when a new bar in Chicago called Violet Hour asked Sam Ross, owner of popular NYC bar Attaboy, to create an original cocktail for opening day. Ross put his own spin on the Last Word cocktail (equal parts gin, green chartreuse, Maraschino liqueur and fresh lime juice) and came up with a recipe of equal parts bourbon, lemon juice, amaro and Campari. Ross knew he was onto something, but thought the original Violet Hour recipe was a bit too bitter, so he swapped the Campari for Aperol, birthing the orange, grapefruit-flavored cocktail we know and love today.

    And yes, it is so named because Ross was jamming to M.I.A.’s hit single “Paper Planes” at the time. (Weren’t we all?)


  6. Bourbon is part of the presidential diet.

    According to the author of Harry S. Truman’s biography, the former president would take a daily pre-dawn walk around the White House, followed by a light breakfast and a shot of bourbon, rumored to be Old Grand-Dad or Wild Turkey.8 That’s a brekkie we can get behind.

  7. Bourbon is whisk-EY.

    Have you noticed that whisky/whiskey is spelled differently depending on what aisle you’re in? That’s because different regions producing the spirit spell it differently. The U.S. and Ireland spell it like “whiskey,” while every other region of the world spells it like “whisky.” That’s why you might see Canadian whisky and Irish whiskey on the same shelf; it’s just a regional difference, not a typo! It’s also why you’ll only ever see bourbon whiskey labels, since bourbon can only be produced in the U.S.

    Of course, there are some outliners to this rule. For example, Maker’s Mark spells it “whisky” as a tribute to the founders family’s Scottish/Irish ancestors.

  8. There are more bourbon barrels than people in Kentucky.

    According to the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, the state’s bourbon barrel count reached a record 11.4 million in January 2022. The population of Kentucky is about 4.5 million. That’s just over 2.5 barrels of bourbon per person. We like those odds.9

Interested in learning more? Visit our ABC Blog page.