Bourbon was born on the American frontier and came of age on Madison Avenue—and everything about its history reflects the nation that invented it. The story is cast with immigrants, industrialists, farmers, and hustlers, and set in fields, factories, boardrooms, and back rooms. Inextricably intertwined, America shaped bourbon and bourbon shaped America. And no matter how hard marketers try to embellish the history, they’ll never top the real thing.
Early Native Americans domesticate a weedy Mexican grass called teosinte, ultimately transforming it into the primary ingredient of bourbon and a grain that feeds and fuels the United States.
1622—Dying for a Drink
George Thorpe, a colonist who had been experimenting with making alcohol beverages from corn, is killed during the Powhatan Uprising in Virginia.
As the war with the British hinders the sugar trade, and therefore rum production, Americans resort to distilling from native grains like rye and corn to make spirits.
As Kentucky joins the Union, more Americans move into the Ohio River Valley region where corn grows particularly well, paving the way for the Bluegrass State to eventually become the epicenter of bourbon.
1794—The Whiskey Rebellion
Frontier distillers in western Pennsylvania resist payment of the “whiskey tax,” the first tax on a domestic product from the new government. George Washington and his army suppress the insurgents, enforcing the federal government’s sovereignty.
1797—Distiller in Chief
Working at Mount Vernon, George Washington becomes the nation’s largest distiller, specializing in rye whiskey, bourbon’s close cousin.
Thomas Jefferson—who strongly dislikes whiskey, much preferring wine—eliminates the hated whiskey tax, thwarting an illicit moonshine market while promoting innovation and craft.
Middleman merchants like the Tarascon brothers, from south of Cognac, France, settle along the Mississippi River, bringing their tradition of aging spirits in charred barrels to whiskey for the long voyage to markets like New Orleans.
First known advertisement using the word “bourbon” to describe whiskey appears in Kentucky’s Western Citizen newspaper, when a firm known as Stout and Adams offers it for sale by the barrel.
Irish inventor Aeneas Coffey patents a more efficient version of the continuous still, capable of producing spirits faster and cleaner than traditional pot distillation.
Distilleries burn their names onto barrelheads, giving rise to the term “brand names,” and indicating that people are growing more interested in a whiskey’s source, quality, and style.
1835—A Sour Note
The “father of modern bourbon,” Dr. James Crow, begins experimenting at a distillery along Glenns Creek in Kentucky’s Woodford County. In freely sharing his scientific discoveries, he helps to popularize the sour mash process.
1847—Ice, Ice, Baby
From his Walden Pond outpost, Henry David Thoreau rhapsodizes about America’s ability to improve ice harvesting, transportation, and storage. Now, Clinebell machines mimic the cold, dense ice once provided by nature.
1865—A Local Anesthetic
By the Civil War’s end, countless soldiers have been treated with whiskey. Some are given a pint a day, others “as much whiskey as [they] could take,” according to The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion.
A Republican scheme to bury political opponents using money skimmed from whiskey taxes is traced all the way to Orville Babcock, personal secretary to President Ulysses S. Grant, exposing whiskey as one of America’s most corrupt industries.
1881—Whiskey for my Cattle
Whiskey baron Joseph Greenhut opens the world’s largest distillery, Great Western Distillery in Peoria, Illinois. At its peak, the trust he forms is so enormous that the spent grain provides food for 28,000 cattle.
1886—Newly Old Fashioned
Bartenders have begun dressing up the basic Whiskey Cocktail with extra ingredients, causing purists to launch a back-to-basics movement dubbing the drink an “Old Fashioned,” as it appears in the publication Comment and Dramatic Times.
1897—Bottled in Bond
Problems with mislabeling and adding dangerous adulterants spark the landmark Bottled in Bond Act, establishing standards of identity and making the U.S. Government the guarantor of a whiskey’s authenticity.
Michael Owens patents an automated bottle-making system able to produce an incredible four bottles per second. Bottles emerge as the most accessible and versatile bourbon package.
On the heels of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act, President William Howard Taft announces rules for definition and composition of American whiskey. “Bourbon” and “rye” will be used to identify dominant grains used.
1919—The Volstead Act
National Prohibition legislation is informally nicknamed after Andrew Volstead, a Minnesota Congressman who promoted it. With quality bourbon severely limited, Americans turn to alternatives—sales of ginger ale, a popular mixer, will triple between 1920 and 1928.
Bootlegger George Remus, who supposedly inspired the character of Jay Gatsby, goes to prison. He had built a $40 million syndicate out of leftover booze from ten distilleries, but was eventually overshadowed by Al Capone.
President Franklin Roosevelt brings back the whiskey industry, albeit in a more consolidated and regulated form. The new “three-tier” system—governing production, distribution, and retail—maximizes tax revenue needed during Great Depression.
W. Forbes Morgan, a nephew of J.P. Morgan, leads industry’s first serious lobbying group. Time calls him a “front man” as “The Big Four” corporations, some headed by former bootleggers, emerge to control about three-quarters of the industry.
The Mint Julep, long a Kentucky Derby tradition, becomes the race’s “official drink,” sold in souvenir glasses for seventy-five cents apiece. Churchill Downs, where the race is held, sold nearly 120,000 of them during race weekend this year.
U.S. Government assumes control of the industry as distillers churn out 44 percent of the 1.7 billion gallons of industrial alcohol used in the U.S. war effort, earning the spirit the name “Cocktails for Hitler.”
1947—Make or Break
With the world still reeling from WWII, President Harry Truman—who liked his bourbon with water or ginger ale—shuts down the nation’s distilleries for 60 days in order to conserve grain, which is sent overseas to feed hungry Europeans.
Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle accuses larger competitors of “skulduggery” and “squeeze moves” during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on whiskey monopolies. His distillery, Stitzel-Weller, folds decades later as industry consolidates.
Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev is given his first bourbon Highball during Vice President Richard Nixon’s visit to Moscow. “This is very good whiskey,” he says. “But you Americans spoil it. You put in more ice than whiskey.”
1961—Respect for Elders
Saddled with surpluses, distilleries grow desperate to sell aging whiskey. Lewis Rosenstiel, founder of Schenley Industries, who controls nearly half of the nation’s aging whiskey stocks, spends $21 million on slogans like, “Age Makes the Difference.”
1964—Red, White, and Bourbon
Congress declares bourbon a “distinctive product of the United States,” giving it special trade protection in overseas markets. Rosenstiel celebrates by sending a case of bourbon to every U.S. embassy in the world.
1967—Bond, James Bond
At the height of the Cold War, Jim Beam hires James Bond actor Sean Connery as a spokesperson. Nobody mentions that he’s Scottish or that Bond actually preferred vodka Martinis.
1981—Hope and Aspiration
Hiram Walker purchases Maker’s Mark, one of the only brands to grow during the industry’s downfall. The brand’s upmarket advertising (“It tastes expensive…and is.”) illuminates the industry’s path to salvation.
1984—Singles Going Steady
Noting growth of a luxury market and success of single malt scotch, Ancient Age Distillery (later known as Buffalo Trace) releases Blanton’s, the first bourbon mass-marketed as “single barrel.”
2009-2014—Off the Charts
Domestic whiskey sales surge 40 percent in five years as a new generation discovers, and an older generation rediscovers, both bourbon and rye, causing demand to outstrip supply once again.
2017—Strength in Numbers
Rising from only a handful in 2000, the number of American craft distilleries surpasses 1,300. Bourbon, like America, continues to evolve.