Bourbon History

Bourbon history, much like the Beam family bourbon dynasty, mirrors U.S. history. Rebellion. Progress. Heroes. Facts. Legends. It's why bourbon is, and will always be, America's Native Spirit—a spirit the Beam family has had a tremendous hand in helping to create, foster and grow, both in the U.S. and abroad, as key players in a great American story.

Bourbon History image George Washington leading the march to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania. (Attributed to Frederick Kemmelmeyer/Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

Colonist Distillers

Myth: Colonists were puritanical tea drinkers who never had any fun.

Fact: Colonists distilled whiskey. And they LOVED it.

Even more fact-y: Colonists distilled corn-based whiskey as early as the mid-1770s.

Because our Founding Farmers, independent thinkers like Jacob Beam, had no interstate highways, they found that distilling the bulk of their crop into whiskey made it easier to transport it down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, on to New Orleans. And a whole lot easier to market.

Whiskey Rebels

In 1791, the freshman U.S. government approved one of its first tax increases—on all distilled spirits—in an attempt to make up some of the costs of the Revolutionary War.

Farmers rioted—with a mob at the epicenter of the rebellion in western Pennsylvania attacking a federal marshal, and another group setting a regional inspector's property ablaze.

President Washington offered the rebels a settlement and incentives to move to western Virginia. Then-Governor Thomas Jefferson sweetened the deal with sixty acres in Kentucky County for any settler building a permanent structure and raising native corn. These rebel-farmers joined others already there, distilling corn-based whiskey on a larger scale.

Maybe Bourbon?

Kentucky County's early subdivisions led to the creation of Bourbon County, which consisted of most of northern Kentucky along the Ohio River at the time. Though Bourbon County continued to subdivide, the area's major port was commonly referred to as being in "Old Bourbon."

Whiskey barrels heading out of port were stamped "Old Bourbon," and it's said that customers downstream wanted the "sweet Old Bourbon whiskey." It's possible that this is how "bourbon" became the popular name for all corn-based whiskey made in the then-western U.S. Now, of course, there are legal standards for bourbon. (Ironically, no bourbon is distilled in Bourbon County today.)

Burning Barrels

Legend has it that the first person to use a charred barrel to ship his whiskey was Reverend Elijah Craig around 1789. The thrifty Craig, who was distilling bourbon around the same time as Jacob Beam, re-used barrels, sanitizing them by charring them. The benefit to the whiskey, of course, is that by the time it reached New Orleans, it had mellowed and taken on a slightly caramel-colored hue from the caramelized sugars in the charred barrel wood.

Another legend: That a Bourbon County distiller shipped his whiskey in barrels that charred in an accidental still fire.

Burning Barrels

Dr. Crowe Brings Consistency to Bourbon

Around 1823, Dr. James Crowe developed the sour mash process, meaning he used a previous distillation to ensure the quality of the next. And the next.

It's possible that David Beam, Jacob Beam's son and the second Beam family distiller, was one of the first to use this process, one we still use today. We add some setback from our previous distillation to help create the next batch. It's one of the ways our bourbon is consistent from batch to batch to batch.

The Best Money

As a divided state in the Civil War, Kentucky distillers would often see Union troops and Confederate troops on successive nights.

Their armies marched particular routes to ensure they'd spend the night at or near a distillery. And the Beam family distillery, then run by David M. Beam, was quite possibly one of the stops along the route. Oddly, with the country engaged in internal struggle, bourbon was a more stable currency than either government's treasury notes.

Bourbon Banned!

Between 1920 and 1933, the 18th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibited the sale, manufacture and distribution of alcohol for consumption.

So Jim Beam got out of the distilling business altogether, resorting to farming fruit and mining coal. Happily, when prohibition was repealed in 1933, Jim Beam bought the old Murphy Barber Distillery in Clermont, and had it up and running in a mere 120 days—to the great pleasure of a very thirsty public. To this day, Jim Beam's namesake bourbon is still made in Clermont.

Return to Small Batches

In 1988, Booker Noe re-introduced bourbon the way it was originally made: hand-crafted in small batches. It's the concept of small batch bourbon. Booker's namesake—and first label—is uncut, unfiltered, straight-from-the-barrel. Since then we've added three other super-premium bourbons to The Small Batch Collection®: Baker's®, Basil Hayden's® and Knob Creek®. There's a flavor for every taste.

And since Booker's genius idea, bourbon has enjoyed something of a renaissance—a growing resurgence and recognition. As a matter of fact, Knob Creek® is the world's top-selling super-premium bourbon, sharing a podium with the world's finest bourbon, Jim Beam.

Return to Small Batches

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