Bourbon Heritage & History
In 1999, the Kentucky Distillers’ Association formed the Kentucky Bourbon Trail® tour to give visitors a first-hand look at the art and science of crafting Bourbon, and to educate them about the rich history and proud tradition of our signature spirit.
It began in the 1700s with the first settlers of Kentucky. Like most farmers and frontiersmen, they found that getting crops to market over narrow trails and steep mountains was a daunting task. They soon learned that converting corn and other grains to whiskey made them easily transportable, prevented the excess grain from simply rotting, and gave them some welcome diversion from the rough life of the frontier.
Since then, generations of Kentuckians have continued the heritage and time-honoured tradition of making fine Bourbon, unchanged from the process used by their ancestors’ centuries before.
So how did it get the name Bourbon? Well, one of Kentucky’s original counties was Bourbon County, established in 1785 when Kentucky was still part of Virginia.
Farmers shipped their whiskey in oak barrels — stamped from Bourbon County — down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans. The long trip aged the whiskey, with the oak wood giving it the distinct mellow flavour and amber colour.
Pretty soon, whiskey from Bourbon County grew in popularity and became known as Bourbon whiskey.
In 1964, Congress officially recognized Bourbon’s place in history — and its future — by declaring it a distinctive product of the United States. Or, as we like to say, “America’s Official Native Spirit.”
Today, Bourbon is a signature industry that helps create 9,000 jobs, generates more than $125 million in tax revenue each year and is a growing international symbol of Kentucky craftsmanship and tradition.
Bourbon tourism is skyrocketing too, with nearly 2.5 million visitors from all 50 states and 25 countries to the world-famous Kentucky Bourbon Trail® tour in the last five years alone.
Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History (Bardstown, Kentucky)
Historic Spalding Hall is home to the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History and the Bardstown Historical Museum. Our Museum of Whiskey History boasts a 50-year collection of rare whiskey artefacts dating from pre-colonial days to post-Prohibition days. The museum features rare antique bottles, a moonshine still, advertising art, novelty whiskey containers. A definite stop for bourbon enthusiasts.
Louisville & The Bourbon, Horses & History
This region really celebrates the America’s only native spirit. Travel throughout Bourbon Country and take in the many sites and attractions that toast the regions signature export. Discover heritage sites, working distillery tours, testing rooms, a whiskey museum, cooperages and much more. Experience joins classics such as the Jim Beam American Stillhouse, Heaven Hill Distilleries Bourbon Heritage Centre, Barton 1792 Distillery and Maker’s Mark. Craft distilleries, such as Willet distillery and Limestone Branch complete the landscape. The newest edition to the region is the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience, located on Louisville’s historic “Whiskey Row”.
Lexington & the Bluegrass Region
The Bluegrass Region is also in the centre of Bourbon Country. With the opening of Alltech’s Town Branch Distillery and two new craft distilleries—Wilderness Trace Distillery and Barrel House Distillery—the Region has among the newest stops on the internationally acclaimed Kentucky Bourbon Trail®.
Woodford Reserve Distillery, the oldest and one of the smallest distilleries in Kentucky, sits on picturesque Glenn’s Creek in the rolling horse country of Woodford County. With a distilling tradition dating back to the early 1800s, Woodford Reserve now produces the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby, Belmont Stakes and England’s Epsom Derby.
Both Wild Turkey Distillery and Four Roses Distillery are in the town of Lawrenceburg. Wild Turkey, occupying the crest of a hill overlooking the Kentucky River, opened in 1855 as a grocery store specializing in tea, coffee and, of course, spirits. The distillery’s most unique feature is the 40-foot column still.
Four Roses, with its Spanish mission style of architecture, may look slightly out of place in the Bluegrass, but its signature bourbons are pure Kentucky.
Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort is the oldest continuously operating distillery in the United States and the first to market single barrel bourbon commercially. The distillery’s setting lies at the intersection of the Kentucky River.
The Pepper family brand of whiskey is an iconic Kentucky whiskey brand initially produced during the American Revolution and continued through 1958. The family built and operated two main distilleries: first founding the site that today hosts the Woodford Reserve Distillery, and later the James E. Pepper Distillery in Lexington. In the late 1950s the bourbon industry hit hard times, and both the brand and distillery in Lexington were abandoned for over half a century. After a multi-year construction effort, the historic James E. Pepper Distillery—which after fifty years of neglect had fallen into a terrible state of disrepair—has been completely rebuilt and restored. In December 2017, the distillery once again began distilling whiskey.