Bourbon is distinctly, and deliciously, American. It continues to be made in the U.S., must be aged in American oak barrels, and traces its origins to modern-day Kentucky.
From its debut in the late 1700s to Prohibition, and its post-Prohibition rebound to later taking a backseat behind vodka, bourbon’s journey in U.S. history is best described as an ebb-and-flow. And bourbon’s more recent market boom has distinguished the beverage as a trend worth watching – and drinking.
Bourbon’s Origin Story
While historians debate when bourbon was officially invented, it is believed that it was sometime in the late 1700s when the Scot and Scot-Irish immigrants settled in the region that is now Kentucky. The first-known commercial whiskey distillery later opened in Louisville in 1783.
What made bourbon unique was its aging process in new charred, oak barrels. The Lincoln County Process of 1825 further distinguished Tennessee whiskey from Kentucky bourbon. By the mid-1800s, bourbon began to be bottled and mingled from different barrels. Sour mash also originated about that time – a process that used a portion of the bourbon mash from a previous batch to start a new one.
By the turn of the century and in the decade before Prohibition, there were an estimated 500 whiskey distilleries in Kentucky alone.
The once numerous bourbon distilleries dramatically decreased to less than a dozen after the Volstead Act passed in 1920. For 13 years, bourbon became an underground spirit.
A few lone whiskey distilleries were issued government licenses and allowed to continue production purely for medicinal purposes. Lovers of bourbon tapped into this to “cure their ailments.” During Prohibition, physicians wrote roughly 11 million prescriptions for a pint of spirits.
Following the Twenty-first Amendment’s repeal of Prohibition in 1933, the U.S. adopted a complex, three-tier system: alcohol distillers were required to sell their goods to a distributor, who then sold their product to a retailer, who could then sell it to the customer.
The Great Depression also made bourbon’s rebound from Prohibition a slow crawl. Because of the overall shortage coupled with the time required for the distilling process, it took years for bourbon to age and be ready to pour again.
By the 1950s, there were roughly 100 distilleries in Kentucky – a fifth of what it was pre-Prohibition – but consumers were reclaiming bourbon. Most enjoyed the drink over ice or as a cocktail, such as an Old Fashioned or Manhattan, until the emergence of lighter spirits like beer, gin, tequila, and vodka began to grow in popularity. Vodka sales even topped bourbon and whiskey sales for the first time in 1973.
A Timeline of Bourban’s History
1783: Evan Williams opens the first commercial whiskey distillery in the city of Louisville. The Samuels family, whose bourbon is still produced today, also creates a “secret” recipe this year.
1785: Bourbon County, Kentucky is established and named in honor of a French royal family that aided the colonies during the Revolutionary War.
1792: The state of Kentucky is established. The state was known for growing corn and other grains that are used in bourbon.
1821: Western Citizen – a Paris, Kentucky newspaper – prints the first-known bourbon advertisement.
1823: Dr. James C. Crow develops the sour mash technique, a process that revolutionizes the way most bourbons are made.
1840: Previously called Bourbon County whiskey or Old Bourbon County whiskey, the drink simply becomes known as “bourbon.”
1920: Congress passes the Volstead Act, also known as Prohibition, which forces most bourbon distilleries to close.
1933: After 13 years, Prohibition ends with the Twenty-first Amendment. Distillers begin rebuilding, but slowly, due to the Great Depression.
1950s: While it takes some time for the bourbon industry to rebound from Prohibition, there are approximately 100 Kentucky distilleries by the mid-1950s.
1963: Bourbon becomes the top-selling liquor in the U.S. The scope of its popularity at the time is evident by the production level. There are approximately 75 million gallons of bourbon, in total, among various brands.
1964: Congress declares bourbon whiskey as a “distinctive product of the United States” when it passes Resolution 57, which ensures that bourbon is made in America and is protected against competition abroad.
1973: Vodka outsells whiskey and bourbon for the first time in America’s history.
1980s: Single-malt Scotches begin to grow in popularity and sales, and bourbons follow suit. Single-barrel bourbons and small-batch bourbons make their debut.
2007: The United States Senate declares September is National Bourbon Heritage Month for the role bourbon has played in the country’s history.
Where Is Bourbon Today?
In the 2010s, bourbon’s popularity really took off, which was in part due to its more affordable prices. Bourbons flavored with cherry, apple, cinnamon, and maple were introduced and began to attract younger drinkers. It’s also worth noting that every U.S. state – not just Kentucky – now produces their own bourbon, if not two.
From 2009 to 2014, specifically, the demand for higher-end bourbon grew drastically, and distillers dubbed 2013 as the “golden age of Kentucky bourbon” when sales topped $1 billion for the first time. Foreign markets were increasingly buying U.S. bourbon, as well, as a result of new trade agreements and reduced tariffs.
In 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, bourbon accounted for 40% of the whiskey subcategory sales and 14% of the total liquor sales. Other whiskey subcategories, and not even tequila, matched bourbon’s sales.
What’s more, bourbon is truly gaining popularity with younger generations. Millennials are the primary buyers at 52%, followed by Gen X at 37%, Baby Boomers at 9%, and Gen Z at 3%.
Industry experts project bourbon will remain a trend and continue to be a key player. Learn more about mergers, acquisitions, and other strategies behind the bourbon industry with Brindiamo Group, LLC.