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50 Monumental Bourbon Moments

To commemorate the 50 years since bourbon made history
By Fred Minnick
In May, Bourbon celebrated 50 years of the Congressional Declaration that made bourbon "distinctive product to the US" This Congressional Resolution has given bourbon its modern identity, making the celebrated whiskey the de facto America's Spirit, as it's so widely acclaimed. Although the actual declaration never says 'America's Spirit,' there's no denying Bourbon's heritage to the United States makes it so. To celebrate this momentous occasion, Fred Minnick offers 50 monumental moments in bourbon history.



1 1790 - 1794 War Debts and Whiskey Rebels

After winning its independence from the British, the Americans had some bills to pay. To do that, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton recommended taxing alcohol. Well, East Coast whiskey distillers didn't care much for this new taxation. They revolted. More than 400 so-called whiskey rebels attacked Pittsburgh's John Neville, a pesky tax collector, and Washington federalised 12,950 troops to thwart Western Pennsylvania distiller efforts. The matter was eventually resolved, but not before many distillers joined other whiskey makers in Kentucky.

2 1803 Louisiana Purchase

With the Louisiana Purchase, flatboats shipped whiskey downstream to New Orleans.

3 1803 Mint Julep

In Travels of four years and a half in the United States of America, author John Davis defines a mint julep as "A dram of spirituous liquor that has mint in it, taken by Virginians of a morning." By liquor, he was referring to whiskey. Today, the Mint Julep is a staple of the legendary Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville. This year, the track served more than 120,000 juleps.

4 1811 Steamboat Arrives in Louisville

No longer related to flatboats, whiskey makers could ship to New Orleans via steamboat.

5 1816 Steam Power at the Hope Distillery

Ten years after Hope used it, steam power became quite common in Kentucky distilleries. Unfortunately, Hope also tried to distil used corncobs. That didn't work so well.

6 1818 Catherine Carpenter Sour Mash Recipe

The first known recipe for "Sour Mash" is kept at the Kentucky Historical Society.

7 1821 First Bourbon Advertisement

The first time the term "bourbon" is used is in the Western Citizen Newspaper of Bourbon County. The Stout and Adams ad: "Bourbon Whiskey by the barrel or keg." Oh, the good old days.

8 1826 Earliest Known Record of Charred Barrel

In a letter, a Lexington, Ky., grocer tells distiller John Corlis that burning the barrel insides "only a 16th of an inch" improves the whiskey. This letter is stored at the Filson Historical Society.

9 1828 Congress Issues Rum Tariffs to Help Whiskey Makers

Especially in the New England area,rum was more popular than whiskey. But whiskey makers carried greater political power and influenced Congress to deter rum imports and distillation.

10 1836

Boyd's Blue Book lists "Belle of Bourbon Whiskey" next to champagne, wine and brandy in an importer's listing. This gives the spirit credibility in the eyes of purchasers and strengthens the brand name of "bourbon" as its recognised next to champagne and brandy.

11 1850 Railroad

Kentucky charters the Louisville & Nashville Railroad. By 1859, the track reached Nashville, giving rectifiers and whiskey makers the quickest travel options for Nashville.

12 1853

Boston Medical and Surgical Journal declares "Copper Distilled Pure Old Bourbon Whiskey" among the quack medicines, because proper medical professionals had not tasted each bottle to judge its medicinal qualities.

13 1870 Old Forrester Bottling

George Garvin Brown bottled Old Forrester. Note the spelling: the extra "r" honored Dr. William Forrester, after whom the bourbon was named. The "r" was dropped after the doctor's passing.

14 1875 The Great Whiskey Ring

Under President Grant's administration, in what General John McDonald called a "great whiskey fraud," the government collected distiller's revenues and invested them into Republican elections.

15 1879

Frederick Stitzel patented a tiered storage rack, aka "rickhouse," that is still used today.

16 1880 Kentucky Distillers Association Established

17 1897 Bottled-in-Bond Act

This iconic Congressional act protected consumers from rotgut whiskey rectified by unsavory wholesalers. Bottled-in-Bond bourbons still exist.

18 1904 Automatic Bottle Making Becomes Routine

19 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act

This consumer-protection legislation ensures all food and drugs were labeled correctly. The law put many whiskey companies out of business, because they made unsubstantiated health claims.

20 1909 Taft Decision

President William Howard Taft pens the definitions of whiskey. Prior to this, tequila and rum were frequently mistaken as whiskey.

21 1919 Prohibition...Doom

Distillers distilled no more. Some tried to make and sell whiskey anyway. The Pogues worked with Cincinnati bootlegger George Remus to sell barrels and the Dowlings moved their Waterfill & Frazier Distillery to Mexico to make bourbon.

22 1920-1933 Prohibition Permits

Six permits for medicinal whiskey bottling were granted: Brown-Forman, Frankfort Distillery, James Thompson and Brothers, American Medicinal Spirits, Schenley Distillery and A. Ph. Distillery.

23 1928 Distillers' Holiday

It's funny how everybody was sick during Prohibition. With doctors writing all those medicinal whiskey prescriptions, the government granted 100 days of distilling to select whiskey makers.

24 1933 Prohibition Repeal

December 5 should be celebrated as Repeal Day around the U.S. We're still waiting for that to catch on.

25 1941 World War II

Distillers halted production and made industrial alcohol for the war effort.

26 1959 Maker's Mark Launch

The first case of Maker's Mark is sold at the Keeneland Race Track in Lexington, Ky. Dipped in dripping red wax, the brand would become the red head of the bourbon industry with the tagline "It tastes expensive...and is."

27 1963

University of Kentucky Press publishes Gerald Carson's Social History of Bourbon. The book becomes the first scholarly effort at chronicling bourbon whiskey.

28 1964

Congressional Resolution making bourbon a "distinctive product to the U.S."

29 1969

George T. Stagg Distillery Sends Exports to Japan.

30 1972

The selling of Stitzel Weller and closing of Old Taylor.

31 1978

Wild Turkey launches a honey-flavoured bourbon, now called Wild Turkey American Honey. The flavoured-whiskey category was stagnant until 2004 when Jim Beam created Red Stag. Now, much to the chagrin of bourbon purists, flavoured whiskey is the fastest-growing spirits category.

32 1980

Wall Street Journal Article Features Maker's Mark. Former chairmen and CEO Bill Samuels says his phone didn't stop ringing after the article. The next year the Samuels sold the distillery Hiram Walker & Sons.

33 1984 Single Barrel

While other companies sold private single barrels to select consumers and VIPs, Blanton's became the first bourbon to be mass marketed as a single barrel.

34 1988 Small Batch

Master distiller Booker Noe announces his mingling of a few honey barrels, calling the method "Small Batch."

35 1992

The Kentucky Bourbon Festival begins as a bourbon tasting and dinner. Today, more than 52,000 people a year travel to Bardstown, Ky., to attend the annual September event.

36 1992

The documentary, "Made and Bottled in Kentucky: The Story of Bourbon Whiskey" was written, produced and directed by Chuck Cowdery. The documentary continues to air on Kentucky Educational Television. Cowdery later pens the, "Bourbon, Straight," in 2004 and becomes a crucial blogger as the Internet and social media becomes more popular. He was the first full-time American whiskey writer.

37 1996 Heaven Hill Fire

On November 7, fire swept through the Heaven Hill Distillery in Bardstown, burning down the warehouses, distillery and whiskey. Heaven Hill's competitors immediately offered their support, lending whiskey, barrel space and still time. Heaven Hill officials still do not speak about the fire.

38 1996

Brown-Forman introduces Woodford Reserve.

39 1997 StraightBourbon.com is Created

Nearly a decade before social media craze, this Internet forum becomes a crucial consumer discussion board, where people can bypass marketing and express unfiltered opinions. Folks are still chirping today, sometimes loudly.

40 1999 Kentucky Bourbon Trail is launched

41 1999 Buffalo Trace Distillery

After $20 million in renovations, the former George T. Stagg Distillery, sometimes referred to as the Ancient Age Distillery, in Frankfurt, Ky., is rechristened as the Buffalo Trace Distillery. The distillery has become one of the most important whiskey distillers in the world, bottling and now distilling the whiskey for Pappy Van Winkle and the coveted Antique Collection. In 2013, the Buffalo Trace family lost its long-time emeritus master distiller Elmer T. Lee. He was 93.

42 2001 Seagram's Falls

One of the colossal spirits companies folds, letting its entities become plucked one by one. What Seagram's ignored—Four Roses—would become a treasure for a Japanese company.

43 2001

Ralph Erenzo purchased the Tuthilltown Gristmill in New York to start Tuthilltown Spirits. Within a few years, Hudson Baby Bourbon in a squatty bulbous bottle hit shelves, perplexing the minds of long-time bourbon drinkers. "What do you mean bourbon can be made in New York?" Hudson helped define the craft whiskey movement and caused countless headaches to bartenders when addressing bourbon-know-it-alls.

44 2001 Kirin Buys Four Roses

Japanese brewer Kirin purchases Four Roses, whose bourbon had not been in the US market since the 1950s. Kirin reinvigorated master distiller Jim Rutledge who calls bringing Four Roses bourbon back to the US, "the greatest moment of my career."

45 2009 The Bourbon Caucus

Kentucky Congressmen Brett Guthrie (Repub.) and John Yarmuth (Dem.) create The Bourbon Caucus to drink bourbon and discuss bourbon issues.

46 2009

Filson Historical Society and bourbon historian Mike Veach launch the "The Filson Bourbon Academy." Veach later published the book Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: An American Heritage. He travels the country educating the public about true bourbon history.

47 2011

Former Brown-Forman master taster Peggy Noe Stevens forms Bourbon Women to promote the impact women have on bourbon. The organisation influenced me to write Whiskey Women: The Untold Story of How Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch & Irish Whiskey.

48 2012 Willett's Copper Pot Still Drips Distillate

The whiskey marks the beginning of Willett's own whiskey vs. long-time sourced product that made them so popular.

49 2014 Suntory Buys Jim Beam for $16 Billion

50 2014 Wild Turkey Launches New Visitor Centre

After investing $100 million in new facilities, Wild Turkey opens its shiny new visitor centre to the public. Its one of many new bourbon facilities throughout Kentucky.