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The Beginning of the Bourbon Industry: The Kentucky Frontier

Ever wonder where the bourbon industry got its start? Long before the bourbon trail, there was the Kentucky frontier.

Kentucky’s first European settlers crossed the Appalachian Mountains from Virginia into Kentucky. They then journeyed westward into central Kentucky by following the paths, or traces, created by millions of migrating buffalo.

One of the most important of these traces was the Alanant-o-Wamiowee which crossed the Kentucky River at Leestown, near Frankfort, at the site of present-day Buffalo Trace Distillery.

Whiskey Business

Most of the settlers who followed these trails were farmers, and they quickly learned that corn grows well in Kentucky and that corn could be converted to whiskey. In short order, these new immigrants were making corn liquor - moonshine. The left-over spent grain was then fed to their livestock and the whiskey was bartered for other goods and services. In effect, a barrel of whiskey, for all practical purposes, was a barrel of cash.

Furthermore, corn was not easy to export, so the locals found whiskey much more profitable to export. By the early 1800s there were thousands of farmers in Kentucky and most of these farmers were making whiskey. If you lived in Kentucky at that time, most likely, you would have been a farmer distiller.

Why Do They Put Bourbon in Barrels?

As America continued its western expansion, the oak barrel served as the primary storage and cargo container of the day, which presented a significant problem to the early Kentucky distillers.

Simply put, barrels that had contained items like pickles or fish produced nasty whiskey. To eliminate the foul taste and odors, farmers burned or charred the inside before filling them with whiskey. These barrels were then rolled down to a river and placed on flat-bottomed boats.

It was a nine-month journey down the Kentucky, Ohio, and Mississippi rivers to their destination of New Orleans. By the time those barrels reached New Orleans, they had aged whiskey. This whiskey became quite popular and named after its place of origin – Bourbon County, Kentucky.

Want to learn more about the fascinating history of the bourbon industry and bourbon tourism in Kentucky? Stay tuned to the Bourbon History Blog by Neat Kentucky Tours!

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