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Bourbon History

Kentucky Bourbon Country History

Kentucky bourbon toursKentucky bourbon history and tradition are as long and strong as the nation itself. It takes its name from Bourbon County, Ky., once the major shipping site for spirits headed down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans. Barrels shipped from its ports were stamped with the county’s name and bourbon and whiskey soon became synonymous. Nearly 200 years later, bourbon is “America’s Official Native Spirit,” as declared by Congress, a leading export and a growing symbol of Kentucky craftsmanship and tradition. More than 95 percent of the world’s bourbon is distilled and aged in Kentucky bourbon country.

Today, much of the distillery method of making bourbon is mandated by law. Bourbon must be made with at least 51 percent corn and aged in new, white oak barrels. The inside of the barrels is charred, creating a caramelized layer of wood that mellows the flavors and imparts the amber color of bourbon. The spirit must be aged at least two years in order to become “straight” bourbon whiskey, although most bourbon is aged at least four to eight years.

Nearly 5 million barrels of bourbon are always aging in Kentucky warehouses that dot the rolling Bluegrass hills of Bourbon Country. Most are built on hilltops or open fields, where an adequate amount of fresh air flows. Temperature changes cause the pure limestone water in bourbon to evaporate, so there’s less in the barrels when opened. This is commonly called the “angel’s share.”

While all bourbon distilleries in Kentucky follow the same steps, individual recipes and production techniques account for the distinct differences and flavors of Kentucky’s many fine bourbons. Currently 10 distilleries are open to the public for touring – according to the Bourbon Trail Tour Map. Sip a free sample from each distillery and be sure to collect stamps from your stops for your souvenir Bourbon Trail Passport, available at visitor centers. 

Visit the Bluegrass State and learn additional information about America's native spirit through Kentucky bourbon tours.