Bourbon County History

Did you know that Bourbon County was originally part of Virginia? Bourbon County may not be the namesake for our favorite American liquor…

Kentucky was formed as a county of Virginia between 1776 and 1777 after the 13 colonies established their independence. It was first called Fincastle County, VA before the name was changed to Kentucky. In 1780, Kentucky County was divided into Fayette, Lincoln and Jefferson Counties. In 1786, Bourbon County was formed by the division of Fayette County. When Bourbon County was formed, there were only 7 counties within Kentucky. In 1789, Mason County’s formation cut Bourbon County almost in half. Then in 1792, when Kentucky became a state, it was divided again by Clark and Harrison Counties. The very large segment of Kentucky that was Bourbon county was reduced to half its area again in 1800 with the creation of Nicholas County. What began as 3 counties in Kentucky has become 120 counties today. Before the term bourbon even originated, the massive Bourbon County was reduced to a very small county in the northern central portion of the state.

The term “bourbon” for whiskey wasn’t used commonly until 1870. There aren’t documented uses for the name at all until 1820. I tend to agree with Michael Veach’s assertion that the name “bourbon” came from somewhere other than Bourbon County in Kentucky. The word bourbon had many associations to other products and places at the time. While Veach connects the word “bourbon” with Bourbon Street in New Orleans, I tend to think it was broader than just that single connection. Producers of whiskey were selling to a largely French community in New Orleans who were eager to buy an inexpensive product. Most of the south supported the French and was constantly reading about what was happening in Europe with the transition from Napoleon back to the Bourbons.

There has been competition over the years to claim responsibility for the first distillery in Kentucky, or Bourbon County for that matter. Was it John Ritchie in Nelson County who shipped his whiskey to New Orleans? Was it Elijah Craig? Was it Jacob Spears in Bourbon County or Captain John Hamilton, who is said to have distilled in the region before Spears? There was an ad in the Kentucky Gazette on June 27,1789 that advertised the sale of a 120 gallon copper still by a man named Daniel Stewart. How long had he used his still before selling it? It was Evan Williams in 1783 that was the first LICENSED commercial distiller in the state (Louisville).Bourbon_County.svg 3county