In the 1820s, steamboats revolutionized travel in America. They reduced the travel time from Kentucky to New Orleans drastically. A trip with goods to the New Orleans market in a flatboat would take from nine months to a year for a merchant. The steamboat reduced this amount of time to three months or less. The boats were mostly carrying cargo but would also carry passengers. A person with barrels of Bourbon could get on the boat along the Ohio River and be in New Orleans or St. Louis or other western markets in a matter of weeks instead of months.
This photograph is one of my favorites. It was taken along the Ohio River near Carrollton, Kentucky in the 1880s. The porters are loading barrels of whiskey from the Darling Brothers Distillery. You can see that there are other cargoes loaded on the boat and deck hands standing along the decks of the boat. They all look like they are standing around, but that is probably because the photographer had them stand still for the exposure time. The man dressed in a suit and cap is probably the harbor master overseeing the loading of the cargo. The boat’s name, the Cincinnati, can just be made out on a sign hanging on the prow of the boat.
Steamboats remained an important form of transportation for Bourbon even after the railroads became common. Steamboats offered a competitive alternative to railroads for distilleries near the river. In some cases, the only alternative. Railroad spurs were expensive. Land had to be purchased from the main line to the distillery in order to run a spur. Distilleries that could not afford a spur had no other choice than to use steamboats to get their product to western markets.
In early America, Bourbon was most popular in the south and the west. Distilleries would send barrels to St. Louis and New Orleans in order to reach the western markets. Once in those cities, the Bourbon could be shipped by railroad out of St. Louis to markets such as Kansas City or Denver or by clipper ship out of New Orleans to the cities such as San Francisco or Seattle, or up the east coast to ports such as Charleston or New York.
The barrel was still the primary package for distilleries selling their whiskey. Glass bottles were expensive and could be broken in transit. The barrel was easier to move than wooden cases of bottles. It was not until the 1890s that glass bottles were mass manufactured and economical enough for distillers to bottle their own products.
Saloons and taverns would purchase barrels of whiskey and place them on the back bar. They would fill a bar decanter with the whiskey they used to pour to the customers. Liquor dealers would usually fill a bottle of jug provided by the customer purchasing the whiskey. Some dealers would bottle some of the whiskey from the barrel for customers without their own bottle, but the cost of the bottle was more than the whiskey.
Steamboats were also a source of transportation for the people selling the whiskey. A distillery salesman would have sample bottles with him as he traveled his territory. He would stop into the local saloon or tavern and pour samples for the owner to try hoping that the owner would then purchase a barrel of his whiskey. The salesman would be on the road for months at a time visiting old customers and finding new customers. Steamboats increased the range of their territory.
Steamboats helped make Bourbon available across the nation. They played a major role in the distribution and sale of Bourbon brands. Bourbon grew in popularity in part because of the invention of the steamboat.
Photo From The Archives Of Michael Veach