This is the first history of Bourbon that I read while working as an archivist for United Distillers. I still use the book for reference on early distilling in America. Henry G. Crowgey wrote this book as a condensed version of his thesis at the University of Kentucky. It is about Kentucky distillers, but what was happening in Kentucky in these years was also happening in Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland and other states where whiskey was being distilled.

Kentucky Bourbon: The Early Years of Whiskeymaking, by Henry G. Crowgey. Lexington, Ky.: The University Press of Kentucky, 1971. Contents, Introduction, Bibliography, Index, Illustrated, Pp.172.

Kentucky Bourbon: The Early Years of Whiskeymaking is a scholarly work with footnotes and a bibliography but it is also very readable. Crowgey has done a wonderful job of making the history of this Kentucky industry interesting by tackling some of the myths that are associated with the industry.

Kentucky Bourbon looks at the growth of the distilling industry until about 1820. It is well researched with many primary sources and newspapers contributing to his knowledge. He discusses the early distillers in the east in Pennsylvania and Maryland and the migration into Kentucky. He discusses the improvements in the product and the whiskey rebellion. He looks to the origin of “Bourbon” and whether or not Elijah Craig really created it. 

Crowgey also looks at the question as to who was the first distiller in Kentucky. He looks at several candidates and his conclusion is that we may never know. The distillers on the frontier did not keep written records for the government, so all evidence has to come from personal correspondence. It is possible that there are letters in some family papers that will reveal an early distiller we do not know about at this time.

Using newspapers he looked for advertisements that first used the term “Bourbon whiskey” for sale. The first known advertisement he found was 1821. This is long after the claim that Bourbon was created 1789 by Elijah Craig. He then proceeds with his arguments as to why Craig did not “create” bourbon whiskey.

The book has some black and white photographs in the book, but not many and they were placed as if an afterthought to the text. The bibliography and footnotes are a valuable source of information to those researching the history of Bourbon. The book is well indexed and information is easily found. 

Kentucky Bourbon: The Early Years of Whiskeymaking has been reprinted by the University Press of Kentucky and is easily found. It is a book that every Bourbon enthusiast should read and a valuable addition to a whiskey library.

Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller