Historical Marker #2295 explains the history of Bourbon whiskey and Jacob Spears, one of the first distillers of Bourbon County, Kentucky. Crossroads of Clay-Kiser & US 27, Paris.
Europeans came into central Kentucky in the 1770’s. The first thing they did after staking their claims to the land was to grow corn to feed their families and their livestock. Soon they produced more corn than they needed or could sell conveniently, and with early American resourcefulness, they made corn whiskey. Many of these settlers were Scots-Irish descent and had been distillers for generations. They brought their traditions and expertise with them to Kentucky.
The Revolutionary War interrupted their lives, but as soon as the War was over, they took up their lives again as farmers and distillers. Many farmers had their own stills or took their corn to a neighbor’s. By 1792 there were 500 stills in Kentucky and by 1812 there were 2000. By this time, distillers had changed the raw ‘white lightning” to smooth, sophisticated brown whiskey, aged in new, charred oak barrels.
Whiskey was an important commodity. It was used in place of money; many people were paid with barrels of whiskey; even preachers. As a preventative this “holesome beverage” was good for snake bites, fallen arches, chills and fever, women’s complaints and babies’ ills. Whiskey was as essential as milk, meat, flour and cornmeal.
In the Bourbon County 1810 census, there were 128 distilleries listed, a total production of over 146,000 gallons of whiskey valued at over $48.000. Every community in Bourbon County had at least one large distillery, making Bourbon whiskey.
Jacob Spears (1754 – ca. 1825) was a farmer, distiller, dealer in blue grass seed and breeder of fine horses. He was the father of two sons, Abraham and Noah, who put the barrels of whiskey on a flatboat on Cooper’s Run, which led to the Licking River and thence to the Ohio and Mississippi to New Orleans where they sold the popular Old Bourbon for a fine price. Even more remarkable is that Noah made thirteen trips down the waterways to New Orleans and then walked back home, with a money bag strapped to his person, along the Natchez Trace, in Indian territory, frequented by robbers.
Source: R. Gerald Alvey, Kentucky Bluegrass Country.
The Jacob Spears house is on the right of the Clay-Kiser road in this picture. On the left is the storage barn for whiskey.
Whiskey is aged in new charred oak barrels for up to 10 years in warehouses like this. The evaporation from the whiskey is called “the angels’ share”.
The distilling process requires copper equipment, a good nose, and an understanding distiller.
R. Gerald Alvey’s recipe for a mint julep. “Cold and frosty to the touch, the mint julep is a delicious concoction traditionally composed of mint, sugar, Bourbon, and water. A genuine mint julep must be served in a frosted silver julep cup – originally coin silver, about four inches tall and three inches in diameter – and all the ingredients must be native to Kentucky: the water must be cold and fresh from a limestone spring; the Bourbon at least eight year old Kentucky straight; and the mint, picked after the most recent dawn, when the dew is still fresh on its leaves.”