Long before there were interstate highways, the rivers were our super-highway system. Part of what made America a great industrial powerhouse a hundred years ago was the fact we have more miles of navigable waterways than any other country in the world. Long before UPS and Amazon, Louisville was a major shipping port on the Ohio River, and Kentucky’s bourbon industry’s current success is intertwined in that history.
In 1783, the Ohio River was narrow and shallow near Louisville. The Falls of the Ohio area was still a waterfall most of the time. (The McApline locks and dam wasn’t built until 1830. ) Traders would navigate the river on flat boats from the Northeast. When they made it to Louisville they would either have to portage their goods and/or their flat boats around the Falls (which is where the Portland neighborhood comes from) or shoot the Falls, with or without cargo on board.
Evan Williams was running what is reported by some to be the first commercial distillery in Kentucky (though that point is heavily disputed). Williams was also Louisville’s Wharf Master, responsible for collecting Louisville’s only source of tax revenue.
Corn grew better than any of the other traditional crops, so whiskey began to be made predominately with corn. Not only was it a great way to preserve excess crops at the end of the harvest season, but whiskey was also used for bartering in an area where hard currency was difficult to come by. Settlers traded not just within but also outside their communities with the whiskey they made.
Whiskey that was traded within Kentucky eventually made its way to Louisville, where it was shipped to New Orleans. During this era, whiskey would often be sold or traded in ceramic jugs. The jugs would not always make it to New Orleans and other ports intact, so shipping whiskey in barrels became preferable. This could be considered Louisville’s first major shipping logistics innovation.
The whiskey business also grew up around the Port of Louisville. Evan Williams commercial distillery was portside, presumably so Williams could take advantage of incoming and outgoing trade. Rectifiers and wholesalers also set up shop near the Port so when you wrecked your boat trying to shoot the falls, they could buy your remaining whiskey to blend and sell under their own label.
Two hundred years ago, Louisville became a major port on the Ohio River because of The Falls of the Ohio. Corn whiskey became our sprit because corn grew so well here. Whiskey became money because coins were in short supply. The corn whiskey that had been traded in ceramic jugs became bourbon whiskey sold in new charred oak barrels (because once you sold it, you weren’t likely to get the barrel back) because those jugs were hard to transport. And two seemingly separate industries, shipping and distilling, have grown up to be Louisville’s strongest industries.
Photos Courtesy of Maggie Kimberl