Bluegrass Mixology

How the state of Kentucky founded bourbon whiskey, and changed drinking forever

Two hundred and twenty years ago, the western half of the Commonwealth of Virginia was admitted to the Union as the 15th state. Since that event, the Commonwealth of Kentucky has made many fine contributions to American culture, but this is and not, or, so I’ll confine my remarks to the Kentucky way of drinking.

Nowadays, of course, when it comes to drinking, Kentucky is synonymous with bourbon whiskey. Interestingly enough, the same thing was true in 1792. Not that the new state had anything like what we would consider an industry—there were no real brands as we know them currently. Rather, every farmer who could afford to maintained his own copper pot still, worm tub and set of mash tuns, and the ones who couldn’t had their grain distilled for them. All that was good business: Kentucky was the frontier, and distilling not only made grain more valuable but also reduced its volume by two-thirds and rendered it unlikely to spoil.

Not that the Kentucks, as the pioneers were known, didn’t do a little drinking. For the most part, that meant hoisting a jug of whiskey (or peach brandy, or applejack—the state was also famous for those spirits) and letting the contents trickle down your throat.

But there were such things as mixed drinks back then as well. The first mention of a proper Mint Julep comes from Norfolk,Virginia, in 1793; we can safely assume that the same concoction was consumed in the former western half of the state, too. That version involved rum, but in the West, it would have been whiskey or fruit brandy instead. It would have been rather different than the modern recipe, though, and not just because ice was uncommon. American distillers didn’t learn about the benefits of storing their product in charred-oak casks for another generation, so that whiskey would have been white (and very strong).

To taste a white-dog Julep is to appreciate the genius of American mixology, and, thanks to the recent rise in small-scale distilling, such liquor is no longer hard to find. Neither is ice, so we threw some of that in, too, because we can; you’ll thank us for it.

Get David Wondrich’s recipe for the 1792 Kentucky White Dog Julep on

David Wondrich is the author of Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl and Esquire magazine’s drinks correspondent. He is also a advisor.

This article was originally published at Bluegrass Mixology. For more stories like this, subscribe to for the best of all things cocktails and spirits.