Top 10 Historic US Based Distilleries

The distillery scene in the United States is growing rapidly. There are many unique distilleries- in fact over 2,000 and increasing. Every state in the United States has distilleries producing local spirits. Always choose local spirits at a bar, restaurant, or bottle shop to taste the locally sourced spirits made at a craft distillery. Our online distillery tour features the top 10 historic US based distilleries below. Always drink local, responsibly.

Buffalo Trace Distillery—1773

Starting off our countdown is the Buffalo Trace Distillery, the origins of which can be traced as far back as before the founding of the United States. Distilling on this site was first started by brothers Hancock and Willis Lee in Frankfort, KY. Although distilling has been in operation throughout the late 1700s, the first official distillery wasn’t constructed until 1812 by Harrison Blanton. Prohibition proved a challenge to all distilleries, and while many could not legally stay in operation, Buffalo Trace was granted a medicinal license from to continue production under “medicinal purposes.”

Currently owned by the spirits giant Sazerac Company, the success of this historic distillery can be attributed to Col Edmund Haynes Taylor, Jr., a revolutionary mind in the whiskey world and a major investor in what became Buffalo Trace’s business. Taylor’s contributions to the whiskey industry have earned him the title as the “Father of the Modern Bourbon Industry.” Taylor’s contributions naturally coined a trademark of the distillery’s product line, aptly named the “Col. E. H. Taylor.” Other products included Buffalo Trace’s Straight Bourbon and Eagle Rare.

Burks’ Distillery—1803

Burk’s Distillery stakes its origins as far back as the early 1800s, with the agreed upon establishment occurring around 1803. First build by Charles Burks, his historic distillery sits on Hardin’s Creek. The Burks family owned this distillery until the onset of the passage of Prohibition. Burks sold his operation and the 200 acres it sat upon to a local farmer named Ernest Bickett, who would later hand over the remaining spoils to George Remus, well known as the “King of Bottleggers” during Prohibition, to sell under the table. The distillery would be sold yet again to Bill Samuels Sr, who would go on to sell Marker’s Make—a well-known brand of whiskey produced by this particular distillery throughout the years. Two satellite bourbon houses and lounges connected to Burk’s Distillery were also constructed in Louisville, KY, as far west as Kansas City, MO, and even in Shelbyville, IN.

Mount Vernon Distillery—1797

What could be more American than drinking with the US’s first president himself? Sitting on the legendary Mount Vernon compound rests George Washington’s historic Mount Vernon Distillery. Under the suggestion of his Scottish farm manager, James Anderson, Washington was persuaded into starting his own independent distillery. Mount Vernon Distillery primarily produced whiskey, and at the time, Washington’s whiskey wasn’t aged or branded at the point of sale. The waste product from the grain mash was reused as slop for Washington’s pig farm, and the mash bi-product was said to make the pork and ham succulent. Washington, no stranger to business, found great success in his Mount Vernon Distillery, and it turned out to be one of his best-grossing businesses. Naturally, you can take a tour of this historic distillery as you tour the entire Mount Vernon compound.

Laird Distillery—1780

The Laird Distillery’s historic can be traced back as early as 1698, but official operations suggest the business expanded professionally closer to 1780. Established by its namesake, William Laird, the Laird Distillery was first known for the production of its apple brandy. The Laird brand apple brandy was so popular that even George Washington would regularly request Laird’s brandy. Laird Distillery, originally based in Scobeyville, NJ, was later moved into Virginia, where the apple orchards that feed the brandy operation are located. Laird Distillery also is the oldest licensed distillery in the United States—holding the license no. 1 granted from the Department of the Treasury.

Woodford Reserve Distillery—1812

Originally known as the Old Oscar Pepper Distillery, the Woodford Reserve Distillery was established in Versailles, KY, by Elijah Pepper. The Woodford Reserve Distillery, like many operations of its kind, was sold many times throughout history before landing into its current position today. The Pepper family would sell the business to the Labrot & Graham Distillery, who would then resell the operation to its current owner, spirits monolith Brown-Froman. One of the notable differences in the production of the bourbon distilled here is the high concentration of rye as one of the secondary components of the grain mass used to make the bourbon—with rye comprising 18% of the mash makeup.

Jim Beam Distillery—1795

Yet another American distillery traced back to the late 1700s, the Jim Beam Distillery was established by Johannes “Jacob” Beam. In the late 1700s, Beam began distilling whiskey in the fashion of what would be considered bourbon down the road. The Beam family has a long history in the distilling industry and with their family operation. In total, the Beam family has been in operation for seven generations. Over these generations, the operation has been moved and expanded, sold outside of the Beam family and repurchased by descendants of Jacob Beam later on. The current member of the Beam lineage, Freddie Noe (Beam) has worked in the industry since 1988.

The Jim Beam Distillery is no stranger setbacks and has fallen victim to two fires in its history of operation. The first fire, occurring in 2003, suffered a loss of 15,000 barrels of bourbon at the aging warehouse in Bardston, KY. More recently, in 2019, another fire destroyed a staggering 45,000 barrels (over 2.3 million gallons) of bourbon.

McCormick Distillery—1856

The McCormick Distillery, based in Weston, MO, is considered the oldest distillery west of the Mississippi River. The location was chosen for its proximity to natural limestone springs that filter out iron in the water used in production. The McCormick Distillery was established by Benjamin J. Hollady, known as the “Stagecoach King” for running the stagecoach lines from Missouri all the way out to the west coast. Hollady, an entrepreneur, owned several saloons, hotels, and silver mines, and was no stranger to starting new businesses—including the distillery.

Like many others, the McCormick Distillery was granted a medicinal permit to continue production during Prohibition. In that period, the distillery was sold many times to various owners before landing in the hands of Isodore Singer, who bought the rights of an adjacent distillery and renamed the entire operation to its current name of McCormick Distillery.

Willett Distillery—1936

Better known as Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, the Willett Distillery is the more recent on our list (see also ‘10 Highly Rated Distilleries Near Mammoth Cave Worth A Visit‘). Located in the whiskey haven of Bardstown, KY, the Willett Distillery was started by A. Lambert Willett. Willett had already come from a family of distillers and he himself worked for another company, the Max Selliger & Co. Distillery, for two decades and eventually became part-owner of the operation himself.

Willett Distillery, under its new name, is well known for producing bourbons under fake brand names for companies that don’t legally exist, such as the Old Bardstown Bourbon brand. In fact, for a select period of time in the late 1900s to the around 2012, the company didn’t operate its own distillery and is suspected to have relied on another on this list, Heaven Hill’s Distillery, for its bourbon supplies and distribution.

Jack Daniel’s Distillery—1884

When talking whiskey, Jack Daniel’s Distillery is bound to come up eventually. This Tennessee-based distillery was started by the man himself, Jasper Newton “Jack” Daniel in 1884. While he never had kids of his own, Daniel would pass his business onto his apprentice and nephew, Lem Motlow before his death in 1911; Motlow owned and operated the distillery for nearly 40 years after Daniel’s death.

The Tennessee tenacity runs deep in the Daniel family, and was reflected in the numerous challenges that Motlow levied against Prohibition laws barring the operation of his distillery. Initially, Motlow lost a court challenge to Tennessee’s state laws banning the production and sale of alcohol that remained in place after Prohibition had ended. Motlow would later be elected as a Tennessee state senator, where he helped spearhead legislation that would eventually overturn Tennessee’s ban on alcohol sales and allow him to continue distilling whiskey. Motlow’s efforts paid off as the Jack Daniel’s brand has since become the best-selling whiskey in the world.

Heaven Hill Distillery—1935

The Heaven Hill Distillery was founded by a group of investors soon after the repeal of Prohibition, with Beam family descendant Joseph Beam being a prominent name in the creation along with other investors such as the Shapira Family. The distillery primarily produces bourbon, and was formed with the intention of marketing bulk sales and distribution of whiskey.

Like others on the list, Heaven Hills suffered a near total loss in a fire in 1996, and relied on other industry suppliers to recoup the nearly 90,000 barrels lost in the inferno. Despite these losses, the company survived and later expanded its operations beyond just the production of bourbon. Hpnotiq was acquired by the company and is one of highest selling brands under Heaven Hill’s operation.


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