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Monday, February 24, 2020

From The Licking River to New Orleans: New App, Research by NKU Celebrates Original Bourbon Trail

NKU grad students study Licking River bourbon trail as it follows the path of Jacob Spears, regarded as one of the first to produce bourbon back in the 1790s....

View on the Licking, Kenton, Co. (Pic:

By Jessie Eden

Do you know the history of bourbon? Sure, you may have treated yourself to a 'modern-day' trip down the ole' bourbon trail and visited a a few distilleries throughout Kentucky...but do you know where it all REALLY started?

Some graduate student historians from Northern Kentucky University are working on figuring that out.

The NKU students are partnering with Bourbon, Harrison, Pendleton, Campbell and Kenton counties and the City of Paris to hunt down the history of the Jacob Spears, his distillery and the Commonwealth’s original bourbon journey.

Jacob Spears, Bourbon & The Licking River:

(Img: Campbell County, KY Cerkl Newsletter)

Jacob Spears opened a distillery in the 1790s just outside of Paris, Kentucky. In the 2016 book called "Bourbon: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of an American Whiskey", author Fred Minnick claims that, given "all the facts we have, Jacob Spears is bourbon's most probable creator."

“As an author, you hope that one day your words can positively influence another person. The more I dug into Jacob Spears’ past, the more I realized how important he was to our beloved spirit,” said Minnick. “And I’m honored that this research toil has led to a magnificent new chapter in whiskey.”

The Hopewell Museum in Paris believes, given all the archival information it has collected over the years from Bourbon County, that Spears shipped his bourbon on a flatboat all the way down the Licking River and onto the Ohio River. Then, from the Mississippi River, the bourbon would arrive in its final destination -- New Orleans.

1934 - Shared by Dale Ashcraft.
Photo by his Grandmother Emma Hahn Ashcraft.

The project, led by NKU History professor Dr. Brian Hackett, includes a group of graduate students who will research the vast history of the Licking River. "The Licking River has been used for a lot of things in this region -- some not so good. From historic events to big industries to recreation and people using it as a dump...but we looked at the river and realized we have this great asset," said Dr. Hackett. "What does it mean to our community? We need to celebrate this river, the communities and our bourbon history."

Each of the participating graduate students are diving into topics ranging from historic battles, breweries, cities and genealogical ties to the Licking River. "I have six grad students working on this as an independent study and they're looking at different aspects of the Licking River," said Dr. Hackett. "I have a group of good students and we basically just told them 'this is where we want to end up' and gave them a chance to decide which topic they would be working on."

"Pontoon Bridge over Licking Cree, Near Covington, KY."
Sketched by Mr. H. Mosler.

“Our students are eager to investigate how Jacob Spears and other early distillers used the Licking River as a transportation corridor for some of the very first bourbon to be barreled and shared with the world,” said Dr. Hackett.

NKU's research team will be sharing updates throughout the project and the team has already made some fascinating discoveries. "The project is ongoing, will likely continue for several years but we hope to have something up by May. We thought there were only a few distilleries along the Licking River and already, we've found at least 20." 

Our History and Environment...with a dash of Technology:

The Licking River (Pic: Google)

Some of the research that Dr. Hackett and his team uncover will be used to create a multi-use app for the Licking River. "The informatics people at NKU are doing something that hasn't been done anywhere else. If you're on a boat or canoe trail or hiking, as you go by pieces, history pops up on your phone," said Dr. Hackett. "It creates these historic markers and you'll also be able to ID trees and experience the natural environment and history. It even allows people to report things like if someone dumped tires in the river, they can contact the authorities so they can clean it up."

"NKU is fast on its feet. Some places take a long time to talk about something like this and approve it and launch it but NKU jumped right in," said Dr. Hackett. "The project really brings together chemistry, biology, environmental science and technology. For example, one of the things environmentalists do is monitor algae blooms -- this app will help us be more sensitive to these issues."

Kentucky Bourbon: The Past and Bright Future:

 Feb. 7, 1918 - Steamer Julius Fleishmann tied up on the Licking.

State leaders are taking notice of the project's vital findings and how tracing the past may assist in building a stronger bourbon future. “I appreciate NKU taking the lead on this project,” Campbell County Judge/Executive Steve Pendery added. “With New Riff Distillery helping define the future of distilled spirits in Northern Kentucky, I’m looking forward to reading the full story of the Commonwealth’s first bourbon. New Riff’s campus in Newport, on the Licking River, is an appropriate bookend to the history of the Jacob Spears Distillery.”

From British attacks on the Colonies during the Revolutionary War to Civil War battles involving Morgan's Raiders, the Licking River runs through miles of rural landscape. It touches 23 of Kentucky's 120 counties...but many do not know its historical significance. “Most Kentuckians may not know that the British repeatedly sent raiding parties from Fort Detroit up the Licking River to attack settlements throughout Kentucky," said Bourbon County Judge/Executive Mike Williams. This part of the Commonwealth’s history is one worth sharing with today’s Kentuckians. We look forward to NKU’s work on this story that’s so key to the past and future of our community.”

 1908: View up the Licking River. Reads "To Mabel Burnwell in Linden Heights, OH.
Have been in Covington since Sunday and am not married yet.
It doesn't effect all people the same. - Clara"

NKU's research team will be sharing updates throughout the project. "The project is ongoing, will likely continue for several years but we hope to have something up by May. We thought there were only a few distilleries along the Licking River and already, we've found at least 20." 

If you know of any history, you would like to share with the team, contact Dr. Brian Hackett at

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