Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: An American Heritageby Michael R. Veach University Press of Kentucky, 2013, 224 pp., $24.95
I began reading Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: An American Heritage, by Michael R. Veach, with a hangover manifesting itself as a throbbing headache, courtesy of the titular drink. I hoped that by the time I finished the book, I would know whom to blame. So I was disappointed to find, in the chapter titled “The Origin of Bourbon Whiskey”, the following line: “The fact is that we may never know the identity of Kentucky’s first distiller.” I guess, like many others overindulging in spirits that deserve more respect, I have no one to blame but myself.Alongside his narrative of the elusive origins of bourbon, Veach includes boxes with bits of juicy information simple enough to remember and relay at a party or a bar, even after a few drinks. For example, the barrel—otherwise known as “the medieval forklift”—is a versatile and movable packing instrument that rivals the cardboard box in efficiency. Unlike the box, however, barrels infuse flavors into their contents. Toasted barrels lend vanilla notes to fermenting liquids, and charred barrels (used in the bourbon process) add caramel flavors. Now you can hold that tumbler of golden brown or mahogany liquid up to the light and say something smart like “Can you taste the toffee in this? Isn’t it delicious?” In another aside, Veach explains the origins of “proof.” The term comes from a time when distillers would prove the alcohol content of their product by burning it. If it burned clean it was 100 proof, or 50 percent Alcohol by Volume (ABV). If it sputtered, it was under proof; and if it burned too fast, it was over proof. One can imagine some kind of cheesy pick-up line a distiller of yesteryear could have used, like, “You must be way over proof—you’re burning me up.” It probably wouldn’t have worked on a sober target. But enough digression into such tidbits; what about the origins of Kentucky bourbon? The best bourbon comes from geographies that cater to aging in charred barrels, and Kentucky has just the right kind. In the hot summers, the aging liquid expands into the walls of the charred oak barrels, and in the cold winters, the liquid contracts, bringing with it caramelized sugar flavors from the charred wood. As with most industries, the production of Bourbon gradually become more large-scale, and picked up technological improvements along the way. In 1831, steam power was harnessed by the distillers, thanks to the invention of the continuous still. A column fed by a flow of beer allows large quantities of alcohol to be produced. As the steam rises to the top of the still, it strips alcohol from the flow of beer, and moves to the top of the column, where the alcohol is condensed. Not only did the rising steam column prevent solids from collecting and burning, it also allowed for production of alcohol higher in proof. This improved the taste and quality of the alcohol. In 1879, improvements in the way the barrels of liquor were stored reduced mold formation and further improved the taste of bourbon and other barrel-stored alcohols. And throughout the 19th century an increasing number of distillers applied the scientific process to examine each step involved and make small improvements throughout the distilling process that added up to big improvements in taste, quality, and efficiency. Like all things that are well crafted, Kentucky bourbon came to have its cheap imitators and pretenders. While real Kentucky bourbon took years to make, cheap imitations, which used coloring and flavoring techniques on un-aged white spirits, took only hours to make. Then, into the competition between the two came advertising. The best defense against a knock-off brand is a good product and a better story. The marketing of bourbon and whiskey began early on, in the 19th Century. E.H. Taylor was as an expert Kentucky bourbon brander, and knew how to use public figures to promote his product. After a dinner argument over Kentucky Old Bourbon versus Pennsylvania Old Rye led to a contest of bourbons at the table of a prominent DC General and a Pennsylvania Judge, Taylor issued a press release. He was able to announce that the definitive winner was indeed the Kentucky bourbon: “counsel at once proceeded upon the merits and while ably argued, the samples themselves were more spiritually eloquent.” Taylor’s Kentucky bourbon won for its mellow, rich yet nuanced flavor and pleasant bouquet, and the brand “Old Crow” was born. People who used to buy only whatever was local and cheap were now craving Taylor’s more refined spirits. In an advertisement featured in the book, a woman sits on the edge of a bed. Is she rolling up her stockings or slipping them off? We can’t tell. Either way, she has a smile on her face, so she’s either pleased at what just transpired, or looking forward to what is about to. The top two lines of the 1890 advertisement read, “While you wait, take a drink of Yellowstone.” Another advertisement from five years later taps into how shared drink builds solidarity: An image of a Union and Confederate soldier shaking hands, and the words “United we Stand Divided we Fall”, are used to advertise the brand Old Dixie. But neither pretty girls nor patriotism could create a strong enough brand to fend off the imitators—for that, the law had to step in. By the 1890s, the market was still dominated by Kentucky bourbon knockoffs, which were cheaper and adulterated. Rather than going from barrel to bottle, the knockoffs were mixed from different batches made at different times and in different places. In 1897, Congress passed the Bottle-in-Bond Act, which required that the branded whiskey be aged 4 years, bottled at 100 proof, and distilled in one place in the same season and clearly labeled with the distillery where the spirits were made. However, a law on the books means little until it changes hearts and minds. It wasn’t until a 1904 Louisiana Purchaser Exposition that the meaning of the bottle-in-bond guarantee became widely known. At the Exposition, Kentucky distillers got a chance to explain to the public the story behind the bottle-in-bond, and from that time forward, sales of the real Kentucky bourbon began to improve. In 1906, bourbon got another leg up from Congress when the government passed the Pure Food and Drug Act, which included whiskey, and required imitations to be labeled as such. “Rectifiers,” those producers that added substances other than pure water to their spirited products, spent the next three years fighting the law. Just as the gears of today’s lobbying machinery turn, various outside interest groups joined the fray. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union sided with the straight whiskey producers, arguing that they created an all-natural product, and therefore produced the lesser of two evils. The debate raged for several years, in court and on the public stage, and ultimately it was up to President Taft to decide. Like the General and Judge whose decision helped shape the Old Crow Kentucky brand, political machinations and storytelling took a role in defining bourbon. Once again, the question would be settled on the merits. Perhaps Taft was biased toward the promise of a three-finger pour of pure Kentucky bourbon at the end of a long day: In 1909, the President ruled that neutral spirits could be branded as whiskey as long as they were made from grain. Any bottle carrying a blend of grain and fruit or molasses spirits would have to be labeled “blended.” The terms “Bourbon,” “Rye,” and “aged in wood” could be applied to straight whiskey, not to rectifier’s swills. The term “whiskey,” however, could be applied to all of the above. There’s more to the story, as there always is, but I’ll leave it up to you to buy Veach’s account of Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey. What Vodka is to Russia, what Grappa is to Italy, what tequila is to Mexico, Bourbon is to America. It is the apple pie of liquor. Veach describes the history not just of an American classic, but the history of American ingenuity and commercial development in general. As Americans across the country are now coming to understand and appreciate the value of local, hand-crafted products, the history of bourbon continues to speak to a uniquely American sensibility that is inherently proud of the people that we can call neighbors and the places we call home.