At the same time that Maker’s Mark has discovered that it is not wise to “mess with bourbon drinkers” – referring to their decision to not water their bourbon down to increase inventories – University Press of Kentucky has released “Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: An American Heritage.”
Historian and author Michael Veach explores the history of – and growing passion for – the spirit that has come to be irrevocably associated with Kentucky. And as recent as the Maker’s Mark statement is, its sentiment has been well known since the Revolutionary War.
While distilling equipment was brought from Europe to the colonies and rum and gin were made along the East Coast, whiskey gained its popularity with the westward expansion. Local ingredients were able to be used and it became so much in demand that coppersmiths began manufacturing the distilling equipment in Kentucky. The area was perfect for production due to the water that had lost its flavor-tainting deposits after being filtered through the native limestone. That, plus the weather – and the now famous method of storing the spirit in charred oak barrels – was a recipe for success.
Veach readily admits that much of the origin and history of the industry is based on legend due in large part to the nature of the early distillers. Many were illiterate, there was no tax at the time and government licensing did not exist. In reality, even at this point in time, there are no definitive records, and legend and speculation fill many of the gaps. 1791 saw the establishment of taxes and tariffs with the intent of moving the industry into an industrial process. Resistance to the tax lead to the Whiskey Rebellion, and many tax collectors found their income – and lives – in mortal danger. The farm distilleries remained for decades, and it wasn’t until well into the 1800s that larger concerns came into being. During that interval the moniker “bourbon whiskey” became well known and its designation as either a product of Bourbon Street (a popular destination for the product) or Bourbon County, Kentucky, may never be known for sure.
With the early roots of this distinctively American – specifically Kentuckian – spirit addressed, Veach takes us into territory with more documentation. The technology of its production is discussed, and the effects of Prohibition lend a new aspect to views on the Great Depression. The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 made clear the government’s distinctions between whiskeys – straight, blended, compound or imitation – and their clarifications are followed to this day. It was a three-year debate that ended with President Taft making the decision on the issue. His personal preference among them was never mentioned.
The 1950s saw a surge in interest in bourbon and Veach recounts the marketing tactics that fueled it. Holiday packaging, ancillary promotional materials and strategic product placement led to an even larger market in the ‘60s, adding interest from the international front. The generation that followed – typified by rejecting all that their parents stood for – saw a decline in the market that wasn’t reversed until the 1980s. Veach guides the reader through the marketing strategies and trend setting that guided the industry into the present day – and an unprecedented boom for the products. Concludes Veach, “The hope is that craft distillers can do for the distilling industry what microbreweries did for the American beer industry and renew interest in fine whiskeys with robust tastes.”