Distilling the Delta

Distilling the Delta

In part two of our Drinks & Music series Hans looks where two great showcases meet and form fine sippin’ and listening buddies

Whisky & Culture | 27 Apr 2018 | Issue 151 | By Hans Offringa

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Bourbon and blues, these famous American icons, have a distinctive duality in common: on the one hand the Devil music and demon alcohol. On the other hand the sad music that makes you feel better and the dram a day keeping the doctor away.

The early songsters in the Delta not only sang secular numbers but also religious ones. Some older bluesmen turned to religion in the 1930s and 40s not wanting to play the blues anymore, and then suddenly returned on the scene during the 1960s blues and folk revival.

The same goes for distillers, of whom several were lay ministers. Elijah Craig preached the gospel in Kentucky, happily distilling whiskey throughout his life. Dan Call did similar things in Tennessee until his congregation forced him to choose between spirits and the Spirit. He chose the latter and handed his distilling business over to a 14 year old boy, who would create the most successful whiskey brand in the world. That boy was Jack Daniel, who had learned to distil from Nearest Green, one of Dan Call’s slaves. It proves that whiskey is colour blind.

It’s the same with the blues. BB King reportedly said, “I always thought that you had to be double black to play the blues. Then I heard Stevie Ray Vaughan and he was neither.” He shared his love of a special type of guitar with Stevie Ray Vaughan, albeit that BB King preferred a special black Gibson called Lucille.

That boy was Jack Daniel, who had learned to distil from Nearest Green, one of Dan Call’s slaves. It proves that whiskey is colour blind.

King learned to play in the Delta, and later shared the stage generously with many American and European musicians. By doing so he improved the acceptance of the blues, the sharing of the music between people, regardless their origins.

The origins of a Bourbon I enjoy sippin’ when listening to King is a story well worth a blues song in itself. Situated amidst the world-famous horse farms of Kentucky it is a typical, well-preserved little American town. It dates back to the late 19th century and is named after the colossal palace of the French monarch Louis XIV aka The Sun King: Versailles.

In this town starts the history of Woodford Reserve, the only triple pot distilled Bourbon in the USA. The stills used are genuinely Scottish, built by Forsyth's from Rothes, Speyside. Full circle, because it was the Scotsman James Crow who showed the original owner’s son the way.

Scottish scientist and chemist Dr James Crow was employed by distiller Oscar Pepper in 1833. During the next 22 years Crow dedicated himself to improving and optimising the distillation process. He developed a series of measuring instruments that were almost immediately taken on by other distilleries. He experimented with charred barrels to influence the maturation and in doing so created a standard that is used by every current-day distillery. Crow is responsible for the fact that Pepper's whiskey became better and more consistent in quality, by inventing the sour mash method.

When Crow died in 1856, he left an indelible stamp on Bourbon distilling. His employer Oscar Pepper met his Maker in 1865. His son James was 14 years old then, too young to succeed his father. The first years after Oscar's death, young James was assisted by banker Edmund H. Taylor, who in due time became famous with the Bottle-in-Bond Act (1897). Taylor rebuilt the distillery in 1874.

James Pepper seems to have been better in drinking the product than selling it. Around 1878 he was in dire financial straits and had no other choice than to sell the family’s distillery to whiskey merchants Leopold Labrot and James Graham.

Like many of its colleagues and competitors, L&G couldn't avoid being closed during Prohibition. Moving its stock to Frankfort Distillers it managed to continue selling whiskey “for medicinal purposes only.” In 1933 L&G restarted production. In 1940 Brown-Forman from Louisville (who would purchase Jack Daniel's in 1956) sought expansion possibilities and, in order to meet the increasing demand for Bourbon, acquired L&G for $75,000, including an option on the 25,763 barrels of maturing whiskey.

James Crow was a craftsman to the hilt and laid the foundation for modern Bourbon

In the mid 1960s the small boutique-like distilleries lost their charm to the big conglomerates and Brown-Forman decided to close the distillery in Glen Creek. In 1972 it sold the property to Freeman Hockensmith, keeping an option to buy it back if the new owner decided to put it up for sale again. In the next 23 years nature claimed back what man had developed in Glen Creek. The buildings suffered vandalism and became overgrown with weeds and ivy. In 1994 Hockensmith died and Brown-Forman used its option to buy back the property. The large drinks company subsequently spent $10.5 million in a historical restoration project that eventually delivered a showpiece distillery. In 1996 after almost a quarter of a century, stills ran again in Glen Creek. In 2003 the name of the distillery – and the whiskey – was officially changed to Woodford Reserve. It has become a showcase in the industry, thanks to Brown-Forman.

James Crow was a craftsman to the hilt and laid the foundation for modern Bourbon and for Woodford Reserve, which honours the tradition of distilling Bourbon and at the same time embraces innovation. He was constantly trying to perfect the process. BB King was a craftsman too, still showcasing the tradition of the blues, whilst carrying it into new dimensions and continued to play until he passed away in the Spring of 2015, age 89, leaving a musical legacy as important as James Crow’s Bourbon legacy.

The thrill of feisty blues and a savoury Bourbon on the side will probably never leave me, I cannot resist advising you to listen to BB’s greatest hit with the taste of Woodford Reserve. So here we go, one more time: thrill is gone, Bourbon and blues will stay.
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