The birth of American whiskey

The birth of American whiskey

How did bourbon get established, and who were the people who perfected it? Charles Cowdrey looks back to frontier times

Production | 15 Jul 2005 | Issue 49 | By Charles Cowdery

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American whiskey as we know it today was cooked up in the same cauldron as the modern American nation itself. Though they started out using Old World rye, America’s distillers soon switched to indigenous corn (maize) to craft the unique spirit we now call bourbon.The men who made the first whiskey on the western frontier also built the first cabins, shot the first bears, and planted the first crops. To succeed, a pioneer had to do a bit of everything. There were no specialists.That was a wild time, little more than two hundred years ago. With independence from England barely and only tenuously achieved, the people who now called themselves Americans finally began to venture west from the Atlantic coast, crossing the mountains into the vast, perilous interior.Along the way they fought the terrain, the elements, the natives and each other. All that fighting and pioneering was thirsty work, and they fortified themselves with whiskey.Innocent of oak and made mostly from rye, this whiskey was hot and harsh, usually mixed with something sweet and fruity when served in the fine homes and taverns of the tidewater. Out here on the frontier, though, you weren’t so picky.With independence, the former English Colonies became sovereign states and two of them, neighbors Virginia and North Carolina, almost came to blows early on over a small patch of land on their western borders, claimed by both. It became known as “Squabble State” and just happened to be where the easiest passage through the mountains began.It took a hardy and fearless man to settle his family in Squabble State, but Evan Shelby was such a man. Hailing from Wales by way of Maryland, Shelby was big, strong and feisty. By the time he staked his claim he had already battled the French, their indigenous allies, the English, and his antiindependence neighbors, each in turn. Some testy Virginians and Carolinians did not worry him even a little. In 1771 he established a tavern, general store and distillery at the head of the Wilderness Road, near what is now Bristol in eastern Tennessee.Shelby personally and enthusiastically monitored the output of his stills, but managed to retain enough to sell to settlers who were on their way to the western territories. This provided his family a good living. Evan’s son, Issac, followed his father as both soldier and distiller. He only abandoned his stills briefly to serve as Kentucky’s first governor.Despite his own high office, Isaac Shelby ran afoul of the feds. Like many of his whiskey-making brethren, he was cited for dodging the excise tax newly levied on all whiskey production. His words to the Secretary of the Treasury are choice: “I shall upon this and all future occasions, where you may use my name improperly, take the liberty of assuring you in this public manner, that I despise you most heartily.” Like Shelby, many of the men whose families would come to dominate the American whiskey industry in later centuries had already made their mountain crossing before the 19th century began.Robert Samuels had served in the Pennsylvania Militia during the War of Independence, but not as a soldier. He was instead the company’s distiller, providing whiskey for the thirsty soldiers. After the war, Samuels received for his service a corn writ, a promise of frontier land that would become officially his after he harvested his first crop of corn. More than 200 years later his descendant, Bill Samuels, is still making whiskey from corn at the Maker’s Mark Distillery in Loretto, Kentucky.Around that same time a German immigrant miller and distiller named Johannes Jacob Boehm settled in Kentucky, set up a mill and some stills, and adopted the more American-sounding name of Jake Beam. His whiskey-making genes were so strong that his descendants would go on to concoct the stuff for dozens of different distilleries, including Jim Beam, Early Times, Heaven Hill, Four Roses and Maker’s Mark.Today, his descendants in the industry include Jim Beam’s Fred Noe and Heaven Hill’s Parker Beam and Craig Beam.Like Governor Shelby, many early settlers were both distillers and politicians. It was a good combination since office seekers customarily “treated” voters with free liquor on election day. Distiller Jacob Myers gave his whiskey away liberally when he ran for office in 1781, but he lost to Benjamin Logan, a popular veteran of the Indian wars. So flows the spring of democracy. As Senator Sam Rayburn would say to a young Lyndon Johnson many years later, “If you can’t take their money, drink their whiskey, screw their women and still vote against them, you have no business being in the United States Senate.” Evan Williams was a Virginian in 1774 when he was elected clerk of the revolutionary Committee of Correspondence for Prince William County. Later he held official positions in Kentucky after he established a distillery there in 1783. Ruben Durrett, an early historian of Kentucky, declared Evan Williams to be the state’s first distiller. Durret’s claim was made bald, without supporting evidence. One problem with it is the late date. Almost surely Kentucky’s first distiller was a resident of Harrodsburg, Kentucky’s first settlement, who would have made the first batch there in 1774 or 75.Another early historian, Richard Collins, credits Rev. Elijah Craig with making the first bourbon in 1789. There is no evidence Craig’s whiskey was any different from anyone else’s, i.e., uniquely “bourbon,” or that he originated anything, but Craig was a character. Aminister who was chased out of Virginia by his congregation, he founded a town and school for his new flock, and dabbled in every frontier industry imaginable, including whiskey-making. Like Governor Shelby, he ran afoul of the taxing authorities due to his distilling operations.For a variety of reasons, indigenous corn was the best crop to plant in the lands that would become Kentucky and Tennessee, rather than the rye grain that had dominated whiskey-making in the East. The area also was blessed with an abundance of sweet limestone-filtered water. The combination of corn, that water, and maybe something special in the air, made a whiskey that was sweet and subtle. After it found its way into barrels of American charred white oak, it became what we know today as straight bourbon and Tennessee whiskey.In the 1790s, America almost went to war with itself about whiskey and taxes. In one ugly incident early on, a group of Pennsylvania distillers disguised as women set an ambush for Mr. Robert Johnson, a collector of the despised excise tax. They shaved his head, doused him with tar and feathers, and stole his horse. When arrest warrants for the perpetrators were issued, the process server was robbed, beaten, tarred, feathered and tied to a tree.It is possible some of the insurgents may have been drinking.Two-thirds of a century later, America did go to war with itself over other things and America’s whiskey country stayed neutral, selling bourbon to both sides throughout the conflict. Official whiskey rations to American soldiers had been abolished in 1830, but field commanders still had authority to pass whiskey out to the troops when they deemed it appropriate. One Union soldier of abstentious inclination wrote that, “when the commanding officer gave out whiskey I yielded to his better judgment.” U.S. Grant, the Union general, was known to tip a few. When a scandalized congressman complained about the general’s imbibing to Abraham Lincoln, the president abruptly cut him off. “I wish I knew what brand of whiskey he drinks,” said Lincoln. “I would send a barrel to all my other generals.” Some accounts say Grant preferred the whiskey made by Dr. James C. Crow near Versailles, Kentucky—Old Crow Bourbon to us. On one occasion during the siege of Vicksburg Grant reportedly downed a “large goblet” full of Old Crow before retiring. “He tossed it off,” recalled Colonel Isaac Stewart, who was there.After the war, American expansion took off again and American whiskey moved west with the railroads. Cattle became the main cargo going back east—meat for the hungry cities—and whiskey for thirsty cowboys was the main cargo going west.An 1871 Kansas newspaper described the typical American cow wrangler as, “unlearned and illiterate, with few wants and meager ambitions,” who lives on a “diet of Navy plug (tobacco) and whisky.” A cowboy let loose in Dodge City, Kansas, or one of the other makeshift towns that grew up along the railroad, would squander his meager wages on whiskey and women unless he gambled it away first.Mark Twain, America’s 19th century master of sarcasm, said the slogan for the country’s westward expansion should be, “Westward the jug of empire takes its way.” William Barclay “Bat” Masterson, a famous buffalo hunter, army scout and lawman, used the Opera House Saloon in Dodge City as his legal address. In Texas, Judge Roy Bean dispensed both justice and whiskey in his combination courthouse and saloon.Toward the end of the 19th century, Edmond Haynes Taylor, who had founded many distilleries including the one now known as Buffalo Trace, and whose namesake bourbon—Jim Beam’s Old Taylor—is still sold today, campaigned for federal regulation of whiskey quality.Taylor, himself a politician having long served as mayor of Frankfort, Kentucky, as well as in the state legislature, argued that of the more than 100 million gallons of whiskey produced in the United States each year, only about two million reached consumers “in its original integrity.” The rest was adulterated with fillers, coloring, flavoring, raw whiskey, neutral alcohol and other extenders. As Taylor testified to the United States Congress, “It is an admitted axiom that quality recedes as cheapness advances…the ancient Bourbon flavor has departed and the stomach groans under the dominion of the new ruler.” In the early 20th century, National Prohibition turned off the lights for thirteen years. To slake their thirst during that long drought, Americans revived moonshining and nurtured organized crime. When the legal whiskey industry returned it was as a pillar of respectability, sort of. From Jack Daniel’s and Wild Turkey to Diageo’s Bulleit (pronounced “bullet”), American whiskey still conjures up the rough and ready ethos of America’s frontier past.
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