The History man

The History man

Kentuckian Mike Veach has dedicated his adult life to archiving bourbon. Now he's seeing it gets the respect it deserves.
Mike Veachhas

03 October 2009

Publication: Issue 83

If ever anyone deserved to have been inducted in to the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame, it is Mike Veach

He has spent the last 18 years seeking out historical records about the distilleries of Kentucky and archiving them, putting on record the living history of the state's bourbon industry. While others have waved the flag up on the deck of the good ship bourbon, Veach has been in the engine room, constantly stoking the engines that have powered it.

During the last two decades he has seen the whole bourbon landscape change beyond recognition. He has seen the annual bourbon festival grow from modest roots in to a week-long family celebration of one of the world's greatest products, and he has seen the whiskey go through a rebirth, from frowned-upon menonly hard liquor to increasingly respected premium spirit.

He's watched as the tourist authorities have recognised the important of bourbon to the reputation of Kentucky and incorporated it in to their marketing, and he's watched as its personalities have been feted and championed.

Now, as bourbon enjoys a higher and higher profile, he admits that he sometimes wondered whether the industry could survive at all.

"I am impressed that the bourbon industry is still around, despite the higher taxes and the religious right," he says. "The industry is not only surviving, it is growing. I am cautiously optimistic about the future. There is great potential and the leaders seem to recognise this potential."

Veach' s professional love affair with bourbon started in 1991 when he was employed at the Sitzel-Weller Distillery to catalogue 'a few items and papers.' He was there five years before moving to the Filson Historical Society, where he remains today, responsible for distillery history.

"I think history and heritage a very important to the state," he says. "Distilling has done a lot for Kentucky. The taxes have paid for many things in the budget, the distilleries employ people and the growing tourism is adding even more to the state's coffers."

He is, it has to be said, not just an expert on bourbon distilling, but old-school, too. He is happy to see the growth of super-premium whiskeys, for instance, but mainly because they are sparking interest in older established brands such as Old Forester, Old Grand Dad and Old Fitzgerald.

The clue is in the names. But he's also keen to see the growth of micro-distillers putting old-fashioned quality before greater and greater production.

"I think the big companies need to get back to their roots and quit trying to make everything cheaper," he says. "The trend towards everything having the same mash bills and using enzymes in place of malt tend to make the product less interesting to the pallet. Yes, make your bulk brands that way, but how about making some bourbon that is more expensive to make, but is made the way it was done 100 years ago with more malt, lower distillation and barrel proof, and improved flavour? Let's bring back the butterscotch and chocolate flavours that were more common 30 years ago.
Until that happens, though, Veach is content enough and believes that bourbon is cementing its place in the structure of the state.

"I look forward to microdistilleries stirring up the industry like the micro-brewers stirred up the beer industry. When microdistillers start making more flavourful products the big distilleries will return to their roots and make them too."

"I agree with what was said about Kentucky in the 19th century," he says.

"There are four pillars to Kentucky society and they are all grounded in limestone - bourbon, tobacco, horses and pretty women."

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