- Historic Sites
The American Spirit
Bourbon whiskey has had a long, rugged ride from the frontier to the top shelf
May/June 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 3
After two hundred years bourbon whiskey appears to be coming into its own. It is one of America’s unique cultural contributions to the world, our native equivalent to single-malt Scotch or Cuban cigars or Russian caviar, but it has never been the object of the esteem and connoisseurship those luxuries enjoy. Its history has to a large extent been one of struggle against moralism, corruption, and capricious popular taste, along with gradual improvement from frontier swill into genuine delicacy.
After two hundred years bourbon whiskey appears to be coming into its own. It is one of America’s unique cultural contributions to the world, our native equivalent to single-malt Scotch or Cuban cigars or Russian caviar, but it has never been the object of the esteem and connoisseurship those luxuries enjoy. Its history has to a large extent been one of struggle against moralism, corruption, and capricious popular taste, along with gradual improvement from frontier swill into genuine delicacy. Just in the last few years it has begun getting truly serious respect.
At the very dawn of bourbon, in the 1790s, a federal excise tax nearly killed the young industry (and threatened the young Republic as well). The nineteenth century saw the scandal of the Grantadministration Whiskey Ring, the rise of a monopolistic Whiskey Trust, and the proliferation of unscrupulous distillers who sold God-knew-what as straight whiskey. And in this century bourbon was beset by outright banning, followed by another suspension of business during World War II and then the rise of martini culture in the 1950s, vodka as the soirit of choice after that, single malts becoming America’s favored sipping whiskey, and through it all a broad decline in liquor consumption.
Yet bourbon endures, as uniquely and utterly American as jazz or baseball—and as curious in its history and as rich and subtle in its enjoyment. Congress was not being fatuous when in 1964 it proclaimed bourbon America’s “native spirit,” and the bourbon distiller Bill Samuels, Jr., does not exaggerate when he says, “Whiskey was the funnel through which the West leapt, the lubricant and the currency, and since then bourbon has gotten a lot better.” The authors of the 1995 definitive history and guide The Book of Bourbon and Other Pine American Whiskeys open their volume by stating, “Deep in the soul of American whiskey lies the rich pioneer spirit that founded this nation, the steadfast determination that conquered the Great Plains and the Wild West. . . . Though it may sound hyperbolic to say so, we think it’s all right there in a single shot of Tennessee sour mash, straight rye whiskey or bourbon.”
Whiskey is essentially brandy made from beer instead of wine; it developed in Northern European countries where grapes wouldn’t grow. The early English settlers in North America made and drank beer, but by the early eighteenth century the dominant distilled spirit in the colonies was rum. This was because of the triangular trade: Molasses was shipped from the West Indies to New England, there to be made into rum to be sent to Africa to trade for slaves for the West Indies. In Rhode Island in the 1750s there were at least thirty legitimate distilleries making rum. The American liquor industry, centered in New England, was based on slave power.
Non-Puritan immigrants from the British Isles and Northern Europe tended to head west and south of New England, and they took with them their homegrown traditions of whiskey making, adapting them to the grains that could grow in the regions where they settled. To the Germans in Pennsylvania and Maryland that meant rye; in Kentucky, to which a largely Scotch-Irish population began to move after Daniel Boone cut a path through the Cumberland Gap in 1767, it meant corn, which would become the main ingredient in bourbon.
When, in 1776, Virginia named its western frontier Kentucky County (much of which became Bourbon County after the Revolution, in honor of France’s help in the war, giving the whiskey its name), the state decreed that it would give four hundred acres to any settler who built a cabin and planted corn there. Before lone, men whose names survive to this day were setting up homemade stills around the bluegrass countryside. In 1788 Jacob Beam, great-grandfather of Jim Beam and great-great-great-grandfather of Booker Noe, master distiller emeritus at Jim Beam today, entered the region and soon was distilling. Daniel Weller, as in W. L. Weller bourbon, arrived in 1794. Robert Samuels, great-great-great-great-grandfather of Bill Samuels, Jr., head of Maker’s Mark, came in 1780; Basil Hayden, the actual Old Grand-Dad, in 1785. None of them has a clear claim to the title the father of bourbon; for most of the nineteenth century the honors were given to one Elijah Craig, who started up in 1789. His renown, however, rested not on priority but on the fact that he was a Baptist preacher, making him the ideal forefather for distillers fighting the forces of Prohibition a hundred years ago.