- 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
By 1811 there were an estimated two thousand distilleries working in Kentucky, all of them small, local affairs probably not making more than a barrel or two a week. The methods of manufacture were crude and empirical. That began to change in 1823, when a Scottish chemist named James Crow (as in Old Crow), working at the Old Pepper distillery, began applying science to the nroress. He introduced the use of the saccharimeter and the thermometer and perfected the employment of sour mash. Sour mash is today an element of every bourbon made; it is a portion of yeasty beer saved from one fermentation to help start the next, like a sourdough starter. After corn, rye, and barley are cooked—the first stage of bourbon making—sour mash, or “backset,” is added along with yeast to begin fermentation. It both kills unwanted bacteria in the mash and provides consistency and continuity from batch to batch.
That year, 1823, might be pegged as the birth time of modern whiskey, for it was also when changes in the tax laws in Scotland made operating a legal distillery there profitable for the first time, and Scotch as we know it was born. Two years later Tennessee whiskey came into being when Alfred Eaton established what became known as the Lincoln County Process, slowly filtering his whiskey, over the course of several days, through maple charcoal, to produce a sooty, sweet flavor even before the spirit went into the barrel. This technique survives today in the two remaining Tennessee whiskeys, Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel. It is what distinguishes them from bourbon.
Jack Daniel himself was born in Tennessee in 1846. By the time he was eight he was working for a storekeeper who owned a still and made and sold whiskey; six years later the storekeeper decided that whiskey and his calling as a lay Lutheran preacher didn’t mix, so he sold the still to his charge. Daniel did a brisk business during the Civil War peddling first to Confederate troops and then to Union. In 1866, the war over, he founded the present Jack Daniel’s distillery, in Lynchbure. Tennessee. He was nineteen or twenty.
The name most closely associated with whiskey during the Civil War (a war that the Kentucky puritan William Taylor Adams suggested was caused by whiskey’s turning sober Union men into cheering secessionists) is that of Ulysses S. Grant. Grant’s reputation for alcoholism was largely a libel spread by his enemies, but he did get drunk occasionally; he was a binge drinker. Unfortunately historians doubt President Lincoln really countered complaints about Grant’s insobriety at Shiloh by saying, “I wish some of you would tell me the brand of whiskey that Grant drinks. I would like to send a barrel of it to my other generals.” Nor do we know what brand Grant drank, except that on at least one occasion he had Old Crow, as did Henry Clay and Andrew Jackson, among others. (Grant’s counterpart, Robert E. Lee, once said of whiskey, “I like it; I always did, and that is the reason I never use it.”)
Grant’s worst whiskey problem was with his administration. One of the most serious of the scandals that undermined his Presidency was that of the Whiskey Ring, when high-up associates of his were caught taking pay-offs in return for seeing that distilleries were undertaxed. Grant’s friend John MacDonald, the St. Louis regional chief of the Internal Revenue Service, ended up in jail for most of two years and later wrote a book in which he claimed, probably falsely, that Grant himself had been part of the ring.
Jack Daniel owned a distillery when he was fourteen and built the present Lynchburg one just six years later.
Bourbon making came of age as an industrialized operation after the Civil War. The widespread adoption of the continuous still, which had been invented in Scotland in the 1830s, meant that whiskey could be produced on something like an assembly line rather than in the separate small batches of the traditional pot still. In 1870 George G. Brown, of Louisville, introduced Old Forrester—probably named after the Confederate raider Nathan Bedford Forrest, though today spelled with only one r —as the first whiskey sold in sealed glass bottles. Until then bourbon was still poured from barrels into jugs that customers brought to the store, and often enough the product had been cut with grain alcohol or stretched with water. More bottlings quickly followed Old Forrester’s, but the adulteration problem was only fully addressed in 1897, when Congress passed the Bottled-in-Bond Act, providing for the certification of whiskeys made at a single distillery, aged at least four years in governmentsupervised warehouses, and bottled at 100 proof.
Adulteration was hardly the biggest problem. Neither was the Whiskey Trust, which sprang up in the 1880s, when trusts monopolized business in everything from patent medicines to railroads. It exerted its stranglehold in Illinois, which at the time actually had more distilleries than Kentucky, and local and federal investigations forced the trust out of business in the mid-1890s.