- Historic Sites
February 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 2
In the early years of this century, when an American scholar, James Schouler, could still define history as the record of “consecutive public events,” it would have been inconceivable for the American contribution to the world’s varieties of distilled spirits to be considered a proper subject of academic inquiry. But if one accepts the view prevailing among scholars today—that history includes the whole life of a people—then the manners and customs associated with bourbon (pronounced “ber-bun” in Kentucky, as in “urban”) deserve a special chapter in our social chronicles.
Alcoholic liquors distilled from molasses and from rye appeared in America before bourbon, but sugar cane is a product of the West Indies, and rye is an Old World grain. On the other hand, true bourbon whiskey—distilled from our own native maize, given character by limestone water and yeasts from the salubrious air of the Bourbon Belt, cradled during a long slumber in barrels of charred white oak—can with accuracy be called the distinctive spirit of our country. Indeed it was formally recognized as such by Congress in Senate Concurrent Resolution 19, adopted on May 4, 1964.
Our own American beverage is intimately associated with valor and the graces of life, with villainy and folly, with dramatic events such as the Whiskey Rebellion, with national scandals such as the Whiskey Ring in Grant’s administration (when revenue officers cheated their own agency), and with the fur trade and the opening of the Great West. Red liquor—often, it must be admitted, a cheap, colored liquor affectionately known as red-eye—accompanied the westering Americans in their conquest of a continent—the bullwhackers, traders, trappers, hide hunters, soldiers, sodbusters, gold seekers, and government surveyors. Ranchers, railroad contractors, United States marshals, and mountain men shared an opinion so favorable toward native whiskey in general that Mark Twain once suggested that the line stamped on the back cover of George Bancroft’s History of the United States —“Westward the star of empire takes its way”—would better reflect the American experience if rendered “Westward the jug of empire takes its way.”
Whiskey and government are yoked together in an intimate relationship derived from the power of Congress to levy taxes and the fact that it takes a powerful lot of sour-mash bourbon to run the government in a big country like the United States. The role of liquor along the Potomac has long been hailed by social commentators.
“Whiskey is the best part of the American government,” declared Achille Murât, son of the king of Naples, who married a great-grandniece of George Washington and wrote three friendly but candid books about the United States.
Today the seat of our national government drinks about seven times as much straight bourbon per capita as the national average and about four times the gallonage required to slake the legal thirst of Kentucky. Such liberal use of ardent spirits is not a recent development. The Supreme Gourt under Chief Justice John Marshall developed a rule that its members would take a drink only in rainy weather. That was interpreted to include any rain that fell within the Court’s jurisdiction. And it was further stipulated that there was always rain falling somewhere in the continental United States. Mrs. Anne Royall, a shrewd observer of life and customs in the United States, wrote early in the nineteenth century, when the Capitol was under construction, that of some two hundred men employed on the job not more than six were sober. And she reported that whiskey was sold by the drink in the passage between the Senate chamber and the House by persons she described as “abandoned females.”
One of the earliest known whiskey brands was Sterne’s Celebrated Congress Bourbon, named in compliment to our national legislature. The label showed a picture of the House of Representatives in session in the old chamber, now known as the Hall of Statuary. Until the early nineteen hundreds there was a damp spot, known as the hole in the wall, in either end of the Capitol for the convenience of the members of Congress whose custom it was to drink water after pouring whiskey of native growth into it.
There is a political theory that has long been nourished on the Republican side of the House that there is a special affinity between whiskey and Democrats. It is reflected in an old remark: “I never said all Democrats were saloonkeepers. What I did say was that all saloonkeepers are Democrats.” During an agonizing debate in 1880 on whether the excise tax should be forgiven on the whiskey that evaporated during the aging period- amounting to a substantial 36 per cent in eight years—Hiram Casey Young, a Tennessee Democrat, rose in the House to say: Forming my opinion from frequent declarations of my Republican friends, I had concluded, before the commencement of the discussion which has been had upon this bill, that the subject of whiskey was peculiarly under the charge of the Democratic party. … But it must be admitted, I think, that Republican gentlemen have in the discussion evinced an acquaintance with the subject so thorough and intimate that it could hardly have been acquired otherwise than by the closest relations.