Bourbon

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The Revolutionary War years mark the beginning of rum’s decline. Among the reasons for this were the steady shift of the center of population to the westward and the arrival of the Scotch-Irish, a self-reliant people who were traditionally grain distillers and crossed the Alleghenies lugging their shining copper stills with them. Rye was already prospering in the western parts of both Maryland and Pennsylvania in the late eighteenth century, and the corn was growing tall in Kentucky. The distillation of corn whiskey, a colorless, unaged liquor that may be called bourbon’s country cousin, was simply a way of marketing the frontier grain crop, reducing its weight and bulk and enhancing its value. A pack horse could move only four bushels of grain. But it could carry the equivalent of twenty-four bushels if they were condensed into two kegs of whiskey slung across its back, while the value of the goods would double when they reached the eastern markets. So whiskey became the remittance from the fringe settlements for the necessities of life. The Whiskey Rebellion in the 1790’s was a mass protest against the levy of a tax by the United States on the farm whiskey of Pennsylvania and Kentucky. The hated tax was quietly repealed in 1802 during Jefferson’s administration. But in the meantime some two thousand frontiersmen had floated downriver from Redstone Old Fort (later Brownsville) to Kentucky with their burr mills and copper stills to cultivate a corn patch and set up their furnaces once more. The federal tax on alcoholic beverages was revived briefly during the War of 1812. After that for two generations Americans could lift a horn of “bald face” without feeling that they were helping to pay off the national debt.

 

This was the period when Whig gentlemen in broadcloth raised their tall hats reverently if Mr. Clay’s name was mentioned, when whiskey came in barrels, and when loyal consumers carried their own personal flasks, hand-blown in delightful designs reflecting the topical interests of the day. The flasks carried such mottoes as “Corn for the World,” “Success to the Railroads,” or General Zachary Taylor’s reputed order to young artillery officer Braxton Bragg at a desperate moment during the Battle of Buena Vista: “A little more grape, Captain Bragg.” Portraits of Lafayette, Washington, and Old Rough and Ready appeared frequently on these personal flasks. In their writings on American glass the scholarly McKearins, George and Helen, observed, “To adorn common whisky bottles with the likeness of our great … did not belittle the man or the country in the eyes of the citizens who bought the flasks. …”

Information on the early history of whiskey in Kentucky is fragmentary. There are several reasons for this: the rugged conditions of life in a frontier state, the overlay of Jater moral attitudes after the temperance movement picked up speed, and the fact that distilling was not an industrial activity but simply a part-time adjunct of agriculture. In fact, a common term for the product was “country whiskey.” It was distilled from maize, to be sure, but collected just as it dripped from the condensing coil. The first known advertisement in which the term “bourbon whiskey” appeared was published in 1821. But the distillate of the period was not bourbon as defined today, since it lacked the bouquet and reddish color as well as the smoothness produced by proper aging in charred oak cooperage.

Bourbon as a place name in Kentucky occurs for the same reason that one finds such other names of French reference as Paris, Louisville, Versailles, and Fayette, and for the same reason that Vergennes, Vermont, commemorates the name of the foreign minister of Louis XVI—that is, gratitude for French assistance in the American War of Independence. Enthusiastic claims have been advanced for various counties in the bluegrass region as the exact spot where bourbon originated. Senator Garret Davis, for example, told the United States Senate in 1862, “The liquor that is termed ‘old Bourbon’ had its origin in the county in which I reside. …” Senator Davis was undoubtedly right if he meant simply to apply the term “old Bourbon” to a general geographic region, since Bourbon County, which was carved out of Fayette County in 1785, included all or part of thirty-four of the present-day counties in eastern Kentucky. Oddly enough, Bourbon County now produces no bourbon.

Colonel Edmund Haynes Taylor, Jr., a grandnephew of Zachary Taylor and creator of the still well-regarded brand known as Old Taylor, once insisted that bourbon originated in the year of the Declaration of Independence and would endure as long as the liberties set forth in that proclamation. The James E. Pepper family, another distiller, promoted the same idea by adopting the slogan “Born with the Republic.” But these and many other charming legends of similar import cannot be substantiated. It is safer to say that making copper-distilled, sourmash corn whiskey was a way of life among a pioneer people. This accounts for the vague background of Kentucky distilling and the highly imaginative stories about bourbon’s origin.