AMERICAN WHISKEY PT 2
Renowned mixologist and BULLEIT® global brand ambassador Tim Etherington-Judge takes us on a trip down memory lane as he explores the myths and legends of the beginnings of bourbon whiskey…
To tell the tale of the history of American whiskey, and bourbon in particular, is to tell the tale of the history of the United States of America; such is the importance of America's national spirit. The myths and legends around the beginnings of ol' bourbon whiskey are as numerous and whimsical as those surrounding the birth of any of the great spirits.
Our story brings together a cast of corybantic presidents and distilling founding fathers, a rapturous preacher and an axe wielding maniacal renegade. So pull that chair a little closer and let's begin.
What do we know for certain? We know that no one was distilling in the New World before 1607, when Jamestown, the first permanent British colony was established. Native American's were one of the few native peoples that didn't discover the wonders of fermentation.
We know the boats that bought European settlers to the New World would have bought the taste for, and knowledge to make, distilled spirits along with many other social customs. The distilling of spirits in Ireland was already taking place at this time, with a license to distil granted to the Bushmills area in 1608. The early settlers were an ingenious bunch, using whatever they could grow locally to create ardent spirits: pumpkins, plums, cherries, apples, pears, blackberries, potatoes, turnips, carrots and small grains.
It's not known for certain which was the first grain used to produce whiskey. Scottish and Irish settlers, who took up residence in Pennsylvania, would certainly have been distilling whatever grains provided a plentiful harvest. It's likely that rye, which grew well in the lands discovered as the frontiersman moved west, was the first while corn was the star crop in Kentucky. With grain the most abundant commodity in the western states; farmers could turn a greater profit by condensing their crop into liquid whiskey. A horse could carry four bushels of grain, but an equivalent twenty-four bushels of grain if it was converted to whiskey.
After the American Revolution (1765-1783), the tide began to turn away from rum and towards whiskey. The Embargo Act, which banned commerce with foreign nations, cut off the supply of molasses and rum's time as America's favorite spirit was up.
With the American Revolution still weighing heavily on the national bank balance, the newly appointed Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, proposed the United States fully meet its financial obligations associated with debts incurred by the struggle for independence from Britain. Money was to be raised partly by an excise tax upon distilled spirits, a move that was deeply unpopular in the western states, particularly Pennsylvania. Whiskey was more than just an enjoyed beverage, it was a form of currency for people who saw little in the way of physical dollars and a gallon of good rye whiskey had a stable measure of value.
In July 1794 things came to a head. A band of rebels, led by Major James McFarlane, led an attack on the General Neville to protest enforcement of the tax collection. McFarlane died in the attack and was given a hero's funeral, adding to the already incendiary feelings running through the local populace. By August, a group of rebels were marching on Pittsburgh. They spared the city, if not its whiskey supply.
The Whiskey Rebellion, as it became known, was of such importance to the fledgling United States that President George Washington was stirred into action to protect the Constitution. A militia army of 15,000 men was assembled, along with plentiful supplies of duty-paid whiskey, and marched towards Pennsylvania. The show of force was enough to take the wind out of the rebel's sails and by November, with no one to fight, the army returned east.
Both the rebellion, and the tax that caused it, were a failure. The army cost one third of all the money raised by the tax in its lifetime and was quietly repealed by President Jefferson. The rebellion did however succeed in establishing the reality of a federal union governed by law and is a significant moment in America’s history.
Meanwhile, in Kentucky, where distillers also gathered to protest the tax, although without the violence of their Pennsylvanian brothers, distilling was being practiced in ever growing quantities as the population of the newly formed 15th state grew.
Corn was the golden bounty in Kentucky. It grew high and green thanks to the fertile soil and limestone water of the bluegrass state and made for excellent addition to the rye based mash bills.
Much of Kentucky’s whiskey floated down the Mississippi and Ohio rivers towards New Orleans. Oak barrels, being the storage vessel of choice, helped mellow the raw distillate and by the time it reached New Orleans, it was merchantable as ‘old’ whiskey. By 1812 ‘Kentucky whiskey’ and ‘western whiskey’ were established commercial terms and in 1821 ‘bourbon whiskey by the barrel or keg’ was being advertised in the Bourbon County newspaper.
As for the question of who created the first ‘bourbon whiskey’ there are many names that make a claim. The earliest, 1776, comes from Elijah Pepper near Lexington, a date that the business his family continued would use into the 20th century. John Ritchie is said to have set up a still at Linn’s Fort in 1777 and Henry Hudson Wathen reportedly did the same in 1788, the same year that the Beam family claim they started. Evan Williams erected a small still in Louisville in 1783 and made a spirit so bad that he was censured by his fellow city trustees. Elijah Craig, a whiskey making Baptist minister who founded his distillery in 1789, is said to have been the first to age whiskey in charred oak barrels, although there is no actual evidence to support this claim, like much of American whiskey history.
In 1816, a young man by the name of Augustus Bulleit emigrated from France, settling in New Orleans. According to his great-great grandson, Tom, Augustus began turning his hand to making small batches of high rye whiskey, using his knowledge of producing brandy. In 1860 Augustus mysteriously disappeared whilst transporting barrels down river to New Orleans. A year later the American Civil war broke out and the fate of Augustus, and his bourbon recipe, were seemingly lost to the chaos of time.
Tim Etherington-Judge is the BULLEIT Bourbon Global Brand Ambassador, worn out bartender and is cycling 5,000 miles to raise $7,500 for charity this year.