The history of bourbon, a happy accident

It’s a story that Bill Samuels, the affable president of Maker’s Mark Distillery, has told countless times, yet it’s one he clearly relishes telling.

To hear him explain it, the story of bourbon is one of luck, coincidence and fortune — a series of “happy accidents,” as he calls it.

It’s a story that Bill Samuels, the affable president of Maker’s Mark Distillery, has told countless times, yet it’s one he clearly relishes telling.

To hear him explain it, the story of bourbon is one of luck, coincidence and fortune — a series of “happy accidents,” as he calls it.

According to Samuels, who spoke Tuesday night at a bourbon tasting organized by the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, at the dawn of the 18th century, rotten-tasting rums out of Boston dominated the universe of American spirits.

Not until 1713 did the first recorded distillation from grain take place in America, about which time the locus of spirit production moved south to Philadelphia.

In the mid-1700s, Virginia’s own Patrick Henry came up with a plan to entice settlers to move west into what became Kentucky, “and the Scotch-Irish took him up on it,” said Samuels.

The Scotch-Irish were adept at distilling, but the only native grain in Kentucky was Indian maize. Fortunately, “the sweetness of the corn … predominated the spirit.”

The second bit of luck was that Kentuckians generally settled close to the land offices the government established to handle the allocation of property. These offices, by coincidence, were all located on the Limestone Shelf, a geologic area shaped like the upper half of an hourglass that makes up 25 percent of modern-day Kentucky and 5 percent of Tennessee.

Water running through this shelf had the benefit of being high in calcium and low in iron — ideal for distilling whiskey. To this day, every major American whiskey brand is still made in the Limestone Shelf.

The biggest stroke of fortune, however, probably came in the late 1780s. At this time, the first whiskey trade had opened the Natchez Trail from Lexington to New Orleans. Before making its trip downriver, a barrel was stamped with its county of origin.

A clergyman named Elijah Craig, a distiller from Bourbon County, found that the cheapest way to clean a fish barrel in preparation for storing whiskey was to burn the inside of it. And he soon sent his first barrels downriver in the summer, a trip that took some 90 days.

When it arrived, said Samuels, “we had a very different product.”

The charred oak had smoothed out the spirit, extracting its vanillins and tannic acids. And “folks in New Orleans asked them to bring back more of that whiskey from Bourbon.”

Little did these first distillers know that the wood they used, American white oak, which just happened to grow in abundance in Kentucky, is the only wood that produces this effect.

WASHINGTON’S PART

At this time in the narrative, a tangent is in order, as the story shifts east, to Mount Vernon.

Five years after leaving the presidency, George Washington was doing a brisk business out of his estate. At this time, explained Dennis Pogue, Mount Vernon’s associate director of preservation, Washington’s plantation master was a man named James Anderson. A Scotsman, Anderson persuaded Washington to build a distillery as a revenue generator.

“Washington was a big businessman, and this distillery was a big part of that,” Pogue said.

By the end of 1797, Washington had bankrolled a distillery that included a 75-by-30-foot building, five copper stills and 50 mash tubs. Most of the whiskey it produced was rye.

The colorless liquid sold for about 50 cents a gallon, mostly to Alexandria buyers, though Washington often sold on barter.

By 1799, Washington’s distillery was turning out some 11,000 gallons per year, making it one of the largest in America at the time.

Three years ago, Pogue and his team first tried to replicate Washington’s method. “It was pretty rough at first,” he said, “but it would do what you wanted it to do.”

The spirit has been aging ever since, however, and he says it’s “getting better” with time. Since then, they’ve tried a rum as well.

In 2001, Pogue began excavating the original site, which was destroyed in a fire in 1814. Four years later he had a working diagram of the distillery and began rebuilding it in its exact location, just as it stood. Its stone walls have just been completed, and five stills have been purchased.

George Washington’s Distillery and Museum will be dedicated Sept. 27, before opening to the public in April 2007.

Pogue said he fielded plenty of calls from “little old ladies worrying that we were besmirching [Washington’s] reputation. I had to assure them that it was all historically accurate.”

When it opens next year, the distillery will serve as the gateway to the American Whiskey Trail, a collection of 14 historic sites and working distilleries in New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee that trace the history and heritage of spirits in the United States. 

ALL IN THE FAMILY

But back to Bourbon. Things went on this way for most of the 1800s. The craft barely survived Prohibition before enjoying its last bit of luck.

In the mid-1930s, Rep. Wilbur Mills (D-Ark.) helped pass the Federal Alcohol Administration Act. In it, he mandated that bourbon must be made using only newly charred barrels.

You see, Samuels explained, much of Kentucky’s oak comes from Arkansas, and “you’ll use more wood if you only use it once.”


Gray’s eye-catching exhibit

Tuesday night also saw the unveiling of a unique art exhibit at the National Press Club. Views from the American Whiskey Trail, by Scottish artist Ian Gray, is a collection of oil paintings of America’s greatest distilleries — and their products.

“I tried to capture the essence of the process, which is not that different than Scotch,” said Gray.

Gray’s work has been featured in galleries in London, Germany, Canada and Scotland. His collectors include the German parliament, the Singapore government, Citibank, the Scotch Malt Whisky Society and Glenmorangie, among others. The show is his first in the United States.

Frank Coleman of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS), which is sponsoring the exhibit, first saw Gray’s work five years ago at the Ardbeg distillery in Scotland, while on a tour of Scotch distilleries. He bought several prints on the spot, and they have been hanging in the DISCUS offices ever since.

Fast forward to last year’s Whiskey Fest in Chicago. Coleman was manning DISCUS’s booth, when who should be in the booth next to him but Gray.

Coleman invited him to tour the American Whiskey Trail for fodder for new paintings, on the condition that DISCUS would have first rights to purchase the works. Of course, it bought them all.

After the show at the National Press Club ends April 7, the works will head to Chicago for this year’s festival. Then some will become an exhibit at George Washington’s Distillery at Mount Vernon and others will tour.

To take an online tour of Gray’s Views from the American Whiskey Trail, visit www.discus.org/trail.