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|Publisher:||Harvard Common Press, The|
|Edition description:||2nd ed.|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 7.60(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
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When I interviewed Tom Bulleit in 2008, the Bulleit Bourbon founder told me something that forever changed the way I taste and write about bourbon. Bulleit sank into his Victorian chair and said, "Bourbon is a lot less about what's inside the bottle and a lot more about what you tell people." He called this the art of suggestion, pointing toward his ear, and continued by saying that marketing essentially commands the bourbon industry. Bulleit's assessment was correct. The labels, stories, and even books about bourbon are greatly influenced by the publicists and marketers who represent the brands. They are the keepers of the history — and with so few of us trying to offer something other than these brand stories, the marketer's narrative tends to own the marketplace of bourbon thought.
Bulleit's art of suggestion, as he calls it, really begins as folklore in the 1700s. It grows to legendary status in the 1800s, becomes reported fact in the 1900s, and comes to irritate consumers in the 2000s.
The proof, age, and whiskey type are about the only things you can trust on an American whiskey label. Bourbon labels rival political ads for the most bullshit per square inch.
Michter's Distillery tells its consumers that George Washington once served its whiskey to his troops — an impossibility, as Michter's didn't exist in the late 1700s. But the original Michter's Distillery was in Schaefferstown, Pennsylvania, owned by distiller John Shenk in 1753. The property boasted two of Lebanon County's twenty stills and was just a farm distillery, like every other one in the area. General Washington was known to purchase whiskey from this area for his soldiers. In the 1970s, Michter's owner Louis Forman exploited this faint connection, calling the newly named Michter's "America's Oldest Distillery" and craftily marketing it as George Washington's beverage of choice for the health of his men — and by extension, the American nation. Fast-forward to the 1990s, after Forman's company went out of business and Chatham Imports acquired Michter's abandoned trademarks.
This is a common occurrence in American whiskey: Acquire old trademarks and use the brand's history to sell contemporary whiskey. Longstanding brands, such as Evan Williams, tap into their namesake's history instead of the modern truth. They market "since 1783," the year that Evan Williams was verified to have started his Louisville distillery. But Heaven Hill didn't create the Evan Williams brand until the 1950s. To some, these "since" claims seem disingenuous. Perhaps that's why some distilleries have responded by moving in the other direction, using new age fonts and names. One example is Barrell Bourbon, which purposely misspells the simple word "barrel" by adding another L. "I didn't want to take from history, which feels like you're borrowing from somebody else's story," says founder Joe Beatrice.
Another legendary marketing loophole lies with Elijah Craig, a brand named after a Baptist minister who was originally credited for inventing bourbon. The real-life minister is commonly referred to as the Father of Bourbon, but a 1970s whiskey scholar disputed this. We can all appreciate the fact that records proving Craig's distilling capabilities might be lost — damn Google for not existing then! — but the legend actually revolves around his discovering the charred-barrel technique after a barn fire magically charred the insides of his barrels. Let's think about this one for a second. How the hell is a fire burning the inside of a barrel but leaving the outside untouched? Perhaps Craig survived the only fire in history that selected what it burned. "Immaculate charception."
Heaven Hill, the owners of Elijah Craig bourbons, admit they use this story tongue-in-cheek, and former Maker's Mark CEO Bill Samuels told me that the industry needed to crown an "inventor" to help its marketing in the early days. Long before Heaven Hill established the Elijah Craig brand in 1986, the bourbon industry was carrying on the minister's legend, likely to stick it to the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, which influenced Prohibition. You can't help but chuckle about a Baptist preacher making bourbon, when several Protestant Christian denominations, including his own, frowned upon drinking.
Despite Heaven Hill removing the legend from its label, the Elijah Craig story still appears from time to time in legitimate magazines and newspapers. At the end of the day, it's only whiskey, and the New York Times lifestyle editor isn't hiring a freelance fact checker to verify bourbon's origins.
Do people really care about legends influencing the historic truths?
Some do, and some don't.
There's a faction of whiskey drinkers known as whiskey geeks. These people belong to a few secret bourbon societies. (Yes, there are actual secret bourbon societies in the cyber webs of Facebook and the dusty basements of bars.) Bourbon is their love, their hobby and, for many, the reason why they wake up in the morning. They are lawyers, doctors, pilots, janitors, and people from many other walks of life. They take bourbon so seriously that they report distillers to the federal government for mislabeling products. These people heckle companies for any advertisement that misrepresents the whiskey truth, and they live to correct the Mr. Bourbon Know-Nothing who breathes fumes at you at the bar and tries to force his ignorance cloaked as knowledge on the public. I am a whiskey geek, and we are a passionate people who've become the de facto Whiskey Police, keeping brands in check in social media. We have become so powerful that some American whiskey brands pursue the geeks' opinions in public forums. But we still represent a minority of the whiskey consumer base, and some brands just don't care what we think.
Members of the larger audience walk into a liquor store, pick up a bottle, and are intrigued with the label. They buy the product, drink it, and either like the whiskey or don't. This audience is becoming affluent with its bourbon knowledge and is eager to learn more, but they do not immediately accept the aforementioned whiskey geeks' policy of truth in labeling. In the beginning, these new consumers just want good whiskey. Then, they really start falling in love with particular brands and their backstories, and when they sometimes learn that a backstory is hyperbole, they either accept the half truths or blanket lies or they feel outright deceived.
In the mid 2000s to early 2010s, whiskey geeks challenged non-distiller producers (NDPs) for using backstories and championed class-action lawsuits for going after whiskeys they perceived as using deceptive techniques. One that stood out was the case against Templeton Rye Whiskey, in which plaintiffs believed they were damaged because they purchased the whiskey thinking it was from Iowa when in fact the whiskey was distilled in Indiana. Templeton was vulnerable because they failed to follow an at-the-time relatively unknown federal code that's been on the books since the 1930s. Templeton didn't disclose its state of distillation. In the end, Templeton settled the case, but they continue to be a prominent rye whiskey in many craft cocktail bars.
This anti-sourced whiskey stance started softening as new consumers entered the fold and people merely wanted whiskey that tasted good. As the late Dave Pickerell once asked a hostile consumer, "do you like it? You can't taste the backstory." Pickerell, who died in late 2018, created several strong contemporary brands around sourced whiskey and even developed a solera system at Hillrock.
Of course, quality matters above all. But the underpinning hang-up for some comes down to truth in labeling and trust in the whiskey. In a Bourbon Pursuit podcast interview with Kenny Coleman and me, prominent bourbon broker Jeff Hopmayer admitted fake bourbon has appeared in the sourced whiskey wholesale market. Hopmayer said many master distillers were "fooled" into thinking a rum was actually bourbon. So, people have a right to be distrustful. But this model has been around for as long as whiskey's been a commercial product.
This sort of thing is hardly new. Since whiskey companies have been in business, distillers have worked with other distillers or independent bottlers to provide whiskey for another company's product. Today, these independent bottlers are called non-distiller producers (NDPs), a term coined by Bourbon Hall of Famer and whiskey writer Chuck Cowdery. NDPs are companies that do not own their own distilleries and instead purchase whiskey from somebody else. The whiskey geeks don't mind the so-called NDPs; they just seem to get irritated with the backstories. Back in the 1940s and 1960s, the Stitzel-Weller Distillery was providing whiskey to the Old Medley Distillery and contract distilling for Austin, Nichols, and Company, while Glenmore Distillery sold hundreds of barrels to bottlers needing supply. The bottlers slapped their pretty labels on somebody else's whiskey, they sold it to consumers who were happy to drink it, and nobody felt deceived. That was the business.
Back then, however, the Internet didn't exist. Special bourbon forums, such as StraightBourbon.com, and other social media sites have given enthusiasts platforms to share information about recipes, water, distillation techniques, and history. Back in the old days, consumers didn't have access to much of this information, and distillers could get away with changing a recipe. It's more difficult for bourbon makers to get away with stretching the truth today.
When Maker's Mark watered down its bourbon whiskey to "meet demand" in February 2013, for example, the general American public called the iconic whiskey brand greedy, and international social media blew up with pure rage. Core fans reminded Maker's Mark that they once promised that they would never change their product. But they did change it, lowering the alcohol proof from 90 to 84, and fans spoke. "You BASTARDS!!!! I love Maker's! But I'm going to switch! Hope you're happy!! Because I'm pissed," wrote fan Tony Aguilar on the Facebook announcement.
The online outrage pushed the Maker's Mark proof-lowering story to front-page news, prime-time TV's lead, and the butt of jokes on late-night talk shows. All the while, brand fans felt betrayed and simply wanted to know why. Within eight days of lowering its proof, Maker's Mark reversed its decision and enjoyed another week of prime-time coverage. Had the original move been a publicity stunt or just bad management?
We'll likely never know, because Maker's Mark and its parent company, Beam Suntory, treat the "proof debacle" (as they call it) like a hardened combat veteran treats the war: they just don't talk about it. But it's important to note that lowering proof helps stretch the product into more bottles, and fictitious backstories intrigue new consumers. Both have been going on since American whiskey became profit minded.
The whiskey business is not an altruistic industry run by choirboys. Distillers don't take oaths of purity or do what's in the best interest of their consumers. They do what they do to make money, and hyperbole and today's marketing liberties are a part of this industry's history. Bourbon folklore draws us in like Greek mythology, hooking us and making us interested in learning more. The fact that much of the spirit's history is based on legends just makes for a better story, and it spices up the truth for a drinking culture that passionately wants information now — right or wrong.
There is no greater example of this than the Craig legend, which credits the minister with inventing bourbon around 1794.
The fact is, the term bourbon first appeared in print in 1821 in Bourbon County's Western Citizen newspaper, where the Stout and Adams advertising firm promoted "bourbon whiskey by the barrel or keg." Five years later, a Lexington, Kentucky, grocer wrote to distiller John Corlis to order more whiskey from "barrels burnt upon the inside, say only a 16th of an inch." This is the earliest known reference of charring the insides of barrels in reference to whiskey.
But in all likelihood, distillers were charring barrels and using bourbon mashbills long before those references. In 1809's The Practical Distiller, author Samuel M'Harry of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, suggests burning the inside of barrels to clean them and offers a whiskey grain recipe of two-thirds corn and one-third rye. M'Harry was quite fond of corn. "That corn has as much and as good whiskey as rye or any other grain.... Corn is always from one to two shillings per bushel cheaper than rye, and in many places much plentier." If he had suggested this recipe be placed in a new charred oak barrel, he would have published a bourbon whiskey recipe.
Early Americans distilled whatever they could. In areas where grapes and other fruits were plentiful, they made brandy. In the New England area, they distilled molasses to create rum. Corn and rye were far cheaper and more plentiful than molasses and fruits, so that's why these grains became the cornerstone for early American distillations. People love giving romantic stories about corn waving in the breeze and rye brushing against the distiller's cheek, claiming that's why corn became bourbon's backbone, but that's just a bunch of baloney. Much as the barrel-charring legend of Elijah Craig originated somewhere, the common legend about why distillers came to prefer corn is usually linked to the Corn Patch and Cabin Rights Act of 1776.
When Kentucky was still a part of Virginia, Virginians migrated there to raise the population in the soon-to-be state, as well as for land speculation. The Virginia legislature attempted to "regularize" Western lands and came up with the Corn Patch and Cabin Rights law, which allowed settlers to claim land if they built a cabin and planted corn in sections of Kentucky prior to January 1, 1778. But in their infinite wisdom, Virginia lawmakers failed to specify the cabin or corn patch size. Settlers planted three or four seeds of corn and built a small cabin with a few pieces of lumber, expecting to receive land. Thus, while it's possible the Corn Patch and Cabin Rights Act helped a few distilling families establish themselves, the law was so "clumsy" and "unworkable" that it is likely to have had little impact at all on bourbon.
People distilled what they could to survive, trade, and get drunk. It's really that simple. If settlers had found nothing but pinecones, there's a good chance "America's spirit" would be pinecone liquor, an ode to a summer breeze wafting through the towering pine trees.
Fortunately, corn, rye, and barley were harvested for whiskey, and distillers never toyed around with pinecone liquor. Or it never took off, anyway.
In times of corn overproduction, distilling the grain became a profitable venture for farmers and an eventual necessary savior to sagging grain prices. Although corn prices have fluctuated throughout American history, farmers know it's a tried-and-true fact that people drink in good and bad economies. And that's the real reason corn became the base of bourbon's recipe: it grew.
WHO MADE THE FIRST BOURBON?
In my book, Bourbon: The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of an American Whiskey, I studied the people associated with inventing bourbon. I examined Congressional, Treasury, newspapers, and other records to establish who is the most likely first bourbon distiller. In this search, I discovered why the Elijah Craig legend came to be. In 1874, lawyer and antiquarian Richard H. Collins published a 1,600-page history on Kentucky and said the first bourbon whiskey was made in Georgetown in 1789 at the town's paper mill. Collins also wrote that Craig owned the first paper mill in the state, which happened to be in Georgetown. He never mentioned Craig was a distiller, but the distillery industry crowned Craig the "father of bourbon" anyway. The first known mention of Craig inventing bourbon is in the February 13, 1934, Louisville Courier-Journal in which the story attributes Collins' book: "The historian points out that the first bourbon whisky was made at the mill of the Rev. Elijah Craig. At Georgetown, in 1789 ..."
Mentions of Craig's bourbon invention increase in the 1950s and '60s, when the industry is campaigning to make bourbon a unique product of the United States. During their public relations campaign to appeal to Congress regarding the 1964 Congressional Declaration, the bourbon industry touted Craig, but in his 1808 obituary, his distilling prowess was not mentioned. He wasn't even noted as being bourbon's creator until the 1870s. If he was truly the inventor, why did it take more than 100 years for a published account of his invention?
Other names popped up throughout history as the creator of bourbon, but there was only one who was a prominent distiller, and unlike Craig had multiple early records linking him to the creation: Jacob Spears, who lived in the same area as Craig before settling down in Paris, Kentucky. Spears was noted as the first distiller in Bourbon County and was one of the people credited for giving bourbon its name, calling it so after Bourbon County. Furthermore, records firmly provide evidence that he put barrels of whiskey on flatboats to transport down river. However, it remains unknown as to whether these barrels were charred. However, what Spears had that Craig didn't was the evidence that people spoke of Spears as the unequivocal creator.
During a 1935 Congressional hearing over the regulation of food, Congressman Virgil Chapman, a Kentucky Democrat, said when relating to the origins of American whiskey, "I do know that as an accurate, historical fact, in the year 1790, 2 years before Kentucky was admitted to statehood, a man by the name of Jacob Spears, in Bourbon County, Kentucky, where I reside now, made straight Bourbon whisky, and because it was made in Bourbon county, that type of whisky, wherever made in the world, has been called Bourbon whisky ever since." Thus, while many people were cited with being bourbon's first distiller, I've formed a strong hypothesis around Spears being the first.
The sad truth is we'll likely never definitively know who invented bourbon or why he or she named it so. Bourbon does not enjoy the centuries' worth of historical research that beer and wine have commanded. Universities are only now taking bourbon history seriously, and the distilleries closely guard their true histories. After all, distillers owned slaves, ran whiskey during Prohibition, and used prostitutes for their marketing, and many of these connections still haunt bourbon's ruling families. The Pogue family, for example, sold barrels to bootleggers during Prohibition. "Not a proud moment in our history, but some really neat history nonetheless," Paul Pogue said. That's why legends and misnomers have permeated bourbon culture; the truth isn't always pretty, and it certainly won't sell whiskey.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Bourbon Curious"
Copyright © 2019 Fred Minnick.
Excerpted by permission of The Quarto Group.
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