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May 2024
11min read

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.

To this salty observation the Congressional Record appends the stage direction laughter and applause . Omar Dwight Conger, a Michigan Republican, then replied that any familiarity he had with whiskey was due to the many years he had spent in close association with Democrats. “If I have not been able to feel their influence,” he said, “I have certainly smelt their breath.”

The best evidence is that the pleasures of sipping our star-spangled juice of the corn plant do cross party lines. Colonel Robert G. Ingersoll, the silver-tongued Republican orator from Peoria, called bourbon “liquid joy” that has spent, as he put it in the flowery language of nineteenth-century eloquence, “the dreamy tawny dusks of many perfect days … within the happy staves of oak.”

The inviting bottle, when circulated in the inner councils of the House leaders at sundown, has the reputation of being an effective aid in smoothing the way for legislation and assessing the temper of the members. The usefulness of the bourbon-and-branchwater ritual was also demonstrated in the Senate when, its presiding officer, Vice President John Nance “Cactus Jack” Garner, proposed to his colleagues, at about the time of the Children’s Hour, that they lay aside the cares of statesmanship and, as he put it, “strike a blow for liberty.” No less distinguished an authority upon history, government, and bourbon than the late award-winning historian Bernard DeVoto has maintained that bourbon whiskey, taken without ice by American patriots, quickens the political processes, disperses doubts and shadows, and helps men of good will to resolve their differences.

No one knows how primitive man became acquainted with alcohol. Far back in prehistory some gifted individual must have observed a mess of fruits or berries spoiling in a watery solution. He must have tasted the liquid and found that it made the world seem a wonderful place. Anthropologists have conjectured that alcohol created the first agriculture as our nomadic ancestors settled down to cultivate the vine. Stronger beverages than fermentation provides arrived with the invention of the alembic, or still. From a mash of fermented grain or fruit pulp placed in the still, alcohol was vaporized by direct heat, separated from the water because of differing boiling points, cooled, and caught again in a condensing coil—a raw distillate, colorless as water and searing in its effect.

The first ardent spirits distilled in English-speaking America were fruit cordials and brandies. The native grape was not well adapted for making wine or brandy. But apple trees flourished mightily and were common in New England from the seventeenth century on, and so was cider, meaning hard cider, which was distilled into apple brandy or applejack. John Adams took a tankard of hard cider as his morning phlegm-cutter and kept eight or ten barrels in the cellar. Dr. Edward Augustus Holyoke, Harvard, class of 1746, who was awarded the college’s first degree of doctor of medicine, mixed his cider with rum, took a half pint with some water at dinner, another with his pipe afterward, and became the first Harvard man to live to be a hundred. It was apple brandy that men called upon to help them build the famous stone walls of New England. According to folk tradition, it took a gallon of apple brandy to lay up a rod of wall.

The most important spiritous liquor during the eighteenth century was rum, first known as rumbullion, a term of unknown origin. A field hand expected a gallon a month as part of his wages. Daily liquor rations were issued in the regular army until 1830, and a man who was elected an officer at the militia trainings was expected to wet his commission bountifully with Medford rum or good old Demerara. The customer in a country store expected after a substantial purchase to get a complimentary glass from the friendly rural merchant.


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.

Liquor and the evangelical churches once lived compatibly together. The minister’s pay was often calculated in whiskey. Edward Eggleston refers in The Hoosier Schoolmaster , published in 1871, to a denomination known as Whiskey Baptists, and it is undoubtedly true that Saint Paul’s admonition to Timothy—to “use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake” (I Tim. 5:23)—was enthusiastically followed by many devout church members. The excesses of what may be called the Dark Age of American Drinking, climaxing somewhere around 1860, produced a new climate of opinion in which spirits were widely denounced as “The Serpent on the Sideboard.”

The reasons for the heavy drinking can be understood from a human point of view. They lay in the cultural heritage of an Anglo-Saxon-Celtic ancestry, in a life of hardship and exposure, in a lack of social outlet. “Hot waters” were a fair substitute for the central heating that had not yet been invented and served to soften the rigors of Calvinistic religion.

Despite the deep feeling that existed in America against taxes on consumption, Congress passed an internalrevenue act in 1862 taxing domestic liquors to help finance the Civil War. Alcohol, not one of life’s necessities, meets marvelously well the criteria for the art of taxation, which Jean Baptiste Colbert, celebrated finance minister to Louis xiv, described as consisting of “so plucking the goose as to procure the largest quantity of feathers with the least possible amount of squealing.” The tax on alcohol disturbed an ancient way of life among the southern highlanders, where community opinion supported the practice celebrated in the old song:

I’ll go to some holler I’ll put up my still I’ll make you one gallon for a two dollar bill.

The moonshiner has usually been treated either humorously or romantically in popular literature. But these people were not comics or Robin Hoods. After a course in weaving chair bottoms in the state penitentiary they always went back to the mash rake and the meal vats. And sometimes there was the crack of a Winchester down in the hollow and a splash of blood on the laurel.

A revenue agent, so an old story goes, encountered a boy at the door of a mountainside shack.

“Is your father around, sonny?”

“Nope. Pap’s up thar makin’.”


“You know—’shine.”

“Up where, did you say?”

“Yander,” pointing toward the steep hillside.

“Is your mother at home?”

“Ma’s up thar, too, helping pappy.”

“Sonny,” said the officer, “could you use fifty cents? All you have to do is to take me up there where I can talk to your father and mother.”

Silently the boy held out his hand.

“No, no,” the government man objected. “Not now, but later—after we get back.”

“I’ll take the money now,” said the boy. “You ain’t coming back.”

Of all alcoholic potables the most majestic, ornamental, and ceremonial is the bourbon drink for great occasions—the mint julep. Its gentle sway has produced a lore that is vast, intricate, and controversial. There are sharp disputes about whether to crush or not to crush the mint or whether the use of alien liquors, such as Georgia corn whiskey sweetened with molasses, should be condoned. These are issues that have estranged and embittered the most devoted of friends. Take, for example, the anguish that the late Colonel Irvin S. Cobb, a man who had a cigar, a bridge, a hotel, and a julep named after him, felt when he heard that his friend H. L. Mencken not only crushed the mint but poured Baltimore rye into his julep cup as well. Of this barbarity Cobb said: “Any guy who’d put rye in a mint julep and crush the leaves, would put scorpions in a baby’s bed.”

Kentuckians, who were offering silver julep-goblets as prizes at county fairs as long ago as 1816, have written with eloquence and poetic sentiment of their old bourbon that, as they say, “sits up in the glass,” and they have described in loving detail the proper architecture of the julep. A realistic variation upon the lyric approach to this sensitive topic comes from the accomplished pen of the late, great editor Henry “Marse” Watterson of the Louisville Courier-Journal , who wrote: Pluck the mint gently from its bed, just as the dew of the evening is about to form upon it. Select the choicer sprigs only, but do not rinse them. Prepare the simple syrup and measure out a half-tumbler of whiskey. Pour the whiskey into a wellfrosted silver cup, throw the other ingredients away and drink the whiskey .


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