BY TIM KNITTEL
I finished reading Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey, An American Heritage in two days and referenced it repeatedly over the next three. I think that qualifies as a ringing endorsement.
As a bourbon education professional, my usage of bourbon historian Mike Veach’s new book as a reference might be unusual. Or perhaps not.
Veach is generally considered to be the foremost bourbon historian in the world. He is associate curator of Special Collections at the Filson Historical Society in Louisville, Kentucky and an inductee into the Bourbon Hall of Fame. He regularly teaches classes on bourbon history and appreciation to sold-out crowds.
One of the special things about Mike Veach is that he leaves a trail of rare, unique and specialty bourbons in his wake. He opened two ‘very special’ bottles for the recent launch party at the Filson Society – a 1918 Old Crow and a 1955-56 Old Fitzgerald. (It may be no surprise that the history of both brands are covered at least in part in his book.) I was fortunate enough to get to try both. (I stood next to Mike with an empty glass and begged.) Someone asked him how he comes up with the old and rare bourbons. “People give them to me,” he said
This book has been in the works since 1991 when Veach was hired to curate the archives of the Stitzel-Weller distillery. Since then he has been fully immersed in bourbon’s history, working with several spirits companies and the Filson Society.
Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey is clearly intended to be an academic reference. It is published by the University Press of Kentucky and has citations and references like a thesis. But that’s just one face of it – it’s also a fascinating read.
The book traces the path of bourbon’s origin, growth, collapse, growth again, collapse again and final rebirth as the modern spirit now sweeping the world. This is the story of bourbon – how it was influenced by the development of America and how it influenced America back.
The story starts with the founding of the United States, weaves through many wars, the Industrial Revolution, Prohibition, the Great Depression, and concludes in the modern era. People may not be aware – and might not even have been aware at the time – but bourbon has been at the heart of many of the major social and government movements including the taxation system, food and drug regulation, marketing conventions, trademarks and more.
“The history of the bourbon industry is a rich one that mirrors the history of America. The Whiskey Rebellion reflects the troubles that the newly united states had coalescing under a federal government. The whiskey tax, which sparked the rebellion, was the first federal tax and prefigured all others, especially the federal income tax. The changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution can be seen as the modernization of distilling technology writ large.”
Bourbon’s history is as much lore and legend as its fact and fiction, and maybe moreso. Veach does an excellent job incorporating the legends into his history and analyzes each from a historical accuracy perspective as well as the influence legends had on consumers’ embracing or snubbing of bourbon at various times.
The book won’t help to settle bourbon legend disputes because, as Veach writes, “the fact is that we may never know the identity of Kentucky’s first distiller.” Veach provides excellent reason as to why it probably wasn’t Evan Williams, Elijah Craig or anyone else whose name we knew today. But that doesn’t diminish the fun of telling those tales!
Kentucky Bourbon History is a fascinating exploration for anyone interested in U.S. history, Kentucky history and, obviously, bourbon history. For bourbon professions this is a must-read. For bourbon enthusiasts, it will top the want-to-read list.
Veach will be signing his new book at Lexington’s Joseph-Beth Booksellers on March 30 at 2 pm, along with Albert Schmid, who will sign his new book, The Old Fashioned.
This article appears on page 5 of the March 14, 2013 print edition of Ace.
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