Genealogy of Bourbon Whisky

Licking_River

The name of this post could easily caption a contemporary article on bourbon in a glossy magazine, or historical quarterly.

In fact, “Genealogy of Bourbon Whisky” was the name of a story that appeared on April 26, 1872 in the Public Ledger of Memphis, TN. It reprinted an article that had appeared, presumably the same year, in another newspaper, St. Louis Republican. You can read the Memphis article here.

The story is fascinating as it is surely the first “academic” look at bourbon. It treats bourbon not as something to sell, analyze scientifically, or place in a social setting, but as something worthy of historical appraisal.

In the last 20 years of the 1800s technical books on distilling, general histories, and trade journals gave useful information on bourbon, but you don’t see much of this before 1880. The 1872 article was prescient to understand the importance bourbon had already achieved in American social life. [See Addendum below].

What makes the piece, reproduced below, especially noteworthy is that bourbon as a name for whiskey had first appeared in print only 51 years earlier, in 1821. Just enough time had gone by for someone to look at the subject sociologically, essentially.

Genealogy of Bourbon Whisky

Prof. S. Williams in St. Louis Republican.

It is not generally known that the genealogy of Bourbon whisky is as purely German as a “Pennsylvania Dutch” descent in a direct line can make it. Look in the State Department at the papers relating to the Pennsylvania whisky rebellion against the federal excise tax in 1780. The names of the compromised parties will be found to be Shankweller, or Schwartz, or some other addition pronounced with the “sweet German accent.” These Teutons, the pioneer immigrants from Germany, were as stiffnecked anti-muckers on the liquor question in the infancy of our republic as they are now and resented all government interference with their glorious old Monongahela whisky as stoutly as modern Germans do the puritanic attempts to deprive them of their Sunday lager. And thus “old Bourbon” became the first-born of ” old Monongahela.” The blessed old patriots who invented Bourbon whisky, and whose names can still be found branded by their descendants on any bona fide ante-bellum barrel  – alas! how few and hard to find – were the Spearses, the Kellers, the Kizers, the Kleisers, the Lydicks, the Hoffmans and others, who found it healthy to light out from Pennsylvania about the time that United States marshals with writs in their pockets were hunting for Hugh Henry Breckinridge, the author of “Modern Chivalry”

They were a florid, ponderous, stalwart and manly race, and the tourist is astonished at the percentage of heavy weights visible even now among their descendants at any Bourbon court-day gathering. They embarked on broad-horns with their wives and children and copper stills, floated down the Ohio to Limestone, crossed the Licking hills and built their cabins and set up their stills in the cane-brakes of Bourbon, free from the molestation of United States marshals. Soon the excise tax was repealed. There was no market for produce in Kentucky. Stock had to be driven through hundreds of miles of wilderness, and across the Alleghanies to be sold. But by converting the corn and rye into whisky and bacon, tbey could flatboat it out of Licking, sell boat and cargo in the Spanish port of New Orleans, and walk home through the wilderness with their Spanish doubloons swung over their shoulders in canvas bags. Such is the origin of Bourbon whisky, which owes its reputation to the same honest process which made Old Monongahela famous in its day.

Some points. The professor’s first or Christian name is absent, he states just an initial. Why? Perhaps because that was just the style of the day.

Famed American journalist and author Henry L. Mencken, who was born about the time the article appeared, called himself “H.L. Mencken” professionally. And there was that fellow, T.S. Eliot. Will Rogers, the humorist, is kind of an example too.  Or S.J. Perelman. It was a style.

Alternatively, perhaps Williams didn’t want his full name used. Increasingly after the Civil War, to speak in polite circles about whiskey or any beverage alcohol was not “meet”. The climate against alcohol was growing. While liquor was tolerated until, finally, Prohibition ended its manufacture and sale nationwide in 1920, speaking of booze in an establishment setting became verboten. Bonfort’s Wine and Spirit Journal and other trade media didn’t follow this path of course, but they had a product to sell.

Traveling-by-flatboat-engraving-by-Alfred-R-Waud

And so S. William’s article was a departure from societal norm. Perhaps St. Louis, Missouri at the time was quite “open” in regard to liquor. Certainly from the 1870s on bourbon and other alcohol were extensively advertised in its media.

In Memphis too in the 1870s the whiskey culture, being native to the area and important to the economy, was still viewed with tolerance or even indulgence by established circles.

But what of the “1780” date for the whiskey tax? The excise tax on liquor became law in March of 1791, and collection started in July of the same year. How could Williams get it wrong?

I don’t know, perhaps the St. Louis paper had got it right and the Memphis paper misprinted it. Or maybe the St. Louis article stated 1780 too, and Williams got it wrong for some reason. (I tried to locate the original article from the St. Louis Republican, but could not).

Still, the rest of the article is so specific, naming many names associated with bourbon or Kentucky history to this day, that even an egregious error should not mislead us as to the article’s general significance.

What axe would Williams have to grind? The article recites no current bourbon brands so it doesn’t seem in other words a marketer’s invented history, an exotic gloss on a stock product.

People with the surnames Lydick and Kiser did live in north-central Kentucky in the 1800s (I checked). And Jacob Spears is a legendary name in bourbon studies, he is one of the bruited makers of the “first” bourbon. I found a Solomon Kellar in early whiskey history, he is probably the Keller referred to by Williams, or of that family.

Hoffman was the name of a well-known distillery in Bluegrass Kentucky, in Anderson County where distilling began around 1775, as confirmed e.g., here. 

I couldn’t find anything on Kleisers or Shankwellers, but the names seem too specific not to have a connection to bourbon’s early history.

Was Williams’ thesis of significant German origins to bourbon correct? He was a lot closer to bourbon’s origins than we are, certainly. He was right that German names are connected to Pennsylvania rye whiskey history, and that form of liquor (“Monongahela”) preceded Kentucky bourbon.

Bomberger is an example – of the distillery later called Michter’s – but there were many others. But the Scots-Irish were also ardent whiskey-makers in Pennsylvania and down the Appalachian trail and there were many who settled western Pennsylvania. Still, they had not worked with a rye mash at home, it’s not commonly used for whiskey, or for food, in Ulster, Scotland, or England.

Could German-Americans have shown Scots-Irish immigrants how to mash and work rye? It’s possible. In fact in Germany and Holland today rye is still used to make a hard liquor, generally not aged as moonshine in America wasn’t.

Dutch genever (gin) is an example, as is some of the korn, a white vodka-like drink, from Germany.

Henry Crowgey’s Kentucky Bourbon – The Early Years of Whiskeymaking (1971) documents distilling in “old Bourbon”. This was the part of Virginia, and later Kentucky after it was formed, where settlers arrived from Pennsylvania and other states well before Kentucky acquired statehood in 1791. The settlers were of numerous ethnicities including Scots-Irish and German.

Crowgey doesn’t explore the German angle but writes that rye was used for liquor in North Carolina before Kentucky was founded. Both Scots-Irish and German communities had settled parts of North Carolina just as in Pennsylvania and Maryland, so a German role can’t be excluded even there.

In sum, the 1872 article is too specific on numerous points to be disregarded. At a minimum it suggests a not insignificant role that German-Americans played to develop bourbon.

The whiskey that people made in the earliest years, 1780s-1800, probably was unaged or kept in the barrel only a short time. Bourbon emerged as a form of whiskey aged in charred casks. It was brought downriver to New Orleans as Williams states, a subset of the frontier moonshine, concentrated in north-central Kentucky.

The area bourbon developed from now includes Bourbon County (smaller than its original boundaries), Mason County, Anderson County, Fayette County, and Nelson County. This regional form of the whiskey became finally the norm for aged American whiskey.

The only difference with Pennsylvania was that rye whiskey tended to dominate there in the 1800s – rye formed the majority of the mash whereas in Kentucky corn did. But both drinks are close cousins.

Bourbon probably therefore does have a German Monongahela bloodline, as Williams said. Packhorses carrying kegs of rye whiskey over the Allegheny hills may have provided the first proof to Pennsylvania distillers that keeping whiskey in wood improves the taste, and colour. This would have encouraged the practice to ship whiskey long distances by water transport.

Since New Orleans was Spanish from 1763-1803, and if Williams was right, this would argue against the view that bourbon is named after the royal family of France to emulate Cognac brandy. Some Pennsylvanians came to Kentucky even before the whiskey tax, Jacob Spears did.

As they, with later emigrants, evolved bourbon whiskey, they would have sent it to New Orleans well before 1803, hence Williams’ reference to payment in Spanish doubloons. In other words, the term probably was used for the whiskey before the French took over in Louisiana.

The next time you sample bourbon raise the glass to Professor S. Williams of St. Louis, Missouri. You can tell from the article he liked the product. He was one of us.

Addendum added July 10, 2016: I note that in Richard Collins’ Historical Sketches of Kentucky (1874), an update of a work from the 1840s by the author’s father, Lewis, a short account is given of Joseph Shawhan (1781-1871), an early Kentucky pioneer from Pennsylvania. Collins writes, see pg. 217, that Shawhan was an early producer of bourbon and brought it downriver to New Orleans, walking all the way back with those Spanish doubloons. Perhaps Collins had read Williams’ article before writing his own. Apart from the two-year time difference, the significance of Williams’ account is that he looks at bourbon’s history from a broader perspective, a pedagogic one, essentially.

First, he links bourbon to an earlier product, Pennsylvania rye whiskey, then relates both drinks to an ethnic group, Pennsylvania Germans, whom he considers largely responsible for both. As far as I know, these were novel claims at the time. The name Shawhan sounds Celtic, probably Scots-Irish, but that is neither here nor there as emigrants of multiple ethnicities departed western Pennsylvania for Kentucky. Shawhan was just one distiller… Williams is making a claim for a predominant German influence on the American whiskey heritage. Indeed, in 1872, he is making a claim for the bourbon heritage as such, novel certainly for the time.

Note on the images above: the images, of the Licking River in Kentucky and a flatboat (broad-horn) bound for New Orleans, are sourced from from Wikipedia, here and here.  Attribution for the image of the Licking River in Kentucky is as follows: “I, ChristopherM [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons”.

These images are believed available for educational and historical use. All intellectual property in them lies in their sole owner, as applicable. All feedback welcomed.

2 thoughts on “Genealogy of Bourbon Whisky

  1. Hi Gary, Great research! I always thought the name of “Bourbon” as a spirit was a marketing tool associated with the famous Bourbon Street in New Orleans which dates back to French settlement and occupation nomenclature of what is now Louisiana in the USA. Beer, Wine and Spirit marketers often try to give their product a name that associates well with a constituency. Your article and research definitely associates Bourbon’s origins from Germanic Teutons with conviction, but the origin of the actual name “Bourbon” as a name of a distilled spirit, whatever it would have been made of at the time of its origin, is still unexplained, if I read your article correctly. Or am I not reading this well and getting blind by all these old copper stills?

    • Hey thanks J.P., good to hear from you. There are numerous theories on the origin of the name Bourbon. The main theory, which S. Williams in effect approves, is that it came from Bourbon County. This was formerly a large area in north-central-east Kentucky, and originally Virginia, which got progressively smaller as settlement increased and county lines were redrawn (made smaller). That is where many (not all) distillers later made Bourbon Whiskey. So the theory is, it came from the name of that part of Kentucky and it hung on even after the county got much smaller.

      I believe that theory is correct. So many people in the 1800s say the same thing: the name came from Bourbon County. It has to be true.

      The theory of Bourbon Street in New Orleans is not correct in my view, even if there was a Bourbon Street during the Spanish rule.There would have been many kinds of whiskey, new and old, from Kentucky and elsewhere, sold in New Orleans in 1790s and early 1800s. To say the one from Kentucky was so good and famous that the people who drank on Bourbon Street called it “Bourbon”, well I don’t believe it and there is no evidence for it, but plenty of evidence the other way.

      Bourbon County does have an indirect French connection because the Americans gave French names to counties and towns to acknowledge French help in the American Revolution. But that has nothing to do with the drink of whiskey which is bourbon.

      I also don’t believe that bourbon whiskey was invented to please palates in Louisiana who were used to Cognac under French and (I guess) Spanish rule, and was dubbed Bourbon as a French type of drink, to make it appeal to them. It’s too fanciful.

      Williams deals not with the name but the recipe (method) for bourbon itself, he says, it derives from Pennsylvania rye whiskey, is made in a similar way except with corn subsituting for most of the rye. Corn grew better than rye in Kentucky. I think he is partly right but not 100% and that the Scots-Irish aspect is important too.

      By the way there is a theory that Pennsylvania rye resulted in what we call Canadian rye. It’s the idea that the United Empire Loyalists, many of of whom came from Pennsylvania and New York, were familiar with rye and looked for the drink here. I believe there is something to this theory.

      Gary

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