Genealogy of Bourbon Whisky

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

In fact, Genealogy of Bourbon Whisky is the name of an article which appeared on April 26, 1872 in the Public Ledger of Memphis, TN. It was a reprint of an article which appeared, presumably the same year, in the St. Louis Republican. You can read the Memphis one here.

I found it today by searching through digitized newspapers. It is nothing less than fascinating and is surely the first “academic” look at bourbon anywhere. It treats the subject not as something to sell, analyze scientifically, or factor in a business survey, but as something whose history we need to understand. In fact, I’d go further: the piece predates most such quotidian treatments (not the selling of course).

In the last 20 years of the 1800s, technical texts, general histories and trade literature of various kinds gave useful information on bourbon, but you don’t see much if anything before 1880. [See Addendum below added July 10, 2016].

What makes the piece below so interesting is bourbon as a name for whiskey had only first appeared 51 years before, in 1821. Just enough time had gone by for someone to look at the product in intellectual terms so to speak.

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.

Now, some obvious points. The professor’s Christian name is absent, he gives just an initial. Why? Perhaps because that was the period. Famed journalist and author Henry L. Mencken, who was born around this time, called himself H.L. Mencken professionally. And there was that fellow (not one of my faves), T.S. Eliot. And so on.

If that isn’t the reason, 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 “done”. The climate was growing against alcohol, and while it was tolerated until a patchwork of state and finally National Prohibition ended its manufacture and sale in 1920, speaking of it in official circles was pretty much verboten. Bonfort’s Wine and Spirit Journal and other trade media didn’t follow this path, but they had a product to sell.

Traveling-by-flatboat-engraving-by-Alfred-R-WaudS. William’s article was a rare departure. Perhaps St. Louis at the time was “open” in regard to liquor, I’ve checked various newspapers from the 1870s and bourbon and other alcohol were extensively advertised in its media. Of course too in Memphis, TN in the 1870s, the whiskey culture, being native to the area and important to the economy, was still viewed with equanimity amongst the powers that be.

But what of that 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 perhaps the St. Louis article stated 1780 too, and Williams got it wrong for some reason. (I tried to find 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 I doubt it was a ruse of some kind, a marketer’s trick, say. No current brands are referred to for example. What ax would Williams have had to grind?

Lydicks and Kisers 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 or of that family. Hoffman was the name of a well-known distillery in the Bluegrass, in Anderson County where distilling began c. 1775, as confirmed in a current website, here. 

I couldn’t find anything on Kleisers, or Shankwellers, if you know fill us in.

But accepting everything at face value in the article, was Williams right? I don’t know, he was a lot closer to bourbon’s origins than we are. He was certainly right that German names were connected to Pennsylvania rye whiskey, Bomberger (later Michter’s) is an example but there were many others. But also, the Scots-Irish were ardent whiskey-makers and there were many of them in western Pennsylvania. Still, they had not worked with rye at home, it’s not a commonly used grain from the old sod – Ulster, Scotland or England. Could German-Americans have shown Ulstermen how to mash and work rye? Could be. In fact, Germans and Dutch today still use rye to make a generally unaged hard liquor, the Dutch genever gin is an example and as is some of the korn from Germany.

Henry Crowgey’s Kentucky Bourbon – The Early Years of Whiskeymaking (1971) states (documents) that distilling was going on in old Bourbon – the part of Virginia, and later Kentucky, where settlers came from Pennsylvania but also numerous other states, for years before Kentucky became a state in 1791. They were from numerous nationalities. Crowgey doesn’t explore this aspect but writes that rye was used in North Carolina before Kentucky was founded, not just Pennsylvania, or Maryland, I’d add.

The 1872 article is too specific on numerous points to be disregarded. It could be right, or at least, it points to an important role German-Americans played in the Bluegrass of Kentucky for the founding of bourbon whiskey. The whiskey that people made in the earliest years, 1780s to 1791, may have been mostly unaged or kept in wood a short time. Bourbon, aged in charred casks and brought downriver to New Orleans as Williams confirms, may have been a subset, concentrated in places in north-central Kentucky which now include Bourbon County, Mason County, Anderson County, Fayette County. That subset, introduced by German-Americans, may have been so successful it became the norm including the hand-made small tub sour mash version I have discussed.

And so bourbon may have descended from a Germanic Monongahela rye whiskey as Williams said, and those packhorses carrying kegs of rye over the mountains may have provided the first proof to Penn State distillers that keeping the stuff in wood a while makes for good whiskey. This may have lead to the idea to send it downriver on flatboats.

Finally, since New Orleans was Spanish from 1763-1803, and if Williams is right, this would dispose of any argument 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 – and if they, with the later emigrants, innovated bourbon whiskey, they would have gotten it on those flatboats and downriver well before 1803, hence payment in Spanish doubloons.

If you have a drink tonight, or if it’s whiskey, raise one to Professor S. Williams of St. Louis. 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 pioneer in Kentucky from Pennsylvania, and Collins writes (see pg. 217) that Shawhan was an early producer of bourbon and brought it downriver to New Orleans, walking back with those Spanish doubloons. Perhaps Collins had read Williams’s account before writing his own. Apart from the two-year time difference,  the significance in my view of Williams’s account is he looks at bourbon’s history from a broader temporal and social perspective. First, he links bourbon to an earlier product, Pennsylvania rye whiskey, and then relates both drinks to an ethnic group, Pennsylvania Germans, he considers largely responsible for both. As far as I know, these were novel claims at the time.  I should say the name Shawhan sounds Celtic to me, probably Ulsterman, but that is neither here nor there as emigrants of multiple ethnicities departed western Pennsylvania for Kentucky. Williams is making a claim for a predominant German influence on the American whiskey heritage. Indeed, in 1872, he is making a claim for such a heritage as such, novel again in my understanding 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 Licking River 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 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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