Robertson County Whiskey of Tennessee, or how Bourbon Became King



Bourbon whiskey has emerged as the internationally-known whiskey style of America. It is both a type of whiskey, whose characteristics are regulated by law, and largely, but not exclusively, a geographical one. Bourbon can be made anywhere in the U.S., but is traditionally associated with the State of Kentucky where most and the largest of the surviving producers are located.

Straight rye whiskey is the second major type that has survived from the 19th century. Formerly associated mainly with Pennsylvania and Maryland, almost all production today is in Kentucky save the rye made by MGPI, a long-established distillery in Indiana formerly owned by (the former Canadian distiller) Seagram’s. But rye whiskey is a much smaller category than bourbon, almost insignificant next to it.

There is also Tennessee Whiskey, whose main practitioners today are the famous Jack Daniel’s (Brown-Forman) and George Dickel (Diageo), both about an hour’s drive from Nashville in north-central Tennessee. This type is characterized by a lengthy charcoal-leaching of the new spirit which lightens it by removing fusel oils. Then, it is placed in new charred barrels, as for Kentucky bourbon, and left to mature for four or five years. The style was originally called Lincoln County because most  of thedistillers in that county used the process to “cleanse” their whiskey after distillation.

Lincoln County whiskey is now considered the defining type for the entire state. Indeed by state law, to make “Tennessee” whiskey you must apply the charcoal leaching. But at one time, Tennessee had another major style of whiskey, called Robertson County whiskey (“RC whiskey”).

The county of that name, highlighted in red on the map above, was named for James Robertson. He had migrated from North Carolina and is a founding father of Tennessee. Robertson County was in existence by 1800 and early acquired a reputation for quality whiskey. RC whiskey was distinctive enough that in Internal Revenue reports of the late 1800s, it appears under that name in tables of production and other data. While always part of a miscellaneous category (especially for non-bourbon, non-rye), which could include Lincoln County whiskey, this shows that enough producers thought “Robertson County” whiskey distinctive to apply that description, and the government followed suit.

As this 1886 history of Tennessee shows, while most of the counties in Tennessee made whiskey for the first 100 years of state history, Robertson County and Lincoln County’s whiskeys were pre-eminent in reputation both in and outside the state.

This 1869 debate in Congress dealt with Internal Revenue’s approach to the charcoal filtration of new whiskey. It shows that RC whiskey, like Lincoln County whiskey, was filtered through “coal” or “charcoal”. While no further description is offered the reference to tub charcoal rectification can’t be clearer. The Internal Revenue and its Congressional supporters were trying to eliminate the filtration step as they felt it encouraged excise tax avoidance. They wanted the whiskey taxed as soon as it poured clear from the still.

If it was taxed at a later stage there was a risk not all the whiskey would be captured. The thinking was probably that charcoal filtration meant some untaxed, useable ethanol remained in the charcoal. As well, taxing the liquor after filtration gave distillers the opportunity to divert whiskey from the tubs to escape a portion of the tax.

The objection was not to rectification as such, as it could be conducted by separate, licensed businesses, but to distillers performing the step once the whiskey had condensed from its last distillation. In essence, the government was saying that registered distillers should pay tax on what they actually distilled and not engage in a separate business.

As you see from the page linked Representative Golladay – he was Jacob S. Golladay of Allensville, KY – argued that Robertson County whiskey needed charcoal filtration to become what the makers called “finished whiskey”. (Lincoln County whiskey was in the same position but it seems it had no legislative defenders as did Roberston County whiskey). The tenor of Representative Golladay’s remarks was that RC whiskey needed charcoal filtration because it was sold to customers straight from the filter. If you deprived distillers of the right to put the whiskey through the charcoal vats you were putting them at a business disadvantage.* New white whiskey was, in the Representative’s colourful words, something a dog wouldn’t drink.

map_of_allensville_kyWhy would a Kentucky Congressional representative lobby for a group of distillers in Tennessee? Because, as Golladay noted, one-third of Kentucky distillers used the same process. Golladay’s district was the Third Congressional District of Kentucky which included the town he resided in, Allensville, KY.

Allensville is on the Tennessee-Kentucky boundary. In other words, it is clear that RC whiskey was a regional type and that the one-third of Kentucky’s distillers who used the method in 1869 were in the southern part of the state, adjacent to Tennessee’s premier whiskey-distilling district.

By speaking up for RC whiskey-makers from whom he had received specific petitions, Golladay was speaking up as well for a tradition of Kentucky whiskey-making.

Lincoln County whiskey, as I showed in my previous post, also was originally sold new, i.e., after its long bath in maple charcoal. And ca. 1870 one third of Kentucky distillers used a similar method, undoubtedly in the southern tier.

This may suggest that Bourbon whiskey emerged in distinction to these other types. In lieu of charcoal leaching and quick sale, a method not far out of the Appalachian hills as I showed earlier by reference to the early ethnological study Our Southern Highlanders, distillers in the original Bourbon County, KY used long-aging in charred oak barrels to give corn-based whiskey its highest quality.

Kentucky was carved out of Virginia, and Bourbon County, KY once comprised a much larger area than now, most of northeastern Kentucky in fact. Today, over 30 counties, including a much-shrunken Bourbon County, comprise what was once Bourbon County.

Jacob_Shall_Golladay-1Bourbon whiskey probably has its name because the aging of whiskey in charred barrels developed in many parts of the original Bourbon County. The process was probably underway by c.1800, and was generalized in a good part of Kentucky by the eve of the Civil War. In contrast, RC whiskey, Lincoln County whiskey, and the whiskeys of south-central Kentucky were the older type, not quite moonshine, but reliant on the quick-maturing method of the charcoal tub.

While the tub was a technique at one time used in many places including Pennsylvania and the Province of Ontario in Canada, it seems not to have characterized the kind of whiskey that became bourbon. No modern bourbon producer uses a pre-barrel aging charcoal leaching. In late-1800s descriptions of bourbon manufacture, none that I could find called for such charcoal leaching. Long-aging in new charred barrels was a method that distillers in the original Bourbon County, KY evolved. (There are other theories as to the origin of bourbon’s name, but none are as persuasive as that it took the name of the geographic area,  Bourbon County, KY, it was birthed).

Golladay referred to the newer bourbon whiskey by his reference to whiskeys stored “in bond” for two years and more. The discussion in the house made it clear this was a high-class whiskey different in character from RC whiskey. This was the whiskey of James Crow, the Pepper Family, EH Taylor, Jr., Rev. Elijah Craig, Evan Williams, the Beams, and many other distillers in or near the original Bourbon County.

RC whiskey, or this form of it at any rate, and similar Kentucky whiskeys, did not survive Prohibition. Lincoln County whiskey so-called did survive after some peregrinations, but only after adopting Bourbon County barrel aging. RC whiskey, seemingly a cleansed white lightening as Lincoln County whiskey originally was, is part of history now except for any revivalist (craft) distilleries who use charcoal leaching for its original purpose, a first rectification.

I should add that in 2014 George Dickel released its regular corn mash whisky in unaged form – unaged but having undergone maple leaching. Generally, any “whisky” in the U.S. must spend some time in wood, but corn whisky is excepted. Because George Dickel’s regular mash exceeds 80% in corn, its white spirit off the still and out of the charcoal tub can be called “corn whisky”.

You can read Geoff Kleinman’s review at his site. It sounds like a cross between vodka and regular white dog. This may well resemble much RC whiskey and the original Lincoln County whiskey. Kleinman liked the drink but preferred the regular, aged George Dickel.

This is a clue I think to why the bourbon-style became dominant and the others disappeared. In 1896 the Tennessee banker I mentioned earlier, T.J. Latham, lauded unaged Lincoln County whiskey over Kentucky bourbon. His was a tribute more of sentiment and history, though.

His oratory, warm as southern honey, did not foretell the future in American whiskey. Bourbon gained the upper hand and became finally not just Kentucky’s but also Tennessee’s style, given again that the main producers, Jack Daniel and George Dickel, both age their whisky for years in new charred barrels after the initial charcoal leaching step.

Note re images: The maps shown above were drawn from Wikipedia sources. The image of Jacob Shall Golladay was sourced from this website on the family’s history. All are believed available for educational or historical use. All feedback welcomed.


*For more evidence that RC whiskey was subjected to charcoal rectification, see at pg. 79 from a modern history of Robertson County, TN authored by Yolanda Reid and Rick Gregory. The authors suggest that RC whiskey (or at least much of it, inferentially) was twice distilled – similar here to Kentucky practise – and run through charcoal to rid it of its “headache” and “fighting mania”.