Book Review: Mike Veach’s “Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey”
Whisky Advocate contributor Fred Minnick joins us today with a review of Mike Veach’s Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey. Veach’s book disputes many whiskey legends and offers new evidence for bourbon’s origins.
In the new book Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: An American Heritage (University of Kentucky Press), author and bourbon historian Mike Veach shreds industry legends and offers new evidence on bourbon’s origins.
Veach discredits the stories of Evan Williams and Elijah Craig for being Kentucky’s first distiller and inventing bourbon respectively. This is nothing new. Henry Crowgey’s book Kentucky Bourbon: The Early Years of Whiskeymaking (University of Kentucky Press, 1971) made these points. But, Veach offers the first evidence that two French brothers are the most likely candidates for inventing bourbon around 1807.
Because French brandy makers are considered the first to age spirits in wood, Veach argues Louis and John Tarascon, originally from the Cognac region, most likely established aging whiskey in barrels. The Tarascon brothers shipped barrels from Shippingport, Kentucky to New Orleans.
But, Veach admits historians will likely never know who truly invented the product we enjoy today. If Vegas were to set odds on who’d find bourbon’s true origins, however, Veach would be an easy front-runner.
As an archivist at the Filson Historical Society, which stores 1.8 million historical documents including original Lewis & Clark papers, Veach sorts through handwritten letters, diaries, and papers from early America. Researchers from all over the world visit the Filson Historical Society for publishing scholarly works. Whiskey is a mere fraction of the society’s archives, but the bourbon historian is always on the lookout for something whiskey-related.
In the pile of parchment inked in early American cursive penmanship, Veach found a July 15, 1826, letter from a Lexington, Ky., grocer to distiller John Corlis. The grocer told Corlis the burnt-inside barrels made better whiskey, giving the first known reference to charred barrels for Kentucky whiskey.
Veach’s book is filled with many great factual whiskey nuggets like the Corlis barrel, making Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey a must read for bourbon lovers. The book peruses untold histories, such as the New York tasting of “Old Bourbon vs. Old Rye” in which 21 year old Old Crow defeated a Pennsylvania rye of similar age. There’s also the infamous Whisky Ring scandal of 1875 and the questionable 1980s Blanton’s blind tastings that raised eyebrows at Maker’s Mark.
Veach’s easy-to-read style combines a scholarly approach with a narrative voice, using facts to move along the history without bogging down the pages with footnotes.
The author is quick to give credit where credit due, too, praising the efforts of Elmer T. Lee, Chris Morris, and Bill Samuels for keeping bourbon interesting and marketable. He also mentions the explosion of whisky media in the 1990s, giving credit to John Hansell’s Malt Advocate (now this publication), Whisky Advocate contributor Chuck Cowdery’s 1992 PBS documentary “Made and Bottled in Kentucky,” and several bourbon-related books.
This book will become a scholarly reference, and I can only hope future whiskey writers use Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey as a factual guide when covering bourbon.