“The past is never dead. It is not even past…” wrote the great American novelist William Faulkner. Staying true to the lore of the living past are families making bourbon, America’s beloved native spirit. Scattered around the breath-taking terrain of bourbon country Kentucky, these families inherit bourbon trade as an heirloom, year after year, each generation guarding the secrets of bourbon-making with an almost sacred fervour. Stories of bourbon-making lurk in the nook and crannies of Kentucky, ready to take you on a fascinating journey down the bourbon trail. Bourbon in Kentucky is not just a drink, it is a way of life. And bourbon is their past, present, and future.
Birth of bourbon
They say there is no smoke without fire. And, there is no good bourbon without fire. Folklore tells of Elijah Craig, a Baptist minister whose love for his drink was so overwhelming that he kept a barn full of his favourite barrels of whisky. As Bacchus wished, the barrels caught fire one fine day, and gave Kentucky is first taste of bourbon. But others say bourbon was born in the Beam family.
The Beams Come to America…
As long as 200 years ago, in 1740, when the very German Boehm family set foot in America, little did they know the world will one day fall in love with their family’s favourite whisky. The Boehms changed their family name to Beam after settling down in the rugged terrains of Kentucky. Jacob Beam sold his very first bottle of ‘Old Jake Beam Sour Mash’ in 1795. Made of home-grown corn, matured in old wooden barrels in the smoky lime pits of Kentucky, Old Jake Beam was a hit among the farmers, and traders. Since then, the Beam family decided to open a distillery by the name of Old Tub. Beam’s grandson David M. Beam moved the distillery closer to railway tracks, taking the first bottles of bourbon out of Kentucky to the pubs across America. But, it was not until the end of the Prohibition era that Colonel James B. Beam came up with the distillery’s most favourite bourbon, Jim Beam. And, bourbon-making is still the best-kept secret of the Beam family till date.
And there was a Brown boy…
The Slane Distillery was built from scratch by successors of King Malcolm from Shakespearean Macbeth era. Legends tell of how the village of Slane was fostered by the Conyngham family. The distillery was built from scrap in 1796 by Henry Conyngham, with help from a very spunky female architect, Capability Brown. Up until 1870, bourbon would only flow out of wooden barrels. Then came along a very prudent George Garvin Brown. He decided to sell whisky in fancy glass bottles. The glass bottling helped retain the flavour of rich, country bourbon and was easier to carry, shooting up its sales through the ceiling. Old Forester Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whisky was the first bottled bourbon ever sold. Brown would later take his long-time friend, and accountant George Forman up in partnership, giving birth to Brown-Forman.
Ghost of the Past
To the east of the Jim Beam Distillery stands a row of nine old warehouses, like sentinels dozing in somnolence. When TW Samuel and his son opened a distillery in their farmland in 1844, the oak-barrelled bourbon was much in demand. However, over the years the distillery declined, as the Samuel family disintegrated over military feuds, and trade trifles. The distillery was revived in the fall of 1958, when Maker’s Mark bottled its first Kentucky Straight Bourbon. Since then, Maker’s Mark have been selling their unique bourbon in bottles sealed with red wax, each hand-dipped, and crafted with care by master dippers.
Bourbon-making in the land of Kentucky is nothing less than an art. And the here art comes with its fair share of stories: of travel, of, immigration, of settler’s colonies, of feuds, of ancient family recipes, of the trials of the Prohibition Era. Yet, the bourbon lives through all these years to tell its tale. As the good people of Kentucky sip on a glass of their dear old whisky, the world raises a toast to the charms of a Kentucky bourbon.