“The history of the bourbon industry is a rich one that mirrors the history of America.”
These words were written by Michael Veach in his most recent book, Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: An American Heritage. Bourbon was officially designated as “America’s Native Spirit” in 1964 through a bill which may also mark the last time Congress agreed on anything. Not all whiskey gets to be bourbon. The whiskey has to be made in the United States (though over 90% of all bourbon is made in Kentucky) and it has to contain at least 51% corn in the grains used to distill it. Only pure water can be added to the finished product, and there are a few other technical details it must comply with. Bourbon has been made in this country since the 19th century, but no one can really pinpoint an exact starting year. What we can pinpoint is that over the last decade, it had been growing in popularity by leaps and bounds. We are lucky that in Dayton we have one of the best bourbon bars in the country, The Century Bar, steered to prominence in the bourbon scene by the very well respected Joe Head. Joe is brining Mr. Veach to The Century on October 19th for an eight hour class on bourbon.
A native of Jefferson County and a lover of history, Michael Veach is currently an associate curator of Special Collections at the Filson Historical Society, specializing in the delicious history of bourbon. Mr. Veach has visited the Century before, back in September of 2012. He spoke there about bourbon, and “was very impressed” with not only the bar, but with the deep knowledge the staff had of bourbon. While studying to become a history professor at the University of Louisville, he was approached by United Distillers to help archive and organize some of the papers they had from an old distillery. “Being in Kentucky, I always drank bourbon,” Veach notes. “I learned a lot in the first year, like how many flavors there are in bourbon and how complex the flavors can be.” When he started his bourbon journey, there were a few other things that surprised him as well. “What really surprised me is how little written history there is on the subject. Very unplumbed. In my book, every chapter could be its own book.” He spent time learning all about bourbon, meeting with master distillers and historians and reading any book he could find.
Kentucky being the home of bourbon was no accident. What makes The Bluegrass State such a prime place for bourbon? “It was geography, really,” Mr. Veach explains. “Kentucky is the first American west. When people were travelling down the Ohio River, there was no sign saying ‘Settle Here’.” It was not just the Ohio River that gave Kentucky an advantage when it came to distilling bourbon. “Kentucky has more miles of creeks and rivers that any other state but Alaska. This region is on a limestone shelf that gives you water that is iron free. Iron is bad in distillation and fermentation. This state also has the right climate, with warm summers and cool winters. Put it all together, and KY becomes the center. “They were making whiskey made on both banks, and it was called Kentucky whiskey. It was not until the 20th century that Kentucky cemented its reputation. There was good distillation on both sides well into the 20th century. The whiskey being made in Lawrenceburg, IN is just as good as what is made in Kentucky. Ohio was the birthplace of temperance, and did not have the support for distillation that Kentucky did.” The combination of easy access to transportation, good water, and friendliness to the distillers made Kentucky the right environment for this budding new spirit. That tradition has continued through modern times.
Making a delicious spirit enjoyed by the world is not just an art; there is science to back it all up. The distillation and fermentation process to make bourbon has been experimented with over the country. A barrel of bourbon takes roughly six years in the charred oak barrel to arrive at the proper flavor profile the company is looking for. Some companies have begun to experiment with smaller barrels to get more bourbon in contact with the barrel. The Cleveland Whiskey distillery uses a proprietary process where they use pressure to compress the six years of aging into a week. It has received mixed reviews from the industry and customers. The historian, and admitted bourbon purist, has a view that one would expect from someone that intimately knows the ins and outs of the process. “There is no substitution for time. It is drinkable, but not good. Same thing with the small barrels. They had them in the 19th century, and they disappeared for a reason.” This is where Michael brings up a favorite quote of his by the late Lincoln Henderson, master distiller or bourbon for decades: Yeah, you get a lot of flavor out of the barrel in the first year. You spend the next four or five getting rid of them. “There is more going on than contact with wood. The heating cycles in the warehouse add maturation. It may be worth something, but oxidation is also happening. That only happens with time.”
The science behind bourbon is not the only thing being tested. Jim Beam, Wild Turkey, and Evan Williams have all introduced bourbons with added flavor to it. The category is not expanding as quickly as vodka is, but it is moving. When it comes to Mr. Veach’s opinion of this growing trend, he reinforces his position as a bourbon purist. “I don’t like that they call it bourbon when they add flavors. You can only add water to bourbon. If you add something else, it is not bourbon. They should call it a blended whiskey.” He sees the trends in other flavored spirits, especially vodka, being an influencer of this trend. “Scotch and vodka had been doing it with their products. More distilleries are being owned by vodka companies doing it. They gave strict definitions in the 19th and 20th century to define bourbon as it is. Vodka is a flavorless, odorless spirit by definition. If you add flavor, it is not longer vodka, it is a liqueur. That is my opinion of flavored whiskey; when you add flavors, it is a blended whiskey.”
Michael Veach is well educated about the history and science of bourbon, and he has sampled and spoken widely about bourbon and all of its subtleties. With all of experience, he would be the one who knows what makes great bourbon. He laughed a little about the question. “Everybody’s taste is different. I hate rating systems. Every experiences different things. You may agree or you may not. You drink it the way you want to drink it. You experience what you want to experience.” He goes on to talk about how we all have different taste buds, so even with the same bourbon we would each experience different things. What is Michael looking for when he drinks bourbon? It starts with the aroma. “I look for balance. A little bit of caramel and vanilla, some fruit and spice. I like some hazelnut or pecan, maybe a little honey. I pick up all these aromas. Some may be rich in caramel; some may be rich in chocolate and apricot. Every bourbon is so different.” After he takes an inventory of the bouquet of the spirit, it is time to taste it. “I want to taste the aromas I smell. I like good fruity bourbon and good spicy bourbon. I like bourbon that has some finish. Something that has a good flavor even ten minutes later, whether is it fuity and sweet or tannic and dry. I do not like bourbon that is too old and woody, like chewing on a barrel stave. I want some bitterness, but not a whole lot.”
Looking into the past and understanding it as well as Michael does have some advantages. He can see what people were doing in the past, what that led to, and use that to come up with some ideas about where the future of the business is going. Much like the beer business, he sees craft whiskeys being coming up to challenge some of the bigger distillers. But craft distillers have a much different challenge than the craft brewers did. “Craft breweries have impact fairly quickly. They only have six months or so from when they first start brewing to having a product to put on the market. Whiskey will take four, five, or six years. Craft breweries had to compete against “crap breweries”. The bourbon industry has always had a well made product. They have to prove they can make a product as good as what the big guys are doing.” There are many distilleries in Ohio that are looking to take up the challenge; Red Eagle Spirits in Geneva, Watershed Distillery and Middle West Spirits in Columbus, Woodstone Creek Winery in Cincinnati, and Flat Rock Spirits in Fairborn are all either in the process of distilling bourbon or have it out on the market. Even with bourbons that rival their Kentucky counterparts, they all have a big obstacle in their way: cost. “Craft distillers are going to have to charge more because of a lack of volume. You can spend $35 for a craft bottle of bourbon or spend $18 for a bottle from a big distillery. The cheaper one tastes just as good, so why spend more money?” One bourbon that Michael does see making a big splash soon is Wyoming Whiskey’s Small Batch Bourbon. “Kirby Wyoming hired Steven Nally, retired distiller from Maker’s Mark. It is three years old, and it is a wonderful product. It is as good as I have had in a three year old product, and it is only going to get better. I do not see Cleveland making this kind of splash. Wyoming wants to get into the business for the long run, making a high quality product. Cleveland is trying to take shortcuts. I can see them trying one bottle, but not trying a second. You can sell that first bottle, but the secret is selling the second one.” And from the sound of Michael’s voice as he spoke about it, Wyoming is going to be selling a good amount of bourbon.
The class that will be happening at our celebrated Century Bar will have eight sessions over eight hours. Each session will provide information on different topics, such as the history of bourbon, how to taste it, and a sampling of the distinct styles of bourbon and some other whiskeys. Lunch will be provided in the middle of the day, and your newfound skills will be tested with a blind tasting at the end of the day. You will also earn a certificate showing that you completed the class, as well as a commemorative glass and other goodies to take home with you. You are also helping the Filson Historical Society, a privately funded Historical Society that was founded in 1884 and is internationally known for its first American West and antebellum south collection. It contains letters from William Clark, including six letters written while on the expedition with Lewis, more than any other institution in the United States. Our collection focus is Kentucky, the Ohio River Valley and upper South.
Like the small rivers that join together to form the Ohio River, the knowledge and experience Mr. Veach has weaves a story about bourbon. This is a wonderful opportunity for the bourbon enthusiast to learn a little more about the history of the spirit, or someone just beginning their journey into the wonders of bourbon to jump start their education from one of the masters in the field. One story he told me about his time in the bourbon industry goes back ten years, to when Booker Noe was in charge of the Jim Beam distillery. “The first time I ever heard from Booker Noe from Jim Beam, it was back when the small batch came out. Booker and Paul Pacult were doing a series of tastings to promote the new craft bourbons they were introducing. I was invited to the Seelbach Hotel in Louisville. Paul gets up with the first three bourbons, talking to the crowd about all of the flowery descriptions of what you are tasting. When he gets to the last bourbon, he turns to Booker and says ‘He has to tell you about the last one.’ Booker stands up and tells his story about how Booker’s was developed. He finally declares “And this is how I like to drink it!” He pours the Bookers into water, at about 50/50 mixture. He then takes a drink and declares. “And it’s GOOD!” It was so much more effective than any of the descriptions and information Paul gave. Booker was a very good marketing person. What Booker said was more memorable than what Paul did.” There are so many other stories for Michael to tell. You know where to go on October 19th, and where to get the tickets for the event. Cheers!