Sunday, August 11, 2013

Just Who Was Old Doc Crow?

Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: An American Heritage
by Michael R. Veach
Lexington:  University Press of Kentucky
141 pp; $25

Review by Katherine Dalton

Entire contents copyright 2013 by Katherine Dalton, all rights reserved.

This slim but information-packed book is full of facts all Kentuckians should know– be they teetotalers or imbibers. What a great tale Mr. Veach has to tell of the vagaries and importance of whiskey, both to this state and to the nation as a whole. 

Readers will learn many things, such as the difference between sweet mash and sour. How the term “proof” was derived from a test to prove the alcohol content of whiskey by burning it with gunpowder. The distinctions of bottled-in-bond, blended, and straight. The importance of a charred barrel. And the unknowable origin of the term “bourbon,” which may be a compliment to the French royal family, or then again may be named for the Kentucky county which was itself named for the French royal family (and not, as many Kentuckians might assume, our state spirit). 

Whiskey has played a large part in American history, one way or another, and was one of the first sources of federal revenue. It was levied for several years to pay for the Revolutionary War. Inveterate centralizer Alexander Hamilton pushed the whiskey tax of 1791 in part to consolidate production among the larger producers in the East and hamper the small farmers outside of the Eastern cities, who were hard put to find the necessary hard currency in which they were required to pay the tax. And so was born America's first tax revolt, the Whiskey Rebellion of 1792. 

The tax was levied again to pay for the War of 1812 and was soon repealed, only to be revived by Lincoln in 1862 in what was to prove to be a permanent return. Never popular and frequently unfair, the whiskey tax was at the heart of one of the scandals of the Grant Administration when his personal secretary, O.E. Babcock, was implicated in a colluding tax cheat involving distillers and the government gaugers employed to regulate them.

As for “Old Crow,” he was a Scottish immigrant named Dr. James Crow who came to Kentucky in the 1820s and worked at two distilleries in central Kentucky. He brought scientific rigor to whiskey making, testing his product for temperature, alcohol levels and pH, in an effort to discover how to improve both the distilling process and the quality of the final product. The results were very popular. Some people call him the father of modern distilling, and a whiskey named for him (but that does not use his recipe, which has been lost) is still made by Jim Beam. 

Mr. Veach's book traces the history of whiskey right from Hamilton and Crow through the Gilded Age and Prohibition and touches on its recent marketing success and the new craft distillers—who are taking us back to something roughly like the widely dispersed home distilling, which is where this industry began.  

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