FRANKFORT — Think you know a lot about bourbon? Put your knowledge — and your nose — to the test at the Filson Bourbon Academy, under the direction of bourbon historian Michael Veach.
In an eight-hour seminar, Veach, who wrote the recently published Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: An American Heritage (The University Press of Kentucky, $24.95), pours out history — everything from the Whiskey Rebellion and taxation to Prohibition and the Vietnam War — as well as eight samples of a variety of whiskies.
Veach has devoted much of his professional career to archiving and researching bourbon, beginning in 1991 at the now-defunct Old Fitzgerald distillery, owned by United Distillers.
Louisville's Filson Historical Society, where he works now, has a wealth of historical documents and artifacts.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Lexington Herald-Leader
Since 2009, Veach has conducted daylong seminars in conjunction with the Kentucky Distillers' Association. With bourbon sales booming in recent years, the tastings have become a popular way for those who know something about the drink to get an in-depth understanding of Kentucky's native spirit.
At a "Bourbon Academy" at Rachael Peake's Capital Cellars in Frankfort earlier this month, the class included a retired couple touring distilleries; an archaeologist who holds informal blind tastings for friends and posts on a Facebook page called "Whiskey Diggers"; a woman who wants to transform the turn-of-the-century Frankfort YMCA building on the river into a boutique hotel for Kentucky Bourbon Trail visitors; the owner of the Old Kentucky Bourbon Bar in Covington; and a professional "bourbon educator" (that's really what Tim Knittel's business cards say).
With such an enthusiastic crowd, there were plenty of things to discuss.
Such as who invented bourbon.
Nobody knows for sure, Veach said.
He knows who didn't invent it: neither Baptist minister Elijah Craig nor Evan Williams nor Virginians fleeing the Whiskey Rebellion.
"When (the rebellion) broke out in 1791, Kentucky already had more than its share of distillers," Veach said.
Whiskey was a valuable commodity throughout the early settling of the region, he said. "There are lots of examples of people buying farms with whiskey in the 1780s, '90s, 1800s," Veach said.
With Kentucky's climate well-suited to growing corn, almost every farmer either had a still or would "rent" a neighbor's for a portion of the spirit produced.
But little of it was being exported elsewhere because it was difficult to move and there wasn't much economic incentive, Veach said. Historical papers Veach has researched show that as late as 1817, the price of whiskey in New Orleans was the same as in Louisville.
It simply wasn't worth the time and effort to take a year to move it downriver by flatboat and risk losing either the whiskey on the way down or the money on the way back, he said.
"I think it was marketing," Veach said.
In his book, Veach lays out his theory that it was wholesalers in Louisville — he suggests Louis and John Tarascon, a pair of French brothers who had moved up from New Orleans — who likely suggested putting the whiskey in charred-oak barrels to make it taste more like the French brandy popular in New Orleans.
At the time, white whiskey was mostly being put up in jugs, not barrels, because of the rapid evaporation. Farmers would lose a significant percentage of the product just to the wood, and then more to the evaporation (that's called the "angel's share" in whiskey parlance), an expensive waste with whiskey taxed on what went into the barrel, not what came out.
By the 1820s, the tax had been lifted, and along came the steamboat. Suddenly, a yearlong journey became a three-month trip. And with the Louisiana Purchase becoming part of the United States, commercial traffic between Louisville and New Orleans picked up considerably, Veach said.
"That's why I think bourbon was born in the 1820s. They can afford to put it in barrels, they can afford the 'angel's share,'" Veach said.
He suspects the now brown and sweeter drink became popular at the bars on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, and people began to ask for "that Bourbon whiskey."
He discounts the idea that it was named for Bourbon County, Ky., which in its early days was much larger, encompassing dozens of today's counties and briefly including the port of Limestone (now present-day Maysville).
His reasoning: During that time, New Orleans was controlled by the Spanish and trade with Kentucky was limited.
"Bourbon shadows American history," Veach said. His seminar and new book show that history through the bottom of a glass of bourbon, which turns out to be an interesting view.
"I hope the book inspires people to do more research," he said. "It wouldn't hurt my feelings if somebody finds the evidence to prove me wrong."
IF YOU GO
Filson Bourbon Academy
When: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. June 11
Where: Filson Historical Society, 1310 S. Third St., Louisville
Fee: $100 per person. To sign up, go to Filsonhistorical.org or call (502) 635-5083. Event is limited to 25 participants.