Bourbon Industry

Bourbon historian's new seminar focuses on the barons of the industry

Isaac Wolfe Bernheim
Isaac Wolfe Bernheim

Like your history with a side of bourbon? Filson Bourbon historian Mike Veach covers both in his new one-day seminar on the "Bourbon Barons."

On a recent Saturday, Veach debuted his new material (which is background for an upcoming book, Spirited Lives) to an enthusiastic group at Belle's Cocktail House in Lexington. There was no test afterward, but you wouldn't have guessed it: several people were taking notes.

The six-hour program isn't just for serious bourbon geeks.

Like Veach's all-day Bourbon Academy, which teaches you the history of America's native spirit while you learn how to taste it, Bourbon Barons is steeped in bourbon basics.

This time you see it through the eyes of six key individuals who shaped Kentucky's unique distilling history — and a lot of just plain old Kentucky history along the way.

And every profile is accompanied by an appropriate premium beverage.

There is William L. Weller, who survived a cholera outbreak that left him and his younger brothers orphans. Despite his career in whiskey, Weller was a founder of the Baptist Children's Home in Louisville and took an active role in placing orphaned children, according to Veach.

And he hired a young salesman named Julian P. Van Winkle, counseling him to never drink with clients to preserve an appearance of sobriety.

There is Isaac Wolfe Bernheim, a German-born Jew who built the brand I.W. Harper and left his fortune to trees, the Bernheim Forest. Or did he? Veach said Bernheim's family tried to break the will, and there were even suggestions that Bernheim met with foul play.

There is George Garvin Brown, founder of Brown-Forman, who got his start as a pharmaceutical salesman selling whiskey.

Veach points out that it was Brown's insight from doctors — the prescribers of whiskey — on the lack of consistency from barrel to barrel that gave Brown the idea of a whiskey sold only in bottles. That led to "Old Forrester" — now called Old Forester with only one "r" — and the founding of his own whiskey company, now a powerhouse of the liquor industry.

Along the way, Veach covers "Colonel" E.H. Taylor, pioneer of bourbon tourism and so much more, and his newsmaking ward, James E. Pepper, who left his stamp on bourbon and on horses.

And Veach wraps it up by returning to Van Winkle, now the hottest name in bourbon.

It's all woven together with a variety of whiskies that tell the stories of Kentucky's potent history.