I started my bourbon experience on the third floor of the Frazier Museum in Louisville, Kentucky. I learned about why bourbon thrives in Kentucky, about limestone, wood barrels, farming, grains, crops and water. I visited the bottle hall and a speakeasy, and I admired paintings of working people and bourbon barrels in an exhibit all about whiskey’s artistic side.
It is said that The Bluegrass State, by nature’s hand or by pure chance, is perfectly suited to produce great Bourbon. When pioneers started settling in Kentucky over 200 years ago, they discovered what would be the Promised Land for distilling bourbon. From the limestone shelf that makes for the purest filtered water, to the fertile earth used as rich farmland for growing corn, to the ideal climate for aging barrels of whiskey, Kentucky is blessed.
Louisville, Kentucky is a river city, and thus quickly became a transport hub for trade. The steamboat Belle of Louisville originally launched in 1914. The Belle transported not only passengers and cargo, such as whiskey, but it even pushed oil barges down the Mississippi during World War II.
Kentucky’s has an abundance of fertile farmland. Native Americans, farming for over 1,000 years, grew corn, squash, soybeans and sunflowers. In the 1770s, European settlers grew only enough to feed themselves and their livestock. Corn sustained both people and livestock, so it was usually the first crop planted, but pioneers also grew wheat, oats, beans, squash, turnips, potatoes, and melons. As transportation routes by land and water improved, Kentucky farmers began to grow cash crops such as tobacco and hemp. They also started to grow more corn, which they sold as meal, fodder, and of course, whiskey.
The Scottish, Irish and German settlers in the late 1700s brought simple tools and basic necessities for starting a new life in the wilderness. By the 1800s, specialized tools for planting, harvesting and processing corn for meal, animal feed, and distilling began to appear, as corn production grew in scope and importance.
The pioneers brought distilling knowledge from their home countries in Europe, as well as rudimentary stills. These stills distilled alcohol from grains or even fruit, and were common fixtures on farms. They helped prevent waste by converting surplus crops into whiskey and other spirits for personal use, trade or sale. Thrifty settlers even used the byproducts from the distilling process, known as spent mash, as food for their pigs and cows. This practice continues today.
The copper still below was unearthed during construction of the Woodford Reserve Distillery in Versailles, Kentucky. Created between 1807 and 1862, this still was probably intentionally buried so it wouldn’t be confiscated and melted down for use in munitions during the Civil War.
Each distillery combines grains to create their signature brands of bourbon. These grains are milled into powder form, mixed with water, and then heated to create mash. The proportions of grains that distillers used to make a mash is called a mash bill.
In order to be considered bourbon, a spirit must be made up of at least 51% corn, although corn usually makes up 60% or more of most mash bills. The remaining 49% of bourbon can be made of other grains, each of which gives a different quality to the finished product. Rye gives bourbon a peppery spice, barley helps in the fermentation process and adds malted chocolate notes, and wheat can give the bourbon a smoother, sweeter taste.
By law, Bourbon whiskey must be aged in new barrels built from white oak with a flame-charred interior. The white oak wood combined with the layer of char gives bourbon its distinctive flavors and color. Bourbon stored in a white oak barrel is absorbed into the wood during warm weather and pushed out during cold, allowing it to pick up flavors from the wood and the char with each ageing season.
Kentucky farmers with surplus grain that was perishable and hard to transport turned it into whiskey, which was then put into barrels and transported downriver by flatboat. Since wood was plentiful and shipping upriver expensive, the barrels were often not returned and the practice of using only new barrels began. Barrels, which can weigh over 500 pounds when full of whiskey, are easy to roll and are structurally strong and durable.
Most bourbon distillers add another vital ingredient to the list: pure, limestone-filtered spring water.
Limestone is rich in minerals and extremely porous. Spring water filters through naturally, picking up calcium while shedding impurities such as iron that ruin the taste of whisky. Limestone-filtered water also has a high pH, which aids the fermentation process. Vast underground limestone caves are abundant throughout Kentucky.
Kentucky’s weather provides a particularly good environment for making bourbon. Corn and wheat grow well due to the area’s humid, subtropical climate and long growing season, as do the white oak trees needed to make bourbon barrels. Kentucky also has four distinct seasons, an important factor for properly aging bourbon.
The lifeblood of Kentucky is its waterways, a complex network of rivers and streams and flow through the countryside, each one feeding the Ohio River. Kentucky boasts roughly 90,000 miles of streams, along with the highest total of navigable waterways in the continental U.S., second only to Alaska. Clear water and a healthy corn crop were all one needed to make bourbon, but Kentucky’s network of rivers offered the opportunity to sell it.
The pot still – basically a copper pot set over a fire – has been in use for centuries, originating among the rough agrarian countryside of Ireland and Scotland. Many Scottish and Irish descendants migrated to North America and carried the pot still with them. Corn replaced barley and the rest was history.
Back in Ireland, inventor Aeneas Coffey patented a column still in 1831. It proceeded to revolutionize the industry. Before long, it reached American shores, making consistent, large-scale whiskey production possible. Now there are variations of pot stills, column stills and hybrid stills.
From 1945-47, Hiram Walker Distillery commissioned a group of paintings to use in their Imperial Whiskey ads. The artists could paint what they chose as long as their piece included Hiram Walker’s whiskey barrels.
The painters represent two of the most important American art movements that began in the 1930s as a response to the Great Depression: Regionalism and Social Realism. The Regionalist movement depicted rural scenes and small-town life, especially in the South and Midwest. Social Realist artists focused on the everyday lives of poor and middle class people living in industrialized urban environments.
These two movements came together as demand grew across the country and distilleries that began in small agricultural environments became more industrialized to meet this demand. Whiskey became the product of both agriculture and industry.
After leaving the Frazier Museum, I went on the Speakeasy Tour at Evan Williams Bourbon. Since bourbon is one of Louisville’s claims to fame, I figured I ought to partake.
America’s Bourbon industry was born and came of age in Louisville on the banks of the Ohio River. Distillers gravitated to the area because of transportation on the river and later because of railroads.
Evan Williams (1755-1810) was born in Wales and immigrated to America in the 1780s. He made his way to Louisville which at that time was an outpost at the edge of the western frontier. He was twice elected Town Trustee and appointed Wharfmaster. In his time, the Wharfmaster was the toll collector, traffic manager, peacekeeper and general boss of the Louisville waterfront.
It was the long days in his distillery where he made his reputation and became Kentucky’s first commercial distiller.
In 1912, there were 42 liquor wholesalers and distillers located between Brook and 9th Streets in Louisville on the nine block stretch of Main Street that came to be known as Whiskey Row.
Everybody knows the word “speakeasy,” but these bars also had more colorful names. In Louisville, the Bide-a-wee Club and Abe’s White Doorknob were among the places to go.
On the Speakeasy Tour, we had to say a password to get into the “secret” establishment. When I downed my first glass, the bartender informed me I was supposed to “chew” it, or swish it back and forth in my mouth so I could get used to it. As it turned out, I do not seem to be a big fan of bourbon.
“PHOTOGRAPHY” INVITATION: I invite you to create a photography intention and then create a blog post for a place you have visited. Alternately, you can post a thematic post about a place, photos of whatever you discovered that set your heart afire. You can also do a thematic post of something you have found throughout all your travels: churches, doors, people reading, people hiking, mountains, patterns, all black & white, whatever!
In my case, my intention was to look for thematic possibilities during my trip to Kentucky. Bourbon plays a big role in Kentucky’s economy, so I thought I’d gather some photos about my bourbon experience.
You probably have your own ideas about this, but in case you’d like some ideas, you can visit my page: photography inspiration.
I challenge you to post no more than 20-25 photos (I have more here!) and to write less than 1,500 words about any travel-related photography intention you set for yourself. Include the link in the comments below by Wednesday, November 6 at 1:00 p.m. EST. When I write my post in response to this challenge on Thursday, November 7, I’ll include your links in that post.
This will be an ongoing invitation, every first, second, and third (& 5th, if there is one) Thursday of each month. Feel free to jump in at any time. 🙂
I hope you’ll join in our community. I look forward to reading your posts!
the ~ wander.essence ~ community
I invite you all to settle in and read a few posts from our wandering community. I promise, you’ll be inspired!
- Tina, of Tina Stewart Brakebill, composed a quirky photo montage capturing Slovenia’s Ljubljana.
Thanks to all of you who shared posts on the “photography” invitation.