If you are looking to learn more about Kentucky’s version of American whiskey, bourbon, there are certainly vast literary resources to choose from. Bourbon – named after the county in the state of Kentucky – traces its roots back to Baptist minister Elijah Craig (at least in theory, as there is no evidentiary proof of this legend) and the late nineteenth century. Everyone knows that all bourbons are whiskey, but not all whiskeys are bourbon: the laws that distinguish bourbon from the pack outline that the product must be made in the U.S., it must be made with between 51 and 79% Indian corn, and it must be aged for at least two years (though most bourbons age in oak barrels for at least four years). But not everyone knows the down-and-dirty details of Kentucky’s vast bourbon resources, or the historical vision behind them.
Kentucky Bourbon: The Early Years of Whiskeymaking by Henry G. Crowgey delves into the history of said resources; the book’s focus is on the evolution of whiskey, especially that of Kentucky. Crowgey takes a historian’s approach to the beverage that is warm and appealing to the average whiskey drinker or casual reader. Kentucky Bourbon makes claims on the state’s most famous man-made resource, such as that the pioneer settlers were the state’s first bourbon drinkers. Crowgey easily relates the histories and mysteries surrounding bourbon’s origins in Kentucky, and tells how the state’s first governor was also among the first to farm the resources for whiskey production. The mid-nineteenth century sets the stage for the book, during which time the production evolved from a cottage affair into a steam-based commercial operation. Interesting is the fact that bourbon was actually used as a medical remedy, and as a sort of monetary resource during barters and trades.
F. Paul Pacult philosophizes on the history of Kentucky’s leading bourbon resource in his book, American Still Live: The Jim Beam Story and the Making of the World’s #1 Bourbon. The story of Jim Beam is an integral part of Kentucky’s American history – the brand’s humble beginnings and subsequent morphing into the enormous international commercial seller and distributor it is today is a part of the American dream. Jim Beam’s company story follows that of slavery, Prohibition, multiple wars, and shifts in the country’s economic condition. This book is a compelling read, and even though extensive dwelling on historical facts can sometimes seem a bit dry, Pacult’s obvious mastery of his subject makes up for it. Unlike the Mondavi family, Pacult’s version of the Beam family is not much of a soap opera story – but their story is an uplifting one of upstanding citizenry.
Another book that illustrates Kentucky’s bourbon history is one that reaches far back into the seventeenth century, Charles K. Cowdery’s Bourbon, Straight: The Uncut and Unfiltered Story of American Whiskey. The book traces bourbon’s resources up to the present day, and offers character sketches of both famous and unknown innovators and supporters in whiskey production. Interestingly, the book goes on to identify the different bourbon brands and to detail tastes tests of each one.