By Diane Heilenman
Source: Courier Journal
Bourbon drinkers, who are never so legion as in the days before and after the Kentucky Derby, want to know:
Who is Evan Williams? Ezra Brooks?
Who is Basil Hayden? Elijah Craig? Pappy Van Winkle? T.W. Samuels?
Mike Veach, of Louisville's Filson Historical Society and a bourbon history specialist, illuminated us:
Evan Williams is considered Kentucky's first distiller, according to legend, said Veach. Williams set up his stills on the banks of the Ohio River in Louisville in 1783. Evan Williams bourbon is produced today by Heaven Hill Distillery in Nelson County.
Rev. Elijah Craig was a late-1700s Baptist preacher, teacher and distiller, often (but erroneously) credited as the inventor of bourbon whiskey, Veach said.
Craig had plenty of other firsts, however, such as forming in 1787 the first classical school in Kentucky, where scholars could learn Greek and Latin (it is today's Georgetown College); building the state's first cloth-manufacturing mill; building its first paper mill; and starting its first ropewalk to make hemp rope. Today, Elijah Craig bourbon is from Heaven Hill Distillery.
Bourbon County claims the honor of invention, again by legend, Veach said, noting that by the time the county formed in 1785, there were dozens upon dozens of small farmer-distillers making a corn-based whiskey that came to be called "bourbon" after the county. Currently, only such whiskey from Kentucky can be called "bourbon."
Henry McKenna is another important early name. He brought his family's whiskey recipe with him from Ireland in 1837 and, when he settled in Fairfield, Ky., founded a distillery, said Veach, adapting his recipe to local grain, especially corn. His 1855 product, billed as "Kentucky's Finest Table Whiskey," is still made today as Henry McKenna from Jim Beam Brands Co. of Bardstown.
J.T.S. Brown was the older brother by 20 years of bourbon great George Gavin Brown of the Louisville-based Brown-Forman wine-and-spirits corporation that started making bourbon in 1870. Moviegoers may know "J.T.S. Brown" from the patter between "Fast Eddie" Felson and "Minnesota Fats" in the movie "The Hustler," where Fats calls for White Tavern whiskey, with a glass and some ice, and Eddie (Paul Newman) asks for "J.T.S. Brown. No ice. No glass."
You can get J.T.S. Brown from Heaven Hill, which is named for early Kentucky distiller William Heavenhill, who owned a Nelson County farm and let the printer's mistake stand when his first labels were issued, Veach said.
Old Forester is another name with a change over time.
This famed Brown-Forman product is named after Dr. William Forrester of Louisville, a renowned Civil War physician, who endorsed the bourbon that young George Gavin Brown was clever enough to distribute only by the bottle, rather than from the barrel, said Veach. A barrel of whiskey could and, indeed, often did become an altered product, and since liquor was a major sedative, doctors complained about the uneven quality of whiskey by the jug.
Brown put his bourbon in a bottle and added a handwritten label of assurance.
Veach said Brown is sometimes mistakenly believed to be the first to bottle bourbon. That honor likely goes to E.G. Booz, a 19th-century Philadelphia distiller who sold whiskey in bottles, but stopped because the handmade bottles were so expensive. The first bottle-making machine was not patented until 1904.
Old Forester is touted as the only bourbon in existence today that has been sold continuously for more than a century, including during the Prohibition years of 1919 to 1933, when alcohol sales were otherwise illegal in the United States. The distillery received one of only 10 government permits to produce whiskey for medicinal purposes.
Basil Hayden Sr. moved from Maryland to Nelson County, Ky., in 1785. His bourbon was created with more rye than most, Veach said, and his taste was honored by his grandson's creation of Old Grand-Dad, now produced by Jim Beam along with four different "Basil Hayden's" varieties. That recipe, if not the whiskey production, dates to 1796.
Col. James B. Beam is the man behind the Jim Beam label, which appeared in 1933 to honor the man who rebuilt the distillery after Prohibition. The original distillery was founded in 1795 by Jacob Boehm, who produced Old Jake Beam Sour Mash from the distillery known as Old Tub. Although the Beam and Noe families are still involved, Jim Beam Distillery is owned by Beam Global Spirits & Wine, which is owned by Fortune Brands of Deerfield, Ill.
Frederick Booker Noe II is the name behind Booker Noe's, a bourbon named for the grandson of distiller Jim Beam. Noe was a master distiller, and his Booker's Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey helped spark the flagging bourbon business, said Veach, when it was eroding due to the new popularity of gin and vodka in the '60s and '70s. He created a new market around 1988 for small-batch bourbons straight from the barrel.
Elmer T. Lee, a master distiller emeritus at Buffalo Trace, helped create the first single-barrel - in the modern sense - bourbon, said Veach. Lee developed the Elmer T. Lee label that apparently has no age requirement, but is bottled when Lee deems appropriate. Sibling brands at Buffalo Trace include Eagle Rare and Blanton's.
Pappy Van Winkle is the man behind Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve and other Van Winkle bourbons now produced in a joint venture with Buffalo Trace. Julian P. "Pappy" Van Winkle Sr. was a traveling salesman for William LaRue Weller and Sons wholesale liquors in Louisville. Pappy and Alex Farnsley (father of former Louisville Mayor Charlie Farnsley) bought that business and Stitzel Distillery and merged the two into Stitzel-Weller Distillery in south Louisville. Their brands include W.L. Weller, Old Fitzgerald and Rebel Yell - which was named by Charlie Farnsley as a marketing device to Civil War buffs. Pappy Van Winkle was succeeded by son Julian Jr., who sold the distillery in 1972, retaining one pre-Prohibition label, Old Rip Van Winkle. He and his son, Preston Van Winkle, create a "wheated" bourbon that does not use rye, Veach said.
W. L. Weller is a distilling great with a long and important business history, but his biggest contribution, said Veach, may have been continuing the recipe of Arthur Philip Stitzel, using wheat rather than rye. The brand named after Weller and variations on it are currently made at Buffalo Trace Distillery.
T. W. Samuels founded a family occupation when he started a distillery in 1844 at Samuels Depot, Ky., which is where William Clark Quantrill brought his band of Confederate irregulars - including Samuels' stepsons, Jesse and Frank James - to raid at the close of the Civil War. The Samuels distillery shut down during Prohibition. When great-, great-, great-grandson Bill Samuels Sr. got out of the Navy, he sold the business in 1943 and began to revise the bourbon recipe, said Veach. His wife, Marge, came up with the name Maker's Mark and the distinctive red wax seal. The first bottles of Maker's Mark bourbon came out in 1958. Bill Samuels Jr. became CEO in 1975. Today, Maker's Mark is owned by distillery giant Allied-Domecq and T.W. Samuels brand is owned by Heaven Hill.