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Holiday Spirits: Notes from the Bourbon Trail

Good fortune recently provided me a brief, pre-holiday detour on Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail with my dad and brothers. The amber of the value-added agricultural products and the informative tours included a few interesting bits of farm policy and history – starting with the fact that our visit (unintentionally) coincided with the 82nd anniversary of the end of Prohibition. In the spirit of a holiday diversion from other topics, enjoy here some notes inspired by the Bourbon Trail.

Photo by Jonathan Coppess, 2015

Photo by Jonathan Coppess, 2015

First, bourbon is a unique and distinctive product of the United States, declared by Congress and defined in Federal regulations – they all tell you this on the Bourbon Trail. Specifically, Federal regulations define bourbon as “whiskey produced at not exceeding 160 degree proof from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent corn, rye, wheat, malted barley, or malted rye grain, respectively, and stored at not more than 125 degrees proof in charred new oak containers” and is produced in the United States. (27 C.F.R. §5.22)

Bourbon traces its origins to the Bluegrass Region of Kentucky around the 1770s and 1780s and standardized in the 1820s and 1830s; today, more than 90 percent of all bourbon produced in the United States comes from 12 distilleries located in the north-central part of the state of Kentucky.[i]

Limestone water is considered to be particularly advantageous for making bourbon because of its lack of iron.[ii] Kentucky sits on a massive seam of limestone that filters the water, removes iron and fortifies it with calcium making it an ideal place to make bourbon (and strong-boned thoroughbred racing horses). Specific strains of yeast and an exact mix of grains are important, but aging the distilled alcohol for at least 2 years in new oak barrels that have been charred on the inside is the key to producing bourbon.

Ending Prohibition began in the Senate in early January 1933 with a Joint Resolution of Congress that put before state ratifying conventions an amendment to the Constitution to repeal the 18th Amendment. It had to be ratified by at least 36 of the States to take effect.[iii] It was considered at a time when Congress was also concerned with helping farmers and Americans suffering in the depths of the Great Depression.[iv] The Senate passed the Joint Resolution on Feb. 16, 1933, by a vote of 63 to 23 (10 not voting) and the House on Feb. 20, 1933, by a vote of 289 to 121 (16 not voting).[v] On Dec. 5, 1933, after conventions in the necessary 36 states had ratified the amendment, President Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed the 18th Amendment repealed and the failed experiment known as Prohibition came to an end.[vi]

Declaring bourbon whiskey to be a distinct product of the United States began in the early 1960s when an international trade organization for alcohol products provided the distinction to U.S. bourbon, followed by Representative John C. Watts (D-KY) who introduced a Concurrent Resolution providing that no whiskey could be imported into the United States labeled as “bourbon whiskey;” the House passed it without a recorded vote on Sept. 11, 1962.[vii]

A Senate resolution designating bourbon whiskey as a distinctive product of the United States was introduced on Feb.18, 1963, by Senator Thruston B. Morton (R-KY), and passed the Senate without a recorded vote on Sept. 25, 1962.[viii] The Senate-passed resolution moved forward in the House on Nov. 19, 1963, but did not pass until May 4, 1964, when it became effective.[ix]

In general, this effort by Congress was intended to block importation of any whiskey into the United States using the trade name of bourbon whiskey, similar to how American distillers are not permitted to use the terms Scotch or Canadian or Irish on whiskey made in the United States. Representative Watts, who represented Bourbon County, Kentucky, explained that Congress should “grant to our own product the same little protection we have been willing to extend to every other product everywhere else.”[x]

This policy helped emphasize that bourbon is “one of America’s unique cultural contributions to the world . . . as uniquely and utterly American as jazz or baseball.”[xi] Bourbon is also an example of value-added agriculture. The distillery tours readily discuss how they source most of their corn from Illinois and Indiana and malted barley from North Dakota. The distillers buy most of their barrels from a cooperage in Lebanon, Kentucky that uses white oak wood sourced predominantly from the Ozarks in Missouri. This value-added nature also has a long history. Whiskey limited grain losses from spoilage and provided better cash returns than the grain; it even served as a form of currency when Kentucky was still the frontier.[xii] Today, the Bourbon Trail is also driving tourism, with the Kentucky Distiller’s Association noting that 2.5 million people have visited in the last five years.

Heading home from the Bourbon Trail, I was caught in a flock of disappointed Hawkeyes heading west on the winds of damaged football dreams. But I was alone with my thoughts in the car, drifting back over matters large and small. The brief trip highlighted a fascinating intersection of nature, people (our ingenuity, enjoyment and adventures) and the policies of our grand experiment in self-government. It inspired this metaphorical sip of holiday spirits, for what it is worth. Maybe it brings a little warmth and a momentary smile. A reminder of beauty amongst the bare and brown of Midwest December and in our shared existence on this remarkable little rock in a vast, expanding universe.

Happy Holidays and thank you for reading Policy Matters; it will return in the New Year.

[i] See, Alan E. Fryar, “Springs and the Origin of Bourbon,” Ground Water, Historical Notes, Vol. 47, No. 4 (July-Aug. 2009), pp. 605-610, at 605.

[ii] See, Ashley M. Barton, Cory W. Black Eagle and Alan E. Fryar, “Bourbon and springs in the Inner Bluegrass region of Kentucky,” in Sandy, M.R., and Goldman, D., eds., On and around the Cincinnati Arch and Niagara Escarpment: Geological Field Trips in Ohio and Kentucky for the GSA North-Central Section Meeting, Dayton, Ohio (2012), Geological Society of American, Field Guide 27, pp. 19-31.

[iii] See, “To Repeal the Eighteenth Amendment and Regulate the Liquor Traffic,” Report to Accompany S.J. Res. 211, U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Rept. No. 1022 (72d Congress, 2d Session, Jan. 6, 1933).

[iv] See, Cong. Rec., Jan. 12, 1933, at 1621; Cong. Rec., Feb. 14, 1933, at 4005-08; Cong. Rec., Feb. 15, 1933, at 4138 and 4162.

[v] See, Cong. Rec., Feb. 16, 1933, at 4231; Cong. Rec., Feb. 20, 1933, at 4516.

[vi] See, Presidential Proclamation, No. 2065, Dec. 5, 1933. See also, Frank Getty, “U.S. Prohibition Ends Tomorrow; Imports Curbed; Padding of Applications Causes Suspension of Allocations,” The Washington Post, (Dec. 4, 1933), at 1.

[vii] See, “To Designate ‘Bourbon Whiskey’ as a Distinctive Product of the U.S.,” Unpublished Hearings of the Committee on Ways and Means, House of Representatives (Aug. 30, 1962), HRG-1962-WAM-0034; “Designating “Bourbon Whiskey” as a Distinctive Product of the United States,” Committee on Ways and Means, U.S. House of Representatives, Report (to accompany H. Con. Res. 356) No. 2327 (87th Cong. 2nd Session, Sept. 6, 1962); Cong. Rec., Sept. 11, 1962, at 19091-92.

[viii] See, Cong. Rec., Feb. 18, 1963, at 2391; “Bourbon Whiskey Distinctive Product of the United States,” Committee on Finance, U.S. Senate, Report (to accompany S. Con. Res. 19) No. 496 (88th Cong., 1st Session, Sept. 12, 1963); Cong. Rec., Sept. 25, 1963, at 17993-94.

[ix] See, “Designating ‘Bourbon Whiskey’ as a Distinctive Product of the United States,” Committee on Ways and Means of the U.S. House of Representatives, Report (to accompany S. Con. Res. 19) No. 910 (88th Cong., 1st Session, Nov. 19, 1963); Cong. Rec., Apr. 30, 1964, at 9703; and Cong. Rec., May 4, 1964, at 9962-63.

[x] See, Cong. Rec., May 4, 1964, at 9962-63.

[xi] See, Fryar, supra note i (quoting Allen, F., “The American Spirit,” American Heritage 49, No. 3 (1998), pp. 82-92).

[xii] Id.


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