President Taft inducted to the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame

On Thursday, December 17, 2009 President William Howard Taft was inducted into the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame at the Governor’s Mansion in Frankfort. It was decided to induct Taft in a special ceremony in December in order to pay homage to the centennial of his famous “Taft Decision on Whiskey” which defines whiskey as we know it today.

In 1906 the United States Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act. With this legislation there became a need to define “What is Whiskey?” so that the proper regulations could be placed upon the product. This need caused the friction between Kentucky’s straight whiskey distillers and the rectifier portion of the industry to come to a point where it would spend three years in the court system with no solution. Since the regulations would come from the President’s Cabinet members, President Taft took the task of answering the question upon himself. After six months of listening to both sides of the issue, Taft announced his decision on December 27, 1909. His decision defines the categories of “Straight”, “Blended” and “Imitation” whiskey that are on the books today.

The Taft Decision defined the categories of “Straight”, “Blended” and “Imitation” whiskey which the distilling industry still adheres to today. In 1906 the United States Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act. With this legislation there became a need to define “What is Whiskey?” so that proper regulations could be placed upon the product. This need caused the friction between Kentucky’s straight whiskey distillers and the rectifier portion of the industry to come to a point where it would spend three years in the court system with no solution. Since the regulations would come from the President’s Cabinet members, President Taft took the task of answering the question upon himself. After six months of listening to both sides of the issue, Taft announced his decision on December 27, 1909.

The event started at 5:30 in the evening and I arrived a little early. I walked up to the Mansion with Harlan Wheatly, the Master Distiller at Buffalo Trace. The holiday decorations gave the place an air of festivity that was increased as people visited the bourbon bar and food was brought out. I met with Eric Gregory, the President of the Kentucky Distiller’s Association (KDA) and he filled me in as to what my role would be in the ceremony. I was the person who pointed out to him back in September that President Taft’s Decision was turning 100 years old this year and that the KDA should honor him with a special ceremony. He took it to the board of the KDA, and they agreed. They were going to have Governor Taft of Ohio accept the honor, but at the last minute he had to cancel, so I was drafted to accept the honor in his place. The plan was for Pam Gover from the Kentucky Bourbon Festival to welcome everybody to the ceremony, followed by Gregory introducing other Hall of Fame members and KDA board members and finally introducing Governor Beshear. The Governor would then give a brief talk followed by Gregory presenting me the award and I would accept on the behalf of the Taft family. Once I finished then the Master Distillers would come forward and Jimmy Russell, the Master Distiller from Wild Turkey and senior statesman of the group, would leads us all in a toast to William Howard Taft.

People were arriving and the bourbon and food was served. They had a separate wine and beer bar down the hall for the few guests who were not inclined to drink bourbon. There was an official photographer for the event, but the press was not invited. Besides Jimmy Russell and Harlan Wheatly, Fred Noe (Jim Beam), Kevin Smith (Maker’s Mark) and Tom Bulliett (Diageo) were the Master Distillers / Brand Ambassadors present. The guests mingled and enjoyed the excellent food and libations. The First Lady, Jane Beshear came down at about 6:00 and entertained her guests with conversation, but the Governor was at a meeting across town. In fact the Governor was running a little late and did not arrive until 6:45 causing the actual ceremony to start about 15 minutes late.

The ceremony went off as Eric Gregory described it. Pam Gover did a quick introduction and welcome. Gregory introduced the Governor and thanked him for his support of the industry. Governor Beshear gave an excellent talk and poked some fun at Jimmy Russell stating that Jimmy served President Taft his first glass of bourbon after the decision. He also pointed out just how important the industry is to Kentucky and it really is the signature industry of Kentucky. Anywhere he has travelled in the world, he finds people interested in Kentucky Bourbon. Gregory then took the podium and presented the award to me to accept for the Taft family.

I had decided that the best thing I could do is to read a letter from the Filson Historical Society’s Special Collections from Taft to Kentucky Governor Willson in which Taft thanked the Governor for  supporting his decision. In this letter, found in the Filson's Augustus Everett Willson Papers (Mss. A W742/33),  Taft points out that Kentucky is a state where this decision is most important. I said that in fact Kentucky is the state that made the decision necessary because before this decision people would move to Kentucky and rectify a product and call it “Kentucky Bourbon” because they made it in Kentucky even if it had no aged whiskey in it at all. Because of this decision, William Howard Taft is the father of modern Bourbon Whiskey.

Mike Veach

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