The Filson Bourbon History Series – Weeks 1 & 2

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Harlin Distillery in Monroe County, Kentucky in 1918. This photograph shows what typical farmer-distiller would have looked like in the early 20th century.

It is not often that The Filson has an opportunity to combine fund raising with public service, but the Filson Bourbon History Series fits the bill on both counts. The Filson Bourbon History Series is aimed at educating local bartenders and others involved in the service industry in heritage and use of Kentucky’s favorite distilled spirit – Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. At the completion of the Academy, those who are STAR Certified (Servers Trained in Alcohol Regulations) will be certified as an “Official Bartender For The Kentucky Bourbon Trail” from the Kentucky Distillers Association (KDA).

The first class was held on September 14th with a class of 9 people. Besides bartenders, there are people from a local distributor company and a local liquor store. The class discussed the early years of American distilling and the origin of Bourbon Whiskey in the first hour of the two hour program and concluded the night with how to do a tasting with Wild Turkey 101 the bourbon of the night. The class compared different types of glassware and looked at the six sources of flavor in American Whiskey.

These six sources are:
1) Grain bill – Bourbon is fifty-one percent corn, but there is also rye or wheat and malted barley in the grain bill. The types of grain and the percentage of each grain will impact the flavor profile.
2) Water –The mineral content of the water can have an impact on the flavor of the final product.  Does the distillery use Reverse Osmosis (RO) filtered water from the city or does it have a spring water source?
3) Fermentation – There are hundreds of different strains of yeast and each produces different types of alcohols and other fusel oils that flavor the whiskey. The length of time the distillers lets the mash ferment can also change the flavor profile of the whiskey.
4) Distillation – The proof at which the alcohol is distilled, the type of still (column or pot) and the number of times it is distilled are all major factors in the taste of the final product.
5) Maturation – The proof of the whiskey going into the brand new charred oak barrel is important. In addition, length of maturation is important, as are the type of warehouse (heated ironclad, steam-heated brick, etc.) in which the barrel is kept and where in the warehouse it is stored.
6) Bottling – At what proof does the distiller decide to bottle the bourbon and does he chill filter the product?

The Wild Turkey distillery is well known for keeping their distilling process a secret as much as possible. The bottle of Wild Turkey 101 we looked at has an unknown grain bill but is probably at least seventy percent corn. The water comes from the Kentucky River and is filtered. The distillery uses a three day fermentation period. Wild Turkey has one of the lowest distillation proofs in the industry, but they will not say exactly what that is. Wild Turkey also has one of the lowest barrel proofs in the industry at about 108 proof. They use a mixture of 6, 7 and 8 years old products in their Wild Turkey 101.

The first class was enjoyed by all and ended with many great questions.  It was a great beginning of Bourbon Festival week.

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Barrels of whiskey are loaded onto a steamboat, Carrolton, KY, ca. 1880.

Week Two:
On September 21, the second week of the Filson Bourbon History Series began with a full class of eager students. This was the Monday after the Kentucky Bourbon Festival and several of the student had been involved in activities in Bardstown all weekend.  Even after a long weekend, they had eager faces as I started the week’s history lecture.

The class began with a discussion of the changes in the industry during the nineteenth century. The industrial revolution and the introduction of steam power quickly changed the face of the whiskey industry as steam boats and railroads improved transportation. The invention of the column still in the 1840s and other improvements in distilling technology allowed for larger quantities of alcohol to be produced at less expense. Distiller James Christopher Crow applied scientific methods to distilling in efforts to make the process more constant. Hiram Walker and his “Canadian Club” whisky helped establish the idea of “brand name”. George Garvin Brown and his “Old Forrester” brand became the first bourbon sold only by the bottle and not by the barrel. E. H. Taylor, Jr. and his “OFC” brand recognized the importance of packaging, and he designed an impressive logo for his barrel heads and used brass rings on his barrels to make them standout on the back bar of the saloon. These were only some of the many innovations of the nineteenth century.

The tasting portion of this class explored different types of bourbon and American whiskeys. We started with a traditional bourbon made with rye (Old Forester Signature) followed by Old Fitzgerald 1849, a good example of a wheated bourbon, which uses wheat instead of rye. Our third product took us out of Kentucky as we tasted George A. Dickel No. 12 Tennessee Whisky. We finished the night with Sazerac Rye, an example of whiskey made with fifty-one percent or more rye. We spent about 15 minutes with each of these whiskeys and discussed the six sources of flavor shaped their taste profile.

Once again the class ended with many great questions and an animated discussion of the week’s subjects. Next week we are forced to change our schedule as Brown-Forman is sponsoring a cocktail contest at the same time as our class and many of the bartenders are involved in the contest as contestants or judges. The class has been moved up to start in the afternoon.

Next Week:

Bottled in Bond Act of 1897, The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, the Taft Decision of 1909 and Prohibition. The different categories of bourbon: Single Barrel, Small Batch, Extra Aged and specialty whiskey.

Mike Veach

3 comments on “The Filson Bourbon History Series – Weeks 1 & 2

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    1. Jennie Cole

      Thank you, Mr. Cassidy! Mike is an independent historian now, and I will pass this information along to him!


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