Those of you who have followed this column for a while, maintaining a safe following distance of 2 ½ car lengths, certainly know by now that I'm a Southerner, specifically, a Virginian. You may also know that I was born in Kentucky to West Virginia hillbillies, raised in the Alleghany Highlands of Virginia, and educated in Mars Hill, North Carolina, all in Southern Appalachia. But for a brief period of time when I went to college in Richmond, Virginia, I have spent my entire life amid the sheltering confines of the Blue Ridge mountains.
What this means to you is.
One of the principal things my part of the country has been known for, besides the invention of country music (for which we can no longer be prosecuted, having passed the statute of limitations on crimes against music), is massive opioid abuse and staggering levels of poverty and ignorance. But that's not what this article is about, and since I make the rules around here, we're going to talk about another of this region's exports, moonshine. This article is not really about moonshine, either, it's about bourbon; but to my mind, you must understand one to know the other.
As I write this, I have a jar of 'untaxed whiskey' in my refrigerator, and several bottles of nice bourbon on top of it. I've also got a bottle of Jack Daniel's, which is a Tennessee whiskey and not a bourbon (I'll get into the difference later), some Bombay Sapphire gin, and a few nice single malt Scotches (Oban, Lagavulin, Laphroaig), and an exceptionally nice Japanese whiskey (Yamazaki). Add to this the array of craft beers just below in my cold box, and you'll get a sense of another thing we hillbillies are known for, which is prodigious amounts of alcohol consumption.
One of the earliest things mankind figured out was how to make alcohol. It is said that making beer was the beginning of agriculture, when our hunter-gatherer ancestors figured out that just the right combination of fermented grains produced a liquid that made everyone more attractive and interesting. It was probably right around this time that dancing was invented, though actual music would come later (according to Ken Burns, with the birth of Louis Armstrong
Our tale begins in Appalachia, in the late 18th century, when Scots-Irish settlers brought their pot stills and recipe for uisce beatha
(Gaelic for "water of life") to the mountainous region that reminded them of the highlands of home. Nearby to where I live, both Glenvar High School and Radford University use the nickname 'The Highlanders' in tribute to the Scots-Irish influence on our region. Also, one county over from where I live, Franklin County, is the subject of the book The Wettest County in the World
and the subsequent movie Lawless
, about the exploits of the moonshiners who filled that county during Prohibition. The untaxed whiskey in my refrigerator came from the submarine-shaped boilers unique to that county.
Veering wildly back on track.
Moonshine is made from taking a variety of grains, called a 'mash bill,' that consists mostly of corn and combining them with yeast, sugar and water. The mash bill may also contain rye or barley, depending on the maker. At this point, there is very little difference between bourbon and moonshine. The difference comes when the resultant whiskey is either bottled straight from the still or mellowed in charred oak barrels. Another difference is that the mash bill for bourbon must contain at least 51% corn in order to be considered bourbon. Another difference is that I can buy bourbon in any one of Virginia's state-controlled ABC stores, whereas I get my 'shine from a guy who knows a guy. True Genius Tale:
I was born in Paintsville, Kentucky. While living there my mother decided to join forces with my grandmother to put up their summer jams, jellies, and preserves together. To that end, they purchased the large amount of sugar necessary for the task and went home to start work. It wasn't long after that they were visited by Federal revenue agents, wondering why they needed that much sugar. In case you haven't guessed, sugar is one of the main ingredients in moonshine. This was 1967.
Apocrypha has it that Kentuckian Elijah Craig, a native Virginian who was also a Baptist minister, was the first to age his whiskey in barrels to create bourbon. There are several theories as to where the name "bourbon" came from. Some attribute it to Bourbon County, Virginia, established in 1785 and comprising much of present-day Kentucky. Kentucky decided to become a Commonwealth in 1792, forgoing the chance to be a part of the Old Dominion, and denying me the chance to be a born-and-bred Virginian. It is, then, no small coincidence that Your Own Personal Genius was born in a part of Kentucky that was once part of Bourbon County, Virginia.
Another theory states that the name bourbon comes from Bourbon Street, in New Orleans
, where Kentucky whiskey sold briskly as a less expensive option to French cognac. This theory holds ground because it seems to predate the Bourbon County theory. Interestingly enough, though, there were no distilleries in Bourbon County from the beginning of Prohibition in 1919 until 2014. But let's not argue, kids. Let's have a drink and agree to disagree. How nice this nation would be if we could just do that for all of our major differences, like whether Coke Zero Sugar is superior to Pepsi Zero Sugar (it is).
The low-iron limestone water of Kentucky made it perfect for whiskey-making and is why most of the bourbon production in America comes from the Bluegrass State. The same water flows in places through Tennessee, most notably in Lynchburg, the home of Jack Daniel's. Jack Daniel's is not a bourbon, because it goes through an additional charcoal mellowing process before it is barreled, making it a Tennessee whiskey. Don't trouble yourself over the difference, kids, I'm just making a point.