Dr. James Crow

You don’t have to dig deep into the history of bourbon before you will come across the name of Dr. James Crow. There may not even be a bourbon history without Dr. Crow. His contributions to the distilling process set the standard for producing good, consistent bourbon and these processes, for the most part, have not changed in almost 200 years. It’s no wonder that he’s often referred to as the “father of bourbon.”

Dr. Crow graduated from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland as a doctor and chemist. He arrived in Kentucky in 1823 and went to work at the Glenn’s Creek distillery for a short time. He then went to work at the Old Oscar Pepper distillery where he remained for most of his career. It was there that he applied the scientific method to making whiskey and thus changed the course of bourbon history.

The basic formula for whiskey is this: beer and steam go into the still, and alcohol and spent mash come out. Early distillers made whiskey as consistently as possible, but in the end, it didn’t make much difference. It was sold by the barrel and ended up in the hands of rectifiers who would add colors and flavors and water to make more profit. Crow, on the other hand, approached distilling as a scientist and began to look at the many variables of the whiskey-making process. He wanted to know why some whiskeys were good and some were bad. Armed with a thermometer, a hydrometer to check proof, and litmus paper to measure acidity, he began to meticulously record all of this data until he learned what made consistently good whiskey. He also was extremely concerned with cleanliness in the distillery. Dirty equipment, vats and tanks could harbor bacteria and even unwanted yeasts that would make whiskey taste bad.

It is worth noting that Dr. Crow is often credited with ‘inventing’ the sour mash process. This involves adding some of the spent mash from a previous batch of whiskey to start fermentation of the next batch. The sour mash process keeps ph levels and yeast strains consistent with each run of the still, ensuring a consistent product and controlling the growth of unwanted bacteria that could taint the whiskey. It is more likely that Dr. Crow learned the method elsewhere and became responsible for its use in almost all bourbons.

After experimenting with batch after batch, his bourbon was so good that people began to ask for ‘Old Crow’ by name. It was one of the first bourbons to be referred to by brand and was enjoyed by many of his contemporaries, including Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, Ulysses S. Grant, Walt Whitman, Henry Clay, Jack London and Mark Twain. According to legend, Grant’s critics complained to president Lincoln about Grant’s excessive drinking, to which Lincoln replied ‘Find out what kind of whiskey he drinks and send a barrel to my other generals.’

Doc Crow died in 1856 but his contributions live on in every drop of delicious bourbon that passes your lips. Almost 50 years after his death, the New York Times wrote that “to him, more than to any other man, is due the international reputation that Kentucky whiskey enjoys, and the vast distilling interests of the country are largely the result of his discoveries.” With that in mind, Doc, I drink one to you. Cheers.

Issue #12 – Weekly Reader

America’s Best Bourbon Bars   // gobourbon

The Bourbon Review magazine has compiled a list of the best bourbon bars by region. See if your favorite local watering hole made the list.

Kentucky Bourbon Festival  // usatoday

USA Today has a nice piece on this year’s Kentucky Bourbon Festival

Trailer Carrying Bourbon Buckles on U.S. 60  // lexingtonheraldleader

Say it ain’t so!!! The bourbon that broke the trailer’s back.

Moonshine University Offers Bourbon Making Classes  // louisville

Moonshine University is offering many opportunities to learn about the bourbon making process from start to finish. Click to see upcoming classes. Be warned, they sell out quick.

Product Launch – US:Beam Suntory’s Jim Beam Signature Craft Range  // just-drinks

Jim Beam to launch several new additions to its Signature Craft Bourbon Line, including grain expressions including Rolled Oat, Triticale, High Rye and Six Row Barley.

What Will Kill the Bourbon Boom?  // bourbonr

In the past five years whiskey sales have increased by 40% in the US and exports have nearly tripled within the last 10 years.

How the American Revolution Ended in Bourbon

Western Pennsylvania, September 1794. James Gayle, 33, returned home after selling his two mules for $86 and buying a flat boat in Pittsburgh. George Washington and Alexander Hamilton’s Whiskey Act tax was driving hundreds of farmers/distillers in Pennsylvania one of two ways – fighting mad or down the river to Kentucky. Gayle was one of 200 thousand Scotch-Irish immigrants and he knew how to make great whiskey. In his mind, this new federal tax of nine cents a gallon on the whiskey he made in his small copper still was morally and legally wrong. Gayle loaded his wife and 6 young children in the flat boat and began the 600 mile journey down the Ohio River to Kentucky.

Just two months prior, Gayle and 500 other armed men had attacked the fortified home of a tax inspector in western Pennsylvania. General George Washington, sitting president, led a federalized militia force of 12,950 men to squash the Whiskey Rebellion. Who were the rebels? Angry distillers like Gayle refusing to pay this new “luxury” tax imposed by a federal government that was less than five years old.

Back up even further in American history. How had whiskey become so popular that Hamilton decided to use it to pay the debt piled up from the Revolutionary War? Prior to the war, rum was the king of strong drink in America. By 1770, there were 140 rum distilleries producing 4.8 million gallons of rum annually – in addition to the 3.7 million gallons imported each year. But during the war something changed. Molasses imports from Caribbean sugar plantations to the Colonies halted.

The Revolution meant the decline of rum and the ascendancy of whiskey in America. When the British blockade of American ports cut off the molasses trade, most New England rum distillers converted to whiskey. Whiskey had a patriotic flavor. It was an all-American drink, made in America by Americans from American grain, unlike rum, wine, gin, Madeira, brandy, coffee, chocolate, or tea, which had to be imported and were taxed. — Kentucky Moonshine, Maurer and Pearl

Take a moment to celebrate the fact that your glass is filled with distinctly-American, Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey.

But back to our young distiller, James Gayle. His family survived the flat boat trip from Pennsylvania. And in the fertile bottomlands of Kentucky, James found the right ingredients for the highest quality whiskey. Abundant cold limestone spring water, corn (which produces better yields of whiskey than rye), oak trees for barrels, and easy access to thirsty markets down stream on the Ohio river. Gayle and the other tax-evading farmers and distillers from Western Pennsylvania began producing what would become America’s Native Spirit – Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey. Here’s to the revolutionaries. Here’s to the rebels!