In the 19th century the people of Kentucky would say that the Four Pillars of Kentucky Society were all due to the Limestone water found in the state. These four pillars are 1) Bourbon, 2) Thoroughbred Horses, 3) Tobacco and 4) Pretty Women. The citizens of Kentucky celebrated these four pillars in newspapers, poetry, postcards, Bourbon labels and advertisements. If you look at the Bourbon labels and advertisements of the 19th century, the limestone water made Kentucky a very special place live. There are many images of springs, cigars, horses and pretty women associated with Bourbon.
Millions of years ago the land that is now Kentucky was under a sea of water with shells of the dead creatures habituating the sea forming the limestone rock that is so dominant in Kentucky today. As the land rose and the continents shifted, the limestone shelf would be covered with flora and fauna that made the land a rich hunting ground to the 18th century settlers. Rain water would dissolve the limestone creating caves and underground rivers and streams. When the water resurfaced in springs, it was rich in calcium and other minerals, but also free from iron. This water was found to make the best whiskey. The minerals helped support the yeast growth and the fact it was free from iron prevented the bad taste that comes when iron is in whiskey.
This same limestone water would gather into streams and rivers giving Kentucky many miles of navigable rivers giving the early settlers a roadway through the wilderness. These rivers would aid the economy with trade downstream to New Orleans and beyond. This same limestone water also came with a hazard in the form of disease. Water would carry bacteria in the underground rivers and streams making diseases like typhus pop up at seemingly random places in the state. It was always wise to drink your water with a little Bourbon in it to prevent disease.
In the modern world the water has become less important in distilling. Reverse Osmosis or RO water is often used to make Bourbon because the ground water has become polluted and the distilleries are dependent upon “city water” which has been processed with chemicals like chlorine. Some distilleries still have their own water source of true limestone water and work hard to protect the source from pollution. Limestone water is still the base for the four pillars of Kentucky society.
Photos Courtesy of Maggie Kimberl