A SHOT of Kentucky Bourbon, Whiskey, and Brandy Distilling Heritage

Kentucky distilling heritage starts with both whiskey and brandy distillation. When the earliest settlers came to Kentucky in the 1700’s, their stills were an important part of the journey’s supplies. Whiskey was produced by mashing and distilling dried grains. Brandy was produced by mashing and distilling fresh fruit. Bourbon doesn’t come along in documented history until the early 1800’s. A recent discussion topic with friends while sampling Bourbon and Brandy was this “….which came first, Bourbon, Whiskey or Brandy?”

Anyone with a general understanding of these three different spirits and their story within both worldwide and local distillation history would quickly say, “of course Whiskey came before Bourbon!” Yet not such an easy answer when deciding if it was Whiskey or Brandy that was the first distillate appearing on the Kentucky landscape.

Although one could reasonably argue either one, Whiskey likely came first since corn is a crop raised and harvested in a single year and was commonly cultivated in Kentucky. It could be distilled over an extended period as the grains were dried and only ground to make beer as needed. Whiskey was generally produced in early fall, winter, and even spring. Brandy on the other hand was a more seasonal product. Fruit trees take several years to mature and produce fruit. It also takes large amounts of fruit pulp to distill, and it must be fermented immediately upon ripening. Brandy distillation would have occurred primarily in the summer and early fall when fruit was harvested. Kentucky’s first Brandy was very likely from native fruit such as blackberries or paw-paws.

Historical records indicate Peach, Apple, and Pear Brandy were the most common brandies produced in Kentucky. Peach Brandy brought the best price in the market, followed by apple and then pear. The earliest Brandies were unaged spirits sold by the jug. As Whiskey began to be aged and shipped to the New Orleans market by the barrel, later to become known as Bourbon, distillers in Kentucky along the Ohio River also began aging their Brandy. The term Apple Jack comes from this early 19th century period as producers along the Ohio River aged their Brandy using the same sized barrels as Bourbon Whiskey. Traditional [European] Brandy is aged in a large barrel up to 92-gallons. The smaller 48-gallon and eventual 53-gallon barrels still used today, created a stronger wood infused spirit. Apple Jack is significantly more barrel influenced than Calvados or other European style Apple Brandy. The farming producers typically distilled both Whiskey and Brandy.

As the century progressed, technology allowed Bourbon distillers to build larger and more efficient stills and distilleries. Brandy distillers maintained as a small cottage industry using their smaller pot stills. In addition to the emerging taxation on the distilling industry, the inherent limited nature of brandy distillation began to separate production facilities between large Whiskey producers and smaller Brandy producers.

In the years between the American Civil War and Prohibition, there were several thousand Whiskey and several hundred Brandy distilleries registered in Kentucky. Many of the farm distilleries were so small that the government did not always enforce registration requirements. Most would have made less than 100 barrels in a season and many others only one or two barrels a season. Whiskey was a commodity that was distilled, sold and transported all across the developing and growing American Nation. Brandy distillation and consumption was more local in nature. The fact that American Brandy was an original “local sustainable market” activity at the corner grocery or farm contributed to its lack of expansion and brand recognition as time passed. Now compare that to early Whiskey and Bourbon distribution activities that were the opposite…you quite possibly have Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey branding as the “mother of branding a product” as we know it!

In the late 1900’s Thomas Batman of Louisville seized opportunity and dealt in Apple and Peach Brandy. The rectifying producers, in addition to Brandy being consumed on its own, often used Brandies as a flavoring for Whiskey. By the beginning of the 20th century, Batman became known as the King of Brandy in that he purchased most of Kentucky and Southern Indiana’s Brandy production. He maintained thousands of barrels of Brandy in his warehouses. That would have required his negotiating with hundreds of distillers to amass large numbers of barrels every year.

Prohibition put practically all of Kentucky’s Bourbon, Whiskey, and Brandy distillers out of business. Only the very largest distilleries holding federal government special-issued Prohibition Period medicinal licenses survived the long dry period. After the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, the farmer distillers before prohibition did not return to the business. Regulations, taxation and fees became very restrictive and it simply was not profitable for small distilleries to operate.

Beginning with the first decade of the 21st century, we have seen a renaissance in the craft distilling industry for all distilled spirits, particularly Bourbon and Whiskey. Industry laws have changed and are more favorable to small distilling operations. During our current decade, the number of craft distilleries producing Bourbon and Whiskey here in Kentucky and across the United States has swelled to several thousand in total. Yet only about a hundred Brandy producers are currently operating throughout the country.

The world does not need another moonshine no matter how it is flavored…yet we could very much savor and appreciate a broader variety of American Brandies! May the near future bring a growing appreciation for both aged and unaged Kentucky produced American Brandy in addition to our current Bourbonism boom! Cheers to no better place than here in my home city and state – Louisville, Kentucky  – to be trend setters and popularize all our state spirits – Bourbon, Whiskey, and Brandy!

Photos Courtesy of Renae D. Price