I was recently asked by Fred Minnick who I thought would be on a list of people who helped bring Bourbon back in the 1990s. We went through many of the usual suspect – Cowdery, the Regans, Murray, and Hansel, but he had to think for a second when I said Waymack and Harris.
I first met Mark Waymack and Jim Harris in 1994. They contacted me at the archive at Stitzel-Weller and wanted to interview me to see if I could help them with the history portion of their new American Whiskey book. Both men are philosophy professors and had done a book called Single-Malt Whiskies of Scotland and were working on a book on Bourbon, Rye and Tennessee whiskeys. I ended up spending a couple of days helping them and in 1995 their book The Book of Classic American Whiskeys came out.
Their book was the first book to focus on Bourbon and other American whiskeys. Waymack and Harris had to decide on their own how to design and write the book. They spent the first 50 pages on the history of Bourbon, more words than anyone had written since 1970 with Crowgey’s book Kentucky Bourbon: The Early Years of Whiskeymaking. The book had short histories of the distilleries and their brands with tasting notes at the end of distillery each section. They were the first people in a quarter of a century to write about America’s distilling heritage in a book. They helped pave the way for the success of the books that followed. Is it the best book out there? No, but the others that came after are better because Waymack and Harris broke the ground for them.
The book is well written and illustrated with photographs both historical and those taken by the authors while touring distilleries. Some of the images are a bit “muddy” but still recognizable for what they are. It is a pleasure for me to open the book and see images of Al Young and Jimmy Russell from the time period in which I first met them. The history is pretty good. They were the first writers to dig past the marketing stories on brands. They still occasionally put some marketing speak in the stories but it must be remembered that in that time frame there were not other people really trying to get past those stories other than Chuck Cowdery and John Lipman and their work was just being put out there for people to find. The book actually has a bibliography so the readers could look at what they looked at and make their own decisions on the subjects. The book really was a ground breaking book for Bourbon and other American whiskeys.
I have not seen either Mark or Jim in over ten years. They both went back to their day jobs of teaching philosophy. Waymack is a leading authority in Medical Ethics and Harris wrote amongst other things a book on the philosophy of Classic Rock Lyrics titled Philosophy at 33 1/3 rpm. I am not sure what they are doing today but hope to see them again at some whiskey show in the future. They truly deserve to be credited as an influence that helped bring Bourbon back in the 1990s.
Photos Courtesy of Maggie Kimberl