I received my contract to take the Bourbon Cruise on the American Queen the other day and Rosemary and I are excited to be doing this trip. We will be spending the Fourth of July on the American Queen and I could not help but think that there is no better way to be spending the holiday. Bourbon and steamboats share a rich heritage that is all American.
In 1787 John Fitch (1743-1798) operated the first steamboat on the Delaware River, He died the next year in Bardstown, Ky. Robert Fulton, with a better financial backing developed the first commercial steamboat in 1807. By 1811 the steamboat was so successful that the steamboat New Orleans made the first trip from Pittsburg to New Orleans. By 1821, the first year Bourbon is mentioned in a newspaper, steamboats are making regular trips from Kentucky to New Orleans, St. Louis and other places on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.
Bourbon whiskey was born out of this trade down the rivers to New Orleans. The people in New Orleans were not drinking whiskey from Kentucky. The price of whiskey in New Orleans in the second decade of the 19th century was the same as the price in Kentucky. It was not profitable to ship down river as an unaged corn whiskey. My theory is that Bourbon was created as a way to imitate the drink of choice in New Orleans, French Brandy. Cognac and Armagnac have been aged in charred barrels since the 15th century and it was decided to try to imitate that flavor by aging Kentucky whiskey in charred barrels. It worked and Bourbon whiskey was born.
Steamboats made it possible to ship Bourbon out of Kentucky in an economical manner. Barrels could be sent to St. Louis and New Orleans, big markets on their own, but more importantly, staging places to other markets further west up the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, or back to the east coast and California by ships out of New Orleans. As America spread west Bourbon was there to ease the pains and stress of the settlers. Like the early settlers in Kentucky whiskey played an important social, medicinal and economic role in the lives of the settlers expanding the nation’s borders.
The people who worked on a steamboat all worked for the owners of the boat with one exception, the bartender. The bartender would rent space on the boat and stock his bar with libations his customers wanted. I believe that these bartenders included the aged whiskey that was sold in New Orleans on Bourbon Street and it became known as Bourbon Street Whiskey, or later simply Bourbon Whiskey. These bartenders helped spread the word on the quality of Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey as they had customers from many regions traveling on the steamboat and drinking their whiskey. Steamboats made many stops along the rivers in small towns and large cities. Every time a passenger left the boat they were spreading the word of how good the whiskey they drank on the boat was and influencing what the owner of their local owner of their favorite saloon or tavern would purchase to serve their customers.
Steamboats played an important role in the transportation of people between cities and towns. For about 40 years they were the most readily available option to move people and cargo in the United States. Wagons and mules were much slower and in the long run more expensive. However after the Civil War railroads began to grow in length and eating away at the cargo and passenger business of the steamboats. Railroads had the advantage of not being tied to a river and could go places steamboats could not. It took until the invention of the automobile and decent roadway systems to completely destroy the steamboat industry in the 1920s. For a century steamboats were a major player in the transportation of goods and people in the United States. Today the great paddle-wheelers are rare and found only as cruise ships for either day cruises like the Belle of Louisville, or longer vacation cruises like the American Queen. However there is a romance and heritage of these boats that are worth preserving for future generations.