In 1964 Congress made Bourbon an American whiskey, made only in the United States. It truly is an American spirit created from a melting pot of cultures. There are many people that say that it was the Scottish and the Scots-Irish that gave America its distilling traditions, but there were really many more immigrants that contributed to the creation of bourbon than just the Scottish and Scots-Irish. People from many nations and cultures came together to create the whiskeys we know today. I thought I would look at the brands we know today and see where their creators came from.
Early on there were many people distilling whiskey in the United States. Even Williams – Evan Williams was Welsh. Jim Beam – Jacob Beam was German and or Swiss depending upon the tides of politics at the time the Beams came to America. Old Overholt – The Overholts also came from that same region. W.L. Weller – The Weller family came from Germany and made matches in Maryland before coming to Kentucky to farm and distill whiskey. James E. Pepper – The Culpepper family were English when they came to Virginia.
The next wave includes brands started by families before or during the Civil War period. The Samuels family (T.W. Samuels and later Maker’s Mark) were Scottish. Henry McKenna – Henry McKenna was Irish and proud of it and that is why he put the harp on his label. Old Crow – James C. Crow was Scottish. J.W. Dant – Joseph W. was German who came to Kentucky in 1836 and made whiskey with a wooden still. Jack Daniels (Tennessee Whiskey, which is a close relative of bourbon) – Jack learned to make whiskey from a slave so I will give that brand at least half credit to an African-American.
The period after the Civil War is when many of the brands we know today were created and they come from families with a variety of origin. I.W. Harper – Isaac Wolfe Bernheim and his brother Bernard were German Jews who came to America for the opportunity to prosper that was not available to them in Europe. Old Charter – The Chappeze brothers were of French decent. Old Taylor – E. H. Taylor, Jr. traced his roots back to England. Glenmore – James and Frank Thompson came from Londonderry, Northern Ireland. Willet, Old Bardstown, etc. – The Willett family are French in origin but the Kulsveens are Norwegian.
After prohibition there was a heavy Jewish influence as people like Rosenstiel who owned the huge company of Schenley Distilleries as well as the smaller Heaven Hill and the Shapira family. The Stitzel (German), Farnsley (English) and Van Winkle (Dutch) families owned a distillery that would become a legend for making wheated Bourbon. The Medley brothers (English Catholic from Maryland before coming to Kentucky) not only owned their own distillery but also worked as distillers for many other companies.
The modern artisan distillery movement is making the industry even more diverse. These distillers are men and women, from many different cultures and nationalities that can best be described as simply “American”. There are many interesting innovations being tried by this latest generation of distillers that are bound to have an impact on the whiskeys produced in the future.
As can be seen from these examples and many more, there are people from many different cultures that come together as part of the heritage of Bourbon Whiskey. There are German, French, Scottish, Irish, Scot-Irish, English, Welsh, African-American and many more not listed here. There are protestant (Elijah Craig), Catholic (Henry McKenna), and Jewish (I W Harper) influences on the industry. There were women as well, both early on (Catherine Carpenter and Milly Stone) and later (Mary Dowling). Bourbon and other American whiskeys truly are the result of the melting pot of cultures that is America.