When I started working at the Stitzel-Weller Distillery, I crossed a railroad track every day going into the distillery. This track had a spur leading up to the distillery building. It was no longer in use, but had been in use as late as the 1960s. Grain cars would be backed up to the distillery and grain would be unloaded to be made into Bourbon. Trucks replaced the rail cars, but it was the railroad that made the distillery possible.
The column still was invented in the 1840s, but it was not possible for most distilleries to have one until the railroad came to town. It takes huge amounts of grain and large mash tubs to feed a column still. This is not economical when the only way to get the necessary grain is to hire horse drawn wagons to deliver it to the distillery. The railroad allowed much larger shipments of grain to be delivered at a lower price.
The Louisville and Nashville Railroad was started in 1850 and by 1859, it linked Louisville, Kentucky with Nashville, Tennessee. The American Civil War interrupted service, but after the war, the railroad expanded to most of the south. It also expanded with spurs into the distilleries along the route. Soon, other railroad lines were connecting Louisville with the remaining parts of the state. A bridge across the Ohio River allowed expansion to northern cities such as Indianapolis and Chicago.
The expansion of the railroad allowed for new, large, column still distilleries to be built. Many of the distilleries making brands we know today were built or expanded in the early 1870s because of their new links to the railroad. Train loads of grain were delivered to the distilleries and carloads of barrels of whiskey were being delivered to market. The construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, completed in 1869, made western markets available. Before the railroad, barrels of whiskey had to be shipped to a port city, mostly New Orleans for Kentucky distillers, and then loaded onto clipper ships to sale south through the Straits of Magellan and then north to California ports such as San Francisco. This was a long trip made shorter by the railroad. Cities such as Denver, Colorado could now get barrels of whiskey in weeks instead of months.
Railroads also made the marketing of whiskey easier. Salesmen could be in cities in a few days, even when the city was not linked to Louisville by riverboat. They could carry sample bags filled with bottles of their brand of whiskey to allow customers to sample the whiskey before they purchased barrels. It also worked in reverse as customers could travel to Louisville to the distillery offices on Whiskey Row to talk directly with owners of the company. This made Louisville the “Bourbon Capital of the World”, according to one writer in Mida’s Criteria, a trade magazine out of Chicago.
The railroad remained an important part of distillery development up to the 1950s. The development of the Interstate Highway system allowed for truckloads of grain to be delivered to distilleries in a timely manner. Truckloads of grain replaced the railcars and trucks began to ship the cases of whiskey out of the distilleries. Trucks had an advantage of being able to ship directly to more places. Just like the railroad replaced the riverboat as the primary means of transporting the whiskey to market, trucks replaced the railroad.
The next time you visit an established distillery, look for the railroad spur. It may not be apparent because it was pulled up and paved over, but it was there.
Photos courtesy of Rosemary Miller and from the archives of Michael Veach (First photo: Schenley Remarks of Merit, 1938)