Historic Structures

Kentucky Bourbon Labrot and Grahams Oscar Pepper - Old Crow - Distillery, Versailles Kentucky

Migratory farmers from Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia incited by the whiskey tax had already begun to settle the land in the territory that would become the Commonwealth of Kentucky in 1792. Here these farmer/distillers established grist mills and turned their grain into whiskey using copper stills. All that was needed were bushels of grain, a mill for grinding, mash tubs with pure, clear water for fermentation, fire for heating the still, and cold water to assist in the condensation process. Kegs or barrels stored the final product. It was this basic process that would evolve over time producing alcohol that by the first quarter of the 19th century came to be called bourbon after Bourbon County, then the largest in the state.

In 1810 Tench Coxe presented a new, more detailed, set of statistics for the production of distilled spirits. Kentucky, behind Pennsylvania, was the second highest producer, with over 2.2 million gallons annually, followed by Virginia, North Carolina, Ohio, and Tennessee. At the time, Kentucky hosted 2,000 stills, producing a total value of $740,242. Kentucky's output by 1810 thus could be ranked second in the country. A century later it would be first.

The distinguishing characteristic between Kentucky whiskey known as bourbon stems from the basic ingredient used in Kentucky—corn. The plentiful whiskey production in neighboring states, Tennessee, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, used a combination of barley, corn and rye. The alcohols produced there were often referred to as "high wines and cologne spirits." These products had high alcohol content but no taste or color, and were not capable of being improved by age. During the 19th century and before regulations were enacted, such alcohol was used immediately in processes of the growing chemical industry and by rectifiers who would add sweeteners and color to artificially produce whiskey.

Kentucky bourbon production developed from a more finely proportioned combination of corn, rye, and barley malt. Distillation was carried out using a copper still. In more advanced methods this distillate was redistilled in a copper still set over a wood fire. Finally, a distinctive flavor and color was imparted to the alcohol by storage in charred white oak barrels. An article describing products of Kentucky distillers in a whiskey trade and revenue publication of 1875 said "Time alone ripens and matures them, and they can never be said to be in prime condition for a market unless softened and mellowed by the heat of at least three summers." Bourbon characteristics were distinctive enough so that a product was labeled bourbon only if it originated from Kentucky.

Precise attribution as to who was the original distiller or creator of Kentucky bourbon has been much debated and researched, and substantive arguments for Evan Williams, Rev. Elijah Craig, or others whose names are cited in early literature or from oral tradition have not been substantiated. There are early advertisements for "bourbon whiskey," however, classifying the drink as a marketable commercial product. One such appeared in the Western Citizen on 21 June 1821 from the distiller Stout and Adams, Maysville, Bourbon County, selling "Bourbon Whiskey by the barrel or keg." Documented recipes exist that varied slightly from distiller to distiller but used the same basic ingredients. Production increased and the export market down the Mississippi grew, so that by 1840 the use of the name bourbon to identify a distinctive Kentucky whiskey in the American market had been well established.

Original survey sheets of the U.S. Census of Manufactures for 1820 provide detailed returns by state and county from individual manufacturers. Ironically, no distilleries were enumerated for Bourbon and Woodford Counties. From other Kentucky counties, it appears that corn or corn and rye were the grains typically used; costs per gallon ranged from 5 cents to 50 cents (with the higher sum most frequent); and production time ranged generally from four to five months. Larger producers devoted six months to distilling and had as many as 5 stills and 90 or more tubs.

To achieve a uniform and dependable bourbon whiskey, the imprecision of early production techniques was transformed between 1833 and 1855 by a Scotsman, James Christopher Crow, known as Dr. Crow. Crow became the master distiller for Oscar Pepper, Elijah's oldest son who took over the original distillery after his father's death in 1831. Crow's influence on the bourbon produced at the "Old Oscar Pepper Distillery," was significant in the history of bourbon production, because he instituted scientific methodology to perfect quality.

Crow was born on June 11, 1787, the son of William and Catherine Early Crow, at Dirleton, twenty miles east of Edinburgh. Newspaper reports of his time implied he had a medical degree from the medical school at the University of Edinburgh, but no records there have been found. He came to the United States through Philadelphia and by 1823 was working in a small distillery of Col. Willis Field, Sr., State Representative from Woodford County. Here he began perfection of the process before he took over Pepper's distillery. Crow died on 20 April 1856, soon after leaving the Oscar Pepper Distillery. At the time of his death, the Oscar Pepper Distillery was the core of scientific distilling in Kentucky.

Soon after his death, Crow was recognized as integral to the development of the bourbon industry. The 1870 Louisville Commercial claimed that generations of master distillers associated with James Crow and those who followed in his footsteps used the "copper process," one in which the liquid from the sour mash was distilled from copper stills heated by fire and then redistilled in another copper still heated over a wood fire. Published in 1894, the first comprehensive history of Kentucky whiskey described Crow as "the most famous of the old distillers." His whiskey was "a synonym for all that was best in Kentucky's favorite beverage, and he gave more attention to minutiae than was customary with his contemporaries." The New York Times titled its September 1897 biographical sketch of Crow, "James Crow, Whisky Maker. The Man Who Reduced Distilling to a Science in Kentucky Back in the Thirties." The article stated that "to him, more than any other man is due the international reputation that Kentucky whiskey enjoys and the vast distilling interests of the country are largely the result of his discoveries." Shortly thereafter the St. Louis Republic, described Crow as "Kentucky's Great Original Scientist." In 1909, Col. Edmund H. Taylor, famed distiller of his day, stated that "I remember when James Crow, whom I knew... gave us the first practical use of the hydrometer, saccharometer, thermometer, etc., which inaugurated a new basis toward systematic procedure in the distillation of Kentucky whisky." The brand name, "Old Crow," imparted to his traditional bourbon remains popular today.

Examination of manufacturing data from the U.S. Census provides a brief outline of the importance of Kentucky's role in the United States' production of distilled alcohol from before the Civil War through the end of World War II. Unfortunately due to fluctuations from decade to decade in the data collected (such as methods for arriving at product values and for counting distillery establishments), some data is equivocal or missing. However, trends are visible over the decades from 1850 to 1910 (Prohibition eliminated statistics for 1920 and 1930), and brief descriptions of the liquor industry supply some historic context for the Census figures. Other published manufacturing reports combined with the census data help paint a national picture of the ebb and flow of distilling in the United States and clearly show that by 1900 the Kentucky production of bourbon out ranked all other nationally distilled alcoholic beverages of America.

In 1850 the Census table "Professions, Occupations and Trades of the Male Population" classify 49 distillers in Kentucky and 114,715 farmers (a manufacturers table has not been located). By the 1860 Census over 1200 distilled liquor manufacturers operated in Kentucky. This increase in the number of distillers over a decade appears to be the fact that on census surveys, farmers such as Elijah or Oscar Pepper considered their chief occupation farming, not distilling. Only professional distillers working in a large plant would have answered the survey as a distiller.

Starting with the Census of 1860 and continuing to 1910 the manufacture of Liquor is broken into six categories: bottled, distilled, malt, rectified, wine, cordials. National events such as the Civil War and the Temperance Movement played a role in the economics of distilleries. Obvious, however, is the consistent rise in the value of production at the U.S. level until 1900 and then a large increase in 1910. The marked increase of Kentucky's product between 1900 and 1910 shows bourbon's growing importance. The fluctuations in the number of distilleries reflects the gradual elimination of smaller plants and consolidation of others in larger more economic production processes. This was especially true for the distilled alcohol producers of Illinois and Indiana, whose product was not barreled. In Kentucky the smaller distilleries existed longer.

A comparison of census data between 1900 and 1910 that ranks the states in their production continually pits Illinois against Kentucky. In 1900 Illinois claimed to be the number one producer in the country of distilled spirits, with Kentucky the fourth. This is established by comparing total production. However, when one compares proof gallons only (the product Kentucky is producing), Kentucky is higher than all other states by both volume and value. North Carolina had the highest number of establishments, 250, but a lesser product value. These contextual statistics thus rank Kentucky as the first in the country. In 1910 the description of distilled spirits indicates that Kentucky has advanced to second place from fourth. The value of production has increased nearly four times. By comparing the gallon production again between Illinois and Kentucky, Kentucky again ranks first.

In the world market, the popularity and demand for Kentucky whiskey was also growing rapidly. By 1875 bourbon was described as "the national beverage of America" and being imported to foreign markets in Europe, Mexico, Cuba, and South America. Twenty-five years later in 1900 the largest number of gallons of any liquor exported by the U.S. was bourbon, 863,241 proof gallons. The export of rye by comparison during the same period was merely 91,721 gallons. By 1900 bourbon stood as a unique American distilled spirit that could be ranked first in the nation in both production and export. In 1964 bourbon was recognized "as a distinctive product of the United States" by the U. S. Congress. Production of bourbon in nine states beside Kentucky was identified in 1983. Kentucky, however, is the only state name that can be used on a product label. Today, 98% of all bourbon is made in Kentucky by at least 15 functioning distilleries. In the landscape, however, 50 distilleries have been documented and at least 25 or more distillery sites or allied buildings remain standing as relics of the farm-distilleries that grew into larger businesses.