Friday, June 18, 2010

Spirit of the American Frontier

Alcohol was an important element in the settling of the frontier and the American West. Alcohol served to cement alliances between European nations and Native Americans, as well as serving as a conduit for trade. It served to relieve pain, boredom, and thirst on many different American frontiers. It also led to extreme violence and early death for some. Although rum and brandy were the initial beverages available on the earliest frontiers, it did not take long for liquor made from corn to become the "spirit" of the American frontier.

Why corn? Corn was ubiquitous in America. It grew everywhere and was a major component in the diet of Native Americans, colonists, and their African slaves. Native Americans probably fermented some types of beverages from native fruits and plants like all other indigenous peoples throughout the world. Though evidence is scant, a weak type of corn beer may have been part of the diet of many Native American tribes. Some tribes may have had no types of fermented beverages which may explain why they were quickly addicted to West Indian Rum and French Brandy. Even if they did have some types of alcoholic drinks, they were quickly abandoned after the discovery of the stronger, better-tasting European spirits including spirits made with corn.

Another factor in why corn was a favorite had to do with logistics. Corn was not an easy product to haul to market from the frontier. Instead of taking 10 carts of corn to market, the early American settler could convert his product to alcohol and send one cart of whiskey to the market and make considerable profit. And so, early colonists began to experiment with corn to see if they could produce a good tasting alcoholic beverage with it that helped to provide a drinking potable for the colonists who did not have a fresh, clean water supply.

In a 1682 travel narrative Thomas Ashe described an early forerunner to American corn-based distillations when he wrote that the South Carolina settlers “have lately invented a way of making it good sound Beer, but it’s strong and heady: By Maceration, when duly fermented, a strong Spirit like Brandy may be drawn off from it, by help of an Alembick.” An Alembick was an early type of still. This method of distilling the beverage along with the further refinements of adding additional grains such as rye, wheat, and barley would eventually give way to the American Bourbon industry that was to cast its shadow from its origins in Bourbon County, Kentucky to the shores of the Pacific.

It was the Scotch-Irish who also brought their own experience and technologies to America that helped to spark a revolution in American distilling. Many frontiersmen took this spark to the frontier. And in the late 1700’s, American settlers in the “dark and bloody” lands of Kaintuck set about turning their corn into whiskey for sale in distant markets. One of them, Reverend Elijah Craig, was an independent Baptist preacher who had spent some time in a South Carolina jail because he did not have an Episcopal ordination from the Anglican establishment. Craig, moved to Bourbon County to practice his religion freely. He owned a corn mill there. One day a fire broke out and charred the inside of some of his oak barrels which he used to age and ship his corn whiskey. Not wanting to be wasteful he used the barrels to ship his product to New Orleans. After the long trip the whiskey had mellowed to a smoother and richer flavor. People started calling this product Bourbon because it was from Bourbon County, Kentucky. The end result was it became an American frontier favorite.

When I visited Kentucky earlier this year I visited the Woodford Distillery. The history of the distillery began in 1812 and the distillery building (1834) is one of the oldest buildings of nine working distiliries in Kentucky and the site is now a National Historic Landmark. Today a super-premium bourbon named Woodford Reseeve is produced there. It is the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby.

The smell of "corn beer" before it is distilled is wonderful

Mint Juleps are made from bourbon, sugar and mint leaves. The Mint Julep is thought of as the classic Southern American cocktail and naturally it is made with Bourbon Whiskey. It is also the drink of the ultimate horse race: the Kentucky Derby. The Mint Julep's origins are from the Middle East where “julab” the Arab word for rose water became julep in most western languages. The drink’s ancestors appeared in England during the 1400’s as concoctions of sugar, water, and herbs or plants. These were used in non-alcoholic combinations mainly for medicinal purposes. Later alcohol was added. Rum, whiskey, and brandy were favorites. This drink was brought to the American colonies. Instead of rum and brandy, corn whiskey was used. There was also the adaptation in the colonies of adding mint leaves to the drink. Good bourbon soon followed, replacing the corn whiskey and became its main ingredient. In 1845, a South Carolinian named William Heyward Trapier reintroduced juleps to the students attending Oxford University in England when he found out they were unfamiliar with them. Since then, Oxford University has toasted has name and celebrated “Mint Julep Day” on June 1st every year.

Bourbon is still made today at places like Woodford Reserve in traditional small batches. I encourage you to sometime soon imbibe on the spirit of America’s frontier.

Andy Thomas

Sources used:
The South Carolina quotation is from Narratives of Early Carolina, edited by Alexander S. Salley, 1911

Bourbon Whiskey:

Woodford Distillery:

Mint Julep:


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  2. Interesting post! I like this blog and I'm sorry to see there's no new updates. Hope to see one soon! AnaV.