View Full Version : Bourbon Literature

09-19-2011, 04:51
I am coming to the end of a ten year period of intensive reading of bourbon history and related materials (magazines, memoirs, topical literature, miscellaneous online info old and newer, etc.). Everything has a natural end and I think my last major effort in this regard will be to read Henry Crowgey's well-known book, Kentucky Bourbon: The Early Years Of Whiskeymaking. In fact I am part way through it now. (My participation on SB and gazebos will remain unaffected).

It is a masterful study, well-researched for the time (published first in 1971, and re-issued in 2008 by The University Press of Kentucky). It has a calm, assured writing style, with a subtle humor throughout, a characteristic of books on the subject I find.

Despite the advances of research since then, most of its conclusions seem very sound to me. Some areas I have comments on:

He states that relatively little information is available on whiskey mashbills in the early 1800's. However, Samuel M'Harry's book of circa-1810 goes into great detail on this. M'Harry is not cited in Crowgey's book, a rare omission since he has all the other early distilling works covered from what I can see (Michael Krafft's, Harrison Hall's, etc.). But basically M'Harry confirms Crowgey's opinion that corn and rye were the main grains used with corn predominating as the years went on. M'Harry by the way was writing in Pennsylvania, but I don't think that really matters.

Crowgey states also that little information is available on whiskey color during again the initial decades of the 1800's. However, I recall a reference by Dr. Crow to the "red crittur" in a letter he wrote to a friend (1840's). I read about this in another book on bourbon history or perhaps on the other board - Mike Veach knows the source I believe. Mike also has referred to an early letter from a grocer advising a distiller to char his barrels, which connects to both color and taste. Crowgey appears to consider that the charred barrel was not remarked on initially (early 1800's) as something special, but still the overall picture he paints about the product's evolution seems very sound.

The one area I disagree with is his suggestion that "Old Bourbon" meant the former county in Kentucky from which numerous smaller ones were created irrespective of the age of the product. I agree that bourbon whiskey was named after an area called Bourbon, which later became smaller, and it retained the name despite the geographic truncation, but to me "Old" Bourbon meant aged bourbon.

He seems wrong on this because he cites other period ads, e.g., for Old Rye and even Old Malt whiskey, and of course those have nothing to do with counties, so why could Old Bourbon mean young whiskey from the old region of Bourbon County?. His main argument seems to be ads which state that old bourbon could be as young as 1 year old but I think he goes wrong here: common whiskey was new white whiskey. Even bourbon today by law can be called that if aged for a time in the barrel. The time is not defined clearly, and could even be some weeks. So bourbon 12 months old was old in fact and probably the better qualities were yet older as shown by ads he cites, e.g. that old bourbon was offered at 1-6 years old.

But apart from that his conclusions seem very valid today. It's a great work and being in Maysville recently just made it seem all that more real to me.

Is Henry Crowgey still living, does anyone know?


09-19-2011, 09:23
We had a discussion in 2008 on the other board about Henry Crowgey and his career. Mike V had reported that he was still living at 91 in that year. He would be 94 if still with us.


09-19-2011, 16:36
Gary, I wonder if you might provide a brief annotated bibliography of some of the highlights of your study. I know I'd be interested.

09-19-2011, 17:04
Tom, thanks for this suggestion but this would be impossible! I never wrote down what it was. Let's say: intensive involvement here on SB and (earlier on) the other board; reading many (not all) of the main early distilling texts cited in Crowgey, the U.S. ones anyway; reading the whiskey press fairly regularly over this period; intensive searching of old and newer texts on Google Books; and studying many of the whiskey-related studies and memoirs issued in the last 40 years, e.g., Carson's Social History of Bourbon, Chuck Cowdery's book, Waymack & Harris's book, of course all Michael Jackson's writings, Sam Cecil's, the Van Winkle family history, and it goes on.

But there comes a time to turn to something else.

Pre-2002 for about 10 years, I studied the literature of the Beat Generation.

All this in spare time of course, with rock and roll interests an important part throughout.