View Full Version : Gerald Carson's Social History of Bourbon (1963)

03-27-2005, 10:20
I found this unexpectedly in a book store while passing through Portland, Oregon. (Sample of local whiskey history: on the riverfront painted on the side of an old brick building: "Cyrus Noble - Old Goods" - rivers and whiskey always went together, in more ways than one).

This is an interesting and important book. There are many nuggets in it, e.g. whiskey was made and aged to be dark and rich in the late 1800's so it would stand up to being diluted with grain spirits, Col. Taylor was a non-imbiber, Elijah Craig's early role in whiskey was documented fairly early on (from mid-1800's), and much much more. The idea that bourbon was a development of river traders and middlemen comes through strongly in the book. Carson (I wonder if he is still living) has a real feel for his subject and a droll, amused, relaxed writing style which is perfectly suited thereto. Lots of good information in the book depite its age especially on the earlier history up to and after Prohibition. If there si one thing I'd have liekd to see more focus on it is the rye tradition in Pennsylvania, it is alluded to only briefly.


03-27-2005, 12:27
Gary, I, too have this book and find it a very good early exegesis of bourbon/whiskey history. Carson died in 1989. Here's the link to a bibliography of his papers housed in the Library of Congress:
Gerald Carson Papers (http://www.loc.gov/rr/mss/text/carson.html)

03-27-2005, 21:51
Hi Tim, yes, and there are many amusing comments in it, its scholarship notwithstanding, e.g., when he mentioned a latter-day scion of a whiskey family who acknowledged his distant ancestors were not distillers but were very good consumers of whiskey http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/smile.gif His footnotes are very good and are sources of areas of potential additional research, e.g. he mentions in a footnote that an author (Fletcher) discusses the "ethnic groups of Pennsylvania" in the context of whiskey. That source might shed further light on the origin of rye whiskey (especially its possible German or Swiss-German roots), so there is grist for the mill on many topics especially regarding the early days of whiskey. His study of the pre-Prohibition saloon is masterly as is his analysis of the social and economic background to Prohibition. He even offers the odd taste note or comment on the "organoleptic" qualities of good whiskey, which was unusual for his time. Chuck's book is an essential counterpart in that it covers of course the period since 1963 but also from different viewpoints, e.g., Chuck focuses more on the histories of many of the well-known distilleries and families in the industry, offers detailed taste notes on specific brands and has a sharper focus on the modern marketing and advertising methods of bourbon. This makes me realise the subject is complex and can admit of numerous perspectives.


03-28-2005, 08:15
Here are some further random/thoughts observations on Carson's book:

- interesting to review the author's background, he sounds in the book like an academic with an unusually relaxed, personalised style. This ties in however to his background as a business (advertising) executive, he appears to have become a social historian later in life; still, the book is very well written and his use of footnotes shows a thorough understanding of the conventions of writing academic history

- he comments that a "drumming" (sales) technique in the 1800's was to let whiskey being poured as a sample sit for a time while the salesman made his pitch; then just before giving the customer a taste the salesman would pour a sample from a competitor's bottle for a comparison. Carson says this was done to let some of the undesirable volatiles lift off the salesman's product and thus show it to advantage against the competitor's freshly poured product which still contained these congeners. This is interesting because many of us here have noticed whiskey improves when left to sit in the glass or after the bottle is opened for a time. So they knew this too in the 1800's.

- Carson seems to consider that Pennsylvania whiskey was all-rye while bourbon is a mostly-corn product a classification which of course the law later codified. Samuel M'Harry's distilling text of the very early 1800's however makes it clear the use of corn and rye in differing proportions was common in Pennsylvania (where M'Harry lived, he never refers to Kentucky in this regard if at all in the book). Carson cites one or two early distiller-writers but not M'Harry so he seems to have missed that book in his research. Therefore to me, what puts the accent on bourbon is aging in new charred barrels, not the use of rye or corn or their varying proportions as such. Of course Carson focuses on the charred barrel and his explanation that aging was discovered accidentally through shipment over long distances is persuasive, as is his suggestion (although he hedges his bets) that in the end the simplest explanation for the name "bourbon" is that the whiskey was made in (although not only in) and associated to the original Bourbon County (which was much larger than it later became)

- a number of times Carson refers through quoting others, or directly, to Tennessee whiskey being "yellow". I find this interesting because indeed some Jack Daniel's seems yellow in colour (although less so now since Jack Daniel now incorporates I understand older whiskey than before the switch to 80 proof to offset any dilution of color). So in Carson's taxonomy whiskey is white (moonshine or dog); red (Bourbon); or yellow (Tennessee whiskey).

- Carson says the three-chambered beer still, which came in in the 1860's, was a hybrid of a continuous and pot still (the name suggest three linked pots). In Sam Cecil's book, Cecil mentions small distilleries using the 3-chambered still into the 1940's. Carson says distillate was still subjected to doubling in a doubler or the old pot still, so presumably the 3-chambered still rendered a better product than the first run of a pot still but it still needed to be doubled

- Carson I think may minimise the extent to which whiskey was aged before the Civil War. Even in M'Harry there are references to aging and its benefits and I believe George Washington's records show that some of his whiskey was held back for aging. Carson himself quotes an ad from just before the Civil War advertising 6 year old bourbon. I believe that many bourbons of that era (say, 1820-1860) were aged, e.g. how could bourbon have been considered as it was in that time a "red cretuur" (as stated in a contemporary letter cited by Carson) if it wasn't generally aged from 3-6 years? I believe bourbon, from the time the term was first used (seemingly from the 1820's or so on although Carson says the first evidence he saw was from the 1840's) meant an aged product that became reddish from the barrel aging. Clearly though new white whiskey was popular throughout the 1800's and I suppose it is possible some people anyway used the term bourbon to describe such whiskey.


03-28-2005, 08:49
...how could bourbon have been considered as it was in that time a "red cretuur" (as stated in a contemporary letter cited by Carson) if it wasn't generally aged from 3-6 years?..

Gary, at Maker's Mark's springtime Ambassadors' event a couple of years ago, attendees got the opportunity to taste a sample (about a half-ounce) of 1yo whiskey from the barrel. The thing that surprised me most about it was how much color it had -- though certainly not yet 'red', from the start it had, I suspect by the time it was legal straight whiskey (2 years), it would qualify as 'red likker'.
I wish I'd had the presence of mind to shoot a photo of it, but the samples were so small that by the time you took a taste of it, it was gone.

03-28-2005, 10:29
Thanks, Tim, but that would mean whiskey aged 1-2 years, which is the typical period even M'Harry seems to have had in mind, would resemble (or closely enough) bourbon of today (think e.g., of 3 year old Old Potrero which is quite amber in colour). So how then could most whiskey have been white or new whiskey? Maybe Carson meant whiskey as sold by distillers because he is quite aware of the shipment by intermediaries of bourbon over long distances and how that could improve whiskey. E.g. he speaks of whiskey being held over a season until the river (Ohio or Mississippi) rose high enough to float the barges to carry them further downstream. Maybe he meant (I find some lack of clarity in the book in this regard) that most distillers did not start to focus on aging until after the Civil War, now that I think of it that is likely what he meant. So in other words from the outset (1820's if not earlier) Bourbon was probably similar to what we know today under that name except different persons at different periods were responsible to make it "bourbon" if you see what I mean (e.g. store owners, shippers and other dealers, etc.).

He has an interesting anecdote about Kansas 'shine, he says travelling salesmen bought this shine in small charred oak kegs in the 1920's and placed them in their car trunks for a couple of months after which the whiskey was much improved. Carson says this was an adaptation of the old practice of shipping whiskey by boat around the world to hasten aging, which M'Harry mentions approvingly too and evidently is an old practice, but there was still a memory of that in the 1920's and a bouncy Model T in the hot midwest clime became the clipper of the day.

It would be interesting to put a price brand of bourbon or Georgia Moon into a small charred oak keg, put it in the trunk on July 4 and open it at summer's end.

I have a feeling this would work better with vehicles whose suspensions are not that great. http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/smile.gif