View Full Version : Is it a matter of geography?
Is what makes Kentucky Bourbon Great and a survivor in the market place a matter of geography? Kentucky has limestone water but so do other places. Maybe it is more than simply the water. Maybe it is also the climate. Kentucky has hot summers and cool to cold winters allowing for the aging process to procede without the aid of heated warehouses (even though some distilleries do use them). I have never seen a photograph of an iron clad warehouse in Pennsylvania. Did they exist? Maybe the latitude of Kentucky had as big og a role in making bourbon from Kentucky superior to bourbon made in other places. What do you think?
Following is a copy of two messages from another thread, because they really belong more here. The first is from Chuck Cowdery, and concerns the limestone water for which Kentucky is justly famous. The second, from me, also refers to the water, but offers Kentucky cooperage and barrelmaking as another important (and too often overlooked) factor, and also the social/political status of whiskeymaking in Kentucky, which I believe to be the primary reason for Kentucky's success in the whiskeymaking field.
Subject Limestone Water
Posted by cowdery
Posted on 1/16/01 11:20 PM
Limestone water, while it is characteristic of a large part of Kentucky, is hardly unique to Kentucky. However, the limestone in Kentucky's main distilling regions is all blue limestone of the Lower Silurian of the Trenton period. There is a band of this particular limestone that runs through Kentucky and adjacent states in a "U" shape. It is possible that the same band runs through Shaefferstown, or it could be a different one.
There is nothing in any law so far as I am aware that says what kind of water must be used to make bourbon. It has nothing to do with laws. To the extent that Kentucky's water tasted different than the water did back east, the local water contributed to making the taste of Kentucky whiskey different.
Water filtered through limestone has more calcium and fewer iron salts, which creates a good environment for the propagation of yeast. So I've heard.
Presumably, one source of limestone water is as good as another, chemically, but it is possible that different deposits impart subtly different taste characteristics. Is this particular band somehow "better" than others? I can't tell you exactly where it runs, but I recall thinking as I looked at it on a map once, that all of the major distilling centers were on it. When you consider that distilling was originally a very local activity so that every community in Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, etc. probably had one or more local distillers, it has to be more than a conincidence that as the industry "shook out," distilleries in the limestone belt seemed to be the ones that survived.
Subject Re: Limestone Water
Posted by J_Lipman
Posted on 1/17/01 05:27 AM
I agree about the differences in real taste between waters from different sources even when they're chemically identical. But I think they're VERY subtle differences indeed. If that were not so, then we'd all prefer the taste of 80 proof bourbon over the 100+ variety with less of that great water in it :-))
And of course, there were at least as many distilleries built solidly upon the blue limestone of central Kentucky that failed to make the grade as anywhere else.
I don't want to become an advocate for an unpopular idea that I feel doesn't matter much anyway. I know from previous discussions that whiskey folk take the water issue very seriously and people who I highly respect believe it thoroughly. I won't argue.
I'm more inclined to believe, though, that differences in the characteristics of the individual oak barrels has far more to do with the quality of the finished whiskey than the water or even the grain used. That would most certainly include the wood itself, and that might have been what was unique about central Kentucky and Tennessee. And pretty much still is, since there are only a couple of cooperages, local to the Lousiville area, that everyone (including Jack and George in Tennessee) uses.
There also may be more to the often-quoted relationship between limestone water and fine racehorses. The areas where the bourbon-barons survived wars, depressions, and even "The Big P" were also areas where families of social and political leaders were involved in its history. These, or their supporters, were the wealthy, old-line families who were (and are) also responsible for bluegrass and thorobreds. Personally, I believe it is that, more than any other factor (including water and wood), that is the explanation for Kentucky's success. Of course, you also have to have an outstanding product, which all the survivors do. But Kentucky is the only place where whiskeymakers (big, politically important whiskeymakers, that is; not the often referred-to farmer-distillers) were (and are) lionized and held up as models of social respectibility and civic pride. Not to say that they don't well deserve those honors, but only that their brethren in other locations were not so recognized. And that, to my thinking, had lots more to do with their failure to survive than did the water they used in their whiskey.
Since most of the wood used for bourbon barrels comes from Arkansas, I don't think we can attribute anything to "Kentucky cooperage and barrelmaking." I also think this is an ideal subject for this type of discussion, because it is all pure speculation. No theory advanced can really be proven.
Fundamentally, I don't think the answer lies in Kentucky bourbon being a truly distinctive product. Like the marketing guy I am, I think it has more to do with image.
One fact about Kentucky as compared to, say, its neighbors Ohio and Indiana, is that its farmland is relatively sparse and poor. Kentucky has additional handicaps that have kept it from being a leader in other economic fields too. Essentially, I think distilling was successful in Kentucky because there wasn't much else going on there. It didn't have much competition. The distilling industry was nurtured because it was the only game in town. Whiskey-making became part of Kentucky's image, like horse breeding, and that has become self-perpetuating. Kentucky = good whiskey.
Also, and this is seldom mentioned, the rugged and relatively unpopulated nature of Kentucky made it easy for moonshiners to evade detection by federal agents. Especially during Prohibition, this kept the skills alive in the worker pool, where in other parts of the country they may have died out after 13 years of neglect.
Most of the above could also be said about Tennessee and, possibly, West Virginia, but cannot be said about Maryland, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois or Missouri, all states that once had thriving distilling industries.
--Chuck Cowdery (http://cowdery.home.netcom.com)
I know that most of our wood comes from MO. It is interesting to note that VA. governor, Thomas Jeffferson offered tracts of land in Bourbon County, VA to any settler who would clear the land and plant a few acres of corn. Several people took him up on the offer and moved to the Bluegrass region of KY. Since it was difficult to sell corn to their neighbors, who also grew corn, and since the average mule could only carry the equivalent of 4-5 bushels of corn, it was not economically feasible to travel back East to sell the crops. With several of the early settlers well versed in the distilling biz, they found that the family mule could carry the equivalent of 20-25 bushels of corn in a liquid state. Hence the birth of the practice here.
The beauty of limestone water is that it is iron free. Iron does all kinds of nasty things to whiskey. Today, nearly every distiller uses some form of distilled water. We use reverse osmosis. Limestone water has been relegated to marketing. The calcium is in fact very beneficial to our thoroughbreds.
The recipe, yeast strain, weather, char of the barrels, types of barrels, and warehouse location combine to make fine bourbon. Which is most important, which is least? That is the art, rather than the science.
It isn't so much where the wood comes from that matters as the fact that it's being carefully graded, selected, and used by just a couple of very closely situated companies that happen to be in Kentucky. Sure, there were once a lot more, but I'd like to see some figures that show how widespread they were.
That said, I of course agree with you about image carrying more weight than the distinctiveness of the product. That's part of what I was writing about - the type of image created had everything to do with who was doing the creating. Chicago carries a rather vivid image concerning the liquor-making business, too. In fact, I believe I've heard there might even have been some horseracing involved. And it, too, was strongly associated with people who could be thought of as "civic leaders". Well, at least THEY thought of themselves that way :-)) Of course the total picture turned out to be very different from that of Kentucky.
I like your idea about the continuation of the labor and knowledge base through hard times. However (just as a thought from the other direction), for all the glory we tend to bestow upon moonshiners and farmer-distillers, they really have little to do with the success of the commercial distilleries (well, except maybe for Pappy's customer base). And there are probably more of them in the Carolinas than in Kentucky & Tennessee combined, but that hasn't done much for the whiskey industry there. Now if the honorable Senator Strom Thurmond's family had owned a thriving distillery...
All of Ken's points are well taken, and he is right to point out that the use of corn writs may have been peculiar to Kentucky (was it?), and when combined with the difficulty of transporting any product to eastern markets, said use of corn writs virtually preordained that Kentucky more so than any other state would make corn whiskey.
--Chuck Cowdery (http://cowdery.home.netcom.com)
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