Monday, November 28, 2022

Karl Raitz Makes a Monumental Contribution to Bourbon History

Bourbon whiskey is not only a signature industry for Kentucky but also weaves throughout the state's history and culture. Making Bourbon. A Geographical History of Distilling in Nineteenth-Century Kentucky, by Karl Raitz, is a monumental work and something that has long been needed on the subject. It is a thorough, academic examination from a top scholar in the field. Raitz is professor emeritus of geography at the University of Kentucky. Making Bourbon is published by the University Press of Kentucky, a consortium of 15 Kentucky universities, and other entities such as the Kentucky Historical Society. 

This is serious stuff. The writing is dry and voluminous (500 pages of narrative, 145 pages of backmatter), but for anyone interested in the true history of Kentucky's distilling industry (which, appropriately, includes Cincinnati in its analysis), it is indispensable. 

The 19th century is crucial because that is when whiskey-making in Kentucky shifted from an adjunct of agriculture into an industry in its own right, going from artisan to industrial, and from local to international. The change happened quickly, in a generation or two, and was both affected by the region's geography and had a profound effect upon it. This is also when the beverage we know as bourbon whiskey evolved into its current form.

Instead of romanticized folderol, Raitz gives us hard data. You've probably heard about the Royal Spring in Georgetown, where Elijah Craig famously built his distillery and fulling mill, but did you know it has a flow rate of 400,000 gallons per day? If you find that hard to believe, you can flip to the back and learn that the source is a 1957 report from the U.S. Geological Survey. You've probably heard that Kentucky's 'limestone water' is what makes Kentucky whiskey special, but Raitz explains why that is mostly hype. He notes, however, that "while such myths may not be proved by objective analysis, they are plausible and believable. And they contribute to the body of lore that underwrites the industry's heritage and self-image."

As recently as the current issue of "Bourbon+," I have opined that the universities and historical societies of America's whiskey heartland have given whiskey-making short shrift. Raitz's book is a much-appreciated corrective.

1 comment:

mozilla said...

Thanks for the heads up Chuck. This is one that I will be purchasing.
Can't wait.