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American History By The Glass

A look at how Bourbon, straight rye and Tennessee whiskeys are intertwined with American history
Jack Bettridge
Posted: August 9, 2013

Read Whiskey Cocktails: The Manhattan, Old-Fashioned, Sazerac and Mint Julep for more on how to concoct the perfect whiskey drink.

How does the expression go: As American as Mom and straight whiskey?

Well, maybe not exactly, but in all deference to those other great national symbols, whiskey has been a part of the country's history about as long as apple pie and certainly longer than baseball. For better or worse, it's been intertwined with our heritage and now is getting global recognition as the rest of the world takes notice of our quality exports: Bourbon, straight rye and Tennessee whiskeys.

It's about time we took some pride in our particular kind of hearty whiskey. The art form has been in America almost since settlers invaded these shores and cast about for something high proof to drink. Every school child knows that George Washington put down the Whiskey Rebellion as one of his first acts as president. But do they also know he went on to put down a few whiskeys himself as a rye distiller during his retirement at Mount Vernon?

The whiskey tax that fomented the Whiskey Rebellion, the first real test of our nation's sovereignty, reflected how important whiskey was to frontier society. In back hill communities, it was often used as a form of money. Because farmers were so often isolated from their markets, it was easier to turn grains into distilled alcohol and ship them around as a commodity that was far more portable as well as potable.

And as the young republic expanded west, whiskey was always along for the ride. Such frontier legends as Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, Mike Fink and Buffalo Bill Cody were also legendary drinkers.

A pantheon of political notables, reaching across political aisles, has cozied up to our whiskey: Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson, John C. Calhoun, William Henry Harrison. During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln, whose family ran a still, was supposed to have answered complaints that Ulysses Grant was a whiskey drinker by asking for the name of his favorite brand so that he could supply some to all his generals. Martin Van Buren, son of a tavern keeper (a lot of political wheeling and dealing went on in the establishment), was nicknamed "Blue Whiskey Van." Grover Cleveland was the most notable figure in a faction called Bourbon Democrats. And whiskey has been served as an electioneering lubricant and taxed to pay for wars.

A look at the Maker's Mark Distillery.
A look at the Maker's Mark Distillery.
Don't worry, our nation's drink has its cultural side as well. American writers from Mark Twain to William Faulkner to Raymond Chandler and Hunter S. Thompson indulged. Whiskey was also the fuel that informed one of America's greatest contributions to the culinary world: the cocktail. The most classic of cocktails—the Old-Fashioned, Manhattan and Sazerac were all informed by whiskey. (See related story.)

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Comments   2 comment(s)

Zander Goss — Chicago, IL,  —  August 10, 2013 7:55pm ET

George Washington's retirement at Mount *Rushmore*?!?!?!

A new low in CigarAficionado reporting. Right up (down?) there with the Cognac feature written by a guy who apparently had never been to Cognac, but wanted to make it look like he had been.

JACK BETTRIDGE — NEW YORK, NY, UNITED STATES,  —  August 10, 2013 11:39pm ET

Ouch, you got me. But at least Washington's head has been on Mount Rushmore longer than his retirement at Mount Vernon. Thanks to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, you can visit his refurbished stillhouse at Mount Vernon in Virginia and even buy a replica of the rye he made. A service you won't get at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota.

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