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Gary Regan author Ardent Spirits

Gary Regan

Gary “Gaz” Regan is self proclaimed cocktail freak and author, cocktail journalist, who we were familiar with and officially met during’s coverage of the Evan Williams Single Barrel Unveiling. Gaz recently authored the bartender’s GIN compendium. His Bourbon books include The Book of Bourbon and The Bourbon Companion.

We are glad that Gaz has become a fan and friend to and below he shares an excerpt  from The Book of Bourbon and Other Fine American Whiskeys, which he co-authored with his wife Mardee Haidin Regan. Together, they own Ardent Spirits. Thanks, Gaz!

The History of American Whiskey

Below is excerpted from The Book of Bourbon and Other Fine American Whiskeys by Gary Regan and Mardee Haidin Regan, Chapters Publishing, 1995.

The Lad from Kentucky

Did Lincoln enjoy the warmth of an occasional glass of whiskey? More than a few accounts suggest as much, but as far as can be ascertained, it just isn’t true. Two quotes from Lincoln often are used out of context and make him sound like a drinking man; both are taken from a speech he made to the Springfield Washington Temperance Society in 1842. The first cites Lincoln’s saying that intoxicating drinks were commonly the first draught of the infant and the last draught of the dying man. Indeed, Lincoln said just that; but he was not applauding the use and enjoyment of liquor. Instead, in the context of the speech, he was merely describing a common practice of the times, implying that if people were made aware of the evils of alcohol, such foolishness would stop. In effect, Lincoln was urging the temperance group to enlighten the public.

In the second example Lincoln often is erroneously quoted as saying that injury from alcohol arose from the abuse of a good thing rather than from the use of a bad thing. Again, the quote has been twisted over the years to make Lincoln sound as though he were defending drinkers. What he actually said was that although many people were injured by alcohol, they didn’t seem to believe that it was from the use of a bad thing, and that they thought it merely from the abuse of a good thing. Lincoln himself implied that he believed that the injuries were a direct result of the use of liquor–a bad thing.

In this same speech Lincoln stated his belief that people would be more likely to stop drinking if, instead of being preached to about the evils of alcohol, they were shown examples of how sobriety would enhance their lives. In the twentieth century, Alcoholics Anonymous went on to prove his point.

The Book of Bourbon and Other Fine American Whiskeys Book Gary Regan Mardee Haidin ReganTo cap off the Lincoln question, two more instances give insight into his views: In 1854, after Lincoln refused to partake of whiskey on a particular occasion, Stephen Douglas asked him if he were a member of a temperance society. Lincoln replied that although he wasn’t a member of any such society, he personally didn’t drink. Later, in 1861, he did, however, add his signature to a temperance declaration that already bore the names of John Quincy Adams, James Buchanan, Martin Van Buren, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Jackson, James Madison, Franklin Pierce, James K. Polk, Zachary Taylor, and John Tyler.

Reconstruction–of the Country

When Reconstruction began, President Andrew Johnson faced huge problems. His policies were bitterly opposed by the Republican majority in Congress, which unsuccessfully initiated impeachment proceedings in the Senate, and he was chided for supporting Seward’s Folly, the purchase of Alaska (and its yet undiscovered gold) from Russia for $7,200,000. When Grant was elected U.S. president in 1868, the whole country’s relief was palpable.

Grant’s magnificent military might, however, didn’t prepare him for the presidency. After taking office in 1869, the politics of Reconstruction plagued him, and his administration was beset by scandal after scandal. One embarrassment was Jay Gould and James Fisk’s 1869 attempt to corner the gold market. They had “conned” Grant into becoming an ally, and the scheme backfired. Another humiliation occurred after Grant’s re-election in 1872, when Vice President Schuyler Colfax was investigated for taking bribes. And then came the whiskey scandal.

The Whiskey Ring, as it became known, involved some cohorts of President Grant’s skimming more than a few tax dollars from the whiskey men–and the country. However, to some extent, Grant was directly involved with this scam: One of its main culprits, who was never convicted of any wrongdoing, was protected by Grant, and rumor at the time had it that Grant’s son Fred and brother Orvil had directly profited from the fraud. These were to be trying times for the President.

Whiskeygate–the Tale of the Infamous Whiskey Ring

The major players in what became known as the “Whiskey Ring,” were General Orville E. Babcock, Grant’s secretary; John A. McDonald, the regional superintendent of the Internal Revenue, headquartered in St. Louis; and Benjamin Helm Bristow, the man who initiated the investigation into the affair when he became Secretary of the Treasury in 1874.

Here, in very simple terms, is how the scam worked: Sometime around 1870, government agents, charged with keeping an eye on how much whiskey was being made, arranged to ignore a certain percentage of the distillate in return for cash in the amount of roughly half the money the distillery would have paid in taxes. When “straight” tax collectors who were not part of the ring were due to call, the distillers were forewarned to “play safe” and pay up.

The “Whiskey Ring” agents claimed to have a “higher” purpose in their treachery; they told distillers that the dollars they collected were going into a special fund to help re-elect Grant. Was this Whiskeygate? Although we can’t say for certain how many people believed their claim as patriotic party do-gooders, evidence points to up to 15 million gallons of whiskey a year, which would have generated a cool $7.5 million in taxes–an extraordinary amount of money at the time–going untaxed between 1870 and 1874. And Grant was returned to office in 1872.

Due to his incompetency and the number of other scandals within his administration, by the end of 1874 Grant was not a popular man. He was thinking of running for a third term–even though he had once told Congress that he was not prepared for the office at all–and people within his administration despaired of some of the people he had chosen to work alongside him. Rumors of the Whiskey Ring were rife at this point, and many upstanding aides at the White House breathed a sigh of relief when Benjamin Bristow was appointed to the Treasury–he was a very well respected man. One of his first acts was to convince Congress to grant money to investigate the alleged corruption within the Internal Revenue Service. With the help of some newspapermen in St. Louis, Bristow was about to crack the ring wide open.

The first money used for the investigation went to reporter Myron Colony, who was hired by the Treasury Department to gather evidence against whoever was responsible for misdirecting the excise taxes. Colony did a very thorough job and accumulated enough data to place John McDonald (the St. Louis-based superintendent of the Internal Revenue) at the head of the Whiskey Ring. First off, McDonald was confronted with the evidence, and he did, indeed, confess to his crimes. However, McDonald had a few cards up his sleeve, and although he offered to replace the money in return for immunity (claiming he would get it from the distilleries), he also dropped mention of Grant’s name to add weight to his plea for clemency.

McDonald was somewhat of an old pal of the President’s, having been recommended for his position by more than a couple of Julia Grant’s family’s friends. Even so, Grant, at this point, made it clear that he wanted to clear up the whole mess and prosecute whoever was responsible for stealing the money. The following month over 300 people (distillers and government employees) were arrested for their involvement in the Whiskey Ring, and everyone was certain that justice was being served. But Grant was about to have a change of heart that would rock his White House aides and change the outcome of the whole affair.

Further investigations implicated Babcock, Grant’s personal friend and trusted secretary, in the ring–but Grant refused to believe the evidence. And whereas Grant had originally claimed to have been “grievously betrayed” by McDonald, he now said that McDonald was a reliable friend, and cited McDonald’s friendship with Babcock as good enough reason to believe him innocent of the charges. However, some documents had been discovered that pointed to reasons other than friendship for Grant’s change of heart.

A series of cryptic telegrams in the Treasury Department’s possession tied Babcock to the affair. Not only did they point to Babcock’s warning McDonald of the impending investigation (dated prior to McDonald’s being accused), they bore a strange signature–”Sylph.” Was Sylph the Deep Throat of the day? No, not really, it turns out she was more a *sexual dalliance in the White House than an anonymous inside source, and that it was Babcock who wired the warning and added the odd signature. According to most reports, Sylph was a woman said to have had an extra-marital affair with Grant, and she was a woman who had pestered him ever since.

Rumor had it that McDonald had helped Grant by making sure Sylph left him alone, and if the rumors were true, it was no wonder that Grant allied himself with McDonald. Why did Babcock use the name Sylph on the telegrams? Well, he certainly didn’t want to use his own name on them–they were, after all, fairly incriminating–and it seems that Babcock and McDonald used Sylph’s name as a kind of inside joke when exchanging correspondence. If trouble occurred, perhaps the name Sylph could help secure a show of friendship from the President. The ploy seems to have had the desired effect.

From there, things went from bad to worse for the investigators. According to William S. McFeely, author of Grant, A Biography, although both Grant and Babcock were confronted with this very damning evidence, Babcock insisted that the telegrams were about something other than the Whiskey Ring, and Grant sided with him. However, the treasury was not to be deterred. Even though some documents pertaining to the case were stolen (allegedly by a man in the employ of Grant himself), Babcock was indicted.

Grant’s actions in this sordid affair can be interpreted in several ways: Grant was trying to help out some old friends; he was afraid that his alleged affair with Sylph would be revealed; or members of Grant’s family–or maybe even Grant himself–was implicated in the Whiskey Ring.

Babcock was finally brought to trial in 1876, and due in large part to testimony from Grant in the form of a deposition (Grant had offered to testify in person at the trial but was persuaded that Presidents just didn’t do that sort of thing), he was acquitted of all crimes. And although Grant allowed Babcock to return to his job at the White House, officials made sure that he was replaced just a few days later. Babcock became an Inspector of Lighthouses and drowned in 1884; McDonald was found guilty of his crimes in 1875, fined $5,000, and sentenced to three years imprisonment–but was pardoned, less than two years later, by President Hayes.

Upon his release from jail McDonald accused Grant of taking part in the Ring in his book, Secrets of the Great Whiskey Ring (1880). In it, McDonald maintains that his actions in the Whiskey Ring were a direct result of instructions from Babcock, and since, according to McDonald, Babcock was widely regarded as being “the President’s chief advisor,” he regarded any requests from Babcock as having “emanated from the highest authority.” Sylph, again according to McDonald’s book–and we should take into consideration that he wrote the book to throw most of the blame for the Whiskey Ring scandal on others–was a woman with whom he had arranged a liaison for Babcock, not Grant. He described her as “unquestionably the handsomest woman in St. Louis,” and went on to say, “Her form was petite, and yet withal, a plumpness and development which made her a being whose tempting, luscious deliciousness was irresistible.” Obviously, McDonald was quite taken with the woman (although a sketch of Sylph in McDonald’s book reveals her to have been more “homely” than irresistible).

Reconstruction–of the Whiskey Business

While Presidents Johnson and Grant were going through their personal and political strifes, the excise tax that Lincoln had been forced to impose in 1862 had taken its toll on the whiskey industry. After the Civil War, many of the smaller distillers just didn’t have the capital to comply with the law since the tax was due upon production–as soon as the whiskey ran out of the still, the tax was due. And by this time, aged whiskey was preferred by far over the raw spirit that had been acceptable some 60 years previous. This was a time that really sorted out the men from the boys; unfortunately, though, many of the boys were the ones who made great whiskey, and many of the men were more concerned with business: Quantity mattered more than quality. Luckily for us, a few of the business types had deep pockets and a long-term view, and these were the distillers who continued to make good whiskey.

During the post-war years, when many distilleries were being built or rebuilt, Coffey’s continuous still became commonplace in the American whiskey business. The death knell was tolling for the slower, more work-intensive, old-fashioned pot stills. Many of the larger distilleries built massive continuous stills between 1865 and 1900; whiskey was becoming big business, and continuous stills were more economical. (We wouldn’t, however, see the very last of the pot still until Prohibition, and one die-hard distillery in Pennsylvania was using a pot still for a secondary distillation in the late 1980s.)

Not everyone was enamored of this new method, however, and some forward-thinking individuals took to actively advertising the fact that they continued to use “old-fashioned methods.” Even as late as 1891, James E. Pepper was advertising that he distilled twice over open fires (signifying the use of pot stills).

In the years between the Civil War and 1900, the very ways in which whiskey was packaged and marketed were also updated and modernized. Though the first glass factory in American was built in Jamestown in 1608, it would be 1903, when Michael J. Owens invented the first automatic bottle-making machine, before selling whiskey in bottles was financially viable for most distillers. Until then, glass bottles remained fragile, expensive, hand-blown vessels that were very dear in every way. Decorative glass and ceramic bottles containing whiskey were a novelty that had been around since the early 1800s. Some depicted Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Grover Cleveland, and Carry Nation, while others pictured tableaux, such as a jockey on horseback or a Continental soldier. One bottle, from the late nineteenth century, was shaped like a baby’s bottle, and bore the words, “Here is the Milk of Human Kindness.”

Bottles, however, were the exception rather than the rule–they simply added to the price of whiskey. Most goods at this time were sold locally by portions–the buyer knew to bring his or her own flour sack, barrel, tub, or jug to the purveyor, who filled it with flour, oats, lard, or whiskey. The jugs most often were of the “little brown jug how I love thee” variety–glazed stoneware in sizes ranging from one to five gallons, but, in the late 1860s the use of hinged metal molds made it easier to make glass bottles in greater numbers and at far more reasonable prices. These bottles were too costly for many distillers, but some at least, took advantage of the invention. This date coincides nicely with George Garvin Brown’s 1870 decision to sell his Old Forester bourbon exclusively in sealed bottles.

With the advent of the glassmaker’s hinged mold, came incised molds that could act as labels to display the distiller’s name, address, brand name, or another designation. Most of these were of the plainest design, though handsome in their simplicity. The advantage of this new type of packaging was that the potable became more portable.

During the years of Reconstruction more and more people, most of them experienced whiskey drinkers, went West. When they arrived, they needed whiskey, and distillers rushed to meet the demand. They were shipping whiskey to all sorts of colorful Western towns–Laramie, Tombstone, Dodge City–but it wasn’t always too good; much was completely unaged and cut with water. When a movie cowboy orders “three fingers of red-eye” (although a dictionary will tell you that “red-eye” is cheap whiskey), he is actually demanding the “good stuff”–it don’t get red until it’s aged. By the 1880s, however, when some of those travelers had amassed small fortunes, decent, aged whiskey was at last being shipped to the Wild West.

During the post-war period, the distillers were busy either going broke or going for broke. Here’s an update of a few significant people and events in the years between 1860 and 1900:

In 1864, David M. Beam, owner of the Old Tub distillery, was blessed with child–the one and only Jim Beam.

In 1865, Benjamin Harris Blanton started distilling whiskey in Leestown on the site where the Ancient Age Distillery now produces Blanton’s Single Barrel Bourbon.

J. B. Dant, son of J. W. Dant, built the Cold Spring Distillery in 1865 and would soon produce Yellowstone Bourbon.

Jack Daniel opened his Tennessee distillery in 1866.

George A. Dickel, that other great proponent of Tennessee whisky (he spelled his without the e), started a very respectable rectifying and bottling operation in 1866.

The Cascade distillery in Tullahoma, Tennessee, was founded in 1877 and later purchased by Dickel’s company. George A. Dickel died in 1894 from injuries sustained in an 1888 fall from a horse.

In 1867 the Chapeze brothers founded their first commercial distillery and gave birth to a whiskey that would become known as Old Charter.

Thomas B. Ripy, whose sons would build a distillery that is known today as the Wild Turkey Distillery, opened his first whiskey distillery in 1869.

George Garvin Brown (Old Forester) and his half-brother, J. T. S. Brown, went into the wholesale whiskey business in 1870.

Irishman James Thompson joined George Garvin Brown (his second cousin) in the whiskey business during the mid 1870s. Thompson later formed his own company, bought the Glenmore Distillery in 1901, and introduced Kentucky Tavern whiskey to the world in 1903.

Frederick and Philip Stitzel built their first distillery in Louisville in 1872. Their company would later merge with the Weller company and become known as Stitzel-Weller.

John E. Fitzgerald, whose Old Fitzgerald bourbon would become the joy of the Stitzel-Weller brands, built a distillery in 1870.

Isaac Wolfe Bernheim and his brother, Bernard, started a wholesale whiskey business in Paducah in 1872. Their whiskey would eventually be known as I. W. Harper.

In 1876 Tom Moore and Ben Mattingly bought their first distillery. The plant produced Tom Moore Bourbon in 1879, and Mattingly & Moore Bourbon by 1896.

James E. Pepper built the James E. Pepper Distillery in 1879 and soon produced a whiskey that bore his name

In 1882 a distillery by the name of R. B. Hayden and Company fired up its stills to make the first bottles of Old Grand-Dad bourbon.

Old Taylor Bourbon first hit the shelves in 1887.

Paul Jones introduced his Four Roses whiskey to Kentucky in 1888.

Jim Beam joined with Albert J. Hart to run the Old Tub Distillery in 1892.

In 1893, one of the most colorful characters ever to grace the whiskey industry, Julius “Pappy” Van Winkle, entered the whiskey business as a salesman for W. L. Weller and Son.

The distillery that made Old Grand-Dad whiskey was taken over by the Wathen family in 1899.


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