by Aimee Nielson
Illustration by Dennis Duross
In the 1700s, Kentuckians began cultivating whiskey and wine, two industries that, over the course of the next 200-plus years, thrived then nearly disappeared before once-again becoming prominent. Along the way, the UK College of Agriculture has been there to champion the bourbon and wine industries, supporting them with regulatory assistance and solid agricultural research.
Give it to me straight!
In the 1700s, the first Kentucky settlers labored hard transporting crops to markets over steep mountains and narrow paths. Converting grain to whiskey made it easier to transport and gave excess grain a purpose.
Whiskey is distilled from corn, rye, wheat, or malted barley, then aged in barrels. Straight whiskey comes from a single batch, but legitimate rectified whiskey is made by blending various whiskeys to obtain a desired quality. Some less reputable folks figured out it was quicker and cheaper to blend the straight whiskey with other ingredients or dilute it with water or grain alcohol and skip the aging process. This could leave the product either pretty tasteless or tasting vile; makers either had to blend it with aged whiskey or add colorings and flavorings to it to get a similar look and taste to straight whiskey.
By the late 1800s, federal bottling acts allowed whiskey producers to label bottles distinguishing straight whiskey from blended products. Straight whiskey gave them a competitive edge with consumers, but producers could still rectify it after taxes were paid on the product.
Diluted whiskey is not how Melville Amasa Scovell wanted Kentucky to be known. The first director of the Kentucky Agricultural Experiment Station had in mind a pure, straight bourbon whiskey that would make the Bluegrass State famous. So, in the early 1900s, the man who would later become dean of the UK College of Agriculture set out to purge the industry of the rectifiers.
In 1903, Scovell had an opportunity, with the first commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Harvey Wiley, to lobby for a Pure Food and Drug Act. He enlisted the help of Edmund Taylor, maker of the Old Taylor brand of straight whiskey, and Robert Allen, another employee of the Kentucky Agricultural Experiment Station.
Taylor represented Kentucky’s straight whiskey makers. Remains of his Old Taylor distillery along Glenn’s Creek in Woodford County still stand today, complete with a castle and a unique peristyle springhouse.
The remains of the Old Taylor Distillery still stand along Glenn's Creek in Woodford County. Edmund Taylor is known as bourbon's second “father,” after James Crowe, considered the Father of Bourbon, died in the 1850s. Taylor lobbied with Melville Scovell for a Pure Food and Drug Act.
In preparation for the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act, Scovell chaired a committee that ruled on whiskey at a Pure Food Congress. After much discussion, the congress ruled that even though rectified alcohol had fewer impurities in it than straight whiskey, only straight whiskey was the true product.
When the act passed, Scovell gave a passionate speech describing this “fake” whiskey.
“It is this sort, made out of this new alcohol, that will eat the very vitals out of a coyote; it will make a howling dervish out of an anchorite; it will make a rabbit walk right up and spit in a bull dog’s eye.”
The act provided a vague definition of whiskey, so it was left to President Theodore Roosevelt’s attorney general to define the true meaning of whiskey. He decided that rectified whiskey was not to be included in the definition. But President William Howard Taft changed the definition to allow rectified spirits a place.
Scovell would not stand for it. He decided Kentucky would have its own definition of what would and would not be whiskey. He took the narrow road and said whiskey manufactured and sold in Kentucky would only be that which is “the properly distilled spirit from the properly prepared and properly fermented mash of sound grain... as distinguished from commercial alcohol, refined alcohol, and neutral spirits.”
Scovell’s statement was published in The Washington Times, and it’s believed that his definition shaped the reputation of Kentucky bourbon whiskey, even through the dark years of prohibition, to its world-renowned status today.
Scovell served the UK College of Agriculture until his death in 1912. A writer for Louisville’s The Courier-Journal said he had become one of the most influential and popular citizens of Kentucky and described his death as a “savage loss.”
Back to the future
Contrary to what some might think, the American wine industry did not begin in Napa Valley, Calif.; it began in Central Kentucky. In 1799, Swiss vinedresser James Dufour began work on a vineyard located on the Kentucky River in Jessamine County. He named it none other than First Vineyard. On about 630 acres, Dufour, his family, and friends identified the Cape grape as one that did very well in the Bluegrass climate and soils.
The vineyard continued until 1809, when a late May freeze destroyed the crop and many of the vines. Dufour gave up and moved to Indiana. But Kentucky did not give up on wine, and its grape growers overcame many obstacles, including the Civil War and various vine diseases, to make the state the third largest grape and wine producer in the United States by the late 1800s.
Prohibition put the brakes on the industry, and many growers turned over their acreages to tobacco production.
Fast forward to the late 1900s. Kentucky passed legislation in 1976 allowing wineries to operate again. Later, after the 2004 tobacco buyout cut deep into the state’s burley crop, some farmers turned back to grapes. In 1999, Kentucky had fewer than 70 acres of grapevines. Now that number is more than 500 and growing, according to Patsy Wilson, viticulturist for the UK College of Agriculture.
Wilson helps grape growers across the commonwealth plan vineyard varieties, teaches pruning techniques, and answers production questions that arise. She works with UK Ag enologist Tom Cottrell, who helps the wineries in their quest to make award-winning wines.
“As with any industry, we have our own set of challenges, the biggest ones being climate and making sure we choose the right types of grapes for each vineyard,” Wilson said. “There are a lot of excellent wines in Kentucky now; they win local, regional and international awards. So we are definitely making a name for Kentucky wine.”
"This is where it all started," said vineyard owner Tom Beall, shown here working with UK Horticulture Extension Specialist Patsy Wilson to restore First Vineyard in Jessamine County.
Through her contacts with growers, Wilson got to know Tom Beall, who purchased a small tract of land in Jessamine County in 1994.
Beall, a modest Winchester native, has always been a farmer. Once he started buying land near the Kentucky River, he couldn’t stop, buying up adjacent tracts as they became available. Then one day, a friend who had been brushing up on history read that the very first commercial vineyard was located in Jessamine County, maybe near where Beall lived.
“We knew that it was on the Kentucky River, and we read a survey Dufour did about this unique parcel of land—a peninsula—that is known as the great bend of the Kentucky River,” Beall said. “It took us about four years to gather all the documentation we needed, to know exactly where it was, then we pulled the deed and found it in about 2002.”
As somewhat of a history buff himself, Beall was excited to find out his farm was the actual First Vineyard site. Around 2006, he decided to reestablish the vineyard.
“I tried to restore as much as I could,” Beall said. “I propagated vines from about 40 cuttings of the same variety of grape Dufour started the vineyard with. I think it’s going to be good for all the vineyards and wineries. We can say, ‘This is where it all started.’”
Beall will try to make wine this year from the Cape grapes. He replicated a cabin tasting room where visitors can sample in a historical setting wine similar to what Dufour may have made. Beall said he might serve wine from other Kentucky wineries as well.
“We just want to give people a little bit of the ambiance of the way it might have been,” said Beall, who kept the name First Vineyard.