Although others have discussed whiskey’s place in military history, Bourbon and Bullets explores the relationship between military service and some of the most notable whiskey distillers and executives working today. American servicemen Weller, Handy, Stagg, Van Winkle, and Bulleit all experienced combat before they became household names for American whiskey enthusiasts. In small towns and big cities across America, veterans of armed conflict in Panama, Somalia, Haiti, Iraq, and Afghanistan cook mash, operate stills, and push the booming industry to new heights. Bourbon and Bullets delves into the lives and military careers of these whiskey distillers and tells the story of whiskey’s role on the battlefield and in the American military community.
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About the Author
John C. Tramazzo is an active duty U.S. Army officer and veteran of several deployments in support of the Global War on Terror. He is also an American whiskey enthusiast, Kentucky Colonel, and the founder of the popular blog bourbonscout.com.
Wall Street Journal best-selling author Fred Minnick, once an army journalist in Iraq, writes the award-winning American Whiskey column for Tasting Panel Magazine and Toasting the Hunt column for Covey Rise. A regular contributor to Caviar Affair, Costco Connection, Whisky Magazine, and Whisky Advocate, Minnick has written widely about the spirits industry, traveling around the world covering everything from Limoncello in Sorrento, Italy, to Malbec wine in Mendoza, Argentina. Minnick is a member of the Author’s Guild and the American Society of Journalists and Authors. Meridith May, publisher of Tasting Panel, calls Minnick “one of the best whiskey storytellers in the business.”
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Bourbon and Bullets
America was built, and occasionally damaged, by firepower and whiskey. Conflict, military service, and grain alcohol are foundations of our national story. American service members carried whiskey into battle, from Valley Forge to Gettysburg, Manila, and Da Nang, and it bolstered their courage, calmed their nerves, and treated their maladies. Many writers have discussed whiskey's place in history as it relates to military service. Chapters have been written about its utility as battlefield medicine and its presence in the canteens of Continental and Civil War fighters.
Until now, however, no writer has fully explored the depth of military service among the most notable American whiskey distillers and executives. Weller, Van Winkle, Stagg, and Bulleit all experienced combat before they became household names for American whiskey enthusiasts. Equally compelling are the successful craft whiskey distilleries currently owned and operated by veterans. In small towns and big cities across America, veterans of combat missions in Vietnam, Panama, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere cook mash, operate stills, and push the booming industry to new heights.
To fully understand the significance of American whiskey, one must first explore its unbreakable connection to our pursuit of happiness and the occasional call to arms. The earliest American distilleries were constructed in New England to produce molasses-based rum. Colonial distilleries were "a link in a chain that dispatched ships freighted with rum to Africa to trade for slaves who were transported to the West Indies to grow sugar to make molasses to ship to New England to make rum ... and so forth." To the dismay of early American distillers and their patrons, the 1764 Sugar Act minimized profit margins on rum and slowed production of the spirit. In an effort to obtain tax-free molasses, distillers engaged partners in the Spanish, Dutch, and French West Indies, but a Royal Naval blockade quickly cut that stream. Instead of paying the tax on British molasses or risking their lives to smuggle it from other sources, frustrated colonists turned to local grains like rye and Indian corn. English and Scots-Irish immigrants applied Old World methods to these New World resources to produce grain whiskey similar to what modern consumers might call moonshine. Whiskey was the American spirit by the time frustration with the king's taxes turned violent in the spring of 1775.
As Susan Cheever noted in her book Drinking in America, "American soldiers drink ... and whiskey was the usual tipple." Throughout the Revolutionary War, Continental soldiers, many of whom were farmer distillers, enjoyed a daily gill (about four ounces of liquor) as encouragement in the struggle for independence. Gen. George Washington personally lobbied the Continental Congress for liquor rations and ensured through a series of general orders that sergeants in his command distributed brandy, rum, and heaps of whiskey to motivate and reward his battle-hardened soldiers. The fledgling U.S. Navy followed suit by granting each sailor a half-pint of rum each day, which was quickly supplanted by American-made whiskey. Evidently, it worked, as the Continental military's efforts gave birth to a new and powerful nation.
Following the American Revolution, the government paid off its war debt by heavily taxing whiskey production, a process that repeated itself with every conflict until Prohibition. The original whiskey tax was necessary to replenish the national coffers, but it was expensive to enforce and caused more conflict. In 1794, a band of over five hundred frontier distillers in western Pennsylvania, many of them veterans of the revolution, attacked the fortified home of tax collector Gen. John Neville.
The retired general, a prominent war veteran and large-scale whiskey distiller himself, was a poorly selected target. Neville grew up in Virginia near George Washington and served in Washington's regiment during the bloody French and Indian War. During the revolution they fought together at the battles of Trenton, Princeton, Germantown, and Monmouth and Washington brevetted Neville to brigadier general in 1783.11 When Washington learned of the attack by the "Whiskey Boys" on his friend's estate, he rode with a massive contingent of federal troops to Bedford, Pennsylvania, to confront the insurrection, making him the only commander-in-chief to personally lead an army in the field. The response to the so-called Whiskey Rebellion solidified the authority of the new federal government, and it pushed many frontier distillers further west toward the corn-rich commonwealth of Kentucky, where bourbon whiskey, a category of American whiskey described at length in chapter 2, was conceived.
In an ironic twist, when Washington retired from public service in 1797, he directed his Scottish farm manager to construct a distillery beside Mount Vernon's gristmill. Washington and James Anderson rapidly developed one of America's most productive and successful whiskey distilleries. In 1799, the year of Washington's death, Mount Vernon distilled rye, corn, and barley wheat into nearly eleven thousand gallons of clear whiskey for nearby Alexandria taverns. Washington's distillery burned to the ground during the War of 1812, but it was finally resurrected in 2007. Today, former Maker's Mark master distiller and U.S. Army veteran David Pickerell oversees the production of several spirits at Mount Vernon based on Washington's actual recipes and documented preferences. Before launching his remarkable career in distilling, Mr. Pickerell was a decorated cavalry officer and a professor of chemistry at his alma mater, the United States Military Academy at West Point.
The farmer distillers that settled the Kentucky territory following the Revolutionary War and Whiskey Rebellion significantly impacted military operations as America expanded its western border. During the War of 1812, hundreds if not thousands of early Kentucky distillers enlisted to fight hostile Indians in western territories. An estimated twenty-five thousand Kentuckians served in that war under the command of Revolutionary War hero and whiskey distiller Isaac Shelby. As Richard G. Stone Jr. wrote in Kentucky Fighting Men, during the War of 1812, "each man carried a gun, a pack of cards, and a bottle of whiskey." Even from their homesteads, distillers advanced the military effort. Between 1793 and 1827, Kentucky distillers provided the U.S. Army's commissary general of subsistence with more than half of the rationed whiskey needed to sustain men serving on the harsh frontier.
During the Civil War, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant rode to victory under the influence of Dr. James C. Crow's Old Crow bourbon whiskey. Following the Battle of Shiloh, Grant's critics complained about his excessive drinking to President Lincoln, a militia veteran, former tavern owner, and son of a distillery worker on Knob Creek in Kentucky. Lincoln quipped, "I wish I knew what brand of whiskey he drinks. I would send a barrel to all my other generals." Like Lincoln and Grant, many commanders acquiesced to whiskey in the field despite the fact that the U.S. Army formally abolished the liquor ration in the early 1830s. Considering the brutal conditions and constant threat of death, the use of alcohol during the American Civil War was "small compensation for the freedom lost in other departments."
Whiskey was not merely a witness to the Civil War. It was an active participant, from Fort Sumter to the obscure final surrender in Kentucky. Days before the first cannon shots were fired in Charleston harbor, Confederate brigadier general Pierre Gustave Toutant (P.G.T.) Beauregard sent his former West Point professor Maj. Robert Anderson, who commanded Fort Sumter, several cases of fine whiskey and a box of cigars, hoping to avoid "the horrors of a fratricidal war." Anderson returned the liquor and cigars to his former pupil, and on April 12, 1861, Confederate batteries at Forts Johnson and Moultrie began their thirty-four-hour bombardment. Three years later, while the blue and gray were still at war, distiller James "Jim" Beauregard Beam was born and given his middle name in the Confederate general's honor.
The Civil War nearly ruined the American whiskey industry, as many distillers were wounded or killed in action, capital was invested in war bonds, and farms and stills were destroyed. In one instance, an old Kentucky distiller and his family fought off a blue-coated sergeant when he attempted to smash their treasured yeast jug. Supplies of drinkable whiskey ran extremely low as both governments were forced to conserve grain for food rations and melt copper still components into war materiel. While Civil War surgeons employed quality whiskey as an anesthetic, a disinfectant, and very often as a preserving agent for amputated limbs, fighting men rarely enjoyed a decent tipple in the field. To cope, they stole whiskey or concocted dangerous bootleg liquor, nicknamed "rotgut," for the toll it exacted on their stomachs.
During the final days of the Civil War, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman rode to Columbia, South Carolina, where he laid siege to the city that sparked secession. Sherman, a regular bourbon drinker and acquaintance of the modern bourbon industry's founding father, Col. Edmund Haynes Taylor Jr., lost control of his men, who became utterly intoxicated on the city's barrels of whiskey. Along with newly freed African Americans, the troops overindulged and burned more than half of the Palmetto State's capital, an event that still rouses emotions 150 years later. Among Sherman's foes on that February 1865 day was P.G.T. Beauregard, who chose not to destroy Columbia's abundant whiskey stocks before the federal siege.
Two months after the burning of Columbia, Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia. In nearby Richmond, President Lincoln permitted federal officers occupying the "White House of the Confederacy" to consume Jefferson Davis's abandoned whiskey stock. Several weeks later, a lesser-known but much greater surrender occurred when Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston relinquished eighty-nine thousand rebels to General Sherman near Durham, North Carolina. While drafting the terms of the war's largest surrender, General Sherman retrieved his bourbon flask and shared it with Generals Johnston and John Breckinridge of Kentucky. Before signing the documents, however, General Sherman absented himself, poured another drink, and returned the bottle to his saddlebag without offering a second dram to either Confederate officer. "Did you see him take that drink by himself?" lamented Breckinridge. "No Kentucky gentleman would have acted that way."
While almost every Confederate unit laid down its arms after Generals Lee and Johnston surrendered, one band of irregulars commonly referred to as "bushwhackers" refused. William Clarke Quantrill and his guerrillas, notorious for a raid on federal forces in Kansas, continued to resist until July 26, 1865.31 When Quantrill was shot and killed in Nelson County, Kentucky, his fighters were chased to the town of Samuels Depot. They took refuge at a small commercial distillery run by Taylor William (T. W.) Samuels, who was also the town sheriff. Samuels convinced the men (including Jesse James's brother, Frank) to lay down their rifles, which they finally did on the steps of his general store, becoming the very last Confederates to surrender. T. W. Samuels's kin continues to produce some of Kentucky's most well-known bourbon whiskey today, Maker's Mark.
In the decades that followed the Civil War, many Americans, especially soldiers and veterans, consumed alcohol at an alarming rate. Increased public intoxication, drunk driving incidents, and alcohol-related deaths gave rise to the temperance movement, which was fueled by anti-German sentiments and World War I. Several states, and ultimately the federal government, outlawed the manufacturing, transportation, and sale of alcohol while millions of men were fighting in France.
However, the return of World War I veterans quickly injected life into the repeal movement. Rapidly growing organizations like the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars helped build political will for repeal, which led to the passage of the Twenty-First Amendment in December 1933. Many Americans continued to abuse whiskey after Prohibition, but U.S. Army veteran Bill Wilson founded Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935 to help himself and others battle alcoholism.
Following repeal, countless veterans went back to work in the whiskey industry, which was transformed by the necessities of World War II. Between 1941 and 1945, American distilleries ran full blast seven days a week to supply U.S. military forces with high-proof industrial alcohol for torpedo fuel, smokeless gunpowder, penicillin, and other military purposes. Tens of thousands of distillery workers and many whiskey company executives left to fight overseas. Other distillery employees and still manufacturers were exempted from conscription to maintain constant production for the War Department. Following victory over Germany, Gen. Brehon B. Somervell, the commanding general of the Army Service Forces, personally wrote to Schenley Distillers Corporation chairman Lewis Rosenstiel to express his appreciation and admiration for the company's role in defeating the Nazis.
President Harry S. Truman, who spent thirty-seven years in the U.S. Army, began each day with a power walk and a shot of bourbon, usually Old Grand-Dad or Wild Turkey. The Missouri native often worked up his nerves with the help of what he called "a little H2O flavored with bourbon." Truman made no exception to his routine the day he authorized the nuclear attacks on Japan, a nation that now imports over $100 million worth of American-made spirits each year.
Following World War II, the whiskey industry experienced a remarkable boom as production soared and veterans celebrated victory over the Axis. However, during the Vietnam War, a rebellious drinking crowd cast brown spirits aside for clear liquor like vodka, gin, and tequila. As U.S. Air Force veteran Reid Mitenbuler noted in his book Bourbon Empire, "bourbon became a symbol of the patriarchy and the Establishment. ... As Vietnam fell apart, boomers protested the war that was being led by all those colonels with bottles of Jim Beam on their desks. Young people rejected everything their parents' generation stood for, from their bourgeois values to their straight, American whiskey." While vodka-drinking war protesters raged during the 1960s, whiskey sales held on, particularly in foreign markets. Jim Beam and Stitzel-Weller whiskeys performed well, thanks in part to marketing efforts focused on military personnel serving overseas.
Throughout the Cold War, American whiskey companies competed with gin and vodka by lowering proofs from 86 to 80. Major distilleries even pushed "light whiskey" instead of their fully matured products to appeal to the changing market. In 1976, vodka sales surpassed those of bourbon, cementing the reality of whiskey's decline.
Bourbon remained a has-been spirit until the mid-1980s when World War II veteran Elmer T. Lee introduced the single-barrel concept to the market. With the help of fellow veterans Bob Baranaskas and Jimmy Johnson Jr. Lee changed the industry by bottling bourbon from the best barrels, swapping consistency for superior, albeit varied, flavor profiles. When other distilleries followed Elmer T. Lee's lead with other unique and premium offerings, American whiskey climbed back to glory. Today, American whiskey, and bourbon in particular, is enjoying historic popularity. Over six hundred whiskey-focused distilleries have opened across the nation in the last ten years, dozens of them owned or operated by veterans of the recent campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Consistent with their histories, the largest American whiskey companies proudly employ military veterans. The largest new bourbon distillery in America, the Bardstown Bourbon Company, recently hired John Hargrove, a decorated Special Forces veteran and former Sazerac master distiller, to lead its operations. The Brown-Forman Corporation encourages its veteran employees to join Brown-Forman Rallying All Veterans for Excellence, or BRAVE, an employee resource group dedicated to improving other veterans' lives. One BRAVE project resulted in the opening of the Woodford Reserve Bar and Room on the Fort Knox military installation.
Several other major distilleries donate profits to veterans' charities or otherwise celebrate the relationship between whiskey and the armed forces. Heaven Hill recently launched its Evan Williams American Hero Edition bottle campaign to salute American veterans. Jim Beam produces one bourbon product to benefit Operation Homefront and has donated several million dollars to that charity, which assists military families and veterans in need. Wild Turkey's Boot Campaign has raised millions for veteran causes. Jack Daniels's Operation Ride Home relies on whiskey revenue to get troops home for the holidays. Diageo's Salute the Troops program supports several military charities including one that assists veterans who abuse alcohol.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Bourbon and Bullets"
Copyright © 2018 John C. Tramazzo.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Foreword by Fred Minnick Introduction 1. Bourbon and Bullets 2. Red Likker 3. War and Whiskey Persist 4. George Washington 5. Evan and Isaac Shelby 6. The Weller Family 7. Thomas Hughes Handy 8. Paul L. Jones Jr. 9. George Thomas Stagg 10. Julian Proctor Van Winkle Jr. 11. Elmer Tandy Lee and James B. Johnson Jr. 12. Richard J. Newman 13. Thomas E. Bulleit Jr. 14. David Steven Pickerell 15. Veterans in Craft Whiskey Acknowledgments Appendix: Happy Hour Notes Bibliography Index