News & Features

Alcohol & History with author Karl Raitz

Welcome to the Alcohol & chats, where we ask questions to interesting people in the alcohol world.

This week’s spotlight is on Karl Raitz, who is a professor emeritus of geography at the University of Kentucky and author of Making Bourbon and Bourbon’s Backroads. He is coeditor of The Great Valley Road of Virginia and coauthor of Rock Fences of the Bluegrass.

1) What pushed you to write books (Bourbon’s Backroads and Making Bourbon) about the bourbon industry?
Since the early 1970s, I have been a faculty member in the University of Kentucky Department of Geography and have followed my interests in cultural and historical geography by researching and writing about Kentucky’s people and places. A 1971 graduate seminar on post-Civil War African-American resettlement in Kentucky’s Bluegrass region resulted in a student PhD dissertation and academic journal article on Black hamlets and gentleman farms in Kentucky’s Bluegrass Region (Geographical Review). Subsequent research projects, several of them collaborative with students and faculty colleagues, yielded books and journal articles on Appalachia (Westview Press, 1984), Kentucky’s rock fences (University Press of Kentucky, 1992), and the development of transportation infrastructure, especially early turnpike road systems, in articles, maps, and books such as the map Kentucky’s Frontier Trails: Warrior’s Path, Boone’s Trace, and Wilderness Road, 2008), and the book Kentucky’s Frontier Highway: Historical Landscapes along the Maysville Road (UPK, 2012). My colleagues Richard Ulack, Gyula Pauer, and I edited the 1998 Atlas of Kentucky, which included over one thousand maps, graphs, and diagrams that depicted a broad spectrum of the state’s economic, social, political, and cultural attributes. Since the early ‘70s, I have been interested Kentucky’s distilling culture and economy but did not begin a formal research project until about 2010. My initial objective was to try to understand the process of converting an eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century craft, practiced by farmers and millers into modern, large-scale industry based on applied science and contemporary engineering principles but couched in heritage- and tradition-based marketing. The subject is complex and required a decade of archival and field research, much of it after I retired when I could work on the project full time. 

2) In Making Bourbon, the book looks at how the specific geography, culture, and ecology of the Bluegrass converged and gave birth to Kentucky’s favorite barrel-aged whiskey. Why did you want to write about that?
As I point out in the Introduction, beginning on page 2, the general historical outline of Kentucky’s distilling business has been well documented by several researchers and include such notable books as Henry G. Crowgey’s, Kentucky Bourbon: The Early Years of Whiskeymaking, and Gerald Carson’s, The Social History of Bourbon. My intent was not to duplicate those studies but to examine the transformative nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when distilling changed from an artisanal craft to a large-scale industry, and to trace how distillers created the signature distilling landscape that remains at the core of the contemporary industry’s identity.

My research was centered around three concepts: Making, Landscape, and Historical Ecology (hence the book’s title). Making is a comprehensive expression that includes specific types of creative processes and skills such as crafting, building, constructing, fashioning, producing, and manufacturing. People who distilled Kentucky’s bourbon, or participated in interrelated industries and businesses may have been untrained and unlettered or skilled professionals. But they all contributed their customs, habits, and values to the enterprise. And, overtime, their labors produced a salable product and practical and functional material landscapes. How all this worked is best understood if one can manage to study “with people” or as anthropologist Tim Ingold puts it, to gain information through “knowing from the inside,” or direct study (rather than the study of people). Gaining this kind of knowledge about historical persons and processes is difficult, of course, but period documents such as business ledgers and personal daybooks and diaries provide objective facts as well as insights into an individual’s subjective day-to-day decision making. The nineteenth-century landscape that they constructed in order to produce distilling grains (farms, fields, buildings), oak cooperage (forest timbering, sawmills, and lumber and barrel stave yards), product transport (turnpikes, railroads, river landings) also contains structures that record information about historical customs, values, and decision making. A historical ecology perspective obligates one to recognize that people live and work in geographic places where others have lived before, and that there is a varied and complex relationship among humans and their interaction with physical environments be it at some time in the past or at present. Developing an appreciation of this time-place-environment linkage offers the potential of a fuller understanding of period events.  What were the connections between “limestone water” and the development of distilling as a modern industrial enterprise? How well did the distillers who decided to forego the water wheel and adopt the steam engine to power their distilleries understand this new technology?  How did a distiller cope with the fire risk attendant to using candles and lanterns in whiskey aging warehouses prior to central station electric power?  Prior to the construction of dams and locks, what was the seasonality of high and low water levels on Ohio Valley rivers that might permit or curtail boat transport of grain, coal, or barreled whiskey from one month to the next?  And what was the seasonality of distilling and how did that sequence splice together with the sequencing of labor availability and grain supply?  Addressing questions such as these is necessary to understand how distillers navigated the nineteenth century industrialization process and contributed to the twenty-first century’s rendition of the industry.

3) How different is Bourbon’s Backroads compared to Making Bourbon?
The original manuscript for Making Bourbon: A Geographical History of Distilling in Nineteenth-Century Kentucky was over 700 typescript pages and was written as an academic book. The manuscript included thirty maps, some of them time series, more than forty line drawings, art, and photographs, and almost forty graphs and tables. My editor at the University Press of Kentucky asked me if I could also write a much shorter version for popular readership. While I wrote Making Bourbon in a style for both a general readership and an academic audience, we also recognized that many readers would prefer a synopsis-type of book rather than one weighty with geographic and historical details. I then distilled (!) the full-length manuscript into about 200 pages of text, maps, graphs, and photos taken from the full manuscript but recast as a regional analysis comparing historic whiskey production patterns in the Inner and Outer Bluegrass and the Ohio River Valley corridor with supplementary information on specific locations that people could visit should they be motivated to do so. I titled the second book Bourbon’s Backroads: A Journey Through Kentucky’s Distilling Landscape. It was published in hard cover by UPK in 2019 and in paperback in 2021. I have appended below a quote from page 1 of the “Introduction” in which I explain the use of the term “Backroads.”

“…a  backroad is any lesser-used overland route that traverses countryside and connects places that constitute the fundament of the local and regional culture and economy. Residents of backroads country are dependent on it; appreciative outsiders find backroads of interest in part because they reveal how places work. Backroads pass through landscapes where people conduct their lives; these landscapes contain the natural environments, structures, farms, fields, towns, and industries from which these people earn their living. Backroads can also be interpreted metaphorically—as historical places that possess venerated traditions, or as the backstory behind how something is made, how it works, the form it takes, and how it came to occupy the place (actual or perceptual) where it now resides. In short, the backstory explains how landscapes are made.

This book is about one of Kentucky’s signature industries: whiskey distilling. It is also about the landscape the industry created and the heritage it represents.

Bourbon’s Backroads can be read in the traditional way: simply retire to an armchair and read about how distillers make that bright amber liquid in the cut-glass tumbler standing on your side table. Alternatively, you can use the book as a guide to visit and experience the places where bourbon’s heritage was made: distilleries long standing, relict, razed, or brand new; distiller’s homes on Main Street; villages and neighborhoods where laborers lived; storage warehouses on Whiskey Row; river landings and railroad yards; and factories where copper distilling vessels and charred white oak barrels are made. Reading the story of fine bourbon distilling can be engrossing; standing in the landscape where it began and continues to thrive is akin to participating in an interactive theater performance!”

Bourbon’s Backroads synthesizes much of the information in the first five chapters of Making Bourbon.  The full-length book has twenty chapters organized into three parts. Part I is titled Making Kentucky’s Distilling Landscape and includes chapters on heritage, historical sequencing, environment, grain and livestock production, distillery configurations, technology adoption, complementary industries such as cooperage, copper, and glass manufacturing, the risks associated with the industrialization process, the production and use or disposal of by-products, transportation infrastructure development, labor (one of the book’s longest chapters), federal government taxation and oversight, and the role of temperance advocates.  Part II is titled Knowing From the Inside and includes case studies of the Henry McKenna distillery in Nelson County (two chapters) and James Stone’s Elkhorn Creek distillery in Scott County (two chapters).  Part III is titled Remaking Bourbon’s Contemporary Distilling Landscape and includes three chapters on naming and branding, reconstructing or preserving historic distilleries, and an epilogue.

In his recent book Social Change in a Material World, (Routledge, 2019) philosophy professor Theodore Schatzki refers to the Making Bourbon manuscript as “…—the most comprehensive and myth-busting available—on the Kentucky bourbon business.” 

4) How much and what type of research went into writing Bourbon’s Backroads and Making Bourbon?
As suggested above, the in-depth research and writing required about a decade, much of it full time work (eight-hour+ days, with half days on the weekends) excluding the usual vacations, etc. 

General questions relating to whiskey production might be illuminated by information from the federal census or other governmental sources. Given the pervasive use of corn as an eighteenth- and nineteenth-century food grain (consumed by people) and a feed grain (consumed by livestock), was in-state farm corn production sufficient to also provide grain for a large number of distilleries? (Kentucky had 889 distilleries in 1840, not counting untaxed moonshine stills). A time series of maps based on agricultural census information illustrate corn production during the nineteenth century and are useful in addressing this question. And area newspapers often carried appeals from distillers offering to pay competitive prices for distilling grains. A question as to where and when industrial-scale distilling first gained a foothold was addressed by a time series of maps, also based on agricultural census figures, that show that by 1840 the state’s largest distilleries, those producing over 40,000 gallons of whiskey per year, were sited along the Ohio River where distillers had ready access to barge-sized shipments of grain and coal. Moving grain or barreled whiskey to and from rural distilleries during the nineteenth century was often a difficult undertaking because the state, with few exceptions, did not engage in developing a comprehensive road network. Distillers who wished to move commodities on high quality stone covered roads or turnpikes, had to build the roads themselves. The State Revised Statutes provided information on turnpikes authorized by government officials and the names of the company officials, often distillers and farmers among them, who were responsible for raising construction funds through stock sales and supervising road and toll gate construction and other necessary tasks. A case study map of three turnpikes in southern Nelson County illustrates how this process worked.

The archive materials for the McKenna and Elkhorn distilleries were on microfilm in the UK Library’s Special Collections and they were extensive. The Elkhorn records were primarily hand-written letters and financial records collected in letter books—hundreds of letters in each book. Learning how to read James Stone’s handwriting required time and patience. Henry McKenna’s mill and distillery records were laden with accounts for some 350 farmers and townspeople. Some bought his flour, whiskey, or items that he stocked in his mill-distillery store; others sold to him their staves and firewood, grain, wool, or garden produce. James Stone was a successful, long-established farmer who built a new distillery in the late 1860s. Federal tax requirements plagued his business and he declared bankruptcy a few years later. Irish immigrant Henry McKenna began his sojourn in Kentucky in the early 1850s as a turnpike contractor and he became a successful miller-distiller who eventually accumulated over 1,000 acres of farmland and had become a “strong farmer” in the idiom of rural Ireland. At his passing his three sons expanded the business through creative marketing and management. Distilling stopped in 1919 in anticipation of Prohibition, but the family restarted operations again after repeal. The McKenna bourbon brand is still in use today and is produced by Heaven Hill.  Archival materials for other distillers, coopers, etc., were also very valuable. 

Sixty different nineteenth-century newspapers, primarily published in-state, were useful sources of information as were a range of county, state, and federal government documents. Water resource papers published by the Kentucky Geological Survey and the U.S. Geological Survey helped resolve questions relating to “pure limestone water” and distillery location and longevity.  And, when a distiller claimed to have won a prize at a fair or exposition documents such as the prize list published by the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904 revealed that most all of the individuals and businesses that entered a product for exhibit received an award; exposition managers gave out some 33,000 gold, silver, and bronze metals that year.  Such contextual information often appears in the book’s footnotes rather than the text proper.          

5) You’re a geography professor, how different is that from writing? But how does it also help with your writing and book ideas?
University faculty members are teachers and researchers, but they are also writers in that their research is usually published in scholarly journals or books. Our research is often undertaken within the context of trends in interdisciplinary scholarship—building upon or expanding one’s own body of work as well as the research of others. The way than I think about problems that merit research has been increasingly from an interdisciplinary or historical ecology perspective as briefly mentioned above. And this suggests book-length studies rather than shorter journal article-length works. And while everyone adopts their own writing style, I enjoy taking lessons from master writers such as John McPhee, Patrick O’Brian, Jose Saramago, Rebecca Solnit, Wallace Stegner, and May Theilgaard Watts, as well as geographers and historians such as Peirce Lewis, David Lowenthal, Fred Luckermann, Richard Schein, Joseph Wood, and Bernard DeVoto.

Bourbon’s Backroads is available in hardcopy and paperback through the University Press of Kentucky and other retailers.

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