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Of Grape Juice and Bourbon Whiskey

October 2, 2007

I went to seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. At the time, the Ohio River city was known as the home of seven seminaries and seven distilleries. I probably missed about half of what Louisville had to offer.

Being a teetotaler, I am certainly no authority on alcoholic beverages. When it comes to mixed drinks, iced tea with a shot of pineapple juice is about my limit.

In an upscale magazine, I read a review of a Washington, D.C. restaurant. The food editor touted a new cocktail, Grape and Grain. It is a mixture of grape juice, Kentucky Bourbon, and orange bitters. It brought to my mind the stories of two men.

Thomas Welch immigrated to the United States in 1834 as a boy. He graduated from medical college and became a physician. After practicing for only two years, his declining health led him to establish a successful dentistry practice in Vineland, New Jersey.

When Welch came to Vineland, the town was a temperance stronghold. Even so, no less than a dozen places sold liquor. Welch was a staunch Prohibitionist, who actively worked to end the sale of alcoholic beverages in New Jersey.

Welch was so adamant in his convictions about alcohol that he wanted churches to discontinue the use of wine in communion services. He originated a method of preserving grape juice. He called his product Dr. Welch’s Unfermented Wine.

Typically, purple grape juice is made from Concord grapes. It is commonly used by Christian denominations opposed to the use of alcoholic beverages in the observance of the Lord’s Supper.

Bourbon is an American whiskey named for Bourbon County, Kentucky. It is made primarily of corn. It is aged in new charred oak barrels, usually for at least four years.

Bourbon can be made anywhere in the United States that it is legal to distill spirits. Currently all but a few brands are made in the Commonwealth of Kentucky.

Fort Harrod, an early outpost in Bourbon County, Kentucky, was established in 1774. The settlers planted corn. When their harvests exceeded what they and their livestock could eat, they converted the surplus into whiskey.

Named after the French royal family, Bourbon County covered a large area noted for its limestone spring water. Even after the region was divided into smaller counties, it continued to be known as Old Bourbon. Located within Old Bourbon was the principal Ohio River port from which whiskey was exported. Old Bourbon was stenciled on the barrels to indicate their port of origin. Old Bourbon whiskey was the first corn liquor most people had ever tasted.

Each county in Kentucky names a favorite son as the inventor of Bourbon whiskey. There was no single inventor of the product. Jim Beam, James Crow, Evan Williams, James Pepper, Edmund Taylor, William Weller, and the Wathen Family were among the earlier Bourbon makers in the Bluegrass state.

Tennessee whiskey is similar to Kentucky Bourbon, in that it is made of corn mash and is aged in new, charred oak barrels, typically for four or more years. Unlike Bourbon, Tennessee whiskey is filtered through a thick layer of maple charcoal before it is put into casks for aging. This step gives the whiskey a distinctive flavor. Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel were the two most prominent makers of Tennessee whiskey.

While no single person can really claim the distinction of inventing Bourbon whiskey, the credit is often given to Elijah Craig. He was born in Orange County, Virginia, in 1738. Following a brief sojourn in South Carolina, he crossed the Appalachian Mountains to settle in Kentucky about the time the Declaration of Independence was signed. Craig was a shrewd businessman. He built Kentucky’s first paper mill. In 1789, he founded a distillery in Georgetown, Kentucky. Craig’s distillery was the first to age corn whiskey in new charred oak barrels. This innovation was the decisive step in turning moonshine into Bourbon whiskey.

Welch and Craig have something in common that is surprising.

Thomas Welch graduated from Wesleyan Seminary. At the age of nineteen, he entered the gospel ministry. He was ordained in the Wesleyan Methodist Church, serving a church near New York City. He continued in the ministry until his voice failed him. It was then that he entered medical school. He is remembered for the grape juice he developed and the company he founded, Welch’s Grape Juice.

Elijah Craig, said to have been the inventor of Bourbon whiskey, was ordained a Baptist minister in 1771. He was imprisoned briefly in South Carolina, apparently for disturbing the peace with his sermons. He then moved to Bourbon County and settled near Frankfort, Kentucky. In 1777, he became pastor of Blue Run Church. His distillery, Heaven Hill, produces a brand of Bourbon named Elijah Craig. The whiskey is considered to be one of the firm’s premium products.

Grape and Grain, a mixture of grape juice and Kentucky Bourbon, is a concoction derived from the labors of two ministers, a teetotaling Methodist and an imbibing Baptist.

Go figure!

-Kirk H. Neely

© H-J Weekly, October 2007

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