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Whiskey: The History And Today’s Industry

From pure pot still, to Kentucky’s finest, the spirit is having a comeback. We’ll ask what and why.

Barrels at the Woodford Reserve Distillery in Kentucky. (Flickr/Adam Sonnett)

Barrels at the Woodford Reserve Distillery in Kentucky. (Flickr/Adam Sonnett)

“Whiskey is all right in its place,” said the famous evangelist Billy Sunday, “but its place is hell.” Well, a lot of people might disagree lately.

For a long time, whiskey seemed to have gone out with the Rat Pack. The Mad Men era. That’s over. Whiskey’s back. With more range of flavors and connoisseurs than ever. Sippers talking about it like wine. “Drizzled with honey and almonds…custard cream, toasted barley… banana bread and vanilla fudge.” Wow.

This hour, On Point: the history and return of whiskey.

-Tom Ashbrook


Michael Veach, associate curator of special collections at Kentucky’s Filson Historical Center. Bourbon historian and a member of the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame. Author of “Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: An American Heritage.”

Joy Richard, bar and beverage manager at the Franklin Restaurant Group. Her newest restaurant, Boston’s Citizen Public House boasts a list of over 150 whiskeys from around the globe, with 5 hand selected single barrel whiskies. (@joyrichard)

From Tom’s Reading List

Time Magazine “Fans of Maker’s Mark whiskey have a message for the company that has brought them their favorite bourbon in trademark red-wax-sealed bottles for nearly 60 years. They’d like it neat, please. Maker’s Mark, based in Loretto, Ky., announced over the weekend that the company would begin watering down its iconic whiskey in order to boost supply. The response was lightning fast and deeply felt.”

Star-Tribune “Shots of courage. Lightning in a bottle. Bottoms up. Whiskey has its own liquid poetry. Sip it and you talk, or sing. My Scottish cousins can be almost eloquent about the drink itself. It is, they say, an education. As richly cultural as wine.”

Reuters “Spirits companies sold 3 percent more liquor in 2012 in the United States than in 2011, fueled by flavored drinks and a big thirst for Irish whiskey and single malt Scotch, an industry trade group said on Wednesday.”

Excerpt: Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: An American Heritage

Whiskey Playlist

Tom’s Whiskey Adventure


Tom’s Whiskey List

On air, Tom sampled:

Willett Pot Still Bourbon – Bardstown, Kentucky

Rittenhouse Rye – Bardstown, Kentucky

Red Breast Pot Still Whiskey – Ireland

Caol Ila Scotch – Islay, Scotland


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  • Jasoturner

    It’s always fun to get a few different bottles of whiskey and do a comparative tasting.  You can learn an awful lot about the idiosyncrasies of individual spirits this way.  Especially when trying a rare or expensive liquor, I love to have the context that a tasting can provide.

    • sickofthechit

       For a reasonably priced bourbon try Very Old Barton 86 proof.

  • William Edwards

    As long as you’re talking about the resurgence in whiskey, it’s worth mentioning a significant impediment to craft distilleries.  It is not legal to distill at home, unlike homebrewing.  Homebrewers fueled much of the craft beer movement.  People figured out they could make tasty beer that other people liked, and it was not cost prohibitive to try.  

    You can’t do that with whiskey or any other distilled liquor.  If you want to try your hand at making whiskey, you need to be a well-capitalized (i.e., corporate) entity.

    I love whiskey and I’d love to try making some myself.  It’s too bad trying would make me a felon under existing law.

    • Jasoturner

      Funny, I’d though about making a little setup at home.  Had no idea that this was a felony, but I guess given the tax revenues for Uncle Sam, it isn’t too surprising.

    • Jasoturner


      Not the same as distilling, but still fun.

    • adks12020

      Yeah, it’s kind of a pain that you can’t just give it a go like with home brewing and wine making.

      In some states, including my state of New York, you can get a farm distiller’s license for relatively cheap (a few hundred dollars for the state license and a couple thousand for the federal ATF license).  It’s still not really cheap but it’s manageable.

      The catch is you have to source all your ingredients from the state (I know lots of farmers so that part is easy) and you can only sell certain amounts and in person (no internet or mail order sales). 

      I plan to do this within the next few years, assuming I can find a piece of property large enough for my home and a large barn to produce the whiskey in.

  • sickofthechit

    Could someone please tell Stephen Colbert if he is going to drink Kentucky Bourbon on the rocks that it is not proper to just pour it in the glass with ice and drink it.  Once poured over the ice, bourbon should be swirled, then drunk!  It’s kind of like french-kisssing a woman without first caressing her cheek softly, touching her hair, and nuzzling her neck up to just behind her ear with your lips and breath.  There’s proper ways of doing things sir.

    Hey, has anyone heard of Rachel Kate? She is a Charleston South Carolina musician on Kickstarter with an awesome album she is trying to get out….help her if you can.
    Charles A. Bowsher

    • adks12020

      Come on man.  All that does is mix the melt water into the bourbon which will happen anyway when you start sipping. Don’t be such a stickler. Let him drink it how he wants. It isn’t scotch or wine, Bourbon is the people’s liquor (although just as fine as the aforementioned libations).

      • sickofthechit

         I just like messing with Stephen, as if he follows this….

      • ElleNoel

        no no, I agree with Mr. B. my childhood memory is of the swirl…definitely an epic Southern Gesture.

  • IsaacWalton

    This is timely!

  • adks12020

    mmmmm, bourbon. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Paolo-Caruso/1778940602 Paolo Caruso

    It seems to me the resurgence of whiskey coincides with recessions and particularly the coming market crash.

    The Bronfmans at Seagrams and their int’l banker pals are getting the market ready for the hard stuff, while they are militarizing good ol Andy and Barney, and taking away your civil rights. Cheers !!!

  • DeJay79

    writer of the fourth …What?!?
    was that an F-bomb by my man Tom?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=760760612 Christy K Heffernan

    More info on the Whiskey club, Please!  In Boston, I assume? (hope)  :D

  • David_from_Lowell

    My father-in-law is from Kentucky, and he, and I have been drinking bourbon for a long time, preceding this bourbon revival. I think this resurgence is great, except for price, and branding. There have been many slightly above average bourbons that brand themselves as exceptional and are priced that way. Sometimes price doesn’t equal quality. I’ll take a nightly Ezra Brooks any day.

  • DeJay79

    Living if Louisville for 3 years, I have now visited every stop on the Bourbon Trail and Woodford Reserve is by far my favorite.

    • adks12020

      Try Blanton’s if you haven’t already.  Woodford is good but I prefer Blanton’s.  It’s smoother and I think it has a more rounded flavor.

      • DeJay79

         I’ll have to give it a go. Thanks!

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/A4AJ576QV77QBCZ75OX7N2OQRI pog

    Once a bottle is opened, can it be stored for a long time with the original cork, or does it degrade over a year or two?

    • David_from_Lowell

      My goodness, a year or two to finish a bottle? I’ll come on over and help you nip this problem in the bud.

  • AC

    it’s a little blurry, but i think in one of the John Rain series, he pays several thousand dollars for a single shot of whiskey at some bar, i think in NY.
    anyway, i’ve decided that if i win the lottery or something some day, i MUST be frivolous (at least once) and try a thousand dollar shot of whiskey. I can’t even imagine what it tastes like, but it must be really good, well, it better be!!!

  • PappyVan12

    A great example of bourbon’s popularity is the price inflation associated with Buffalo Trace’s Pappy Van Winkle line (12, 15, 20, 23yr).  I used to be able to pick up a bottle of Pappy 12 for $49 and 23yr for $120.  First, you can’t even find Pappy Van Winkle, and those who have it are charging upwards of $800 a bottle.

    I stopped drinking my Pappy and save it to drink sparingly.

    On the positive side, I have become more adventurous.  I’ve discovered how nice the bourbons are from Four Roses (shhh).

    Problem is that we may be in a period of shorter supply due to the intersection of its popularity and the look back period required to get aged barrels.

  • Stockingup

    Some of us long-time bourbon fans are not happy about the rising popularity…Maker’s Mark is diluting their formula to meet demand, and we are horrified….and stockpiling!

    • adks12020

      There’s no real need to stock up.  There are plenty of other very, very good brands out there to buy instead.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Joanie-Gentian/610374005 Joanie Gentian

    Whisky drinking song from Whisky Galore, with James Robertson Justice and filmed on the Scottish island of Barra in 1948. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HBp2ke5Bye4

  • PappyVan12

    To find a bottle of Elija Criag 18, I scoured the internet and found one in Brooklyn NY.  Bought bottle.  One month later, price is up $20 / bottle

    • harverdphd

       I hope by then it was gone.

  • J__o__h__n

    I hate when companies shrink the product and think consumers won’t notice.  I hope they fail.

    • harverdphd

       Most consumers fail…your wish is granted.

  • Trudie

    Love spending a little time each week with my old friend Jack..

    • Jasoturner

      What color? Oops, sorry, was thinking of Johnny…

  • sickofthechit

    My apologies, but the young lady makes it all seem a little snobbish.  Like it is another chance for the wealthy to glom onto something and “make it their own”.

    • ElleNoel

      Maybe it’s just her voice. I just can’t believe how little they are discussing Scotch whiskey.

  • ElleNoel

    Burns Night! A big celebration of the Scottish National poet Robert Burns at our house every year, and as Burns himself said, “whisky and revolution gang thegither!”
    A fire in the fireplace, some songs and tall tales for the kids, and (for the grownups) whiskey in our tea. This year we all loved BOSTON’S OWN Bully Boy “American Straight Whiskey” which is made from corn, rye and barley.
    Do you know the etymology of the word whiskey? Look it up and learn some gaelic! It translates as “Water of Life.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/peterboyle.4848 Peter Boyle

    I have loved whiskey (in moderation) for 50 years.  Lately I’ve been really appreciating single malt Irish whiskey, some of the better bourbons, and brandies.  I kind of burned out (taste bud wise) on the single malt scotches, and never really liked the clear whiskeys at all (except in fruit drinks) nor rum.  I’m also a fine wine and beer drinker.  I guess I just like the better things in life.  Cheers, Skol, and Prosit.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=760760612 Christy K Heffernan

      What are your favorite single malt Irish whiskey choices?  Curious.  Right now I am into single malt Scotch, but always on the lookout for a seasoned opinion.  Thanks!

  • nj_v2

    Hey, here’s Willie on the playlist?!

    (Whiskey River)

    Also note…

    (Lynyrd Skynyrd, Whiskey Rock-A-Roller)

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=NM7vE5gcX84(Hank Williams, Jr., Whiskey Bent and Hellbound) 

    (Thin Lizzy, Whiskey in the Jar)

    And, by inference…

    (John Barleycorn)

    • nj_v2

      Oops, Willie is there! Missed it…

  • PappyVan12

    To distill (forgive pun) my love of bourbon, beyond the wonderful flavors, is how representative it is to our land and the myriad of variables, only some of which are controlled, to produce such a marvelous product.  The quality of the corn, rye; the blends of the grains, the softness of the water, the yeast strain, the quality of the oak, the amount of char, the type of building in which it is stored, and the temperature variation.

    I also appreciate that bourbon is one of the only products to give a portion of its share to the angels in our midst.

  • sickofthechit

    I have a warehouse log from the 1800′s for a Cincinatti warehouse where people deposited their whiskey barrels (full) for safe keeping as a bank account of sorts.  Wish I had the barrels my great grandfather stored there in the 1800′s…..

  • sickofthechit

    You don’t really “loose” the three gallons in the barrel, once it is emptied you can put a little water into it, then set it in the sun and let it sweat for a while.

  • Jeff Cadow

    A little pronunciation hint for Tom: The Gaelic word for whiskey is pronounced “ish’-kә” (one available reference: scroll to the bottom of http://www.gaelicmatters.com/irish-words.html).
    –Jeff in Newton Upper Falls

  • jgeigerphoto

    Whiskey in the sound studio.  Fund drive if Tom gets a bit tipsy on air? 

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/IHEO4EVV3QWCTQPBZOYQ2CP5ZU EJK

    This is a crock.  There is only 2 reasons for Makers reducing their bourbon content. First, This is just a way for them to reduce the bourbon content for the same or probably more $. Second, Maker’s released Maker’s 46 and they need to further differentiate the original Makers from Makers 46 ABV to further justify the price.  I’m ok if the taste doesn’t change but we’ll see.  I have another close favorite (which is much cheaper) that I will switch to if this changes the flavor.

  • http://www.facebook.com/austin.sachs.3 Austin Sachs

    The multiple uses for whiskey barrels is endless. At
    the Smugglers Notch Distillery in Vermont they are taking used Jim Bean barrels
    and aging their rum in them for an additional year. Best Rum ever and after
    they are used there they go to other local breweries that will make bear in
    them then who knows after that but eventually they make real nice planters when
    cut in halfJ

  • http://www.facebook.com/austin.sachs.3 Austin Sachs
  • http://www.facebook.com/joe.fell.58 Joe Fell

    I wonder if your guests have given thought to sudden oak death and the potential for this plant disease to impact the supply of oak. Sudden oak death has been spreading in California and Oregon, and seems to have made its way to several site on the eastern seaboard. As a fan of whiskey (and whisky), wine, and wildlife, I hope that the many species of oak on this continent are not heading the way of the American Chestnut.

    • harverdphd

       Solution:  harvest all oak threatened immediately!

  • dransti

    You have asked how I feel about whiskey. All right,
    here is how I feel about whiskey:

    If you mean whiskey, the devil’s brew, the poison
    scourge, the bloody monster that defiles innocence, dethrones reason, destroys
    the home, creates misery and poverty, yea, literally takes the bread from the
    mouths of little children; if you mean that evil drink that topples Christian
    men and women from the pinnacles of righteous and gracious living into the
    bottomless pits of degradation, shame, despair, helplessness, and hopelessness,
    then, my friend, I am opposed to it with every fiber of my being.

    However, if by whiskey you mean the oil of
    conversation, the philosophic wine, the elixir of life, the ale that is
    consumed when good fellows get together, that puts a song in their hearts and
    the warm glow of contentment in their eyes; if you mean Christmas cheer, the
    stimulating sip that puts a little spring in the step of an elderly gentleman
    on a frosty morning; if you mean that drink that enables man to magnify his
    joy, and to forget life’s great tragedies and heartbreaks and sorrow; if you
    mean that drink the sale of which pours into our treasuries untold millions of
    dollars each year, that provides tender care for our little crippled children,
    our blind, our deaf, our dumb, our pitifully aged and infirm, to build the
    finest highways, hospitals, universities, and community colleges in this
    nation, then my friend, I am absolutely, unequivocally in favor of it.

    This is my position, and as always, I refuse to be
    compromised on matters of principle.


    • http://onpoint.wbur.org/about-on-point/sam-gale-rosen Sam Gale Rosen

      Awesome. Courtesy of Judge Noah “Soggy”Sweat. History’s greatest statesman.

  • ElleNoel

    Thank you, Tom , for FINALLY mentioning Scotland!

  • Michiganjf

    Cold deadens the sensitivity of taste buds… that’s why ice cream has to have many times the sugar to attain the same level of sweetness as any other food at room temperature.

    Thus, many aficionados insist on drinking good scotch at room temperature.

    • harverdphd

       Neat!   You’re right for once!

  • Dan Ward

    I have a friend who shares Tom’s surname and has family in Cynthiana and Lexington, KY. I’ve visited the family farm down there a few times now. On our last trip we took a tour of the Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale brewery in downtown Lexington. They age their beer in spent bourbon barrels for 6 weeks (any longer and the beer becomes too alcoholic). Their product is delicious and turned me on to bourbon itself, mainly Maker’s Mark. They warned, though, that with the rise in popularity of beer aged in bourbon barrels, some breweries are just mulching up spent barrels and adding them to the beer. The real deal is a bit pricey, but it’s worthwhile. Massachusetts is one of a few states they distribute to, so be on the lookout at local bars and liquor stores.

  • PappyVan12

    How about $123/shot of Pappy Van Winkle!  Saw it in a restaurant in TN

  • spiritlady1

    I just want to put a good word in for French Single Malt whiskies, such as Armorik from the Brittany region of France.
    Tried to call in the show, but it’s always busy…

  • ElleNoel

    Leeze me on Drink ! it gies us mair
    Than either School or Colledge;
    It kindles Wit, it waukens Lear,
    It pangs us fou o’ Knowledge.
    Be’t whisky-gill or penny-wheep,
    Or ony stronger potion,
    It never fails, on drinkin deep,
    To kittle up our notion,
    By night or day.
    frae ‘ The Holy Fair ‘ – Robert Burns

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1446402638 Bikram Singh

    What Tannins are to wine, Hops are to beer, peat is to Scotch…great and timely show

  • cathyvan

    I found a bottle of Rye whiskey in the wall when we recently renovated. It is unopened Mt. Vernon Brand100 proof Bottled in Bond, Baltimore Maryland, aged 6 years. Does this have value?

    • harverdphd

       Only if you drink it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1775843677 Greg Platt

    Props to the producers …. excellent segment

  • http://twitter.com/jhayesboh James Hayes-Bohanan

    I enjoy the comments on this page — I do not think I have ever seen so many positive responses to any NPR segment. Well done!

    • http://twitter.com/jhayesboh James Hayes-Bohanan

      The segment also includes a lot of geography, so I have featured it on my geography blog – http://environmentalgeography.blogspot.com/2013/02/fluvial-geography-of-whiskey.html

  • TomGhent

    Tom, I heard part of your broadcast while driving in Nashville today and heard you ask the Hypothetical question, whether any of your listeners might know whiskey “as an old friend”….I’m the one who wrote the song “Whiskey Whiskey” with the line “Whiskey Whiskey my old friend”…I was going to call to say “hi”, but by the time I pulled over, I got a message saying “no more calls”…..I love your show, and listen when I’m traveling…..And yes, I do like a taste now and then…..

  • BradAshbrook

    Hi Tom, great show. My great-great grandfather is Thomas Veach Ashbrook who ran the Ashbrook Distillery in Cynthiana with his brother Felix Grundy Ashbrook. So fun to hear the story with all the name connections. Probably even a connection to Michael Veach if we looked hard enough. Brad Ashbrook, Wellesley MA

  • Guest

    Hi Tom, terrific show. My great great grandfather was Thomas Veach Ashbrook who ran the Ashbrook Distillery in Cynthiana KY with his brother Felix Grundy Ashbrook. So fun with all the family name connections. Probably even a connection to Michael Veach if we looked hard enough.

    Brad Ashbrook, Wellesley MA

  • http://www.facebook.com/mark.weist.9 Mark Weist

    Went on the whiskey tour this past fall with a few buddies, and can’t get enough now. Enjoyed the show!

  • Regular_Listener

    I thought of a couple of reasons why people are drinking more whiskey these days.  For one thing, they are making better stuff now – not the throat burning rotgut of a couple of decades ago, but tasty, nicely crafted liquor.  I guess the show did point that out.  But also, as people get older, it gets harder on the body to guzzle cheap beer after cheap beer, same goes for large jugs of lame wine or other spirits.  And that is not interesting either, it is just drinking to get smashed, an activity that one grows out of unless one wants to end up in treatment.  Thus I find myself, as time passes, having more wine, good whiskey, and craft beer.  And I like all of them – in reasonable quantities of course.  Cheers, everyone.

    And oh yes, I thought Maker’s Mark changed something, because I noticed it didn’t taste as good as it once had – watering it down, eh?  I’ll reach for something else, thank you.  Bulleit makes a nice, reasonably priced bourbon, and I love the bottles and reuse them.  And there’s always good old Mr. Daniels, which I seem to appreciate more than ever. 

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