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By Kent Brittan

The word “whiskey” is too simple for what it defines. To a European the word means scotch; to an American it means bourbon. Both are distilled spirits, but the former is made from barley, and the latter is made from corn. Both come in both the blended and higher class varieties, but we say “single malts” for scotch and “straight” for bourbons. In addition, most people take positions on their whiskey, and it is rare to find someone who drinks both types. Indeed, bourbon is as American as apple pie, made from the grain that was the gift of the Native Americans to the world. My father drank bourbon, and he only kept a bottle of scotch in the house for guests and my Uncle Donald. Uncle Donald was of Scottish background through and through and for him whiskey only meant one thing. His face became contorted when he was offered the American product. As a child I wondered what this battle line of taste preference was all about. The amber liquids looked pretty much the same to me. However, adulthood allowed me to discover the very distinct flavors and aromas of each.

American bourbon has a rich history. The name derives from Bourbon County Kentucky, which received its current name after the Revolutionary War, as did its county seat, Paris, in remembrance of the aid of the French royal family gave to the American cause. Originally, rum was the most common spirit in colonial America and was a major trade item in New England. However, in trans-Appalachia corn was more abundant and often exceeded local requirements. It was easier to stock and more profitable to convert this over-production of grain into whiskey and sell it. Thus, the American whiskey business was born. Kentucky continues to have the largest concentration of whiskey distilleries, with some distilleries still producing in neighboring states.

But the nascent industry was not without problems. In one of the major ironies of our history, in 1794, a couple of years after the new United States government decided to tax the whiskey sellers, a “Whiskey Rebellion” arose in the producing states and territories. George Washington himself, as President and Commander in Chief, led an army to put down the protest against abusive taxation, an impost that was eventually revoked. Moreover, after his retirement Washington’s distillery at Mount Vernon became a major whiskey producer.

The Prohibition era of the 1920s saw not only the growth of moonshine and tax battles with the U.S. Treasury Department, but also the development of new cocktails, some of which may have found their origin in an attempt to disguise bad whiskey. That is not true for all, because other bourbon cocktails have very long histories and pedigrees. Fierce discussions take place even today as to what is the best way to make a Manhattan, an Old Fashioned, or a Mint Julep.

My father knew more bartending recipes than the best of the best. He often drank straight bourbon with a little water when dining out, but at home he prepared an Old Fashioned each evening for my mother and himself with great care as to the quantity and quality of the ingredients.

Dad was an excellent horseman and very fond of thoroughbred racing. Each year for his Kentucky Derby party he made for his guests--until he was 100 years old!--what came to be the most celebrated Mint Juleps around. He never told anyone the recipe until he bequeathed it to me. That one will continue to remain a family secret.