Welcome to the American Whiskey Podcast where we talk about the intersection of American history and American whiskey. This week we are going to talk about Abraham Lincoln. Oh, yes, that amazing president who ended the civil war and abolished slavery. What some of you may not know is that Abraham Lincoln was in fact a teetotaler, who’s dad worked at a distillery, supported his general’s drinking habits, and was in fact shot party because of the liquid courage that bourbon provides. He was a man who tried to distance himself from the spirit yet ended up dying partly because of it. At the end of this episode we’ll be tasting some Jefferson’s Reserve Very Old Kentucky Small Bourbon Whiskey Very Small Batch (why is that name so long?) And I’ll go over some basic tasting techniques to maybe help you along.
So grab your stuffed tiger, jump in your cardboard box marked time machine in sharpie, put on your vortex goggles and we’ll go back to where Abraham Lincoln was born. You guys probably hate my time machine references, but I’ve really enjoyed coming up with them. Many of you know that Abraham Lincoln was born in a Log cabin, hence the term Lincoln logs, but how were those logs paid for? By Thomas Lincoln, Abe’s Dad, who worked part time at a distillery. Basically a carpenter who did some distilling work on the side, Thomas Lincoln owned a farm in Kentucky right on Knob Creek. Yes, that Knob Creek that has bottles in every store and is used as many of the well bourbons out here in LA. This was long before that distillery was established.
Thomas Lincoln reportedly worked at Boone’s Nelson County distillery, that was owned by Wattie Boone, who was a relative of Daniel Boone, the Daniel Boone with the raccoon hat. An interesting bit of lore here, Wattie Boone knew young Abe and was quoted as saying he was “bound to make a great man, no matter what trade he follows,” and “If he goes into the whiskey business, he’ll be the best distiller in the land.” Although records from this time are very spotty so it’s difficult to say whether those words actually were spoken by old Wattie. Here’s what we do know, from a document dated 1896, Wattie Boone was a “close relative” of Daniel Boone. Again, some urban legend here states that Daniel Boone was the first explorer to lay eyes on Kentucky and name it’s bluegrass the most beautiful land in all the globe. This document also states that Wattie Boone and his friend, Stephen Richtie, were the first distillers to try and make whiskey in the great state of Kentucky in the year 1775. Then in the year 1780 Wattie increased his production to 2 bushels of grain a day. I have no clue what that means relative to the amount of whiskey being made, but it apparently means that’s a thriving whiskey business. Anyways, Wattie Boone then passes the distillery on to his sons, one of them being John Boone in the year 1810. Then it became the Boone Brother’s Distillery.
Well Thomas Lincoln fell on hard times and asked John Boone if he could work for him at the distillery. He was said as being a fine hand. Interestingly enough, Abraham would bring his father meals down at the distillery and was thought to have assisted his father in making whiskey so fine that you couldn’t get it far from home. Reading documents written in the 1800’s is so freaking weird. They are like all out of order and this one actually says, “Y’all know the story from there, the boone’s brother’s distillery is up there by the wiggle in the road by Bardstown and Loretto Turnpike.” Ya… A wiggle…. In the road.
Shortly after these events, Thomas moved his family, along with Abraham, to Indiana. Kentucky had crazy laws then that made land ownership really complicated and staked claims were often petitioned and turned over to other hands. Apparently, Thomas Lincoln was not that good at this whole staking claims thing because he lost three farms total in Kentucky. When he moved the family there was a bit of a break in Thomas and Abraham’s relationship. Thomas has really poor eyesight and was constantly having Abraham run the farm business. One historian described this relationship as a Abe being a slave to his father. This ended with Abraham Lincoln actually opting out of even attending his father’s funeral. Here that kids? Don’t be like Abe, call your dad and tell him you love him.
So fast forward, to Abrahams politician days. Abraham owned a series of stores that were all licensed to sell alcohol, by the bottle and the glass. Now this is important because Abraham started to run for president in a time when the temperance movement began to pick up steam. In fact, it had picked up so much steam many states had tried out bans on alcohol around this time. Including New York, but that crap only lasted for like 2 years because they’re new Yorkers.
So the reality was there was a strong pocket of the population that believed alcohol was literally from the devil and a sin and they controlled a large portion of the vote. This was not unlike the current Tea Party movement, in that, however small and niche it may be, an incredibly organized message directed at the right people can form a powerful lobbying group. So much like a current politician who in the early 2000s was against gay marriage until it would political suicide to not support it, Abe Lincoln saw the writing on the wall and made speeches at the temperance halls praising them for their work. Abe was a crafty wordsmith though and his general message was love the sinner, hate the sin, which has problems all on it’s own, but luckily, his emails were never leaked so he became president. His main opponent, Stephen Douglas tried to bring in his alcohol sale days to shame lincoln, but Lincoln proponents mostly wrote those off as “grocery stores” but that was a commonly held euphemism for a rural saloon.
Boom so Lincoln is brought in as president to our incredibly unstable nation, despite his rich whiskey heritage, he leads the north to ultimate victory, but there are some pretty cool whiskey facts from the civil war that Lincoln is directly involved with.
The first is Lincoln’s main general, Ulysses S Grant. This is the same guy that became the 18th president of the United States. It was rumored that Grant liked his whiskey a bit too much. There were people under Grant who wanted his job, so they would write to President Lincoln about Grant’s benders that would last for days and would cause all kinds of disorder and ruckus. An actor who plays grant in civil war re-enactments described it like this, Grant had a family, he missed his wife and children, and would drink sometimes to take the edge off. Unfortunately, Grant was also a bit of a lightweight, which would give the illusion that he was a bit of a drunk. Regardless of all that, Lincoln, was quoted as saying “I wish some of you would tell me the brand of whiskey that Grant drinks. I would like to send a barrel of it to my other generals.” In case you were wondering, the brand was Old Crow. Which is still available today.
The other super cool whiskey fact of the civil war was the whiskey tax of 1861. Whiskey taxes have been apart of US history for a really long time. At the end of the revolutionary war it was instated to pay for the war debt. Thomas Jefferson repealed the tax in 1802. Then it was reinstated from 1814-1817 to fund the war of 1812. Then it was finally reinstated by Abraham Lincoln in 1861 and has remained in place ever since, sometimes counting for up to 70 percent of the federal budget. Ya, that wasn’t a typo, up to 70 percent, but those were the good old days when government was small and things like drinking water would give you dysentery and kill you. Or like remember that game Oregon trail when you could die of exhaustion? Who dies from being tired? Wtf?
Anyways, after Abraham Lincoln wins the war for the north and abolishes slavery, he is eventually assassinated, and guess which spirit is right in the thick of it, oh yes, that lovely American whiskey. Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, who was a confederate sympathizer. Without getting in to too much detail, history holds that Booth arrived at the Taltavul’s Star Saloon next to the theater where Lincoln would be killed. Booth ordered a bottle of whiskey and drank to calm his nerves, then some 40 minutes later, made his way to the balcony where he shot Abraham Lincoln. One of the things that always stuck out to me was, where is Lincoln’s body guards at this point? Sure they don’t have secret service detail like we do now, but there had to be a body guard, he was the president. Well, besides Booth being a well known actor at the theater giving him access to Lincoln’s balcony, Lincoln’s body guard was at the same saloon as booth, ALSO DRINKING BOURBON. John Parker was the body guards name and after Lincoln had settled into his booth, he went with the footman next door to the Star Saloon. When Booth went up to Lincoln’s balcony, Parkers chair sat empty, giving booth the clean entry to the back of Lincoln’s head.
And there we have the story of our Abraham Lincoln, mostly touted as the driest president we’ve ever had, but still with a rich, undeniable whiskey past. Let’s drink some bourbon, shall we?
As stated earlier we are drinking the Jefferson’s Reserve Very Old Kentucky Small Bourbon Whiskey Very Small Batch. Why the heck is that name so long? If you’ve got a bottle, drink some with me. You might be asking yourself, why not Knob Creek? You’re missing the theme, Joe! The reality is, I haven’t had a knob creek I actually like, and didn’t want to buy a bottle for this episode. If you have a single barrel variant that will change my mind, send me a sample! This bottle of Jefferson’s was actually a birthday gift from a friend, who is actually listening right now, You look good Ross, damn fine. This whiskey was at one point aged between 12 and 17 years but it appears that info has been taken off the label and the website, so who knows how young the youngest whiskey is in it and is a marriage of 8-12 barrels, rather than the 200+ barrels that make up your typical mass produced small batch whiskies.
So as promised, I am going to go over the basic whiskey tasting method and we’ll see what notes we can find. The method consists of three parts, look, smell, taste. With bourbon the look part is basically looking at the whiskey. Bourbon gets it’s color strictly from the inside of a charred barrel, so as a general rule, the longer the time in the barrel, the darker the bourbon will be. There are a ton of variables in that so it’s not a hard fast law.
So look at the whiskey in the glass, how dark is it? This whiskey is has some decent color to it, landing in the amber range. The next part of the tasting is the smell or the nose. This one is trickey because most of the time you just get alcohol straight to the nostrils. You can try a few different things to try and get some notes out of it, first try varying the distance from your nose to your glass. Start with the glass down by your chin and take sniffs all the way until your nose is in the glass. Different aromas should arise in this process. For me, the jeffersons releases some earthy smells, like maybe some leather. I definitely get a lot of vanilla on the nose too. Moving on to the taste, the goal here is to get equal coverage on the tongue and try to isolate flavors throughout. There is some talk amongst industry experts that the first sip of any alcohol you wont taste flavors clearly, you need to acclimate your palate. So for the first sip don’t focus on flavors just coat your tongue and hold the whiskey in your mouth for 2-3 seconds. Then swallow. The second sip now, let the whiskey coat your tongue and linger there for bit. For the jefferesons I get notes of toffee and nuts. The whiskey is sweet. The last part of the tasting is the finish, and that’s what you taste once the whiskey is gone. A really high quality bourbon will leave it’s taste in your mouth for a long time. If there’s one part where Jefferson’s falls flat, it’s on the finish. Its there, with a burst of sweetness and some more nuttiness, but then it just kind of fell off the tongue. Overall, I really like this boubon. It’s a great drinker. And definitely something accessible enough to share with entry level whiskey drinkers.