Whiskey had a staggering effect on our history from the get-go.

George Washington slept here. He also made whiskey here, very bad whiskey. When Washington returned to Mount Vernon in 1797 after serving two terms as president, his Scottish plantation manager, James Anderson, suggested that he use the farm’s excess grain to make whiskey.

Washington agreed and his slaves were put to work erecting a 75-by-30-foot distillery. The building burned down in 1814, but was restored in 2007. Dennis Pogue, Mount Vernon’s associate director, recently led a grand tour of the building, where five copper stills sat in brick fireplaces near big wooden tubs used to ferment grain before distilling.

“George Washington’s whiskey was rye whiskey,” Pogue said. What he didn’t say was that Washington’s whiskey was also wretched whiskey.

The problem was youth. Today, distillers age their whiskey in oak barrels for years, so the precious liquid can slowly mellow, a process that flavors the whiskey with what connoisseurs like to call “subtle notes of caramel and vanilla.” But back in 1799, Washington aged his whiskey for a minute or two before selling it—a quicker, cheaper process that flavored his hooch with notes of kerosene and turpentine.

“It was a pretty sharp taste,” Pogue said.

He was being tactful. Actually, Washington’s whiskey, like nearly all American whiskies of his day, was rotgut— crude firewater that burned the throat, wrung tears from the eyes and produced a hangover that made a drinker feel like he’d been beaten by an angry mob.

But that didn’t hurt sales any. In 1798 Washington unloaded 4,000 gallons of his white lightning at about 50 cents a gallon. In 1799, the last year of his life, he nearly tripled production, selling 11,000 gallons.

“Demand for this article (in these parts) is brisk,” Washington wrote to his nephew in 1799.

This brisk demand had nothing to do with Washington’s fame. His hooch was sold in 32-gallon barrels to merchants who retailed it to customers who probably didn’t know, or care, who made it. But the art of marketing has come a long way since then. Washington’s restored distillery is now heralded as the gateway to the American Whiskey Trail. I recently headed down that trail with a tour group on what promised to be a grueling trip—seven distilleries in three days, with each distillery determined to force us to sample its various products. But we were all willing to risk serious liver damage for the chance to uncover the history of whiskey in America.

“I’d like to welcome y’all to Wild Turkey,” Jimmy Russell said in his soft drawl as we entered a fabled bourbon distillery in Lawrenceburg, Ky. After 54 years at Wild Turkey, Russell, 74, looks like you’d expect a “master distiller” of bourbon to look: He’s got a portly body, a courtly manner and a twinkle in his eye that seems appropriate for a man whose job compels him to taste whiskey pretty much full time.

Inside the distillery, something was cooking in giant vats that looked like oatmeal and smelled like cornmeal. Actually, it was cornmeal, mixed with rye, malted barley and water. By law, bourbon must be made from at least 51 percent corn. After yeast is added to the mix, it ferments for three days, becoming, in essence, beer. The beer is distilled to make a crude whiskey, not unlike Washington’s white lightning. Then this “distillate” is poured into new barrels made of charred white oak and aged for at least four years.

“The day it’s made, it’s clear as water,” Russell said. “All the color and most of the flavor comes from the barrel.” He led us into a warehouse where 20,000 barrels, each containing 53 gallons of bourbon, lay on their sides, seven rows high. The smell was a rich, pungent mixture of wood and whiskey. It would make a great men’s cologne, except that anybody who smelled it would assume the wearer was soused.

“These barrels will sit here for the next eight to 10 to 12 years,” said Russell, who will decide when it’s ready for bottling. And he’ll do it the old-fashioned way—by tasting it.

Russell led us to a tasting room, where four varieties of Wild Turkey were available for our delectation. The first was the standard Wild Turkey bourbon; the others were small-batch bourbons that Russell makes for the expanding connoisseur market. We tried each in turn, as he instructed, letting the whiskey roll slowly across our tongues to savor its subtle flavors—a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it.

On our way out, Russell mentioned some famous people who enjoyed his famous whiskey. “Eisenhower was a big Wild Turkey drinker,” he said. “So was LBJ. And that author who killed himself.”

“Which author?” I asked. “Hemingway?”

“No, his name was…” He thought for a minute. “Thompson.” That would be Hunter S. Thompson, the gonzo journalist, a prodigious consumer of Wild Turkey, but probably not the best advertisement for the product.

“Evel Knievel is one we don’t mention,” Russell mentioned. “They say he carried a cane filled with Wild Turkey, but I don’t know if that’s true.”

That’s the problem with whiskey history—it’s tough to separate fact from legend. A lot of whiskey lore consists of stories passed on by word of mouth—always an iffy proposition but more so when both the storyteller and the listener are drinking whiskey.

So I was delighted when our bus stopped in Bardstown, Ky., at the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History, which is packed with artifacts. There’s a moonshine still seized in the mountains of Kentucky. And a copy of Abraham Lincoln’s liquor license from 1833, when the future Great Emancipator ran a tavern in Illinois. There’s an 1854 E.G. Booz bottle, which is the source of the word “booze.” And a chipped whiskey bottle said to have been damaged during one of Carry Nation’s saloon-smashing sprees.

America has a long, complex love-hate relationship with whiskey: We make it, praise it, denounce it, tax it, prohibit it and, these days, export huge quantities of it. The story of American whiskey illustrates many of the conflicts that enliven the rest of our history—battles over taxation and corporate power, as well as our age-old conflict between individual rights and community morals.

In colonial days, creative American drinkers invented a native whiskey made from the most common local grain— corn. In the early 1600s, George Thorpe, a preacher in Virginia, wrote a letter touting the corn whiskey he was distilling: “so good a drink of Indian corn as I protest I have diverse times refused to drink good strong English beer and chosen to drink that.”

Alas, in 1622, Thorpe was killed by Indians who had drunk a tad too much of his corn whiskey.

By the late 1700s, whiskey became the chief cash crop of farmers on the Appalachian frontier. After the Revolution, the new American Congress, desperate for money, voted to tax whiskey, an act that proved wildly unpopular. In 1794 Pennsylvania farmers rebelled against the tax, attacking courts and tarring and feathering a tax collector. President George Washington responded by personally leading an army to suppress this Whiskey Rebellion.

Kentucky, with its abundant corn and its limestone-filtered spring water, soon became famous for the whiskey named after one of its counties—Bourbon. According to whiskey legend, a Kentucky preacher named Elijah Craig invented the practice of charring the inside of the oak barrels that bourbon is traditionally aged in. “By 1810, there were 2,000 distilleries in Kentucky,” says Mary Ellyn Hamilton, the curator of the Getz Museum.

After the Civil War, Congress, again desperate for money, voted to raise the whiskey tax to $2 a gallon—10 times the cost of making the booze. The inevitable result was a boom in moonshine cooked up in illegal, untaxed stills. Soon, federal agents of the new Internal Revenue Service—“revenuers”—began chasing moonshiners around the Appalachian Mountains.

Meanwhile, other revenuers—the ones assigned to monitor legal distilleries—concocted a scheme to take bribes from distillers in return for underestimating their tax bills. Exposed in 1875, this so-called Whiskey Ring included President Ulysses S. Grant’s private secretary— one of the many scandals of the era Mark Twain dubbed the Gilded Age. During the Gilded Age, a whiskey trust based in Peoria, Ill., used various means, including dynamiting rival distilleries, to drive competitors out of business. The trust controlled nearly 90 percent of the whiskey business by the time the federal government finally cracked down in the 1890s.

When Prohibitionists won passage of the 18th Amendment in 1919 and America supposedly went dry, there was a loophole. Six distilleries were granted permission to produce “medicinal whiskey” for sale by pharmacists to people with a doctor’s prescription. Every year some 10 million “sick” Americans treated their ailments with “medicinal” whiskies, including Old Forester bourbon. It gave new meaning to the phrase “good for what ails you.”

“We have a huge collection at the museum of Prohibition prescriptions,” says Hamilton. “Most of them are for relief of bad stomachs.”

For two long, grueling days, our tour group cut a meandering swath through Kentucky, eagerly sampling the wares at Wild Turkey, Maker’s Mark, Woodford Reserve, Barton Brands and Jim Beam.

Jim Beam is the world’s best-selling bourbon, and Beam’s resident “whiskey professor,” Bernie Lubbers, introduced us to the company’s four delicious small-batch bourbons, one of them a whopping 127 proof. He also distributed cards containing his personal credo, “Drink Life Deeply,” a sort of bourbon drinker’s pledge of allegiance. He urged us to stand and recite it along with him.

“I pledge to open my heart and my taste buds to the native spirit of the United States: bourbon,” we mumbled, perhaps slurring our words a bit. “I pledge to always have bourbon whiskey available…”

On the third day, we invaded Tennessee. Our first stop was Tullahoma, where a German immigrant named George A. Dickel began distilling whiskey in 1870.

“George Dickel is a Tennessee whiskey,” said John Lunn, the master distiller. Unlike bourbon, Tennessee whiskies are filtered through charcoal before they’re barreled. “It takes a little bit of the harshness out of the whiskey,” Lunn explained. “You can pour a glass with no mixer and sit on the porch and drink it.” Later, Lunn revealed that a Dickel drinker once sent the distillery a homemade musical tribute to the whiskey—a song titled “I’ve Got Too Much Dickel in My Pickle to Make Love to You Tonight.”

Fortified by sampling three varieties of Dickel, I boarded the bus with the tour group and we headed to our final stop—Lynchburg, home of Jack Daniel’s, the bestselling whiskey in the world.

In 2008 Jack Daniel’s sold 10 million cases of its Tennessee whiskies—more than half of them exported overseas, where Jack is nearly as famous as Coca-Cola. The brand’s success has spawned everything from Jack Daniel’s barbeque sauce to Jack Daniel’s boxer shorts to Jack Daniel’s motorcycle axle nut covers.

Lynchburg is the Disneyland of whiskey, where nearly a quarter million visitors a year are treated to a tour that is as entertaining —and approximately as historically accurate— as the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. Our guide, Bruce Novak, wore a Jack Daniel’s cap and a Jack Daniel’s jacket. Standing beside a life-size bronze statue of Jack Daniel, he told the story of the founder’s life: Born in 1850, Jack ran away from home at age 7 and was adopted by Dan Call, a Lutheran minister and distiller. A few years later, Novak said, Call fell under the spell of an evangelist named Lady Love, who convinced him that making whiskey was evil. So Call sold his distillery to Jack, who was then 10 years old.

Really? The minister decided that making whiskey was evil but it was OK to sell your still to a 10-year-old?

Actually, according to Blood and Whiskey, Peter Krass’ recent biography of Daniel, the boy did not run away from home, did not move in with the Calls until he was 14 and did not buy Call’s distillery until he was 32. But who cares? The legend of Jack Daniel may be balderdash but it’s benign balderdash, like Parson Weems’ fable about George Washington and the cherry tree.

Sipping four varieties of Jack Daniel’s in the inevitable tasting room, I thought of Washington. He’d be proud to learn that a native American whiskey is out-selling the finest of Scotches. If old George was here to taste Jack Daniel’s today, he’d no doubt be happy to admit that it was far better than his own rotgut rye, and probably the best hooch to ever pass over his famous false teeth. And the Jack Daniel’s tour guides could add another line to their entertaining schtick: George Washington sipped here.


Peter Carlson, who writes our “Encounter” column, is also the author of the recent book, K Blows Top.

Originally published in the June 2010 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here