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Bourbon's Backroads: A Journey through Kentucky's Distilling Landscape

by Karl Raitz

Availablecloth$29.95 978-0-8131-7842-4
216 pages  Pubdate: 11/05/2019  7 x 10  8 b&w photos, 3 illustrations, 24 maps, 4 line drawings, 2 graphs, 4 tables

With more than fifty distilleries in the state, bourbon is as synonymous with Kentucky as horses and basketball. As one of the commonwealth’s signature industries, bourbon distilling has influenced the landscape and heritage of the region for more than two centuries. Blending several topics—tax revenue, railroads, the mechanics of brewing, geography, landscapes, and architecture—this primer and geographical guide presents a detailed history of the development of Kentucky’s distilling industry.

Nineteenth-century distilling changed from an artisanal craft practiced by farmers and millers to a large-scale mechanized industry that practiced increasingly refined production techniques. Distillers often operated at comparatively remote sites—the “backroads”—to take advantage of water sources or transport access. Some distillers adopted mechanization and the steam engine, forgoing water power—a change that permitted geographical relocation of distilleries away from traditional sites along creeks or at large springs to urban or rural rail-side sites.

Based on extensive archival research that includes private paper collections, newspapers, and period documents, this work places the distilling process in its environmental, geographical, and historical context. Bourbon’s Backroads reveals the places where bourbon’s heritage was made—from old and new distilleries, storage warehouses, railroad yards, and factories where copper fermenting vessels are made—and why the industry continues to thrive.

Karl Raitz is professor emeritus of the Department of Geography at the University of Kentucky. His research focuses on the geographical history of the American landscape with an emphasis on infrastructure development, technology applications, and cultural heritage. His most recent book, Kentucky’s Frontier Highway: Historical Landscapes along the Maysville Road, was coauthored with historical archaeologist Nancy O’Malley.

From the 1700s through the 2010s, Raitz brings us through the technical, financial, transportation, artisanal, and industrial techniques that make Kentucky bourbon whiskey what it is. He tracks a shift from a farm-based craft tapping limestone-filtered waters to the steam-powered industrial distillation of bourbon whiskey. No surprise that the innovations owe much to Kentucky’s location and geography. Here’s something more than worth a read, especially given the rich illustrations and annotations. Granted, not everyone’s a tippler. But this book gives us something to read and relish, ideally with an appropriate tumbler of the subject at hand. -- Paul F. Starrs, author of Let the Cowboy Ride: Cattle Ranching in the American West

In this age of craft distilling and artisan whiskey, Kentucky bourbon stands out as an icon of American taste and culture. What Karl Raitz demonstrates in this superb volume is that bourbon is also an expression of a cultural landscape and historical geography that is as deep, rich, and complex as the whiskey that has made Kentucky famous. Geographers, historians, and whiskey aficionados will want to savor this book. -- Warren R. Hofstra, Shenandoah University in Virginia

Raitz leaves no stone unturned as he explores the social, cultural, economic, and technological settings that enabled the bourbon industry to flourish in nineteenth-century Kentucky. Meticulously researched, authoritative, and highly readable, Bourbon's Backroads does more than tell the story of whiskey production, however. It throws open a window on nineteenth-century America, offering insights into our past that only a gifted and seasoned writer like Raitz can impart. -- Geoffrey L. Buckley, coeditor of The American Environment Revisited: Environmental Historical Geographies of the United States