Karl Raitz – Kentucky’s Bourbon Country

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KARL RAITZ: KENTUCKY’S BOURBON COUNTRY

This episode of Big Blend Radio’s “Eat, Drink & Be Merry” Show focuses on Kentucky’s Bourbon Country with Karl Raitz, author and professor emeritus of geography at the University of Kentucky. Karl is the coeditor of “The Great Valley Road of Virginia”, coauthor of “Rock Fences of the Bluegrass,” and author of “Making Bourbon: A Geographical History of Distilling in Nineteenth-Century Kentucky” AND “Bourbon’s Backroads: A Journey through Kentucky’s Distilling Landscape,” published by The University Press of Kentucky. Watch the interview here in the YouTube player or download the podcast on Spreaker, Podbean, or SoundCloud.

 


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

Kentucky’s landscape is punctuated by landmark structures that signpost bourbon’s venerable story: distilleries long-standing, relict, razed, and brand new, the grand nineteenth-century homes of renowned distillers, villages and neighborhoods where distillery laborers lived, Whiskey Row storage warehouses, river landings and railroad yards, and factories where copper distilling vessels and charred white oak barrels are made.

During the 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—along the “backroads”—to take advantage of water sources or river or turnpike transport access. As time passed, steam power and mechanization freed the industry from its reliance on waterpower and permitted distillers to relocate to urban and rural rail-side sites. This shift also allowed distillers to perfect their production techniques, increase their capacity, and refine their marketing strategies. The historic progression produced the “fine” Kentucky bourbons that are available to present day consumers. Yet, distillers have not abandoned their cultural roots and traditions; their iconic products embrace the modern while also engaging their history and geography.

Blending several topics—inventions and innovations in distilling and transport technologies, tax policy, geography, landscapes, and architecture—this primer and geographical guide presents an accessible and detailed history of the development of Kentucky’s distilling industry and explains how the industry continues to thrive.

Making Bourbon: A Geographical History of Distilling in Nineteenth-Century Kentucky
While other industries chase after the new and improved, bourbon makers celebrate traditions that hearken back to an authentic frontier craft. Distillers enshrine local history in their branding and time-tested recipes, and rightfully so. Kentucky’s unique geography shaped the whiskeys its settlers produced, and for more than two centuries, distilling bourbon fundamentally altered every aspect of Kentucky’s landscape and culture.

“Making Bourbon” illuminates how the specific geography, culture, and ecology of the Bluegrass converged and gave birth to Kentucky’s favorite barrel-aged whiskey. Expanding on “Bourbon’s Backroads,” Karl Raitz delivers a more nuanced discussion of bourbon’s evolution by contrasting the fates of two distilleries in Scott and Nelson Counties. In the nineteenth century, distilling changed from an artisanal craft practiced by farmers and millers to a large-scale mechanized industry. The resulting infrastructure—farms, mills, turnpikes, railroads, steamboats, lumberyards, and cooperage shops—left its permanent mark on the land and traditions of the commonwealth. Today, multinational brands emphasize and even construct this local heritage. This unique interdisciplinary study uncovers the complex history poured into every glass of bourbon.


You can find both books, “Bourbon’s Backroads” and “Making Bourbon” at https://www.kentuckypress.com/

 

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Karl Raitz delivers a more nuanced discussion of bourbon's evolution by contrasting the fates of two distilleries in Scott and Nelson Counties.

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