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Review: Bourbon—The Evolution of Kentucky Whiskey

Posted on by Eric Burke

Friday's post on the Chuck Cowdery blog featuring Sam Cecil reminded me of something: I've been meaning to post another book review here. In honor of that timely reminder, let's choose one by the late Mr. Cecil: Bourbon—The Evolution of Kentucky Whiskey

I bought this book as part of a book devouring frenzy that I had just after bourbon entered my consciousness as a substance worth reading about. I got it from Amazon.com. It cost about $15 at the time (Sept 2011). It's a little less than that as I type this. It's 292 pages long.

The first seven chapters are a nice history of bourbon. They cover topics from the early years of whiskey distilling in America, through Prohibition and beyond, The Whiskey Trust, Master Distillers, the KDA and coopering and warehousing. They are seven well researched and very informative chapters. Of course, it didn't hurt that Cecil spent over 40 years in the whiskey business from 1937-1980 working with T.W. Samuels, Heaven Hill, J.W. Dant and Maker's Mark. He knows his stuff, and it shows. 

Now the eighth chapter, well, that is where your opinion of this book will either be substantially raised or where you will leave off entirely. For me it was the former. You see, the eighth chapter is a 203 page county-by-county breakdown of every registered distillery in Kentucky, that there were records for, from the early 1800s onward. As I was unfamiliar with the layout of Kentucky's counties, I read this with a map in hand. I loved every minute of it.

I can see where someone without my unique love of history, geography, geology and bourbon might find this chapter a bit tedious. If you find that you are of that sort, the first 88 pages or so are still a wonderfully entertaining read. But even if you are that type, I'd skim over the last chapter. There are some very cool stories buried in there. 

I like this book a lot. I found the writing entertaining. I found the history fascinating. I loved the old ads and old photos. The amount of research that was done to bring this book to us is astounding. (The author admits right off the bat that he has stood on the shoulders of giants who did a lot of the research, but the organization and presentation of the information do not suffer in the least for that.) I learned a lot from this book and highly recommend it.