Food & Drink September 2, 2015

Water of Life

The History & Art of Whiskey in the West

Whiskey, a deep honey-colored, often wood-aged spirit, has been called both the devil’s drink and pure, liquid sunshine. It is, in fact, a holy spirit, first invented by ancient alchemists and then brought by Western European monks to Scotland and Ireland sometime between 1100 and 1300. It crossed to American shores on merchant ships with the early colonists in the 1600s, taking root in the New World with a vengeance and working its way deep into the American psyche and historical records. 

To taste American whiskey is to step into the political machinations of a country on the edge of being born and to follow it through 250 years of self-determination, independence, rebellion and opportunity. Ghosts swirl in every glass, whispering of rebels and smoke-filled rooms, westward movement, Jazz Age speakeasies and vast fields of grain bending above an endless plain. 

The name of the spirit originates from the Gaelic “uisge beatha” (shortened to “uisge,” from the original Latin “aqua vitae”), which translates literally to “water of life”—a testament to how vital the spirit was to early monks as a medicinal cure and tonic. The practice of Medieval period monks carried forward hundreds of years. A little known fact is that during Prohibition, when all alcohol sales were banned across the United States, the federal government made a medical exemption for whiskey when prescribed by a doctor and sold through licensed pharmacies. 

Aging in wood barrels provides whiskeys with their distinct flavors

Made from water, yeast and grain, whiskey is basically distilled beer. This was good news for early colonists on American shores who found few grapes readily available for making wine but were blessed with seemingly unbroken fields of grain. Because the “water of life” was deemed to prolong life and cure ills—used as everything from antiseptic to anesthesia—nearly every household in colonial America had its own backyard still. Distilling whiskey also offered an economical use for surplus grain, and thus whiskey became a vital component of the barter system in small towns and territories in the New World.  

Not only was whiskey used as currency during the American Revolutionary War, a century later in the West it was as valuable as gold: a drink of whiskey cost a saloon patron one pinch of gold dust in 1885. Whiskey was both a spirit of contention during the Civil War and part of the spark that ignited the crusade that led to Prohibition. It was responsible for President George Washington mustering federal troops to tamp down the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, an uprising in response to a federal excise tax on whiskey—the first domestic tax for the fledgling federal government—proposed by Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton and passed by Congress in 1791.

“Craft distilleries have opened people’s eyes to whiskey in the West. Americans are returning to our roots, but the whiskey craze is global.”
-Andy Koenig, Koenig Winery & Distillery

Whiskey helped fuel the country’s westward expansion, quickly becoming the drink of the Wild West. For health reasons, early colonists and pioneers tended to drink alcoholic beverages. Water was often unpalatable, and alcohol not only had a longer shelf life but would prevent organisms from growing in the beverage. Thus, whiskey actually helped pave the way west, where it was ordered with authority, and in great quantity, by men with gold in their pockets and adventure in their eyes.

The still at High West Distillery in Park City, which may be the country’s only ski-in distilleryIn an image popularized by John Wayne and Clint Eastwood movies, whiskey was ordered as a shot, three fingers high, then slid down the bar directly into the hand of a lone desperado—seemingly about to take his last gasp, hat riding low—who grabbed it without a glance up.

Ironically, the whiskey of the Western frontier was, quite literally, killing people. Resembling almost nothing of what we drink today, the whiskey of the Wild West was often cut by enterprising saloon owners, using whatever was on hand—ammonia, chewing tobacco, turpentine or gun powder—which created wicked and deadly combinations dubbed with colorful names such as tanglefoot, firewater, chain lightning, tarantula juice or coffin varnish. 

It wasn’t long before lobbyists (more established bourbon and whiskey distillers farther East) petitioned for some regulations, prompting the U.S. federal government to step in with the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897, which was the first consumer protection act in United States history (a precursor to the Food and Drug Administration). 

Issues of quality control and taxation became a moot point, however, with the enactment of the Volstead Act in 1920 and the era of Prohibition.  All whiskey production went underground, linked with speakeasies and bootleggers who would make and sell untaxed, illegal whiskey by the light of the moon (darkness would hide the smoke of the stills from legal eyes, hence the term “moonshine”). These were the dark days of whiskey production, when the spirit was linked with harsher, less refined versions of moonshine or “white whiskey” that had none of the character and smoothness of the whiskey sold today. 

Prohibition was repealed in 1933, and whiskey has been growing in popularity ever since, experiencing a boom in recent years that has been fueled by the craft distillery movement—most of which has been centered in the West. 

Barrels are often branded prior to aging

“Craft distilleries have opened people’s eyes to whiskey in the West,” said Andy Koenig of Koenig Winery and Distillery in Caldwell, Idaho. “Americans are returning to our roots, but the whiskey craze is global. Asians have decided they like American whiskey. Europeans have decided they like American whiskey.” 

Indeed, exports of American whiskey have been growing steadily in the last decade, and the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS) posted global U.S. spirits exports at over $1.56 billion in 2014, with bourbon and whiskey accounting for nearly $1.02 billion of the total (tripling from just under $327 million in 1999).

In 1999, when Kevin Settles, CEO and founder of Bardenay Distillery and Restaurant in Boise, Idaho, first started in the business, the craft distillery movement was basically nonexistent—there were only about 20 distilleries operating in 20 states. Now there are over 800 distilleries, with craft distilleries in all 50 states and several Canadian provinces.

“There just weren’t any distribution channels for small producers,” Settles said, “which is why we developed a restaurant; to cut out the middle man and deal directly with our end customer and their tastes.” The process involved two years of research, lobbying and legislation at both the federal and state levels. Ultimately, however, Settles established Bardenay as the nation’s first restaurant distillery. 

Grain fields in Kirby, Wyo., just south of Wyoming Whiskey Distillery

And with a nod to Settles and his groundbreaking work in Boise, the Warfield Distillery and Brewery in Ketchum, Idaho, is about to become Idaho’s newest restaurant distillery. The Warfield co-founders and head distillers Alex Buck and Ben Bradley see Idaho as a logical location for whiskey distilling. “We are in the heart of the barley-growing capital of the U.S.,” said Bradley. Buck added that they are cultivating local sources for barley for their pot-still whiskey, the first batch of which is expected to be ready in about two years. “We want to create a legacy,” Buck stated, “which means we have to be long-term minded and have patience through the aging process.”

This sentiment is echoed by many of the craft distilleries in the West where producers take tremendous pride in their craft. Koenig wanted to control their product, so their Seven Devils Bourbon is distilled in Kentucky, but aged in Idaho and filtered and bottled here. Wyoming Whiskey, just over the eastern border of Idaho, in Kirby, Wyoming, pulled master distiller Steve Nally (who had 30 years of experience making whiskey in the heart of Kentucky’s bourbon country, most notably at Maker’s Mark) out of retirement to help establish and fine tune their distinctly western brand of bourbon, which is sourced locally, made from 100 percent Wyoming grains and uses water from a mile deep limestone aquifer that hasn’t seen the light of day in 6,000 years. 

The 38-foot column still at Wyoming Whiskey“One of the most important things is the water,” said David DeFazio, co-founder and COO of Wyoming Whiskey. “There are so many different minerals that are in water: some are helpful, some are not. You don’t want iron, it turns whiskey black; but limestone acts as a natural filter, so we’ve got the most pure, true water you can find in the West for whiskey.”

Larry Price, president and co-founder of 8 Feathers Distillery in Boise, Idaho, echoed this statement, adding that water is to whiskey what air is to wine. “Pure, clean water is essential to great whiskey,” added co-founder and head distiller Greg Lowe, “but there are a thousand other components that affect the final spirit, such as the type of grain used, starch content, grain ratios, mash temperature, yeast pitch rate, fermentation time, speed of distillation and quality of water used for bottling.” Idaho artesian wells supply the water for 8 Feathers brand of pure Idaho Corn Whiskey, a recent release that illustrates the spirit of originality and innovation that defines craft distilleries in the West in particular.

“True craft distilleries out West aren’t necessarily following a recipe that has been handed down from generation to generation, like they do back East,” said DeFazio of Wyoming Whiskey, “so, what you are finding is that these companies are experimenting with different recipes and mash builds and yeast components.” 

Similar to wine, whiskey evokes the land and place of its making. Weather and climate influence its fermentation—aging much faster in Western climates where temperature swings from hot to cold bring it to maturation sooner. (The heat gets inside the barrel, making it expand, which pushes the whiskey into the wood. The barrel contracts during colder nighttime temperature swings, forcing the whiskey out, all of which creates more interaction with, and flavoring from, the wood.) 

Whiskey carries a rich history. It tastes of the past but carries a bit of the rebel within it and has been embraced wholeheartedly by a new generation of enthusiasts. It is a spirit with backbone and depth; one in which an entire field of grain is cooked and mashed, distilled and aged down to a single drop of liquid gold, spurring Mark Twain to state quite simply, “Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough.”

A potpourri of craft whiskeys of the West at Warfield Distillery’s Restaurant in Ketchum

  • “Whiskey” (with the “e”) is the spelling for the drink in Ireland and the U.S. “Whisky” is the spelling for the drink in Scotland, Canada, Australia and, most recently, Japan. And to confuse matters more, the Welsh spell it “Wisgi.”

  • All whiskey starts life as beer. It is made from wort, which is the “beer” that gets distilled and cooked into mash. 

  • All whiskeys (or whiskys), regardless of the type, are made from a fermented mash of grain—which can be corn (bourbon), rye, barley or sometimes wheat. Straight whiskeys are bottled from the casks in which they are aged, with water added to reduce their proof. Blended varieties, such as bourbon and Tennessee whiskey, can be made by either using “sweet mash” (fresh yeast) or “sour mash” (starter yeast culture saved from a previous batch). 

  • Bourbon is the only alcohol written into the American legal code, which mandates that it must be made from at least 51 percent corn, be distilled to no more than 160 proof (80 percent alcohol by volume), contain no additives other than water and be aged only in new, charred oak barrels. To be called “straight bourbon” it has be aged a minimum of two years. It doesn’t have to be made in Kentucky, but to be called Kentucky straight bourbon, it has to be aged in Kentucky. 

  • Scotch can only be labeled as such if it is made in Scotland and aged a minimum of three years. 

  • Malt whiskey is made only from malted grains (in Scotland, always barley) in a pot still. A single malt whiskey comes from just one distillery.



This article appears in the Fall 2015 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.