Bourbon Country Institute Kicks Off in Louisville

Historian Michael Veach’s all day seminar sheds light on American whiskey history.
Historian Michael Veach pours bourbon for Bourbon Country attendees
Historian Michael Veach pours bourbon for Bourbon Country attendees

All photos by Maggie Kimberl. 

On a sunny day in January, 42 people gathered in the second story event space of The Silver Dollar in Louisville, Kentucky to embark on a journey of learning about the history of bourbon from Bourbon Historian Michael Veach. This Bourbon Country Institute class was the first, both for this class offering and for 2017. Veach has taught others in the past, including the Woodford Bourbon Academy and The Filson Bourbon Academy. Now he’s an independent business owner with his own curriculum and course materials.

“My friend Howard Stoops in 2007 or so went to Churchill Downs and asked them what bourbons they had and they said Jack Daniels, Crown Royal, and Early Times. And of course that’s a 0 for 3 answer on what bourbons they had, so he looked behind the bar and saw they had Woodford and said he’d have a Woodford,” says Veach. “Then in 2009 I was giving a talk at The Filson about bourbon and Stacey Yates [of the Louisville CVB] and Eric Gregory [of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association] were there. Afterward I relayed that story to them and told them we need to do a class about bourbon to educate the bartenders and they thought that was a great idea.”

The class took an entire day, and every aspect of bourbon history was touched upon. At 9 a.m. over coffee and donuts the class started with the current legal definition of bourbon. By 9:30 we were talking about the first brandy distillation in North America around 1640. It’s amazing how intertwined the histories of brandy, rye whiskey, and bourbon are, but also how intertwined the distillation of spirits is with the history of the United States. Whiskey was used as currency in the early days of Kentucky because paper money was too easy to counterfeit and whiskey was valuable as medicine.

Tastings throughout the day began with George Dickel White Dog and Copper and Kings American Brandy. Brandy was one of the first spirits to be distilled in the United States, even before it became the United States. White dog, or unaged corn whiskey, was the predecessor to bourbon and was often stored in earthenware containers so that it could be traded for other goods. This tasting format enabled class goers not only to learn about the proper way to taste whiskey, but also to consider how the history of America made an impact on the eventual invention of bourbon whiskey.

Veach displays vintage bottles of Old Granddad
Veach displays vintage bottles of Old Granddad

Throughout the day participants were encouraged to ask questions and offer their own thoughts on the curriculum. Many rumors, such as Elijah Craig as the inventor of bourbon, were convincingly laid to rest. Still other arcane issues, such as the fact that Prohibitionists had to pass the income tax amendment so the Federal government wouldn’t have to rely on taxes from spirits, were brought to light.

At the end of the day, all 42 participants received diplomas, becoming the first Bourbon Country Institute graduating class. Michael Veach will be taking this class on the road, teaching for bars and industry groups who hire him to do so. You can contact him at for more information on bringing the Bourbon Country Institute to your organization.

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