Veterans Day 2015

Happy Veterans' Day!  

The following is an excerpt from a larger work that I hope to publish next year. It is dedicated to my dad and grandfather, who both "did their time." I am proud to be a third generation soldier.


America was built, and occasionally damaged, by firepower and whiskey. Conflict, military service, and grain alcohol are foundations of the American story, and their connections are infinite.

Throughout the Revolutionary War, General George Washington’s troops were issued a daily gill, about four ounces of liquor, as “encouragement” in the struggle for independence.  General Ulysses S. Grant famously rode to victory in the Civil War while under the influence of Dr. James C. Crow’s Old Crow bourbon whiskey. When Grant’s critics complained to President Lincoln about his excessive drinking, Lincoln replied, “tell me the brand of whiskey that Grant drinks. I would like to send a barrel of it to my other generals." Grant even supported liquor rations for his men despite the laws that forbid them from drinking it on duty.
Noncommissioned officers from Company “D,” 93d New York Infantry drinking in Bealeton, Va.
President Harry S. Truman, who spent 37 years in the U.S. Army, began each day with a shot of bourbon, usually Old-Grand Dad or Wild Turkey, and a power walk. He made no exception to his routine the morning he ordered a nuclear attack on Japan, a nation that now imports more bourbon whiskey than any other.

Source: Truman Library.
Whiskey has been a witness to, and even a participant in, American military history. In 1794, President George Washington became the only commander-in-chief to personally lead an army in the field. He rode with a contingent of federal troops to Bedford, Pennsylvania to quash an insurrection over the national whiskey tax. The entire reasoning for the whiskey tax was to pay back revolutionary war debt, of course.

The so called Whiskey Rebellion was settled before any shots were fired, but it pushed Scots-Irish frontier distillers further west, to a corn-rich Virginia county known as Kentucky, where bourbon whiskey was conceived. George Washington retired from politics and went on to become the nation's largest and most successful commercial distiller.
The Whiskey Rebellion, c. 1795 depicts Washington at Fort Cumberland, Maryland before the march to Bedford, PA. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art.
During the final days of the Civil War, General William Tecumseh Sherman, who once stayed in Missouri with Colonel Edmund Haynes Taylor, Jr., the “founding father of the bourbon industry,” rode to Columbia, South Carolina where he laid siege to the city that sparked secession. Sherman lost control of his men who became utterly intoxicated on abandoned barrels of whiskey. Along with newly freed African Americans, the troops imbibed and burned more than half of the Palmetto State’s capital, an event that still rouses emotions 150 years later.
Columbia, SC, February 1865. Source: University of South Carolina Library.
The ties that bind American whiskey and military service extend to the modern era. Following World War II, bourbon experienced a remarkable boom as veterans celebrated victory over the Axis. During the Vietnam War, however, a rebellious drinking crowd cast bourbon aside for clear spirits like vodka, gin, and tequila. Today, American whiskey, and bourbon in particular, is enjoying historic popularity. Six hundred whiskey-focused distilleries have opened across the nation in the last ten years, many of them owned by veterans of campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Consistent with their histories, the largest American whiskey companies employ many veterans. Several popular distilleries donate profits to veterans’ charities or otherwise celebrate the relationship. Jim Beam’s Operation Homefront has given nearly $50 million in aid to military families and veterans in need. Wild Turkey’s Boot Campaign has raised over $3.4 million.
Wild Turkey master distillers Jimmy and Eddie Russell.  Source:
Maker’s Mark occasionally releases camouflage labeled bottles adorned with dog tags.  One Colorado distillery pays homage to an entire Infantry Division. Barton Distillery produces an 80 proof bourbon whiskey known as “Military Special” specifically for U.S. military post exchanges. Whiskey has always flown off the shelves at post exchanges, a fact that kept bourbon afloat during Cold War era decline.
 Master Distiller Dave Pickerell (USMA '78) spent 11 years as a cavalry officer before taking over at Maker's Mark, Whistlepig, Hillrock, and the rebuilt George Washington Distillery.
Fortunately, we are in the midst of an epic whiskey boom. Old variations of whiskey like rye are experiencing fervent comebacks.  New creations, like bourbon/rye blends, hopped whiskey, and bourbon finished in beer and wine casks have captured the drinking public’s attention. People wait in line for hours to capture limited edition or cask strength expressions from distilleries like Four Roses, which was on the brink of closure just twenty-five years ago. Domestic and global sales of American whiskey topped $1 billion and $2.5 billion respectively in 2015, and they continue to rise.

The ruthless demand for bourbons like Buffalo Trace’s William Larue Weller bourbon, Thomas H. Handy rye, Elmer T. Lee bourbon, and anything from the Van Winkle line has driven secondary market prices into the thousands.  While many enthusiasts are knowledgeable about these special whiskeys, their mash bills, their alcohol content, and their flavor profiles, very few consumers are aware of their nexus to military service. 

William Larue Weller was once a private in the Louisville Legion, an elite outfit that fought with General Zachary Taylor (Col. E.H. Taylor’s great uncle) for twelve months during the Mexican-American War. Following his return from Mexico, Weller opened a whiskey rectifying operation and hired a 19-year-old upstart salesman named Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle. Weller’s company became the first to produce bourbon using wheat instead of rye in the mash recipe. Weller’s wheated bourbon concept has been emulated by many popular distilleries including Maker’s Mark, Buffalo Trace, Heaven Hill, and Barton.

Thomas H. Handy was a Confederate lieutenant who was wounded and spent time as a federal prisoner of war. In February 1864, Handy was decorated when his “Crescent Light Artillery” sunk the federal ironclad USS Indianola. Five years later, Handy purchased the Sazerac Coffee House in New Orleans, bottled and marketed the Sazerac cocktail, and laid the groundwork for the development of the Sazerac Company. Today, Sazerac owns Buffalo Trace, A. Smith Bowman, Barton, Glenmore, and Medley, to name a few.
Elmer T. Lee was a radarman/bombardier aboard a B-29 crew and flew several vital bombing missions over Japan. When he returned home from Northwest Field on the island of Guam, he finished his chemical engineering degree at the University of Kentucky and was hired at the George T. Stagg Distillery (now Buffalo Trace). Lee ultimately became Stagg’s master distiller and created Blanton’s: The Original Single Barrel Bourbon in 1983. Blanton’s is widely recognized as the bourbon that saved the industry from its darkest days.  Lee exported countless cases of Blanton’s to his former enemies, the Japanese, who happily paid top dollar.

Julian Preston Van Winkle, Jr., (Pappy’s son) left his job as treasurer of Stitzel-Weller Distillery in the winter of 1942 for the Pacific Theatre. He was a company commander in the 44th Tank Battalion and was awarded the Silver Star for valor in the Philippines.  Van Winkle was badly injured in the single most critical battle of the entire campaign against the Japanese, but he continued to fight until his battalion commander forced him to seek medical treatment. After six weeks of recovery, Captain Van Winkle regained command of his company and fought until the war’s bitter end.

A “consummate Army guy,” Van Winkle returned home to Kentucky and built one of the most celebrated brands of bourbon on the market today. While he rarely spoke of the war, his daughter Sally later recalled that “he thrived on responsibility and challenge. He relished the training and the duty. He loved being fit and hard, being loaded down with equipment. He thrilled to the assignment. But most of all, he adored his men- “the boys.’”
Captain Julian Van Winkle on the island of Leyte, OCT 1944. Source: But Always Fine Bourbon by Sally Van Winkle Campbell
On this Veterans' Day, remember all of the the veterans who have impacted the quality of the bourbon you're sipping! Cheers to all.