An Interview with Author and Bourbon/Brandy Historian Michael Veach.

 

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Michael Veach has had a long and storied career as Kentucky’s unofficial and beloved Bourbon Historian.  He began his career as archivist for United distillers and is a 2006 inductee of the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame and was the former Bourbon Historian for the Filson Historical Society for 17 years.  Michael is the author of  Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: An American Heritage and co-author of The Bourbon Tasting Notebook and has contributed to many other books, articles, and publications spanning the industry.  Now days Micahel is running his own blog and consulting service at bourbonveach.com where he focuses on the history of Bourbon, Rye, and American Brandy as well as tastings of modern and pre-prohibition spirits, and cigar pairings.  Michael is someone I have looked up to for many years stretching back to my days distilling illicitly.  After I began working at Copper and Kings I pushed to bring Michael into the fold to work on a book and event detailing the history of American Brandy and eventually was lucky enough to work with him.  Michael and I hit it off pretty quick with our similar interests in history and our interest in seeing old methodologies and names marched out into the present day, given their rightful status, and returned to the production floor.  I always learn something when speaking to Michael and though I deny the term as a marketing phrase it was Michael who first used the words “Master Distiller” in reference to an introduction between myself and his associates, a true honor coming from him.  When the chance to make my first to barrels of bourbon came to me Michael was the first person I turned to with my ideas for differentiating the product and even came to visit the distillery during production.  I should add that one of my favorite phrases is one I borrowed from Mike who borrowed it elsewhere: “Hoosier occupied northern Kentucky”.

Michael, tell us a little about your background, what got you interested in history? How did you come about working as an archivist?  Was there a particular moment where it occurred to you that you wanted to further immerse yourself in bourbon history?

I have always had an interest in history. Even I grade school I had usually read the history text book entirely before the first month was finished. When I decided to go to college at the age of 28 I decided then that I would do a history degree. I was a medievalist with a secondary field of public history. This led to my getting a summer job at United Distillers when Nick Morgan called the University of Louisville to get a grad student to help put together an archive at the Old Fitzgerald Distillery. I had been doing an internship at The Filson Historical Society at the same time and I was top on the list for the History Department to offer this job. The task was much larger than anticipated and it led to me working part time when I started classes again if the fall. After I finished my classes I was hired full time.

I found that there was very little written at that time on Bourbon History and I became interested in finding more. There was the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History, an oral history project from the 1980s at U of L, a smattering of papers at the Kentucky History Society and U of K and that was about the extent of sources at the time. The archive at United Distillers is still the largest collection of Bourbon and Distilling history I am aware of and it is a shame it is not available for research.

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I know you also worked at the Filson?  How did that come about?

At the end of 1996 United Distillers closed the archive after selling their American whiskey brands other than Dickel and Harper. I was fortunate in that the Filson Historical Society had an opening and I started there in the fall of 1997. This allowed me to continue to do Bourbon history and also made me brand neutral. I spent 18 years at the Filson before I decided to pursue my own consulting business.

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Of all the articles, archives, and artifacts you have ever come in contact with, what by far stands out as the most exciting in your memory?

The one item that excites me the most is the letter in the Corlis-Respess family papers at the Filson. It is an 1826 letter describing the charring of barrels. It is the earliest reference to the practice that I have found so far. I am sure that there will be earlier letters discussing this out there yet to be found. I hope someday to see one. I would also love to find the earliest reference to Bourbon in New Orleans and find out who was delivering it to that city.

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At one point in time you were heavily involved in researching the history of American Brandy, do you have any plans to further pursue that project in the future?  Any particularly intriguing facts you found during your research?

I also have a great interest in American Brandy history. Before prohibition Brandy was huge and there as almost as many fruit brandy distillers in Kentucky as there were whiskey distillers, making mostly apple and peach brandy, I have a goal to write a book on this history in the future. This will include California grape brandy. There is one story in California I really want to look into more. There was a woman distiller of brandy that won an award at a California brandy completion in the late 19th century. The male dominated competitors made the judges re-examine their results before they would award her with the prize because they did not think a woman could possibly make such fine brandy. I think there is an interesting story and would like to find out more about her and her distillery.

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Knowing as you do the history of bourbon production can you name a practice that is no longer in use that you would like to see brought back?

There are many things about historical distilling I would like to see examined more by the distilleries. The one thing I like to see done and a few have started to do so, is lower barrel entry proof. Michter’s is putting the whiskey in at 103 and Peerless at 107. I have heard of other artisan distillers that are doing this as well. I have even heard some as low as 100 proof. I believe that this adds a lot of flavor to the whiskey and also means that there is less cutting with water when bottling. I also like that Peerless is making a sweet mash whiskey for both Bourbon and rye. I hope to see other products made the old fashioned way even though it costs more to do so.

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I know you do a lot of old bottle tastings at your speaking events as well, of all you have ever tasted do you have a favorite?  What should or shouldn’t people be looking for in old bottles?

I have tasted many bottles of whiskey that were made over fifty years ago. There is a difference in the flavor. Like all whiskeys, some are better than others, but there is an “old bottle flavor” from these products. It is a crap shoot when opening the bottle of old whiskey. You never know how good it is until it is opened. The one thing I have learned is that old whiskey needs to sit in the glass for a while and breath. It lets some of the of aromas and flavors dissipate. If the whiskey in the bottle is clear and has a good fill level, it will usually be a decent whiskey.

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Talk to us a little about your blog and about bourbonveach.com in general, what do you find yourself into now days?

Today I am an independent consultant doing research and tasting events for income. I also write a blog, bourbonveach.com, but it is not a sponsored site. That may change in the future but I enjoy the freedom of being completely independent and writing only what I want to write. My blogs are about things that interest me. I hope that others also find them interesting, but if not that is fine with me. The difference between a historian and a hobbiest is that the historian publishes his findings and make them open for examination by others. I really don’t mind it if people take issue with something I write because it means I sparked interest in the subject for that person. If they find something new that proves me wrong, then that is even better. My goal is to advance knowledge whether it comes from me or some other person.

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Caption: Michael Veach; “Only the Shadow Knows”

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