It was apparent when picking this book up that it was constructed and published using great thought, care, and quality materials. The thickness of the individual pages make for a hefty book, which coincidentally is not far off from a freshly sealed bottle of bourbon, and labeled just as handsomely by the way. The rich hues of browns, oranges, and copper that adorn the cover art all provide a glimpse of what you will see once you start turning the pages.
With sections simply titled Copper, Grains And Mills, and Barrels, Peachee lets us in on what she considers the most important components of our distilling heritage and the process that was, and still is in many instances, used in the distillation of bourbon. She backs it up with spectacular, yet unassuming photos of everything involved, from the initial welding to the finished barrels on their way to the distiller.
In the initial section, titled Copper, you immediately know where you’re headed. Peachee leads with photo after photo of column stills, pot stills, moonshine stills, condensers, pigtail tubes, and steam coils, all in pristine condition. Copper is still the main metal used in distilling, and is an absolute in all sections that come in contact with the alcohol. Peachee takes us behind the scenes to see things we wouldn’t normally see, even on a private tour. The photos of welders accessories and tools, cleaning lockers and equipment, workshop photos with sheets of copper and brass waiting to be shaped or cut into parts or repair panels. She shows us what life is like on the factory floors with photos of the tools, storage areas, and inventoried parts. She recognizes, through her photography, all of the laborers and true craftsmen that manufacture, assemble, and perform the intricate leveling techniques on the stills, calling the welders the “backbone of the still-making workshop, regardless of the size of the company”. So much so that in some smaller companies, every employee is also a welder.
We see the advancement of the stills, from handmade, personal moonshine pieces through the dominant, historic stills, up to the present day copper masterpieces with matching, customized tailboxes. We experience the passion and detail that each distiller put into their craft, whether it’s a warehouse full of aging barrels or an almost bare room housing only a single, craft barrel.
In Grains and Mills, we see the generational similarities and the differences in the milling process. With her eye for the unique perspective, we are transported along a journey from handheld to mechanical milling, with some photos leading you to nearly hear the grinding wheels turning.
Some of these old mills live on by recycling their parts into new life, such as the beautifully landscaped walls built out of old millstones outside of Weisenberger Mill in Midland Kentucky, now on the National Register of Historic Places.
In Barrels, Peachee reminds us, through the lens of her camera, that in a world of high technology, hard work and human hands are still, at times, the best tools available.
The barrel making process hasn’t changed much through the years, and we get to see and experience what it’s like to saw and form staves, manufacture barrel rings, cut handmade bungs, and label or brand barrel tops. We are shown the lines at Buffalo Trace Distillery, holding aged barrels as they dangle over a trough, ready to be emptied of their contents. When empty, they are taken away for their next use.
We gain access to the barrel charring rooms, going from the serenity of distilling to the controlled chaos of wild, roaring flames, charring the white oak to flavor the alcohol in our glasses with those satisfying smoky, toffee, caramel, brown sugar, spice, and vanilla notes.
Shop floors are revealed, loaded with equipment and inventories of materials used in stave making, barrel forming, and ring manufacturing. Peachee gives us a look at the preparation for private barrel selections as well as the delivery of barrels to the distillers. And for a true glimpse of history, Peachee produces photos of old, non-functioning distilleries where time stand still. Although they are no longer in use, the photos show some of the distillery’s original elements in tact, whether it’s tools and plumb lines, abandoned machinery, or my personal favorite, a couple of old barrels still positioned on a rusty old exterior barrel run, as if they are patiently waiting their time to shine.
This look through distilling history is a treasure of insights, and is an essential page-turner for anyone with even a passing interest in the bourbon making process. But I would also recommend this book to photography aficionados as well. Peachee’s rich, detailed, perfectly framed photos demonstrate that while bourbon distilling is indeed, a manufacturing, labor-intensive business, there is without a doubt an art component involved in bourbon making. Through this artistic view of the heritage of bourbon distilling, she perfectly illustrates the connection between the two. It’s about more than just the pour sitting in front of you. Straight Bourbon is a visual journey of American innovation in industry and craft, starting from the basic farm and ending in your glass. Straight Bourbon easily deserves a quality place on your bookshelf or coffee table, but it would do nicely as a gift to that special friend.
By Carol Peachee
240 pages, 8x10, 281 color illustrations
Publication Date: September 4, 2017
To Order: visit https://iupress.indiana.edu
Carol Peachee is also the author and photographer of The Birth of Bourbon: A Photographic Tour of Early Distilleries, and photographer of Kentucky Bourbon Country: The Essential Travel Guide.