The Holy History of Whiskey

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Author Fenton Johnson's boyhood home in the Knobs of Kentucky, a group of hills that form a small arc in the north central part of the Bluegrass State, served as a gathering place to entertain and to enjoy the fruits of the state’s prized industry — whiskey. In a recent NPR interview, Johnson explains that he grew up in a house only a few miles away from the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, a Roman Catholic monastery that belongs to the Order of Cistercians of Strict Observance. Monks of this order are commonly known as Trappists, and the Kentucky monastery became famous in the mid-twentieth century as the home of Thomas Merton. During the 1960s, the monastery's leadership allowed the monks to venture beyond the cloister’s walls, and they frequently found themselves at the dinner table in Johnson’s house. "Brother Fenton, after whom I was named, brought his fruitcake recipe to the monastery, partly as a way of getting lots of whiskey into the monastery," Johnson says. And his father, because he worked at a distillery, became the person who funneled the whiskey to the monks. "[M]y father taught me never show up at a monastery without a bottle of bourbon," Johnson says. Sharing drinks facilitated friendships "[a]nd then you end up sitting in the cow barn…swapping stories and…learning a lot about a true spiritual life."

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The monks of Gethsemani still make and sell fruitcake and fudge, in addition to four varieties of semi-soft cheeses. They follow the Rule of Saint Benedict, who in Chapter 48 outlines the daily work expected of monks. One English translation of his Rule states, "Idleness is the enemy of the soul; and therefore the brethren ought to be employed in manual labor at certain times, at others, in devout reading." Whatever profit they make from their labor, however, must not be in excess of the monastery's needs and must be done with God in mind. "[L]et not the vice of avarice creep in," Chapter 57 advises, "but let it always be given a little cheaper than it can be given by seculars, That God May Be Glorified in All Things." There remains no doubt that many people would attest this to be true in the monks’ Kentucky Bourbon Fruitcakes, which they make with 100-proof, 4-year-old Jim Beam Bourbon. In 1998, The Wall Street Journal named the Gethsemani fruitcake "best overall." "[I]t's that shot of bourbon that wins these good brothers first prize," one judge writes.

But monks' relationship with whiskey dates back much further than Brother Fenton's fruitcake recipe that calls for a heavy dose of the drink and a few extra bottles to share with his brothers. "The first use of distilled spirits is likely to have been in religious rituals," Charles MacLean writes in the foreword to the essay collection Whiskey and Philosophy: A Small Batch of Spirited Ideas. MacLean, known as one of the world's leading experts on Scotch whiskey, rattles off a few early possibilities: fifth-century BCE Dionysian baptism rites, practices of early Christian Gnostic cults, and ceremonies performed by the heretical Cathars in the 1100s. "A lot to think about here," he concludes. MacLean is correct — writers and historians have spilled a lot of ink on the origins of the distilled drink. One belief, however, seems widely accepted among those who pour their lives into studying these spirits — the earliest known records of the distillation of alcohol belonged to a Christian monk, and they date back to the thirteenth century, approximately seven hundred years after Saint Benedict of Nursia drafted his book of rules for living in community.

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"The early history of distillation and monastic life in Europe are closely connected," Dane Huckelbridge says. In his book Bourbon: A History of the American Spirit published last year, Huckelbridge tells the story of Ramon Llull, who became a Franciscan monk after having a vision of Jesus while writing lewd love songs to a lover. In his new life as a monastic, Llull devoted himself to countless intellectual pursuits, one of which included alchemy. Alchemists had long known about the science of distillation before medieval monks like Llull tinkered in the field, but Llull might have been among the first to distill alcohol. "In his journals, he is the first to pen specific formulas for 'loosening' the alcohol from wine (for scientific purposes of course)," Huckelbridge writes. Llull's discovery soon became a way to create concentrated, higher-alcohol liquids from lower-alcohol fermented drinks. In warmer climates like the Mediterranean, monks started making brandy from wine, Huckelbridge says. And in Ireland and Scotland, where the colder climates forced them to distill grain-based beer instead of grape-based wine, monks made whiskey. 

Because these Celtic monks wrote in Latin, "this early whiskey was often penned as 'Aqua Vitae' in their records," says Huckelbridge, noting that a distinction between things that made one feel good and things that were good for you didn’t exist. Huckelbridge claims, "It really was seen as something healing and miraculous, a true 'water of life.'" The manufacturing of whiskey remained within the purview of monasteries until the mid-sixteenth century when King Henry VIII disbanded all monastic communities in England, Wales, and Ireland. And after the Protestant Reformation reached Scotland, monasteries closed as their monks left or died. Outside of the cloister walls, the former monks used their distillation skills to support themselves, and their methods of making whiskey soon reached the knowledge of the general public. Today, monasteries still remain out of the whiskey business, though many continue to brew beer. "I think the reason that monks don't make much whiskey these days is simple," Huckelbridge says. "To make whiskey, you have to make beer first. And while monks still make beer in France, Germany, and Belgium, I don't think they generally do in Scotland or Ireland," the historical homes of whiskey where commercial brewers seem to maintain the market in the beer industry.

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Roman Catholic influence on the whiskey world doesn’t end with Henry VIII, however. In Charles Cowdery’s book Bourbon, Strange: Surprising Stories of American Whiskey, he digs deeper into the effect of the liberal Catholic views Johnson mentions on the production of whiskey in the United States:

At a time when thousands of ambitious, young Jews and Catholics were arriving on American shores, looking to make their fortunes, U.S.-born Protestants were being discouraged from pursuing careers in the alcohol business. Although some Protestants continued to make and sell alcohol, and many more consumed it, the pressure was greatest in that community to forgo the wages of that particular sin. 

Many Catholic families came to Kentucky from Maryland, which passed "anti-popery" laws in the 1700s. "One of the migration's leaders was Basil Hayden," Cowdery writes. Hayden's grandson would later open a distillery and make a whiskey called Old Grand-Dad, named in honor of Basil and now produced by Jim Beam. Today, the Jim Beam plant sits along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail with Heaven Hill, Maker's Mark, Four Roses, and several other distilleries — places where men used to work the night shift after farming tobacco during the day, Johnson writes. Those times have changed, but the ability of whiskey to make space for telling stories and baring men's souls remains.

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