We Catholics have quite an affinity for recreational alcohol use. Blame it on the wedding at Cana (Jn 2:1-10), the Last Supper (Lk 22:17-20) or the precious blood we celebrate at the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass (1 Cor 11:20-29), but we use potent potables as both a Sacrament and a sacramental in our liturgical and cultural celebrations, respectively. Both religious and lay Catholics have a long history of making wine, brewing beer, distilling spirits, and aging flavored liqueurs. Denizens of the Internet are likely familiar with the web (and now television) series, Drunk History. What those inebriated historians of comic lore likely fail to realize is that — as with much of the Western culture they enjoy — their favorite intoxicant quite likely finds its origins in Catholic hands. In this new recurring feature on OnePeterFive, I will use Drunk Catholic History to reflect on how fermented beverages have enriched the cultural heritage of Holy Mother Church. I am a mere home enthusiast when it comes to enjoying beer, wine, and liquors, but I hope to connect you with some of this richness Catholics have enjoyed for millennia.
We could start anywhere in Drunk Catholic History — for example, the Benedictine monk who helped refine the technique to make Champagne; Cistercian monks who finance their monastic mission by making and selling a particular ale; or a certain Rhône winemaking region with a papal heritage — but today I want to start with the bourbon whiskey. [Full disclosure: I loooooooooove bourbon.] Bourbon is a distinctly American whiskey. Made primarily from corn, what gives bourbon its distinctive taste and color is the aging of the whiskey in oak barrels which have been fire-charred on the inside, lending the spirit a uniquely smoky flavor. But how did Bourbon come to be, and what did it have to do with Catholics?
The English Reformation brutally devastated Catholic culture and suppressed the practice of the sacraments. George Calvert, an Anglican born into this controversial era, rose to prominence when he was sent by the crown to Ireland to ensure that Catholic Church institutions were being successfully dismantled and merged into the new Church of England. Though Calvert originally courted favor with James I and became his Secretary of State, he became politically unpopular due to his advocacy for a strong royal alliance with Spain and the Hapsburg house, which still ruled the Holy Roman Empire. When these plans failed and he had little left to lose politically, he renounced his position as Secretary of State and announced publicly that he had converted to the Catholic faith. Though his influence waned, he was still favored by James I, who granted him the royal title of Baron Baltimore. When Charles I ascended the throne, showing increasing hostility toward Catholics, Calvert moved to Ireland to avoid persecution, and later to a colony called Avalon that he had established in Newfoundland.
In Avalon, Calvert allowed Catholics freedom of worship, inviting suspicion from an Anglican priest who reported back to the crown about this violation of the Privy Council’s wishes. Due to harsh weather and fisheries devastated by war with France, the Avalon colony suffered greatly and caused Calvert to request a different colony in a more favorable climate. He was first granted a colony near Jamestown, settled by Anglicans quite hostile toward Calvert’s chosen Catholicism. He refused to sign an oath of loyalty to Anglicanism and immediately requested a different colony immediately north where he would not have religious conflict with Jamestown. Though successful in his request, he died just five months before Maryland’s charter was signed in 1632. Though there is some controversy whether Maryland was named by Calvert for the Blessed Virgin Mary or for Queen Henrietta Maria of France (mother of King Charles II), the colony seat of St. Mary’s clearly traces its namesake to Our Lady. Calvert’s dream of a colony with religious tolerance for Catholics became reality, and Maryland became financially successful in the export of tobacco.
Through a series of struggles, religious tolerance for Trinitarian Christians became law in 1649 with the Maryland Toleration Act. This protected Catholics and Protestants worshiping in their own rites publicly in their own houses of worship until 1692, when Catholics lost the right to vote and were forced to worship only within their homes. The prior colonial capital of St. Mary’s was relocated by the Protestants and the old statehouse in St. Mary’s was seized and converted into a Protestant church. Maryland would later become one of the original 13 colonies in the United States and represented the largest concentration of Catholics in the colonies. Between 1692 and the American Revolution, Catholics practiced their faith in secrecy or in hidden chapels on the land of wealthy Catholic landowners. Catholic persecution continued in Maryland until the 1830s when anti-Catholic laws were finally abolished.
Still with me? Maybe now is a good time to pause for a sip of Basil Hayden’s bourbon, one of my favorites.
Returning to England, the Heydon family enjoyed a heritage that went back to the Richard the Lionheart’s Third Crusade to the Holy Land. The family lived on their estate near Watford northeast of London from the estate’s founding in 1400 until after the English Civil War and Cromwell’s Puritan military dictatorship. After Cromwell’s death, Charles II led the restoration of the monarchy but under harsh compromises with a parliament fiercely loyal to the Church of England. The 1660s ushered in a series of parliamentary acts called the Clarendon Code to strictly enforce the practice of Anglicanism and prohibit all other Christian practice. To escape this persecution, the Heydon family left their historic estate and settled in the Jamestown colony in the 1660s. Changing the spelling of their name to “Hayden”, they later moved north to St. Mary’s in 1678 for more freedom to practice their Catholic faith.
The Haydens clung to their life in Maryland until 1785 when they led a group of 25 Catholic families who moved from Maryland and settled near what became Bardstown, Kentucky. The family’s patriarch at the time, Basil Hayden Sr., made his own whiskey, among other pioneer enterprises. Hayden built the first Catholic chapel on the fledgling US frontier, Holy Cross, on his own land in 1790. Hayden later donated land as a site for St. Joseph’s in Bardstown, the first Catholic cathedral west of the Alleghenies. Basil Hayden’s grandson Raymond later went on to establish a distillery in Nelson County, Kentucky where he named his whiskey “Old Grand-Dad” in honor of his grandfather. (Basil Hayden Sr.’s image still appears on every label of Old Grand-Dad today.)
The Haydens were not the only Catholic name in Kentucky whiskey. The Medley family was also one of the original 25 Catholic families to move from Maryland to Kentucky in 1785, and at the time the family was headed by patriarch John Medley. His great-grandson George Medley later moved the clan from Bardstown 100 miles west to Owensboro, Kentucky. George’s son married into the Wathen family, who were also Catholics active in Kentucky whiskey.
Sadly, the original distillery operated by the Wathen-Medley family shut down in 1992. Although the bourbon labels of Wathen and Medley were recently sold to other companies in 2007, I have heard rumors that these labels have now been discontinued. However, my local whiskey bar of choice still stocks Old Medley 12 year, a delightful bourbon.
The other Catholic families active in making whiskey? Perhaps you have heard of Jim Beam, J.W. Dant, Lord Calvert, or my personal favorite, Willett. The Willett family moved from Maryland to Kentucky in 1792. One of the Willett family is listed as an architect of St. Joseph Proto-Cathedral in Bardstown.
The Catholic whiskey heritage in Kentucky continues today in the diocese of Owensboro, where in 2009 Pope Benedict XVI appointed William Francis Medley as bishop of the Medley family’s home diocese. Bishop Medley holds a theology degree from St. Meinrad in Indiana and previously served as pastor for historic St. Joseph in Bardstown. Raise a glass of Kentucky’s finest to Bishop Medley and the rich Catholic history in American bourbon whiskey — may God grant him many years!
Cradle Catholic; former agnostic who reverted because of the Eucharist; father to three boys; database, cloud & enterprise software geek by day.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but a large part of distinctiveness of the character of Bourbon is from the fact that it’s aged in virgin American oak barrels. American oak’s looser grain than French oak imparts the distinct vanilla notes on most Bourbon whiskeys. Most of the barrels, once used for a batch of Bourbon, get shipped over to Scotland; Scotch does *not* use virgin barrels, so they impart less of the sweet, smoky, vanilla notes into the Scotch whiskey, which gets much of its character from the peat fires used to dry the malt and the character of the water.
Great article, BTW. Ive tried most of the labels you’ve mentioned, except Willett. I’ll have to give that a taste.
You’re absolutely right — bourbon must be made in America, distilled from at least 51% corn, distilled to no higher than 160 proof, and aged in new toasted American oak barrels at no higher than 125 proof. If you want to call it “straight” bourbon, it needs to be at least 4 years old but an age statement is otherwise not required. And it does not have to be from Kentucky.
As much as I love the malting and brewing and distilling and aging processes, I didn’t find enough room in this article to discuss any of that. Because honestly, the stories around the history of whiskey (and alcohol in general) are usually far more interesting than what comes bottled in glass. Some of the blogs I really enjoy try to tell this history. I especially like Sipp’n Corn which dives deep into the legal controversies over the history of American whiskey. Other favorites include Coopered Tot, Chuck Cowdery, and Pops Garrett’s Bourbon & Banter.
What are your favorite bourbons?
Maker’s Mark is good but uninteresting. I really like Basil Hayden’s. Jefferson is pretty good. I’ve only really started drinking Bourbon a few years ago — I’m more of a Scotch whiskey guy, but Bourbon is really nice too, and very different. I don’t have a whole lot of use for any of the Canadian or Irish whiskeys I’ve had — they don’t have as much character as either Scotch or Bourbon.
After re-reading my previous comment, it may have come across as critical. That wasn’t my intent. I was more asking for confirmation and adding to the discussion. As I stated above, I’m not too deep into my knowledge of bourbon. I think a large part of this is that my drinking frequency slowed down when I got married and my wife got pregnant with our first child 6 years ago. Before that, we had a little something together almost every night, and before I met her, there were other friends I regularly imbibed with and tasted many new things as I developed a taste for fine whiskeys and great microbrews.
I’m happy there’s room on this site for the lighter, more fun side of Catholic culture.
Definitely no offense taken — I too appreciate all kinds of beer, wine, liquor, coffee, chocolate…etc. If it is fermented, I probably dig it. And yeah, we definitely see the value here at 1P5 of maintaining a good sense of humor and not just focusing on the serious topics.
Thanks for this article. I’m descended from Kentucky Germans via my mother, and am partial to Bourbon, much to the chagrin of my father’s Irish family. A point of clarification: Jim Beam really does have a Catholic heritage?
I don’t have conclusive proof that all of the Beam family was Catholic. For example, the Boehm family emigrated from Germany to Pennsylvania and included in its family tree members who were Calvinist and Mennonite (including even a Lutheran theologian). The Boehme name can also be found in service of Richard III, a Catholic monarch. However, I do have a few data points from Chuck Cowdery that point to the Beam family (after they Americanized their Boehm name) being Catholic:
– How Jews & Catholics Saved American Whiskey
– Is this church the birthplace of Bourbon? — It describes the Holy Cross chapel built on Hayden land and the history is sourced from the Archdiocese of Louisville.
In the grand scheme of things, I still think the Medley family wins the Catholic contest since they gave the church a bishop.
Great article! I am descended from the original 25 families who settled in Nelson County, Kentucky with Basil Hayden. This is a fantastic discussion! Cheers!
Great article! Remember, it is written that the love of bourbon is a great sign of pre-destination. Well, at least a pre-destination to host an awesome Catholic website. How do you like your bourbon? Straight? On the rocks? With CapnCrunch? What’s your preference?
Nice article. The bourbon-making region of Kentucky is also known as Kentucky’s Holy Land due to its strong Catholic heritage. Gethsemani Trappist monastery is the home and resting place of Thomas Merton. Other religious communities have nearly 200 years of history in the area. You can read more about that part of the story here: http://www.archlou.org/history/
Adding to what Aaron brought up, Kentucky’s groundwater is purified through limestone, which also adds some mineral content that partakes some flavor, along with helping grow strong racehorses. Plus, our temperate climate brings extremes of heat and cold that helps oak barrels expand and contract to a greater degree, passing more flavor through to the bourbon.
I really hate to be a party pooper, but I must say this…
I am drinking wine as I write this, and I love a few drinks as much as anyone. But drunkenness is a mortal sin.
I love onepeterfive.com because it is rigorous and orthodox. Speaking of drunkenness as an okay thing is neither rigorous nor orthodox; it is flippant at best, and laxist/heretical at worst. Drunkenness is the reason why many of the souls in hell now find that their eternal home. Please consider changing your terminology, and this would be a fine article series. Why not “Catholic history of drinking”? I am aware you are attempting to spin off a TV series… but using that as a justification for flippantly treating mortal sin or, worse still, making it seam okay…. is worldliness at its worst.
Does this history indicate a twinge of anti-Catholicism in the Temperance movements?
Looking forawrd to the next installment 🙂
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