PINTS & UNION PORTFOLIO: Johnny Drum Private Stock is the bourbon, and Civil War drummer boys are the inspiration for a tune.


What does this …

… have to do with this?

Maybe something, maybe nothing.

I’m the beer guy at Pints&union, conducting my latest sociological experiment into retro classics — those neglected, heritage, legacy and “greatest beer hits,” which these days are overshadowed by the ever-shifting cornucopia of newer-age craft styles.

Naturally there’ll be a few of the latter thrown into the mix for good measure, even if my mission statement stays the same: We can’t know where we’re going without knowing where we’ve been.

As should be obvious by now, Pints&union is a varied establishment, and it’s “about” far more than beer alone. The ambiance is unique, the kitchen is hitting on all cylinders, it’s family-friendly, and the bar program features liquor, wine, champagne and cocktails to suit all tastes.

This isn’t merely advertising copy. In its infancy, the pub already is displaying a mature balance of offerings, which is testimony to the forethought and planning Joe Phillips has put into it.

I’m the beer guy, but I’m also a beer guy who is forever in favor of learning more about spirits –and history. When I saw we’d started carrying a bourbon called Johnny Drum, it intrigued me, so I did a bit of research.

Johnny Drum Private Stock is 101 proof (50.5% alcohol), and part of a Willett Distillery (specifically, Kentucky Bourbon Distillers) product line. Willett has been a family-owned company since it came back to life after Prohibition. There was a period of dormancy during the 1980s after an ill-fated experiment with the production of ethanol as a motor fuel additive, and distilling on-site only resumed in 2012.

What this means in practical terms is that until recently, all of Willet’s various bourbons were sourced from other distillers, something we know is fairly common in the bourbon business.*

As a beer guy, it reminds me of lambic blenders in Belgium, which acquire spontaneously-fermented ales from brewers and combine them to achieve the desired house character.

Apparently Johnny Drum was created in the 1960s at the behest of a California wholesaler. Originally it was labeled as being 15 years old, but today there is no age statement. Apparently this practice is controversial in some quarters, although it falls outside my limited aims at present.

It’s not that these whiskies aren’t aged at all, it’s simply that rather than have a specific barrel age, the whiskey is composed of a blend of variously aged whiskies, selected and blended by the distiller to evoke a consistent flavor.

As for review, I love this fellow’s approach.

My friend Lew Bryson’s 2015 review for Whisky Advocate also makes sense in a complementary way.

88 points
Johnny Drum Private Stock, 50.5%

Plenty of color, and the nose says it ain’t lying. Sharp warehouse oak aroma puts an edge on an authoritative nose of honey, Indian pudding, spicy hard candy, and old-fashioned root beer, the not-too-sugary kind. Fiery and bold on the tongue as oak roars from start to finish, but the sweetness builds sip-by-sip: cornbread, buckwheat honey, King syrup, and a teasy bit of citrus peel. Long finish as the oak dies down. At this price, let’s keep it our secret. Sourced whiskey.

Indian pudding?

Mention Indian pudding to a non-New Englander, and you’ll likely draw a blank stare. Though it has always been staple on Thanksgiving tables in New England, and was known throughout the country well into the 20th century, the humble corn custard has largely drifted off the modern-day culinary map. Some older Yankees may harken back to memories of eating the colonial curiosity as children, but there are even more who have simply never heard of it.

Cornmeal and molasses. Got it.

The beer guy is a word guy, too, and so it should come as no surprise that this bourbon’s name of Johnny Drum intrigues me as much as the contents of the bottle.

According to the bottle’s label, Johnny Drum served as a drummer boy in the year 1861 during the Confederate (Civil) War. At the end of the war, legend has it Johnny returned home to his native Kentucky, where he staked claim among a beautiful spring. Johnny learned the importance of finding a way to convert his excess corn crop into a profitable item, rather than allowing it to go to waste. As the story goes, it wasn’t long before Johnny’s determination produced an exceptional bourbon whiskey.

It’s a fine explanation for the socioeconomic rationale of distilling in a free-market economy, and it would be tempting to dismiss the remainder as hokum except for the fact that there probably were several thousand drummer boys named Johnny during the American Civil War, and it’s likely more than a few were nicknamed Johnny Drum out of sheer expedience.

Perhaps the best known example in popular culture of the Civil War drummer boy is the depicted in the song leading off this post, “The Drummer Boy of Shiloh.” Specifically, it’s the version included in the 1976 commemorative bicentennial 100-LP set from New World Records called The Recorded Anthology of American Music, which itself requires an explanation.

Civil War songs: “I’m a Good Old Rebel,” but assuredly not like this.

Appropriately in this sesquicentennial Civil War year, I’ve been listening to Songs of the Civil War (New World Records 80202), with liner notes by Charles Hamm. It’s always been my favorite of them all.

Hamm’s liner notes tell the tale.

Track 6: The Drummer Boy of Shiloh

More than 100,000 members of the opposing armies were under sixteen, and some were as young as thirteen. The youngest boys often enlisted as drummers; their duties were to drum for drills, parades, and marches and to give various signals once a battle was in progress. A “long roll” was a signal to assemble for action, and sometimes they would “beat the rally” to instruct troops scattered in battle to reform around the colors, near the drummer. In the confusion, excitement, and panic of battle they would often put aside their drums, take up the arms of a fallen comrade, and become part of the fighting. And they were often killed. The death of any man was horrible, but even seasoned veterans were shaken and sickened by the sight of maimed and slaughtered children lying on a battlefield. Poets and songwriters commented on this aspect of the war, as they did on so many of the dramatic and horrible facets of the conflict; and if their poems and songs strike us today as maudlin and sentimental, we should at least be thankful that the conditions that prompted them are no longer part of our life—at least in the United States.

William Shakespear Hays, a Kentuckian who turned out more than three hundred songs, wrote the first successful portrait, published in Louisville in 1862, of a dying drummer boy. The style is eclectic, with echoes of Irish melody and Italian opera giving the song a flavor that by now was characteristically American—and appropriately poignant for the sad tale of the wounded boy who “prayed before he died.” Later editions, published by Blackmar & Brother in Augusta, Georgia, gave the music “as sung by the First Tennessee concert troupe, arranged for the piano forte by E. Clarke Isley. ”The song’s success caused a flood of similar pieces, including “Little Major” by Henry Clay Work,“The Drummer Boy of Antietam” by Albert Fleming, and “If I Sleep,Will Mother Come?,” the mournful saga of the drummer boy of the 1st Minnesota Regiment.

The most famous drummer boy of all was named Johnny — Clem, not Drum, and he was a northerner, not a rebel.

Photo credit: Wikipedia.

For many years it was reputed that Clem was present for Shiloh, and may have served as (living) inspiration for the song’s melodramatic mythology, but the evidence weighs strongly against it.

Clem became famous a year later.

Clem served as a drummer boy for the 22nd Michigan at the Battle of Chickamauga. He is said to have ridden an artillery caisson to the front and wielded a musket trimmed to his size. In the course of a Union retreat, he shot a Confederate colonel who had demanded his surrender. After the battle, the “Drummer Boy of Chickamauga” was promoted to sergeant, the youngest soldier ever to be a noncommissioned officer in the United States Army. Secretary of the Treasury, later Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, and fellow Ohioan, Salmon P. Chase, decorated him for his heroics at Chickamauga. Clem’s fame for the shooting is also open for debate, despite press reports supporting the story into the early 20th century. It is possible that he wounded Col. Calvin Walker, whose 3rd Tennessee opposed the 22nd Michigan towards the end of the battle.

In October 1863, Clem was captured in Georgia by Confederate cavalrymen while detailed as a train guard. The Confederates confiscated his U.S. uniform which reportedly upset him terribly—including his cap which had three bullet holes in it. He was included in a prisoner exchange a short time later, but the Confederate newspapers used his age and celebrity status for propaganda purposes, to show “what sore straits the Yankees are driven, when they have to send their babies out to fight us.” After participating with the Army of the Cumberland in many other battles, serving as a mounted orderly, he was discharged in September 1864. Clem was wounded in combat twice during the war.

Now, where was I?

Ah, yes; Johnny Drum Private Stock. To be honest, I’ve been so distracted by listening to Civil War music that there hasn’t been time yet for a taste. Seems that in bourbon, as in other facets of life, We can’t know where we’re going without knowing where we’ve been.

But do I even have the palate yet for bourbon tasting? I guess there’s only one way to learn — and no spitting, either.

* Sommelier and Pints&union patron Jonathan Kiviniemi provides this “sourcing” update.

Johnny Drum is one of my favorite every day go to bourbons. Originally all sourced, it is now a blend of sourced and Willett distillate.

Everything they put out was sourced until they launched the new version of Old Bardstown a few years back. That was their first release of something 100% their own distillate (outside of a handful of 2 and 3 year rye bottlings in the Willett Family Estate line).

Since then, they’ve been blending their own distillate into the KBD products (Kentucky Vintage, Pure Kentucky, Johnny Drum, Rowan’s Creek, Noah’s Mill) and into the Pot Still bottle. Outside of the 2, 3, 4, and 5 year Estate bottlings and Old Bardstown everything is either partly or 100% sourced.