A Whiskey Pilgrim Finds a Kentucky Home in the Capital of Bourbon
From the Print Edition:
Susan Lucci, Sep/Oct 99
The Yankee is smoking a cigar on a park bench in the middle of Bardstown, Kentucky, when a Jaguar sedan pulls up and out pops a mere slip of a Southern belle in sneakers, who proceeds to struggle with boxes full of flower vases. Intrigued by the out-of-place wheels in a town full of pickups and growling muscle cars--and feeling sorry for the little lady--he offers a hand, which is graciously accepted. On the way to the florist, between "thank you" and "you're welcome," it develops that the Yankee is in town for the Kentucky Bourbon Festival.
"Well, that's nice! Do you like my daddy's bourbon?"
"Your daddy's bourbon?"
"Yes. I'm Leslie Samuels Tucker."
Jackpot. Not 10 minutes in this "Bourbon Capital of the World" and the Yankee has stumbled onto the very daughter of Bill Samuels Sr., developer of Maker's Mark, one of the leaders in the trend toward superpremium bourbon that is spurring the market. A convert to corn liquor, he's come, with no introductions, to the industry's annual fete, hoping to scam invitations, soak up atmosphere and sop up quaff. Resisting the urge to propose, he manages: "I like his bourbon very much."
"You've been so nice, you should come out to my brother's house. He's throwing a little party and they're all going to smoke his cigars." The brother in question is Bill Samuels Jr., the renegade of bourbon marketers, and his cigar is a whiskey-soaked number, wax sealed in glass like his bourbon.
Sadly, the Yankee will be otherwise occupied at the festival's own "Bourbon, Cigars and Jazz" event, and begs off. She takes his name and assures him that she'll repay the favor.
Two hours later on this September evening, a hundred or so bourbon and cigar enthusiasts gather in the ballroom at Bardstown's Best Western General Nelson Motel to mix pleasures. Not the most atmospheric venue in this historic town 40 miles south of Louisville where Jesse James once rode and Stephen Foster slept, but no one seems to mind as they take advantage of the freely pouring bourbon and listen to jazz.
The cigar portion of the presentation begins with a short clinic on how to light a cigar, by Louisville cigar retailer J. Paul Tucker, who has supplied two Canary Island brands. "You want to take your match and barbecue the outside," he counsels the crowd, using an image appropriate to Kentucky. Tucker's comments on the resurgence of cigar smoking run to their ubiquitous availability. "In Louisville, there are 25 or 30 places you can buy cigars, from a Thorton's gas station to a dress shop," he says. Not surprisingly, his advice is to deal with a tobacconist.
The Yankee, seeking deeper knowledge, corners Tucker later and asks for his wisdom on pairing cigars with bourbon, a personal quest. Tucker inscrutably offers: "I never met a cigar that didn't go well with bourbon." The search for enlightenment will have to go on.
Elmer T. Lee, master distiller emeritus of Ancient Age, which created Blanton's, the bourbon being sampled, details the 130-year-old distillery's heritage and describes Col. Albert B. Blanton, the Ancient Age master distiller until 1957, before succinctly telling the story of the drink at hand. It was in 1984 that Blanton's became the first single-barrel bourbon to be marketed. "The owners decided there was room to compete with the single-malt Scotches, but it had to be dressed up to compete." The round Blanton's bottle sports a horse and rider on top and a label annotated by hand with the number of the barrel it was taken from and the date the whiskey was dumped.
The premise of single-barrel bourbon is that the distiller has chosen particular barrels from the warehouse for distinct flavor characteristics. Though the distiller strives for consistency in a single-barrel bourbon, variations always exist between bottles from different barrels because barrels are not mingled together, as is commonly done with most other bourbons. The barrel number is meant as a fanciful aid to those who want to repeat the exact same experience, Lee explains. "You could try," he conjectures, "but it would be damn near impossible."
Happily, the Yankee falls in with a local television marketing director who has the place wired. Without a game plan, he confesses, he is at a loss as to how to continue. She offers the intelligence that Four Roses will host a tour of its distillery, in Lawrenceburg, the very next morning. "I'm sure if you ask real nice they will be happy to have you along."
Eight the next morning, he is standing at the Bardstown Tourist & Convention Commission's visitors information center, a quaint little building off the even quainter town square. Invited guests are awaiting rides to the distillery, about 40 miles away. The interloper from the North explains his predicament and is instantly included. A few minutes later he is heading east with Scott and Judy Cederholm, who have volunteered to ferry people back and forth. The night before, Judy had organized a bourbon-style cooking dinner in which Jim Gerhardt, executive chef at the Seelbach Hilton in Louisville, demonstrated dishes cooked with bourbon. Scott is now a voice-over announcer, but explains that he used to be in the bourbon business. "That is, until I burnt the distillery down," he says with a chuckle. Actually Scott was only working at Heaven Hill near downtown Bardstown on the day in November 1996 when a fire started in a warehouse, was fed by high winds, and flamed out of control.
Warehouse J caught fire, and as workers watched helplessly, the flammable barrels inside started to tumble out of the building and down the hill. "Here comes this wall of flaming bourbon," Scott recalls with a shudder. Soon they had what amounted to a burning river of whiskey--real firewater--which wiped out a car and crossed a road to engulf warehouse I. "One guy was cut off and had to walk down the river to get out." Firefighters rushed in, but a containment strategy wasn't very effective. The fire consumed seven of 44 warehouses and the distillery, and Heaven Hill lost almost 95,000 barrels of whiskey, more than 16 percent of its 590,000 barrels.
It was typical of the close-knit community, Scott Cederholm says, that producers from all over the state offered help to get Heaven Hill back on its feet. It didn't hurt that Heaven Hill holds a special place in the bourbon world as the only remaining family-owned distillery.
A small coterie of artisans possess the skill to create America's only native spirit, and strong ties have developed among them. Having played together as children, worked together as adults and, in many cases, being related by blood, whiskey men share a mutual respect, even while parent companies fight for market share.
Max L. Shapira, whose family has owned the Heaven Hill property since the repeal of Prohibition, decided to stay the course and temporarily moved production to the Early Times distillery in Louisville. Now he has purchased the Old Fitzgerald brand as well as the Old Bernheim distillery from United Distillers, which recently left the bourbon business. Heaven Hill, which is well known for supplying private-label whiskey, also focuses on the superpremium market, in which it creates several products, including Evan Williams vintage single-barrel and Henry McKenna single-barrel.
Shapira points to the success of bourbon on the international market over the past decades to explain the revival of the spirit at home. "Uniquely American, it expresses the rugged individualism of the U.S," he summarizes its appeal. "We're not in the computer chip business, so you can't look for double-digit increases, but bourbon is coming back."
The spirit is like other American inventions, such as rock and roll, that had to be transported overseas before they could be fully esteemed back home. One of the places that made an appreciative adoptive home for the quaff was the Asian market.
At the Four Roses distillery, a seemingly misplaced plant built in a stucco Spanish style, a contingency of Japanese has gathered for the occasion, wearing green warmup jackets with four red roses emblazoned on the back. The history of the Four Roses name in the United States reaches back to 1888, but was interrupted in the 1960s when the owner, Seagram, took it off the domestic market. Still made at thisdistillery, which also makes Bulleit boubon, the brand has recently been reintroduced in Kentucky and Indiana.
The guests sit down to a bourbon symposium delivered by master distiller Jim Rutledge, master distiller emeritus Ova Haney, and Pete Gunterman, Seagram's director of training. Gunterman handles the history portion with some histrionics. Closing his eyes and holding out one hand, he intones: "I have this vision of an Arab crossing the desert and maybe he had some figs. The figs were bruised and fermented along the way and fig wine was invented."
The lecture fast-forwards through the invention of distillation to the colonization of the New World, where rum was the drink of choice, because molasses was readily available in the colonies and didn't have to be converted into sugar--as grain does--to be fermented. When the Scots and Irish emigrated to America, they brought their knowledge of distilling as well as crude stills. Heading west for open land, they poured into Pennsylvania and made whiskey from the rye they grew. After the American Revolution, the new government imposed taxes on distillers, fomenting the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794. George Washington saw the dissent as a challenge to federal authority and quickly put down the rebellion (he is rumored to have put down some whiskey as well). Some distillers pushed westward to the no man's land now known as Kentucky, but then part of Virginia. There, native corn was easy to grow but hard to sell, as it had to be hauled to distant markets. Fermented and distilled, however, corn became a portable potable that was even used as money. "No one set out to make a bourbon whiskey. It just evolved," Gunterman underscores.
Part of that evolution, legend has it, came when an eighteenth-century Baptist minister by the name of Elijah Craig accidentally charred the inside of a barrel, but used it to store whiskey anyway. The whiskey leached into the charcoal lining and took on new flavors; when Craig tapped it he was pleasantly surprised. Later, according to the story, whiskey was shipped downriver in barrels labeled "Bourbon County." Aged by the trip, it took on a particular character that became known as "bourbon whiskey" and was highly prized. Kentuckians like to point out the irony that Bourbon County is now dry and whiskey is no longer legally made there, but the entity that is now Bourbon County is much smaller than the original domain, which covered much of the state.
The serendipity of the birth of bourbon is now mandated by federal law: it must be made in America of a grain mash that is at least 51 percent corn, and aged in new, charred oak barrels for at least two years. In practice, most mashbills, or grain recipes, contain about 75 percent corn (rye or wheat, and barley malt make up the other grains), and most bourbons are aged at least four years. Because the barrels are charred and never reused for bourbon (many are sold to Scotch makers) and because the Kentucky summer is sweltering, the whiskey ages far more rapidly there than in chilly Scotland. Many feel that bourbon does not profit from much more aging than six or seven years, although some distillers are experimenting with superannuated whiskeys like the 15-year-old Jefferson Reserve, 18-year-old Elijah Craig and 23-year-old Pappy Van Winkle.
Each distiller has a mashbill that includes about 10 percent malted barley to promote its conversion into grain sugars. Yeast microbes are added to break down the sugars into carbon dioxide and alcohol, and a beer is produced. The next step is distillation: simply put, heating the beer to a temperature higher than the boiling point of alcohol, but lower than that of water, and then cooling the alcohol-rich steam in a condenser. Bourbon is distilled twice, usually in a continuous still and then a pot still, before being aged in a barrel before bottling.
Rutledge, introduced as "plant manager, master distiller, or god," then leads a small group through a plant tour, starting where trucks roll in to dump loads of corn. Selecting grain is paramount, as distillers believe "garbage in, garbage out." With a probe he takes a sample of grain, puts it into a shot glass and nukes it in a microwave. This allows him to smell impurities in the corn. Four Roses formerly used a conventional oven, but that took hours, he says. This corn is fine, he observes, but a load that came in the day before had a funky barnyard odor. It was rejected and used for neutral spirits production at another Seagram's plant.
While showing off the beer that bubbles and ferments in huge cypress wood vats in another building, Rutledge explains that part of the Four Roses philosophy is using two different mashbills as well as five to six yeast codes. That way he can tweak the taste in the final blending process. "We do it by design," he says of the method that creates a signature light-bodied spirit. "You will never hear me say our bourbon is better than their bourbon. They're all different. It's a matter of personal taste."
In a computerized control room, the mild-mannered Rutledge points out how every aspect of production can be monitored on screen, and records are kept for every gallon made. Agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms are empowered to spot-check distilleries to confirm that they operate within the range of their statement of process. "If it's off we could be shut down," Rutledge informs the group, then corrects himself. "Not could be. Would be."
The tour doesn't include a look at the aging facilities. The multi-story rickhouses next door are used by Wild Turkey. Instead, Four Roses uses single-story facilities some 50 miles away, in keeping with the theory that single-story warehouses deliver more uniform aging with fewer temperature fluctuations.
At a tasting of the four-brand Four Roses line held afterwards, a group of journalists from Britain eye the provincial liquid suspiciously, still not convinced anything can replace their Scotch.
Back in Bardstown, the Yankee has wangled an invitation to a backyard barbecue. Booker Noe, the grandson of Jim Beam and master distiller emeritus as well as something ofan ambassador of bourbon for the company, sits on the porch of his stately house just outside downtown Bardstown. Sporting a Panama hat and brandishing a cane, he welcomes visitors and sends them through the house to a large garage in back that doubles as a tasting room. The solemnity of the occasion, at which are assembled three noted whiskey writers, as well as distinguished guests from England, Japan and Denmark, is broken when Booker's grandchildren skate through followed by a dog.
When everyone is seated, Jim Kokoris, the executive director of the Kentucky Bourbon Circle, leads the gathering through a tasting of Baker's, Basil Hayden's and Knob Creek, before surrendering the floor to Booker to introduce his namesake bourbon. A natural raconteur, Noe rambles through the origins of the Beam brand names before getting to his whiskey. Beams have been making bourbon since 1795, when Noe's great-great-great grandfather Jacob Beam, a German immigrant, first made whiskey as part of his grist mill operation. In 1882, the company's first liquor with a label--Old Tub--was made. "Old," it seems, is almost a family name in the bourbon industry. More than a hundred brands have used the word in their titles. After Prohibition, Noe's grandfather, whom he describes as a "stuffed shirt" who wore a tophat and tie to go fishing, rebuilt the distillery in 120 days. The first bourbon named for him, "Colonel James B. Beam," was a two-year-old rushed to market to revive interest in bourbon, which was losing ground to imported blended whiskies that hit the stores immediately after repeal. In 1945, the now well-known "Jim Beam" brand, a four-year-old, was introduced. While bourbons can be as young as two years, those that have no age statement--which is usually the case--must be at least four years old.
The bourbons sitting in front of Noe, the Beam small-batch collection, were all released in the past 15 years. Baker's is named for Noe's cousin, Baker Beam. Knob Creek is named for the farm where Abraham Lincoln was born and which his father sold for $20 and 10 barrels of bourbon. Basil Hayden's, with its heavy rye content, is named for an eighteenth-century distiller who came upon bourbon by way of rye making.
"Before we do anything, just get a good whiff of that good stuff," Noe says, and holds a glass of Booker's to his nose.
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