A Whiskey Pilgrim Finds a Kentucky Home in the Capital of Bourbon
From the Print Edition:
Susan Lucci, Sep/Oct 99
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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.
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