A Ramble Through Bourbon Country
We were sitting in a basement bar under Louisville’s famed Whiskey Row sipping from a $230 bottle of 23-year-old bourbon. It was a dark, wood paneled place under the Evan Williams building and it would have been a thing of beauty but for having the feel of a movie set. Still the whiskey was something to sing about and, of course, we were singing the usual absurdities about caramel notes, heat, hints of vanilla and pouty insolence. The real honest to God, in the business, bourdon gurus in the group didn’t say any of that. They just sort of grunted and moaned knowingly. If you were curious about how real whiskey aficionados talk — the short answer is that they don’t.
My grandfather drank Evan Williams and I had the vague notion, even as a kid, that it wasn’t particularly fine. What we were drinking was definitely not the brown water I snuck out of my parent’s liquor cabinet.
This is what a guy’s road trip looks like on the far side of forty: a little calmer, the bars a bit cleaner and the drinks a lot better. All of which made me feel very sophisticated until I looked at my watch and noted that almost exactly twenty-four hours earlier, after a well lubricated lunch in Nashville, there had been car-to-car mooning. As it turns out, being a fourteen-year-old boy is a little like herpes — it’s controllable but there is no known cure.
A boy can walk out the door and go “play” for twelve hours without needing to explain himself. After a certain age, however, its considered bad form not to have a plan. One of our industry insiders in our group told his wife “We’re all just students of the craft.” Which is why he’s in sales and I sit around writing waggish wisecracks. His wife is some manner of financial mastermind who was kind enough not to laugh out loud at us.
Bourbon, in Kentucky at least, is no laughing matter. Contrary to rumors, it doesn’t have to be made in Bourbon county to be called bourbon, or even Kentucky for that matter. Although the Blue Grass state produces about 95% of the supply, which must be American made. It is that that has caused the small hamlet of Bardstown to morph to a destination which CNN ranked in the “Top Ten All American Experiences.” The distiller’s association’s Kentucky Bourbon Trail drew 725,000 people in 2015. Which is great for business except for the persistent rumor that the Bourbon Capital of the World is running out of the stuff.
THAT “STUDENT OF THE CRAFT” bit isn’t pure cow flop — just about 75% pure. Which isn’t bad considering that on any given day the industry itself believes 90% of its own flop. At the Heaven Hill Bourbon Heritage Center, they’ll tell you that one Elijah Craig, preacher and distiller (because, evidently ye olde Protestant God used to be pretty mellow on the booze question) suffered a fire in his warehouse which — the constraints of the physical universe be damned — charred only the inside of the barrels. Being too cheap to replace the barrels, Rev. Craig accidentally invented bourbon.
Meanwhile, down in the basement of the Evans Williams building (also owned by Heaven Hill) a fella in a prohibition era straw boater told how the same tightwad Rev. Craig bought some second-hand barrels that had been used to transport salted fish, so he charred the insides to remove the fishy taste. I don’t know much, but I know enough to fact check a man wearing a boater in this day and age.
I called Chris Morris, the master distiller responsible for Old Forester and Woodford Reserve. One summer when Tom was 16, his father (who worked for Brown-Forman) told him one summer that the master distiller needed some help around the distillery. Tom worked there through college and has literally been there ever since. He’s also a member of Louisville’s Filson Historical Society and a serious amateur historian. A guy that stable is only about 1.5–2% flop, which is all you can ask of a functioning adult these days.
“First of all,” he said as we drove around Louisville, “you can’t make a barrel without heating the staves. That’s the only way to get them to bend.” There is archeological evidence that even ancient Phoenicians charred their barrels from time to time. Then there is also the implausible theory that Rev. Craig was trying to get the fish smell out of the barrels. “Yes, people reused barrels,” Morris said, “but they reused them for the same purpose. They wouldn’t have stored whiskey in a barrel made for fish any more than we’d use an iPhone as a microwave.”
The product that sat too long in the odd charred barrels began to change and mellow as the temperature fluctuations drew the liquor in and out of the wood. “Red Whiskey,” with its deeper, smoother flavor proved popular because, unlike white lightening, it wasn’t God-awful. With a little reverse engineering, distillers figured out the trick.
America, though, is a melting pot, and the first big market for that “Red Whiskey” wasn’t Kentucky, but New Orleans. As the Mississippi River opened up to American traders, Louisiana still wanted to be French. The whiskey that was shipped down to New Orleans — marked “Bourbon County” — sat barrels longer and mimicked the colors, flavors and feel of the creoles beloved cognac at a fraction of the price. Bourbon became the all- American Spirit, more or less, by trying to impress the French.
BOURBON WAS, AND STILL IS, the lifeblood of Bardstown, and it is dominated by a handful of families. Spending a few days on the Bourbon Trail drifting from distillery to distillery, you get to hear the same history told by different members of the same extended clan.
Prohibition was bad, but everyone knew who to blame. The government makes so much tax revenue on booze that it won’t happen again. The Bourbon Drought is another story, and it fills producers with dread. In tasting rooms across Kentucky, sipping their finest products, guides tell the tale of a free-market boogey man with no mercy. The Drought showed up in the early seventies when tastes started running towards lighter spirits like vodka and light rum. It was the height of the sexual revolution, and people needed to get in the proper humor.
In the first age of mass media marketing, bourbon suffered from what plagues everything your grandfather liked. Namely that your grandfather liked it. It was an underpriced, low-rent commodity. Scotch took a hit as well but it had a crumbling aristocrat panache, and rebounded when bond traders decided it went well with cocaine. So much so that by the middle of the 90’s there was a shortage of the stuff.
When the Shapira family bought Heaven Hill Distillery in 1935 — insiders said they didn’t know a box from a barrel. Maybe, but they damn sure knew marketing. In 1994, Henry Shapira took a page from the book of scotch and produced a single barrel bourbon for the terminally hip Japanese market. By the turn of this century, British writers were starting to hail these single barrel and small batch bourbons as the next big thing. And why not? Their grandfathers drank scotch. So, the American public was re-introduced to the wonders of bourbon — the Native America Spirit and the cause of our first civil war — the same way we were introduced to rhythm and blues in the sixties: Through the Brits.
By 2005, Bourbon was hot again. It’s timing was good. “People are really interested in where their Bourbon comes from,” said Morris as we were standing in the shell of the facility Brown-Forman is refurbishing on Whiskey Row. “With the artisanal movement, slow food; bourbon plays well in that space. It’s an all-natural product.”
God help me, I’m not giving the hipsters credit for this one.
IF WE’D BEEN WITH OUR WIVES, we’d have probably sprung for something grander that Old Bardstown Inn. It has the feel of a 1960’s era motor lodge, but it’s clean and the owners let us set up a camp-chair forum in the parking lot as long as we police the cigar butts. Most Southern Belles can see the restorative benefits of the odd snort of whiskey, but to go rambling through the belly of the beast is something best left to the boys. The long-suffering Mrs. M gave this blessing in a way that made me see a trip to Napa in my future — or at least her’s.
The downside to the bourbon boom is that rapid expansion of a product with a painfully slow production schedule causes prices to jump. If a distiller decided to ramp up production of a popular 12-year whiskey in the 2005 boom, it is really only just now getting to the shelves. If the expanded today, you could by your first grader a bottle when they head off to college.
The problem these days isn’t saturating the market, producers say. They can’t keep up with the European and domestic demand. Despite tight supplies, most distilleries are ramping up marketing to BRIC nations. The big fear is that they will run out: Even a short absence from shelves would require a costly market reintroduction. The best way to slow demand should be a price hike but in this case, rising prices and rumors of shortages only spur demand. In 2013, Maker’s Mark, seeing it’s supplies selling faster than it could be produced tried another tack and lowered the proof — in essence cutting it with water. This went over about as well as can be expected.
Another one of our crew, who had the good sense to remain in the bond business when I bailed, likes to give good whiskey to clients as Christmas gifts. He sees the matter as only a banker would. “The price is only going to go up, at least for the time being. I’m basically buying bourbon futures here.”
If I’m going to be honest about it, this is not the sort of thing my grandfather would have tolerated from the good people at Evan Williams.
Is the bourbon shortage a figment of click-bait journalism? Is it just a long production cycle caught unawares buy a sudden trendiness? Bourbon production in 2016 was the highest in 48 years. That was 1968, or on the eve of the dread Bourbon Drought. As distillers expand to meet a wild global demand, that’s the fear they won’t talk about: A simple and unexplainable change in tastes will leave them with a glut of bourdon at fire sale prices. Is it all marketing hype invented by the marketing department?
These crucial questions, along with several other social and geopolitical problems tearing at the fabric of American society were discussed and elegantly solved in the parking lot of the Old Bardstown Inn with the help of about half a dozen guest we’d never met before.
I just wish one of us had written it down.
Originally Published in Whiskey Barrel