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Walking the Bourbon Trail: A Bourbon Distillery Tour, Part 1

I love bourbon. Ironically, I rarely drink. And though I love the taste of bourbon (straight, neat), and the various foods flavored with bourbon—ice cream, barbeque sauces, candies, and cakes—I love that bourbon is something distinctly KENTUCKY. For those who don’t know, I’m born and raised Kentuckian—and proud of it.

Part of this fascination began with my research into my book, Devil’s Kiss. But a large portion of my fascination with bourbon comes from its roots and rich history in the bluegrass state, as well as the processes involved in creating bourbon.

I recently went on a walking tour of the Wilderness Trail bourbon distillery in Danville, Kentucky. While I was there I picked up a Bourbon Trail Field Guide and decided I was going to visit every distillery in the guide—which means I will need to re-visit a couple distilleries. Oh, darn. As a native Kentuckian, I’ve known about the bourbon trail long

before it was promoted as THE Bourbon Trail, but it’s only been in the past several years that it landed on my bucket list. Some people want to climb Mt. Everest. I want to get a stamp for every distillery in my Bourbon Trail field guide. As I go through each distillery, I’ll do my best to follow up with a blog post here. But first I want to discuss bourbon in general.

The best place to start is always at the beginning, in this case, the history. Kentucky bourbon began in the late 1700s when the Scots, Irish, English, Welsh, German, and French settled in Kentucky and brought with them the knowledge of distilling.

Now, how bourbon began as a distinct spirit from whiskey has conflicting legends and claims. One claim is that a Baptist minister and distiller named Elijah Craig invented bourbon in what was then Fayette County. (I’ll need to write about him for sure because Baptists in this area are typically very much against imbibing bourbon, which automatically makes him an interesting figure). Craig is purportedly the first to age the spirit in charred oak casks, a process that gives bourbon it’s beautiful brown color and distinctive flavor. However, across the border in Bourbon County, was a distiller by the name of Jacob Spears who is also credited with being the first to create bourbon.

Jacob Spears Elijah Craig

Historian Michael Veach disputes either of these claims and proposes that bourbon was named after Bourbon Street in New Orleans because it was a major port where Kentucky whiskey sold well as a cheaper alternative to French cognac.

Another origin story suggests that geography and settlement are key factors. As the story goes, after the American Revolution, when American pioneers pushed west of the Allegheny Mountains, they settled large regions or counties and one of the first established in Kentucky in 1785 was Bourbon County, named after the French royal family. In 1792, Kentucky separated from Virginia, and by the early 1800s, the large region of Bourbon County was being carved into smaller counties. However, people continued to call the region Old Bourbon.

Map of Old Bourbon: Can't see here, but when you see the map up close, you can see the names of the people who lived in each area. One such name I found was the illustrious Henry Clay!

In this area was a principal port along the Ohio River in Maysville. “Old Bourbon” was stenciled on the barrels to indicate their port of origin. But Old Bourbon whiskey was different than most whiskies people had ever tasted because it was made primarily from corn. With the passage of time, bourbon became the name for any corn-based whiskey.

Personally, I’m inclined to side with the geography theory as the point of origin, while accepting elements of the other stories. For instance, if we believe Veach’s claims about Kentucky whiskey being sold from Bourbon Street ports as a cheap cognac alternative, it doesn’t negate the geographical claim and, in fact, might even support it. Because it's conceivable that barrels stamped with Old Bourbon in Kentucky had been transported via the Ohio River, down the Mississippi (which would’ve been a much faster route than over land), to sell on Bourbon Street (also named, coincidentally, after the French royal family). And in light of this, we could still maintain that Craig and Spears were both early competing distillers. So, I don’t think any of these claims truly contradict each other. I think a combination of the claims might be closer to the reality.

But this is all speculation. Unfortunately, we’ll likely never know with any certainty if there was any one “inventor” of bourbon. Nevertheless, by the late 1800s bourbon as we know it today had developed.

Bottle of medicinal whiskey. Notice under the prescription label it says Frankfort Distillery.

In 1919, with the ratification of the 18th amendment and the implementation of Prohibition, legal bourbon distilleries and operations were shut down, though a few were granted special permits to produce and bottle medicinal whiskey. The distilleries who were granted this special license were Brown-Forman, Frankfort Distillery (now Four Roses), James Thompson and Brothers, American Medical Spirits, the Schenley Distillery (now known as Buffalo Trace), and the A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery.

But Kentucky history is replete with illegal stills, moonshiners, bootleggers, smugglers, and bourbon barons who made their fortunes often through less-than-legal means, which deserve their own posts here in the future (add one more item to my growing list).

On August 2, 2007, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution sponsored by Senator Jim Bunning (R-KY) officially declaring September to be National Bourbon Heritage Month, commemorating the history of bourbon whiskey. The resolution was passed again in 2008.

As of 2018, approximately 95% of all bourbon was produced in Kentucky where we have roughly 8 million barrels of bourbon that are aging – a number that greatly exceeds the entire population of Kentucky by 4.3 million! Y'all, if we each take a barrel, we can have a heckuva party! Just joking. Those suckers weigh 500 pounds each.

In recent decades, bourbon has enjoyed an explosive growth. According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS), during 2009–2014, the volume of 9-liter cases of whiskey increased by 28.5% overall. Higher-end bourbon and whiskeys experienced the greatest growth and gross supplier revenues for U.S. bourbon and Tennessee whiskey increased by 46.7%, with the greatest growth coming from high-end products.

In 2014, more than 19 million nine-liter cases of bourbon and Tennessee whiskey were sold in the U.S., generating almost $2.7 billion in wholesale distillery revenue. U.S. exports of bourbon whiskey surpassed $1 billion for the first time in 2013; distillers hailed the rise of a “golden age of Kentucky bourbon” and predicted further growth. In 2014, it was estimated that U.S. bourbon whiskey exports surpassed $1 billion, making up the majority of the U.S. total of $1.6 billion in spirits exports.

And it doesn’t appear that sales are going to slow down any time soon. There are already 68 distilleries in Kentucky alone (not all are on the Bourbon Trail), with new ones opening in Kentucky and all over the U.S. every year.

And of the established distilleries in Kentucky, many of them are expanding. When I recently visited Wilderness Trail, they were in the process of building a new rickhouse to store barrels. And driving down the Bluegrass Highway, passing through Bardstown, one can see several new rickhouses being built. (Honestly, I don’t even know the name of that distillery, but I need to find out). At the rate distilleries are popping up, it's likely my Bourbon Trail Field Guide will be out of date before I even collect all my stamps!

To be continued…




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