Bluegrass and Bourbon
While only holding 45,000 people according to its last census, Nelson county produces 69 percent of the world’s bourbon. Jim Beam, Four Roses, Maker’s Mark, and about a dozen other distilleries all have headquarters here, and their output is massive. Heaven Hill alone makes 1,200 barrels of whiskey a day, and at the time of this writing is aging 1.2 million, which comprise an 80-million-gallon stockpile.
The Kentucky Bourbon Festival, an annual event since 1992, grew out of this heritage, morphing from a one-night-only dinner at its inception into a near weeklong extravaganza that today includes tastings, tours, races, and socials, all centered on the spirit. I called Lex, an old college buddy of mine and native of Nelson County, to guide me through the bourbon country.
We’re standing in the parking lot of Heaven Hill, producer of Larceny, Evan Williams, and Elijah Craig, among others, in Bardstown, Kentucky, which overlooks a clear cut field of yellow corn stalks against a blue sky. We’re waiting for an uncle of Lex’s to give us a tour, so to pass the time, he’s telling me the lore of the town and its bourbon royalty.
“This was later—I guess he was in his 50’s. The first thing out of bed, he’d fill his glass halfway with his bourbon,” Lex says of an unnamed distiller. “Before he brushed his teeth! Of course, he was more or less drunk all the time, but he was never stumbling. His voice never changed.”
“The love of brown spirits is global,” says Bill Owens, the president and founder of the American Distilling Institute, in a phone call later. Industry trends are hard to pin down because of state-by-state laws, but anecdotally, demand for bourbon has never been greater. In addition to the heavyweight producers in Kentucky, there are over 1,100 craft distilleries in the U.S. alone, with 200 more under construction, as well as smaller—but no less passionate—scenes in Australia, Europe, and Canada.
But Kentucky is still the spirit’s homeland, and Nelson County, which encompasses Bardstown, could arguably be called its epicenter. Narrow, two-lane roads dating back to the 18th century snake around redbrick buildings, but turn a corner and the town opens into wide, green lawns with white, penitentiary-like rickhouses where the liquor is aged in barrels stacked three-high.
Mike Sonne, Lex’s uncle, pulls up in a black Chevy Tahoe. A big man with a short, white beard; mesh basketball shorts; and Crocs; he’d already left for the day but returned for the interview.
“I taste all the bourbons every day,” he says matter-of-factly, settling behind a desk in an office decorated with portraits of ducks and bottles on every horizontal surface. “All those are 23-year-old samples,” motioning to around 15 fifths on an end table next to my elbow.
What do you learn about the taste of bourbons after 36 years? The four-year-olds taste “green.” Mix them with Coke, sure. But it takes six or seven years to get bourbon that you’d want alone, with water, or over ice. At 12 years, the character of the wood itself emerges, and only continues to deepen as the Kentucky summers stack up. It’s these aged bourbons at which Sonne is especially adept at. He, his backup taster, and his chemist had spent the day sampling 49 barrels of 23-year-old Elijah Craig, later pulling an additional 450 barrels from the rickhouses earmarked for select liquor stores in December.
“It’s gotten bigger now because of all the hoopla,” he says. “You got all these craft distilleries that are popping up everywhere.”
After an evening with Bardstown elite at the Bourbon, Cigars, and Jazz event—what one woman described as the town’s prom for adults—Lex and I drive downtown the next morning to catch the bourbon barrel relay, a team event where men roll 500-pound barrels for speed and accuracy. It’s raining, however, and the contest is on hold, so we drop by Hadorn’s Bakery, an 81-year-old pastry shop off the main drag. We order a couple of black coffees and Yum Yums, the twisted chocolate-and-cinnamon donut the shop is famous for.
This year’s Kentucky Bourbon Festival is September 11-17. For more information go to kybourbonfestival.com
5 FAB BOURBON DRINKS FROM AROUND TOWN
By food writer and bourbon drinker, Chris Chamberlain
at the Oak Bar at the Hermitage Hotel
Try the whiskey smash over crushed ice in the clubby Oak Bar. The nicely balanced mint, lemon and Buffalo Trace are perfect.
GOODTIME CHARLIE’S GOT THE BLUES
at Husk Nashville
There may be bigger bourbon collections in town than Husk’s, but none are more carefully chosen. This cocktail features Belle Meade Bourbon plus Quevedo Ruby Port, TN blueberries and grapefruit.
Sinema’s bourbon program is sneaky good. They have all sorts of top shelf whiskeys, plus they are aging cocktails in barrels for even more character. This classic is made with Angel’s Envy, St. George Bruto Americano and Dolin Rouge.
at Union Common
Sitting at the elegant bar at night with cars streaming down both sides of the flatiron building makes me feel like I’m in some fancy pants dining car on a train. Enjoying one of these Buffalo Trace Bourbon, Amaro Lucano, Nux Alpina Nocino and Earl Grey Syrup cocktails just makes it better.
I’ve followed Jonathan Howard from bar to bar for a couple years, and his cocktails always impress. The Old Bell with Belle Meade Bourbon, Amontillado Sherry, Licor 43, Absinthe, and orange bitters is right on.