Jeffrey Morgenthaler is Food Republic’s contributing cocktail editor and the author of the column Easy Drinking. He currently manages the bars Clyde Common and Pépé Le Moko in Portland, Oregon, and is the author of The Bar Book: Elements of Cocktail Technique .
Last week, I had the good fortune and extreme pleasure of visiting Kentucky for the first time in my life. The trip was long overdue, as I’ve been running a bar with a fairly aggressive bourbon selection for the past six years now and had never been offered a trip to visit the distilleries I’d been supporting for a very long time.
It had become almost comical; every time I met an executive from a bourbon distillery, they feigned outrage that I’d never been invited to bourbon country and promised up and down that they’d bring me out to visit tout de suite — and after an exchange of business cards I would never hear from them again. Needless to say, I was a little jaded. (Thanks to my friends at Southern Wine and Spirits, I was brought out and given the royal treatment all week.)
Listen. It’s not uncommon to run into a lot of bullshit in the bourbon industry. One multinational conglomerate wants you to believe that they “found” some old barrels in the back of a dusty shed somewhere. As if every drop of whiskey in the world were not meticulously catalogued both by the people that own the whiskey and the government that wants to tax the whiskey, bar-tagged, coded and stored in gigantic databases.
I remember conducting a phone interview with the former president of one of the larger bourbon producers on the eve of a new product launch and rolling my eyes as he told me about how they developed the product on his back porch — as if it hadn’t involved years of scientific and market research.
See, Kentucky wants you to think the industry is quaint. That they all operate out of little sheds and cabins, sipping sweet tea by the crick and making whiskey in their spare time. And while there is no denying that this is a global, multibillion-dollar industry, I have to say that my jaded views on bourbon have changed since my visit last week.
I spent a half day with Jimmy Russell, global whiskey icon and master distiller of Wild Turkey. Time spent with Jimmy really does exemplify what the bourbon industry is all about: at the same time global and high-tech, and down to earth and rural.
We toured tanks, vats and stills. We saw computers, sensors and chemical-analysis machines. We drove around to some of the millions of barrels stored on site while Jimmy talked proudly about how much whiskey they make there. It was refreshing not to be fed a bunch of bullshit about back porches and little copper pot stills, but to have the curtain pulled back and the entire operation unveiled.
We concluded the tour with a tasting of the entire product line, including whiskies that aren’t even sold in the United States, in a state-of-the-art sampling laboratory. It wasn’t a visitors’ center in a replica of an old barn with rough-hewn beams and sawdust on the floor, kicked around by millions of tourists every year. It was a windowless, featureless room inside a distillery, and we shared glasses with a sweet old man with a thick Kentucky accent. It felt…real.
And after the tasting, Jimmy drove us into town in his Toyota Avalon and we sat down and dined at his favorite lunch spot: Tonya’s Buffet. The place might as well have been in the basement of a church, complete with a mural of a giant cross on a hill in Kentucky, surrounded by pristine rivers, little stone bridges and an oxen yoke and old-time plow that were inexplicably flying through space. The fried chicken was some of the best I’ve ever had, and everyone there knew Jimmy by both name and reputation.
As I lined up at the buffet again (Jimmy said the ladies who work there would be insulted if we didn’t have seconds), I realized that not everything that comes from the marketing and PR departments about the quality of life in Kentucky is untrue. It is rural, it is down-home and it does take place in small communities. Now if we can just get all of them to admit that there’s no shame in making whiskey the way they do, because at the heart of those operations are some very real people who add a lot of heart to the product.
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