THE BOUR­BON TRAIL

Matthew H all VIS­ITS KEN­TUCKY, THE US STATE THAT AP­PEARS TO LIT­ER­ALLY RUN ON BOUR­BON PRODUC TION.

Men's Style (Australia) - - Priority Male Travel -

Let’s be­gin this jour­ney with news there are ap­par­ently more bour­bon bar­rels in the state of Ken­tucky than peo­ple. Ken­tucky’s pop­u­la­tion is around 4.5 mil­lion peo­ple, so that’s a lot of bour­bon bar­rels. Then let’s learn that 95 per cent of bour­bon in the world comes from within 75 miles of Louisville, Ken­tucky’s big­gest city. It’s rea­son­able, then, to as­sume bour­bon plays a big role in the state’s his­tory and cul­ture.

Af­ter five days on Ken­tucky’s so-called “Bour­bon Trail”, drink­ing whiskey straight, drink­ing whiskey cock­tails, eat­ing whiskey-in­fused food, watch­ing whiskey get made and look­ing into tanks of whiskey so deep you could drown and no­body would find your corpse for weeks, we de­clare with author­ity that as­sump­tion is 100 per cent cor­rect. Ken­tucky and whiskey go to­gether even bet­ter than Ken­tucky and chick­ens. Even fried ones.

Louisville was named for a king of France but don’t let that put you o‡. Lo­cals pro­nounce the city’s name some­thing like “Lore-ville”. It’s fa­mous for a base­ball bat (the “Louisville Slug­ger” has its own mu­seum), for be­ing the home­town of Cas­sius Clay (i.e. Muham­mad Ali), for the Ken­tucky Derby horse race, and for be­ing the home­town of Colonel San­ders.

Louisville can also be a base for Ken­tucky’s Bour­bon Trail that, for the hard­core among us, leads you to nine ma­jor dis­til­leries all within driv­ing dis­tance (disclaimer: this is Amer­ica and you will be driv­ing). There’s also small batch craft dis­tillers in the area that open doors to vis­i­tors. Give your­self three days. It’s an Amer­i­can road less travelled. WHY BOUR­BON? Ken­tucky met bour­bon part by ac­ci­dent and part de­sign. In the 1700s, Euro­pean set­tlers were o‡ered cheap land if they grew corn. Most had Ir­ish, Scot­tish, and English roots. What to do with all that corn? Dis­till it, of course.

Back then, peo­ple drank clear and un­aged whiskey – that’s how it was drunk in Scotland at the time. When the Ken­tucky prod­uct, stored for sev­eral years in charred oak bar­rels, came out dark and flavoured, bour­bon was born.

That’s about as much agree­ment you will get on the his­tory of bour­bon. Ev­ery dis­tiller has their own ver­sion they like to tell. This usu­ally in­cludes their own fam­ily as cen­tral fig­ures in the spirit’s evolution.

At Maker’s Mark in the tiny town of Loretto (pop­u­la­tion: 623), com­pany Pres­i­dent Bill Sa­muels Jr was a rocket sci­en­tist (he worked on the Po­laris mis­sile) be­fore he took over the fam­ily busi­ness. He likes to talk with vis­i­tors.

“The word is that con­cept of whiskey be­ing an ac­quired taste was in­vented by Ken­tucky bour­bon mak­ers be­cause it takes like shit,” he says. “But drink it enough and you will start to like it.”

Sa­muels talks like this as we sip his de­li­cious bour­bon, rat­tling from one story to an­other. He fires up about the way whiskey was por­trayed in cow­boy movies.

“The cow­boys would walk into a sa­loon, knock down a shot of red­eye that would in turn knock them down,” he says. “That’s pretty much true but that is also the rea­son my dad got into this. It started as his hobby be­cause the banks wouldn’t give him any money and my mom wanted him out of the house.”

In 1932, Franklin D. Roo­sevelt ran for Pres­i­dent pledg­ing to re­peal pro­hi­bi­tion. The dis­til­leries were go­ing to fire up again. Sa­muel’s grand­fa­ther went to find in­vest­ment money while his dad, Bill Sa­muels Sr, was told to re­build the fam­ily dis­tillery. The taste thing bugged Bill’s dad.

“My fa­ther wanted to im­prove the whiskey but my grand­fa­ther said, ‘No, the peo­ple of Ken­tucky are thirsty, they will drink any­thing.’”

Times changed and Maker’s Mark, still a fam­ily busi­ness, is now one of the world’s pre­mium bour­bon brands.

The num­ber one selling bour­bon in the world is Jim Beam, which ac­counts for 50 per cent of Ken­tucky’s to­tal bour­bon out­put. The Jim Beam dis­tillery in Cler­mont is the Dis­ney­land of whiskey dis­til­leries.

As well as hold­ing about 1.8 mil­lion bar­rels in stor­age across 27 ware­houses on its sites, the dis­tillery has a restau­rant and a gift shop over two floors selling around 500 diƒer­ent types of sou­venirs. You, too, can buy an $800 ta­ble made from re­claimed Jim Beam bar­rel wood. Bour­bon is big busi­ness.

“Af­ter eight years and a lot of my dad’s money, I fi­nally got out of col­lege,” ex­plains Fred Noe – a grand­son of the orig­i­nal Jim Beam – over din­ner. It’s a fam­ily tie that comes with ben­e­fits.

“The thing was that when peo­ple found out I was Jim Beam’s grand­son, I got in­vited to a lot of par­ties. I think I went to ev­ery sin­gle damn one I was in­vited to.”

At col­lege, Noe thought he was a cham­pion bour­bon drinker but it wasn’t un­til he grad­u­ated that his fa­ther sat him down for what he re­calls as The Talk.

“Dad said, ‘I am go­ing to teach you how to drink bour­bon’,” re­calls Noe. “I said, ‘damn, I thought I had got that down’.”

“Look at the colour,” Noe ex­plains. “The lighter the colour, the more com­plex these bour­bons are in flavour.

“Then, when you stick your nose into the glass, when you smell it, open your mouth. If you keep your nose tightly closed you will pull so much al­co­hol you won’t get a good smell. Smell with your mouth closed and open and you will see that I am not to­tally full of shit. It re­ally does make a diƒer­ence.

“Third step is the Ken­tucky Chew. Dad would put the bour­bon in his mouth and phys­i­cally chew it. He worked it all around his mouth. Diƒer­ent parts of your mouth pick up diƒer­ent flavours.

“The fourth step is the fin­ish,” Noe adds. “That’s the flavour it leaves be­hind when you taste it. If you taste the bour­bon and make a face, then it’s too strong. If it is strong for you, add a lit­tle water.”

THE AUS­TRALIAN WAY

If bour­bon is treated like wine in Ken­tucky, its rep­u­ta­tion is some­times a lit­tle diƒer­ent in parts of Aus­tralia. Ed­die Rus­sell, Mas­ter Dis­tiller at Wild Turkey, dis­cov­ered dur­ing a trip to Aus­tralia with his fa­ther Jimmy that ready-to-drink cans and bot­tles (Rus­sell es­ti­mates Wild Turkey sells 2.5 mil­lion cases a year in Aus­tralia) are the rea­son Aus­tralia beats Ja­pan as Wild Turkey’s big­gest ex­port mar­ket.

“I thought ev­ery­body had a beer bot­tle in their hand,” says Rus­sell of his first trip to Aus­tralia. “At one event, Jimmy and I had a drink with a cou­ple pieces of ice in it but we thought ev­ery­one else had beer. It didn’t seem right. Then we re­alised ev­ery­body was drink­ing RTDS. It’s unique to Aus­tralia. We tried it in the States and we couldn’t sell them.”

As he talks, Rus­sell stands next to posters of stunt­man Evel Knievel and gonzo jour­nal­ist Hunter S. Thomp­son – 1970s icons who were in­fa­mous Wild Turkey drinkers. Bour­bon is un­der­go­ing some­thing of a re­vival again today. The big­ger brands are now owned by multi­na­tional bev­er­age com­pa­nies but the fam­ily-run Ken­tucky dis­tillers have sur­vived world wars, the de­pres­sion, Pro­hi­bi­tion, and Mad Men- like drink­ing trends (vodka was more pop­u­lar dur­ing the 1960s).

Mean­while, Ken­tucky is not all whiskey. The last day in Louisville is spent at the Muham­mad Ali Cen­ter, an ex­cel­lent down­town mu­seum and gallery packed with mem­o­ra­bilia from the good and bad of the box­ing leg­end’s life. You can also feel what it’s like to be smacked in the gut by a heavy­weight fighter (hint: not great).

There’s also Churchill Downs, the iconic race­course home to the Ken­tucky Derby. On Fri­day’s it’s $3 to get in and you can drink mint juleps all day. So, maybe Ken­tucky is all about whiskey af­ter all.

The pre­vi­ous night, back at Jim Beam as a bour­bon-in­spired din­ner wrapped up (tip: you can make mash potato with bour­bon), Ricky the bar­tender mixed a huge whiskey sour: “Sir, it’s for the road and it’s a long road.” Fred Noe fin­ished oƒ with an­other story: “My dad would al­ways say, ‘May there be no hell but if there is, I will prob­a­bly see you there.’”

That, or we can all meet in Ken­tucky.

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