FOR AN INDUSTRY whose main ingredients are provenance, heritage and history all cooked in the slowest of slow cookers, the first few years of the new mil-lennium must have felt like a commercial tsunami.
Bourbon isn’t exclusive to Kentucky but all the genre’s big hitters are here. Once you’ve left the freeways with their endless succession of Days Inn motels, McDonald’s takeaways and roadside diners, the state immerses you in its beauty. And nestled among the verdant forestry and affluent grazing paddocks are some of the world’s prettiest distilleries. Not just pretty, but almost palatial and possessed of a sense of purpose and a certain superiority. They make the finest bourbon here and they know it. And for much of their history the producers have kept their eyes fixed on the road and got on with producing fine spirit, either blissfully unaware of or absolutely disinterested in what distillers elsewhere were doing, including the noisy neighbours over the border in Tennessee to the south.
Until about a decade ago nothing would ruffle Kentucky’s bourbon producers, though once a year the circus came to town in the shape of the Kentucky Bourbon Festival, and with it a growing number of new aficionados.
You’d meet on the lawn outside Four Roses Distillery early on the Friday morning to talk bourbon, bathing in shards of warm sunlight and catching the autumn dew on the grass. The smell of coffee and grits and crispy bacon would waft over guests as they relaxed and laughed, meeting old acquaintances for the first time since the last festival and planning the days ahead.
And what days. Competitions, funfairs, bourbons shared in bars and tents and on lawns; bourbon with cigars while listening to jazz, bluegrass, country and rock ’n’ roll; and, on the Saturday night, the big bourbon gala on the outskirts of bourbon capital Bardstown, when the great and good of Kentucky toasted America’s finest spirit.
At the heart of all of this were the legendary distillers who provided personality and gravitas in abundance – Parker Beam at Heaven Hill, Jim Rutledge at Four Roses, Lincoln Henderson at Woodford Reserve, Booker Noe at Jim Beam, the indefatigable Jimmy Russell at Wild Turkey, Julian Van Winkle, and the eccentric genius Bill Samuels at Maker’s Mark. They were undoubtedly heady days. And if you ever had the pleasure of sipping bourbon with ice while watching the sun setting over the Ohio River and the evening sky turning chocolate orange on a balmy Autumn evening, then you’d have felt as I did – that time had stood still.
But of course it hadn’t. Time is a relentless pursuer and has a habit of catching up with everyone eventually. Boy has it caught up with Kentucky these past few years.
Booker Noe, a gentleman who would not only offer a drink to any stranger but a meal and accommodation should they be required, has passed on. Parker Beam has been struck down by severe ill health. Bill Samuels, Jim Rutledge and Lincoln Henderson ‘retired’ from frontline duty – in theory anyway.