Bourbon heritage in the making
Saturday 27 August 2022
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Kentucky bourbon as a brand is instantly familiar all over the world, even among people who don’t give two hoots about booze. Yet, in the early 2010s, the category was almost exclusively dominated by a handful of huge international players. These 19 legal distilleries – household names like Jim Beam, Woodford Reserve, Wild Turkey, Four Roses and Heaven Hill – had put in the hard yards to ensure Kentucky bourbon was synonymous with uncompromising, high quality whiskey, and they continue to set the standard today.
But the market was also ripe for new entrants; entrepreneurs who saw the success of the US craft brewing movement and put their faith (and, in many cases, their livelihoods) into the possibility that a similar revolution could take place in whiskey. It started with bold pioneers like Joe Magliocco of Michters, daring to trumpet new brands in a market where heritage and customer loyalty are everything. But the path they beat has been eagerly followed by others and, barely a decade later, the state is pushing close to 100 distilleries, crafting a range of superb spirits and helping redefine what whiskey is, who makes it and who drinks it.
New Riff in Newport was one of the first craft distilleries we checked out on our last visit, and we were hugely impressed. Founded in 2014 by visionary liquor retailer and entrepreneur Ken Lewis, New Riff is run by a maverick team of “corporate refugees” with backgrounds ranging from craft beer to politics. It crafts a range of whiskeys, including Bourbon, Rye and Malted Rye, as well as a host of speciality recipes.
What sets it apart though is a willingness to apply modern approaches to a traditional process. Its uncommonly tall column still stands in a glass tower at the front of the distillery, like a calling card. Under the hood, reverse osmosis ensures the water used to create the wash has the perfect balance of minerals, while the mature whisky is never chill filtered (a common process, which is purely aesthetic but which some believe strips out character) and is bottled in bond.
“We are inspired by the great Bourbon makers of the past and the wider tradition in Kentucky, but we will play our own riff,” says Ken. “At the end of the day, despite playing a free hand to improvise and create Kentucky whiskey anew, we uphold above all else the time-honoured Sour Mash Kentucky Regimen: we believe it’s a fantastic way to make whiskey, fully the equal of the traditions of the world’s great whiskeys.”
Brough Brothers in Louisville is shaking up bourbon’s image too, simply by existing. Having started distilling just last year, Brough was founded by real-life brothers Victor, Christian, and Bryson Yarbrough, and is America’s first Black-owned distillery. It’s currently waiting for its first five-gallon barrels to mature (smaller barrels generally mean more intense flavour in a shorter time), but in the meantime has been selling carefully sourced whiskey from a third party under the Brough brand.
Its initial planned releases are all themed around commemorating stories that mean something to the brothers; either key milestones in their own journey, or in the wider culture. Storytelling is clearly in the distillery’s DNA. And why not, when there is such a story to tell? Growing up in Louisville’s West End – often called ‘the Harlem of the South” – the three brothers have a ‘200-year plan’ to open up this traditionally white-dominated industry to people of colour. Since they started their journey, two other Black-owned distilleries, Saint Cloud Kentucky Bourbon and Fresh Bourbon, have followed suit.
Arguably the biggest splash made by a new distillery in recent years has come from Louisville’s Rabbit Hole. The brainchild of clinical psychologist, university professor, and bourbon uber-geek Kaveh Zamanian, Rabbit Hole finally opened its doors in 2018, after nearly six years of planning. And what a set of doors they are; a visually stunning, $18 million glass-walled distillery in the very heart of Louisville, designed not only to facilitate distillation on a truly ambitious scale, but also provide a visitor experience that exceeds those of its deep-pocketed neighbours.
Despite lockdown, the distillery’s first two years were nothing short of explosive, ramping up to 20,000 barrels in 2020. Last year, it added three further 8000 gallon fermentation tanks, potentially boosting production capacity by another 25 per cent. But it’s not just about volume; Rabbit Hole’s growth is underpinned by its innovative approach to whiskey creation. For example, its Heigold high rye mash is finished in sherry casks (very unusual for US whiskies), while last year saw a limited release bourbon finished in rare and distinctive Mizunara Japanese oak casks.
Some credit really needs to be given to the incumbent whiskey establishment for not just allowing this flourishing of competition, but actively encouraging it. Unlike the early days of craft brewing, in which the big players closed ranks to starve out disruptive new entrants, new distillers have been actively brought into the fold.
This much more progressive response is exemplified by initiatives such as a partnership between Brand USA and the Kentucky Department of Tourism, launched earlier this year. The two-year collaboration brings in established and emerging distilleries, to position bourbon as synonymous with Kentucky, focusing on heritage and craftsmanship, and showcasing how bourbon infuses every aspect of Kentucky life, from arts and culture to sports and music.
Even four years ago, during our last visit to Kentucky, the success of this strategy was startlingly clear. These relatively new businesses are slick, self-assured and ready to make the most of their already excellent product.
Nowhere is this healthy spirit of collaboration more obvious that in the organisation of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Ferment has travelled from Covington, on the state border with Ohio, down to freewheeling, bohemian Louisville, and back across to cosmopolitan Lexington. Despite being there primarily for beer, we found ourselves constantly crossing the Bourbon Trail, and eventually following its adventurous path.
Instigated by the KDA in the late 90s, the Kentucky Bourbon Trail initially included just seven distilleries across the state. Today, there are 17 on the main trail, plus a further 20 on the “craft tour”. The latter was created when several smaller distilleries were reticent about joining the programme; when the KDA asked why, it turned out that these distilleries were concerned that the sheer popularity of the main trail would put too much strain on their limited visitor resources. How’s that for an endorsement?
Aside from being a great way to discover world-class whiskies, the Bourbon trail gives the intrepid booze traveller a framework for exploring the state. Along the Trail we visited a world famous stud farm, crashed a wedding in Louisville’s queer quarter, listened to live Bluegrass on the banks of the Ohio river and accidentally joined a cornhole tournament (we did not represent Britain well, I’m afraid). There’s even a handy-dandy passport you can have stamped at each distillery along the way; fill it, and there’s a free t-shirt in it for you.
In short, today’s Kentucky bourbon scene has so much more to offer than a heritage experience. Without compromising its global reputation for quality, the state has created something unique and exciting; a vibrant and modern culture to explore, where one genuinely feels part of an evolving, living tradition.
Louisville: America’s whiskey capital
Of all the places that beer has taken us over the years, Louisville, Kentucky is one of the most memorable. Pronounced ‘Luuurville’ in the locals’ rich southern drawl, this town oozes whisky from its very pores; in the right parts of town, with the wind in the right direction, you can breathe in the unique and unmistakable aroma of the mash, sweet, bready and slightly tangy.
Louisville’s whisky roots run deep, and the history is fascinating. Thanks to Kentucky’s fertile soil, it has always been one of the USA’s largest producers of grain, though there hasn’t always existed the infrastructure to transport it in volume across the country. The resulting grain surpluses created another highly popular and profitable industry though: whiskey. Throughout the 19th century, distillers from across the state would transport their liquor by horse to the wharfs at Louisville, where it would be loaded onto watercraft bound for Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, and even to Mississippi River ports like Memphis, Vicksburg, and New Orleans.
Just one block back from the Ohio river, Main Street quickly became home to a plethora of whiskey business, from offices and bonded warehouses to actual distilleries. Such was the concentration of whiskey along one strip that by the 1840s it had been dubbed ‘Whiskey Row’ by locals.
Whiskey Row’s heyday ended abruptly however, with the Prohibition of the 1920s either forcing distillers to close entirely, or eke out a modest existence as a licensed manufacturer of ‘medicinal’ alcohol products.
Skip forward nearly a century though, and the irrepressible spirit of Whiskey Row is stirring once again, as a new generation of whiskey businesses take up the reins – and the magnificent buildings – of their forebears, to bring their own whiskeys to far-away ports, and bring tourists from those ports back to modern Louisville.
With the bold claim of being Kentucky’s first distiller, Evan Williams Bourbon can at the very least stake a historical spot on Whiskey Row. Its Bourbon Experience, spanning multiple floors of a classic Main Street property, is one of the strip’s most popular stops, and understandably so; it’s phenomenally slick, interactive and informative, taking visitors through the traditional process and history, right up to the exciting present day.
One of the new wave of distilleries propelling Louisville’s whiskey industry into the future, Angel’s Envy is just a short walk along from its peers at Rabbit Hole (see above). Perhaps more than any of its neighbours though, Angel’s Envy ironically has the feel of a traditional distillery. Take the tour and you’ll get up close with gleaming copper and brass stills, run your fingers over aromatic American oak barrels and finish with a guided tasting in a purpose-built wood-clad sampling room. Oh, and the whiskey is phenomenal.
One of the original inhabitants of Whiskey Row, Old Forester (distilled by Brown-Forman since 1870) moved back into the neighbourhood just a few years ago, with a truly hands-on experience that’s great fun for casual visitors, and catnip for bourbon geeks. From mashing in to cooperage and bottling, visitors get to see (and often try their hand at) everything that goes into making Kentucky’s oldest continuously-sold whisky. At the end of each day, the distillery rolls its barrels out the back entrance on Washington, and loads them onto a vintage truck for transportation to its warehouse, just like it would have done in the 19th century.
Whiskey Row isn’t just a Disneyland for bourbon lovers, though it certainly provides a lot of entertainment. Its revival has put a beating heart back into Louisville, where before there was a slightly sad hole. It’s a place where the state’s best-loved heritage distillers rub shoulders with exciting new upstarts, and has cemented the city’s position as the national capital of bourbon for the 21st century.
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