Let dreamers whine of the pleasures of wine for lovers of soft delight
But this is the song of a tipple that’s strong for men who must toil and fight.
Now the drink of luck for the man full of pluck is easy to nominate
It’s the good old whiskey of old Kentuck
And you always drink it straight…
―The Ballad of Whiskey Straight, a 19th-century Kentucky poem
Tour a Bluegrass bourbon distillery and you’ll not only learn how bourbon is made, but you’ll start to understand why the “good old whiskey of old Kentuck” has inspired pride, passion― and even poetry―among Kentuckians.
Bourbon is America’s only native spirit. And almost all bourbon―95 percent according to the Kentucky Distillers Association―is produced in Kentucky. Bourbon is an $8.5 billion signature industry in Kentucky, generating 17,500 jobs with an annual payroll of $800 million. Kentucky Bourbon is the largest export category of all U.S. spirits, shipping more than 28 million proof gallons to 126 countries in 2010.
Like the story of Kentucky itself, the story of Kentucky bourbon began in the Bluegrass region. And what a story it is: Visit distilleries, historic sites, and other Bluegrass places with a bourbon connection and you’ll encounter such fascinations as the “white dog” and the “angel’s share.” You’ll hear how Kentuckians ranging from a cantankerous Baptist minister to a feisty school teacher changed the course of bourbon history. (And don’t forget that famous hatchet-wielding temperance leader!) You’ll also meet modern-day Kentuckians and Kentucky families who continue the state’s most spirited tradition.
Whiskey was made as early as medieval times by Irish and Scottish monks who distilled grains in pursuit of a rejuvenating “water of life.” In the early American colonies whiskey was made with rye and used as a medicine and a general aid to well-being.
Kentucky settlers gave whiskey several new twists, beginning with corn, which was abundant since settlers could claim 400 acres if they built a cabin and grew a patch of corn. As early as 1775, enterprising Kentuckians were making corn whiskey. Today, by definition, bourbon is a whiskey made from a mash containing at least 51 percent corn.
By the mid-1800s Kentucky distillers had developed other distinguishing characteristics, such as aging the whiskey in charred new barrels and using sour mash starter to gain consistent high quality from batch to batch. Some people credit the Bluegrass’ limestone water with giving bourbon its smooth taste.
Bourbon making is full of colorful terms. The mash of fermenting grains is called “Beer.” After distilling, but before it is barreled, bourbon is clear, like vodka. At Wild Turkey Distillery they call this “white dog.” (The charring of the barrel adds the color through the aging process.) Legally, bourbon must be aged at least two years. Most distilleries age their products four to 12 years. Each year of aging, about three percent of the bourbon in the barrel is lost to evaporation or to leaching into the barrel itself; this bourbon that disappears before bottling is called the “angel’s share.”
Interest in bourbon is booming all over the world. Bourbon sales have increased more than 40 percent over the past five years domestically with the industry investing more than $300 million in operations over the past two years.
Craft distilleries are on the rise. The making of a fine bourbon does not include shortcuts, nor can entrepreneurs expect a quick return on investment. But that has not discouraged a new generation of distillers from trying their hand at producing small batch bourbons.
A new distillery is likely still waiting for their Bourbon to age to perfection, but they frequently distill vodka, rum, and even moonshine that you can sample, right now!
We stopped in at Boundary Oak Distillery, a newly opened craft distillery nestled in knobs of central Kentucky at Radcliff, about 20 miles south of Grandma’s RV Camping, our home base at Shepherdsville.
Boundary Oak is one of the numerous new distilleries that opened in 2016 with others scheduled to open to the public in 2017. A different but interesting experience since the distillery is in its infancy and the visitor center is a work in progress. Taste tested four whiskies including a 101-and 121-Proof Moonshine.
Heaven must be a Kentucky kind of place.