It is 10:21 AM in Clermont, Kentucky, a sparsely populated non-town 27 miles southeast of Louisville, and I am sipping 135 proof bourbon fresh from the still. It is water-clear, and tastes of sweet corn and spicy rye. When I swallow this young liquor, I feel a little itch in the back of my throat, then — poof — my mouth feels dry and clean.
Early-in-the-day samplings of “white dog” are not unusual in the ten Bourbon distilleries of Kentucky. It is a matter of quality control. By law, Bourbon must be aged at least two years in a new oak barrel that has been flame-charred inside. Most Bourbon whiskey sits in barrels for much longer — four to nine years, typically, and sometimes 15 years or more. Distillers, quite sensibly, run a dizzying array of quality control measurements and tests to up the odds that the charred barrel will transform the “white dog” into the smooth, sweet, amber-brown hooch that we know as
Bourbon whiskey. In this instance, though, the sampling is little more than an excuse for me and the gaggle of writers junketed by Jim Beam Global Spirits & Wine to sip whiskey at the company’s flagship distillery. Indeed, morning tippling appears to be de rigueur during the annual mid-September whoop-up that is the Kentucky Bourbon Festival.
The festival was thrown first in Bardstown in 1992. Constellation Spirits’ Pam Gover, described it as a modest affair. “About 250 people paid $50 each to have dinner and drink bourbon. It was a one-night event.” The Kentucky Bourbon Festival drew together locals and industry people who worked for the distilleries in Bardstown and nearby towns, such as Clermont, Frankfort, and Loreto.
Since then, the event has swollen to a six-day party drawing 55,000 visitors from more than a dozen countries. Every day is stuffed with events and activities, some located in charming downtown Bardstown (2007 population: 11,500), and others in surrounding areas. Kids might enjoy the few non-boozy offerings, such as riding on a restored 1905 steam engine, watching the hot air balloon launch, and whirling on the fair rides. There also are, it is true, educational opportunities. Craftsmen from the Independent Stave Company put on impressive exhibitions of barrel-making and repair, and the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History is a wunderkammer of the whiskey world of the past three centuries.
Mostly, though, the week’s activities are devoted to the celebration and consumption of Bourbon. There are distillery tours, Bourbon dinners and tastings, whiskey-soaked concerts, and a whiskey auction. Those who cannot get their fill of hooch during the day and night can attend a whiskey breakfast where they can nosh on pancakes topped with bourbon butter and slurp bourbon-laced coffee.
Many of the events are upscale, and will appeal to the deep-pocketed consumers of the boutique Bourbons that fetch $40 to $100 a bottle. The cigar smoker is $75. Playing in the festival’s golf tournament runs $125. The week is topped off with the Gala, a black-tie cocktail party, dinner, and dance attended by whiskey industry heavies, Bourbon-lovers, and anyone who can afford the $140 admission charge.
The growth of the Kentucky Bourbon festival has been fueled, in part, by the nature of the enterprise — it is an excuse to take time off work to drink, eat, and goof off.
Anecdotal evidence also suggests that some Kentuckians are drawn to the festival because it celebrates Kentucky heritage and makes them feel good about their state. Bourbon does not have to be made in Kentucky, although nearly all of it is. (A. Smith Bowman Distillery of Fredericksburg, Virginia, which produces Virginia Gentleman Bourbon, is the lone large exception to this rule.) Kentucky distillers have been at it for over 200 years, so Bourbon whiskey and the attached industries of corn farming and barrel-making are part of the social fabric. (By law, Bourbon must be made from at least 51% corn. Most distillers, though, use 70% or more.)
Arguably, though, the explosive growth of the festival reflects the global rise in demand for Bourbon whiskey. Bourbon whiskey also has been a growth industry, a manufacturing business that has boomed over the past decade. The Kentucky Distillers Association reports that Bourbon production has doubled since 1999, with over 937,000 barrels being filled last year. Sales have climbed steadily, and exports have hit record levels. According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, foreign sales increased 14.4%, from $623 million to $713 million between 2006 and 2007. Growth has been fueled by increased sales of the pricey “high end” and “super premium” Bourbons that come in bulbous, thick glass decanters topped with polished wood cork-stops. Sales of Woodford Reserve Bourbon, for example, have increased an average of 24% per year during the past five years.
Thus, Bourbon is big business in Kentucky. According to Jeff Conder, a vice president at Beam Global Spirits & Wine, Inc., the whiskey industry provides Kentucky with over 3,000 jobs and nearly $115 million in state and local taxes. Collectively, the industry has announced $100 million in planned capital investments to expand operations. The Wild Turkey distillery is expanding production, and Constellation Spirits will break ground on a new visitors center in 2009. The industry is geared up for further growth; approximately 5 million barrels — or 265 million gallons — of whiskey are aging in Kentucky warehouses.
With a per capita income under $30,000 per year, which puts the state 47th in the nation, Kentucky’s government and business leaders clearly see the advantage in hitching the state to this hot product. The state’s tourism agency advertises both the Bourbon Festival and the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, the area between Louisville and Bardstown where most of the state’s distilleries may be found. The Maker’s Mark Distillery in Loreto, which is 20 minutes north of Bardstown, had 70,000 visitors in 2007. Jim Beam’s Clermont distillery had 80,000 visitors annually, and the company is expanding its “welcome center” to handle 200,000 Bourbon pilgrims per year. All told, the Bourbon distilleries handle 300 to 500,000 visitors annually. To keep all these folks from getting lost, the state’s transportation agency and the distilleries shared the cost to erect myriad signs along the highways to direct drivers to their destinations.
Kentucky’s political leaders have pitched in too. Senator Jim Bunning got the U.S. Senate to enact a resolution in 2007 that declared September to be “National Bourbon Heritage Month,” and singled out Kentucky for its contribution to the industry. Both this year and last, Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear and the man he knocked from office, Ernie Fletcher, issued similar proclamations. Beshear has ballyhooed Bourbon’s “significant economic, agricultural and tourism impact in Kentucky and beyond.”
For all the fun and profit of the Kentucky Bourbon Festival, though, there are moments when the attendee may weary of the surfeit of Bourbon. After a mere three days of the festival, this writer felt the pain that Anne Royall, the early 19th-century American journalist: “When I was in Virginia, it was too much whiskey — in Ohio, too much whiskey — in Tennessee, it is too, too much whiskey!”
Editor’s Note: Click here for videos of the Jim Beam Distillery’s bottling machines.
This is a lengthier version of a piece that appeared at TheAmerican.com. It is reprinted with the permission of the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, Washington, D.C.