Yellow Rose nears Kickstarter goal in bid to open Houston's first whiskey tasting room

Texas Editor /

HOUSTON -- It takes a crowd to build a tasting room.

Yellow Rose Distillery in Houston is nearing the end of its Kickstarter campaign to raise $25,000 to build out a bar where whiskey enthusiasts can have a glass or two after touring the distillery. 

“The process of building this distillery was building a community,” says Ryan Baird, Yellow Rose’s co-founder. “We had a lot of people coming in, saying, ‘Hey, how can I help. What can I do?’”

So far, Yellow Rose has raised $23,000 of its goal in the campaign that ends Wednesday. Prizes and thank-you gifts for investors include glasses and t-shirts as well as whiskey-barrel tables and distilling classes.

Texas state regulations were changed last year to allow distilleries to sell alcohol for on-site consumption, and the idea for a tasting room took hold. Yellow Rose even hired longtime bartender Houston Farris as its resident mixologist earlier this year.

The money would also be used to help build out the 10,000-square-foot distillery, including the addition of barrel and bottling rooms and larger distilling equipment.

Houston, while better known for its oil-and-gas fortunes  and its heat, has a thriving cocktail scene, with some of its top bars -- Anvil Bar and Refuge is an example -- frequently touted as one of America's best. Alba Huerta, a former Anvil manager, has just opened Julep, which judging by its spirits list means business.  

Yellow Rose is upping the city's spirits game from another angle. Founded in 2010 in Pinehurst, just north of Houston, Yellow Rose released its first whiskeys two years later. It now produces four lightly-aged whiskeys, with two of them---the Outlaw Bourbon Whiskey and the Straight Rye Whiskey---winning a Best in Class award at the American Distilling Institute and a double gold award at the San Francisco Artisan Spirits competition, respectively.

Baird and his co-founder Troy Smith made the move into town earlier this year to open what they say is Houston’s first legal distillery since Prohibition. A soft opening is planned for early September, and if Yellow Rose can raise the funds, the tasting room could be open six weeks later.

For Baird, the distillery’s upcoming opening is a significant milestone since he and Smith---longtime friends who had been distilling in their garages for fun---gave up their corporate day jobs to pursue their hobby full-time. “I’m really excited about what we can build and being part of the Houston community,” he says.

Wild Turkey sales slip, failing to buoy bad quarter for Campari

Campari expects rebound

Editor's note: This piece was published initially on May 15 on the Financial News pages of We're streamlining the content, so it all flows through the home page, and have moved this story as a result. 

By Michael A. Lindenberger

WASHINGTON --The boom in bourbon has been so strong that it's eye-opening to read of a giant whiskey brand and its parent company reporting sharply decreased year-over-year sales. But that's exactly what happened Thursday when the Italian conglomerate Grupo Campari announced that its sales have slumped during the first three months of 2014 compared to last year. Overall it earned $28.4 profit against $395 million in sales worldwide. Last year, it earned $54 million in the same quarter on $432 million in sales.

Campari owns Austin Nichols Distillery in Nicholasville, Ky., makers of Wild Turkey bourbon. 

It says that about 2/3 of its revenue decrease comes from currency exchange costs, and says turmoil in Russia triggered a near-50 percent decline in sales in that country. 

So how did Wild Turkey do? Not as well as you might have expected. In Australia, the firm announced, ongoing weakness in the demand for brown liquors took its toll.  

The Wild Turkey line accounts for 9 percent of Campari's total sales, and about half (51 percent) of that is the traditional bourbons. The rest is split evenly between Wild Turkey Honey and Wild Turkey Ready to Drink single-serve beverages. 

Overall, Wild Turkey sales were down 6.5 percent this year versus last, a decline that actually hit the company's pocket books as if it were 15.4 percent due to the currency exchange risks.

Other notes

  • The bright spot for the company, which says its sales in April have already rebounded overall, was single-serve products in Italy, its largest market.

  • The company is closing on its purchase of Canadian distillery Forty Creek Whisky, in Ontario.

  • Wild Turkey's visitor center opened this month, as noted by the Lexington Herald-Leader's bourbon writer, Janet Paxton

Michael Lindenberger (@bourbonstory) is Editor of Bourbon Story Magazine. Send him ideas, compliments or complaints at

Editors pick five smart bourbons under $20

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The capital city isn't what you might call a bourbon town -- not yet. But it is changing. Step into Batch 13 liquor and wine shop on 14th Street, and you'll see a dizzying array of bourbons and ryes for sale. There's Masterson's. Over there is Whistle Pig. And you'll find a batch of Michter's bottles that would make home bar proud. Prices of $75 and up aren't uncommon. 

But try finding a cheaper bourbon that it's the ubiquitous Jim Beam or Wild Turkey in Batch 13 or any of the other nicer liquor stores in DC's trendier neighborhoods and you're going to be looking for a while. Welcome to the Bourbon Boom, where the excitement is focused on high-end bourbon, the pricier the better. 

There's good reason for that. Much of the expensive bourbon tastes good, and packs a good story too. And from retailers'  point of view, precious shelf space ought to be used to present as much of the high-margin good stuff as they think will sell. After all, it's what Americans are buying. The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States sales numbers show that super-premium bourbon -- roughly, bottles that sell for $30 or more -- jumped 87 percent between 2008 and 2013. Value brands -- roughly, bottles under $13 -- sales stayed comparatively flat, rising 14 percent over six years. 

A $12 bottle with character isn't easy to find, though there are plenty of example sod contenders. Last June, a tasting of 20 low- to mid-priced bottles finished with Old Heaven Hill Bonded placing nicely.  

We're not ready to deny anyone, ourselves least of all, the pleasure of the very small batches, the pricy pours that come with such great history and, when hitting their stride, artisanal attention to quality. Pour us the Pappy, the Michter's, the Reservoir -- and make it neat, or with a big fat ice cube. Thank you.  

But what of the old favorites? The long-lived brands that were good enough for bartenders and boozers alike for generations? Are they really so uninteresting? We don't think so. Spare a spot in your home bar for these bottles. Some are old names and some aren't. But they are all bottles you'll be happy to pour, and even happier replacing them will be so easy on your wallet.

Our editors fanned out across the country and did some tastings and talking. Here are five suggestions for your bar. 

Heaven Hill 6 Year: Bottled-in-Bond

Name: Heaven Hill Bottled-in-Bond        Owner: Heaven Hill                                         Price: $10 to $12

Matthew Landan, owner of Haymarket Whiskey Bar in downtown Louisville, is a big fan of bottled-in-bond bourbon and a blunt advocate for bargain whiskey. Those two factors come together nicely in the Heaven Hill 6 Year—refreshingly smooth and simple over ice on a humid spring night, refreshingly kind to the wallet.

The Haymarket is featuring several affordable bottled-in-bonds when I visit. These are bourbons that have been produced in accordance with a set of legal regulations established by the U.S. Congress in 1897 to ensure authenticity and quality. It’s an old standard of quality but a reliable one -- and it also means it's exactly 100 proof.

While Landan is happy to sell the premium hooch to curious customers, he says there is much to explore on the lower shelves. And in so many ways, he explains, it’s all the same stuff.

“Have you been to many of the distilleries?” he asks. It’s only a few days after Derby Day and Landan is admittedly “lethargic” after Derby Week and the service industry parties that followed. He’s perhaps a little grumpy, too.

“I mean, it’s all made the exact same way on the exact same day. It’s all put in the barrels the same way. It’s just the matter of: When do you pull the barrel, and how much marketing money you put toward the product … Bourbon’s bourbon. I don’t care what fancy **** you put on the bottle. It’s just whiskey.” 

Maybe. But, quoting the Stones, “I like it, like it, yes I do!”

Heaven Hill is bottled at Heaven Hill Distilleries in Bardstown, Ky. A 750 ml bottle will cost you $10 to $12. 

Why it’s underrated: Too often we associate “inexpensive,” or “affordable,” or “bargain-priced” with something that is poorly or cheaply made. Don’t let Heaven Hill 6 Year’s forgiving price tag fool you. It is a “bottled-in-bond bourbon,” adhering to an old, tried-and-true standard of quality—a standard that was the industry’s highest for much of the 20th century. -- by Kevin R. Hyde, Kentucky Editor /

Kirkland Signature Bourbon: Costco's house brand

Costco secretly sources its 100-proof Kirkland small-batch bourbon, and our man in Chicago says it's worth the $20 a liter they get for it. (Photo by Allen Helm / Bourbon Story Magazine.)

Name: Kirkland Small Batch Bourbon
Owner: Costco
Price: $20 or so, for 1L.

Most people don’t consider Costco as the go-to place for quality liquor.  However, its Kirkland Signature Bourbon is worth investigating.  Running about $20 for a liter at the Chicago stores, you can afford to drink a lot of it. Costco isn’t doing any distilling so someone is making it for them. The mystery of which exact distillery makes it has led to quite a bit of discussion in the bourbon press.  Last December, Insider Louisville pointed out that the label lists Clear Springs Distillery and the towns of Clermont and Frankfort, Ky.  They determined that it is made by Buffalo Trace, which also makes Pappy Van Winkle. 

Mike Veach, official Bourbon historian at the Filson Historical Society in Louisville told Insider Louisville it reminds him of Jim Beam, which is also made in Clermont.  I tried it and I think it’s more robust than Beam, or at least Beam White Label. At seven years old and 103 proof it should be. This is a great bourbon neat, on the rocks, and the proof should give it enough heft to stand up in a Manhattan. -- By Allen Helm, Chicago Editor /

Four Roses, a treat for the Japanese, now available here 

Name: 4 Roses
Owner: Kirin Brewery Company
Price: $19

This 116-year old gem was for decades the top selling bourbon in the United States. When Seagrams bought the old Frankfort Distilling Company in the 1950s, it discontinued the brand in the U.S., though it was still the sales leader here, and instead sent all of the whiskey to Japan and other markets in Asia. American forgot about the brand. The rest of the world did not; it rose to the top across the seas, becoming one of the biggest bourbons in the world. Yet it was not sold stateside.

Reintroduced in the U.S. in 2002 when Kirin bought the Kentucky distiller, the brand is overshadowed by its more famous Kentucky neighbors, but is just as good. It should be, Master Distiller Jim Rutledge was a member of the inaugural class of the Bourbon Hall of Fame and has been at the distillery for more than 40 years. Whisky Magazine once noted that one in six bottles of whiskey sold in America between 1920 and 1932 was a bottle of Four Roses, which like Old Forester below, had been available -- by prescription -- during Prohibition. By Hudson Lindenberger, Colorado Editor /

Old Forester: Good whiskey, uninterrupted. 

Name: Old Forester
Owner: Brown-Forman Corp.
Price: $18 

Old Forester, the workhorse bourbon that built Brown-Forman Company, is the oldest continuously bottled bourbon in the world. It's been available by the bottle since before, during (with a prescription) and after Prohibition.  

For many it's the house brand for Louisville bourbon lovers. At 86 proof, it's thin for a crowded cocktail, but it's nice over ice, or with a bit of water.

Chris Morris, Brown-Forman's master distiller, said in an interview with Bourbon Story that one secret to Old Fo's staying power has been the consistency with which it has been made for 144 years. Morris notes that it's not that today's Old Forester is exactly the same as the one first made in 1870. Insisting on that point, he said, is pointless. Who would know what something tasted like exactly so long ago? Instead, he said his teams strive to pay enough attention to detail to keep the flavor profile consistent enough that a customer who had a glass of Old Forester 20 years ago is not going to be disappointed when he or she orders another one tonight. -- Michael Lindenberger, Editor /

Old Grand-Dad: A recommendation with a caveat

Name: Old Grand-Dad 
Owner: Beam Suntory
Price: $19

Here's a final recommendation, but it's one you'll need to pay attention to. Beam inc., the brand's owner, lowered the proof in mid-2012 from 86 to 80. Executives said it needed to do so to keep the price low and to keep enough of its whiskey for its 100-proof bottled-in-bond expression.

I'd stick with the 86 proof, while you can find it. Last week, I stopped into Christopher's Hitchens's favorite spot in Washington, a classy but pretty casual Italian restaurant in DuPont Circle named La Tomate. The bar is fine, with a regular crowd. It's fine on scotch, Hitchens's posion, but its keeper knows very little about bourbon. Still, I picked the Old Grand-Dad and was pleased to find that they poured the 86-proof variety. It went smooth over some ice. 

If you can't find the 86 proof, look for the bottled-in-bond variety. -- Michael A. Lindenberger, Editor /

Batch 13 liquor and wine shop in Washington's trendy 14th Street corridor is expanding its shelf space to make room for n even wider stock of high-end bourbons and other spirits. But as the focus -- and shed space -- is increasingly turned over to premium bourbon, have we forgotten old standbys that remain worth the pour? Above, Four Roses is the welcome exception to the rule. (Photo by Michael Lindenberger / 

As craft distilleries boom, a Californian with whiskey in his blood takes it slow and steady

Ian Cutler, left, opened Cutler's Artisan Spirits in Santa Barbara's trendy Funk Zone development last year, He's produced white spirits like gin as his bourbon ages. His un-aged white whiskey will be on the market next month. Photo courtesy Cutler's Artisan Spirits. 

Colorado Editor /

SANTA BARBARA, CAL. – Ian Cutler’s family has history with hooch. His great-grandfather Duke Cutler moonshined in California during Prohibition. His grandfather created his own brand of blended spirits during the 1940s, and the family stayed in the spirits business for another four decades, until Ian’s boyhood in the 1980s. Fair to say: The whiskey business runs in Ian’s blood.

Last year, he took his family heritage, his own restless always-learning curiosity and a chance opportunity at a lease in a busy strip in Santa Barbara’s trendy Funk Zone and put it all on the line with a new distillery. Cutler's Artisan Spirits makes all manner of booze – most of it from scratch -- from bourbon to vodka and gin to liqueurs.

Harvey Fry is whiskey advisor at Jack Rose Dining Saloon in Washington, D.C. He warns that many of the new craft distilleries will be closed within a few years. "Kentucky doesn't have much to worry about." Photo by Michael Lindenberger /

Harvey Fry is whiskey advisor at Jack Rose Dining Saloon in Washington, D.C. He warns that many of the new craft distilleries will be closed within a few years. "Kentucky doesn't have much to worry about." Photo by Michael Lindenberger /

It’s one of hundreds of new distilleries that are popping up all over the country. As of last year, there were more than 450 independent, craft distilleries in America, according to the American Distilling Institute, which keeps track. A decade ago, there were fewer than 40. And a decade before that? About 10.

Harvey Fry, maybe the country’s premier scotch collector and the resident whiskey advisor at Jack Rose Dining Saloon in D.C., where they stock thousands of brands of whiskey of every kind, says the up-and-comers in the world of bourbon face long odds. “Kentucky doesn’t have much to worry about. Most of them (new distillers) won’t be here in a few years.”

Cutler knows the long odds. He spent a half-dozen years preparing for his new role as micro-distiller, traveling through Scotland, Kentucky and Tennessee looking to learn what makes good distillers good, and bad ones bad.

“I spent equal time trying to understand what good distilleries do well, and what poor distillers are doing poorly, and really tried to distinguish between the two,” Cutler said in an interview with Bourbon Story Magazine.

“I wanted to understand all the parameters that go into making whiskey and one thing I learned is that there is a lot more going on in the maturation process than just putting whiskey in a barrel and letting it age. I had to learn the fundamentals of what was going on, what chemically was occurring.”

He has the right kind of background to understand whiskey at the molecular level – something he shares with a lot of Kentucky’s most famous old-school distillers. Like Maker’s Mark founders Bill Samuels Sr. and his wife Marjorie, to cite just one storied pair, Cutler has degrees in science – a bachelors and master’s in chemistry – to help him understand the whiskey he makes.

Degree or no degree, he says everyone who would join him in the crowded craft distillery movement should take the same first step: Go to whiskey school.

Chart from 2014 Distiller Resource Directory, courtesy American Distiller Institute. State of the Industry by Michael Kinstlick.

Chart from 2014 Distiller Resource Directory, courtesy American Distiller Institute. State of the Industry by Michael Kinstlick.

“Distilling knowledge is the biggest roadblock. There is no central location for knowledge,” he said. “I spent seven years planning vacations around well-known whiskey-producing regions. Scotland, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Ireland are fertile regions to visit. I spent time with distillers learning the craft, and developing relationships that are invaluable today.”

It also helped him learn which whiskeys tasted right to him – and how they got that way.

“While sampling numerous whiskeys my palate for good product increased. I read anything I could get my hands on,” he said.*


Cutler looks a bit like The Dude, Jeff Bridge’s cocktail-loving character in The Big Lebowski, but his focus is all on the booze, not the bowling. He moved to Santa Barbara 14 years ago to attend university, and along the way he’s become a walking compendium of all things distilling.

He told Bourbon Story that his goal is create quality bourbon with the whiskey he’s put down to age. But in the meantime, he’s making a lot of other things along the way to pay the bills while his favorite whiskey ages.

His 33 Straight Bourbon Whiskey, a testament to the year Prohibition ended, is blended from 33 bourbons all aged six years. His un-aged whiskey, made entirely in his small distillery, will be on the market next month, he said. It will join vodka, liqueurs and other spirits he has produced in the first year of business.

“If you can offer a mixture of spirits then you hopefully have money coming in,” Cutler said. “Unlike other businesses, distilling is time-dependent. You don’t usually show return-on-investment for a couple of years.”

Congress passed a resolution May 4, 1964 setting the rules for what can be called bourbon. 

That’s because bourbon, or any bourbon that wants to call itself ‘straight bourbon’ anyway, takes at least two years to age–and many of the best bottles have spent a lot longer than that in the barrel.

That poses a challenge for start-ups.

“Getting banks or other individuals to loan you money is tough, especially if you are creating bourbon,” Cutler said. “I realized that to be successful I would need to craft spirits that require minimal time. They pay the bills while my bourbon ages.”

Cutler said his path has been a slow one – deliberately. “I took a harder road than most. I am just a lone individual, a sole proprietor,” he said. “I spent the past four or five or even six years working multiple jobs -- consulting, holding three jobs at a time -- to save up the funding to try to start the distillery. That’s why I am extremely small and on a tight budget.”

He said he wanted to start small – without partners, or investors – so he could build the business so it will last. “I tried very hard to really get a distillery going that has lasting power,” he said. “I spoke to a lot of people across the country, and a big failure mechanism was this idea that many distillers have, that they’ll be selling in four or five states in a couple years and (soon after that) be selling in 20 and 30 states and then as a national brand. I don’t see that as being feasible.”

For now, his bottles are available only in California, and mostly near the central coast area that includes Santa Barbara. That’s okay with him for now, he said.

“I love creating,” he said. “I started homebrewing at age sixteen, beer and meads. In my mid-twenties, I started dabbling in spirits. Something drew me to them. Most of the successful distillers I have met love the art of creating, trying new recipes, testing different digressions.”


For the hundreds of craft distilleries in the U.S., the roadblocks to success don’t end with the special challenge of bourbon’s aging requirements.

Banks and bureaucracy are two other roadblocks that must be surmounted before you can turn on the first burner. Finding capital might be the single largest issue facing the fledgling industry today. Let’s be honest, banks don’t like risks, they avoid them like a mother around sharp objects. They get very nervous.

Since so many craft distillers are so new, and since even together they produce less than 0.5 of the country’s spirits, the industry’s track record is too thin for most banks to back brand-new bourbon producers. Craft brewers faced the same issues for years; it was not until the last 10 years that banks began to love them.

The best way to fund an operation is to find a whiskey drinker with money to spare -- not that easy. Or raise funds through family, friends and yourself. Ian saved for several years to be able to finance his own start up.

Another challenge? Dealing with government licensing. That can be as much fun as a glass of tepid whiskey on a muggy afternoon. Dealing with four different, and distinct levels makes it all that much more fun. To successfully distill you usually must get approval from city, county, state and federal officials -- that is a lot of red tape.

Some states are more helpful than others. Oregon, for instance, recognized as far back as 2008 that the same pressures that had led to its microbrewery explosion were going to push entrepreneurs into the spirits business, too. It has a helpful guide to get started.

Cutler suggests patience and to think like a teacher. “When I first approached the Santa Barbara City Council, one of the members pulled me aside and told me he liked the idea, but it would never pass. He said the city was just not ready for it.

Ian Cutler's family history is full of hooch. His is the first licensed distillery in the Santa Barbara area since Prohibition. Photo courtesy Cutler's Artisan Distillery. 

Ian Cutler's family history is full of hooch. His is the first licensed distillery in the Santa Barbara area since Prohibition. Photo courtesy Cutler's Artisan Distillery. 

“I kept at it,” he said. “I looked at each meeting I had with an official as a learning opportunity (for them). I would illuminate the positives of my endeavor, and allay any fears they might have. You have to realize they don’t know anything about distilling; it’s your job to teach them. Several of those same members now regularly drink my products.”

It took him about a year and half to get all of his licenses and permits in line.

If banks and bureaucracies are two challenges for the novice distiller, another is lack of preparation. Don’t just go to whiskey school, Cutler advises, do your homework too.

Too many individuals have visions of grandeur, he said. They will be the next Hudson Whiskey – small brand that has big success.

Instead, start small, and develop a local following. And don’t skimp on the business plan, Cutler said. “I must have created over fifty different plans, I have a stack of them. You need to plan for any issue that might pop-up, and they will. If you try to wing it you probably will fail”

Not every micro-distillery born in the past few years has followed Cutler’s slow-going, bootstrapped approach. Take Watershed Distillery, founded in 2010 in Columbus, Ohio. Founder Greg Lehman and partner Dave Rigo finally got a business plan they could live with by 2009, and sold 20 percent of their company to investors for $250,000, Lehman told a Columbus business newspaper the following year. They kept their day jobs but he said they opened for business Sept. 1, 2010 and had gin and vodka on sale by the bottle by Dec 1.

You can make it quickly and get it to market quickly,” Lehman told reporter Evan Weese when asked why they started with clear spirits. “It’d be tough to keep the lights on if we started with bourbon.”

Ian Cutler pours a dram at his tasting bar and craft distillery, Cutler's Artisanal Spirits in Santa Barbara. Photo by Tara Jones, used with permission by 

They’ve since expanded production with a new, larger still and, in late 2012, began selling the first-ever bourbon produced in Central Ohio.

Still, despite its success, Watershed remains hard to find outside of Columbus. Its website say its spirits are available in Ohio, New York, Illinois and Kentucky. (For more from Lehman on the challenges they've faced, see an interview from January, 2013 with

Cutler’s own path from clear spirits to bourbon is slower perhaps than the one Watershed and its investors have taken. But he’s comfortable with the pace he’s chosen. The hard work and risks he’s taken pay off in the faces of his customers, he said.

“I love watching people when they first try my spirits, their discerning looks and serious concentration,” he said. “That melts away after their first sip, their eyes light up, and a smile appears. I helped create that. I would not give up distilling for anything, it’s my passion.”

* (Editor’s note: As the craft distillery industry grows, so too do the number of resources for those wanting to learn. See the new book Kings County Distillery: Guide to Urban Moonshining, to start, and the Distillers’ association resource page at

Hudson Lindenberger (@hlindenberger) is the Colorado editor for Bourbon Story Magazine. Reach him with ideas, compliments and complaints at


You can spend a fortune on a good bourbon, but you don't have to; We're looking for your favorite bottles under $25

Bourbon drinkers can spend a fortune on good whiskey these days. They can also find good bottles at low prices -- and sometimes that's just what the doctor ordered. Chicago Editor Allen Helm has taken a shine to Kirkland, the Costco house brand. At about $20 a liter, and 103 proof, it's not hard to understand why. Photo by Allen Helm /

Bourbon drinkers can spend a fortune on good whiskey these days. They can also find good bottles at low prices -- and sometimes that's just what the doctor ordered. Chicago Editor Allen Helm has taken a shine to Kirkland, the Costco house brand. At about $20 a liter, and 103 proof, it's not hard to understand why. Photo by Allen Helm /

WASHINGTON -- These days, buying bourbon is a lot like buying art: There is no real limit to how much you can spend and no guarantee that, once you do, it's worth what you paid. The secret in both cases is to spend exactly the amount that feels right to you.

Here at Bourbon Story, we've been asking ourselves if the huge interest in premium and super-premium hootch has meant we've collectively forgotten that there is plenty of good American whiskey -- bourbon, especially -- that goes down nicely and still leaves enough in the billfold to pick up the milk and bread on the way home from the liquor store.

In other words: Our editors love a good high-end pour as much as the next bourbon enthusiast does. But sometimes it's fun to focus on the more pedestrian brands to see what secrets they may reveal under the scrutiny of a good three-finger pour. 

But which bourbons? That's the question. If you go cheap, you have to have a plan. Life, as the man said (or should have, anyway), is just too short to drink bad whiskey.

Fortunately, Bourbon Story Magazine is especially positioned to help decode just these kinds of puzzles. We're not a tasting magazine -- lots of sites already do that just splendidly -- but we are a magazine whose content is built from the ground up, by editors living and writing (and drinking) in cities across the country with a common goal: To engage and enliven conversations about bourbon in their region of the country. 

Our editors in Houston, Chicago, Colorado, Washington and Kentucky have been asking: What's the best low-priced bourbon out there? What classics have been overlooked? What's the equivalent, then, of the everyday table wine a traveler might find on an afternoon stop in Umbria, served in a carafe for 8 euros a liter?

We've got you covered. Our editors are exploring some good finds and we'll report back later this week. But first we want your help: What do you drink when the budget is tight? Or when the company is ordinary?  Do you have a bottle you pour when you've hidden your Pappy away until Christmas?

Look for some intelligence on Old Forester, which many in Louisville call the city's house brand. Our man in Chicago, Allen Helm, has sussed out the bargain bourbon Costco, which he says doesn't taste much like a bargain bourbon at all. Kevin's been popping in and out of the Bourbon Affair this weekend, and he'll reports on the extravaganza -- and maybe a few blue-collar pours to go with the super-premium sips he's managed to find. We'll have input from Colorado, Texas -- and a treat -- California.

Stay tuned. 

Bourbon big-wigs gather in Louisville to make a black-tie break from bourbon's blue-collar past

A view from behind the tasting bar at opening, Kentucky Bourbon Affair. Photo courtesy of The Bourbon Mafia, @dukebru. 

Yes, there is a bourbon shortage. And no you wouldn't have ever guessed if you found yourself in Louisville Wednesday night for the kickoff of the first Kentucky Bourbon Affair. The opening event, moved inside 21c Museum Hotel on account of the rain, featured tastings from some 150 Kentucky spirits. 

We have our Kentucky editor, Kevin R. Hyde (@kevinrhyde) roaming the city this week and he will bring you his take on the goings-on later this weekend. Meanwhile keep an eye on twitter (@bourbonstory) and watch out for  @DDGWilcox of Beacon, our publishing platform and partner in the launch of Bourbon Story Magazine. He's arriving Friday to take the scene and is making his first visit to Bourbontown. (If you see our number on the caller ID, we're calling for bail money.)

The events are clearly top-shelf, and together represent a black-tie answer to the folksier Kentucky Bourbon Festival held each fall in Bardstown, Nelson County -- right in the real heart of the distillery country.

That distinction -- boots versus black-tie -- is not accidental. When bourbon crashed in the 1970s and 80s, it fell hard. Whatever Rat Pack appeal it had once had, quickly faded. By the time teh 1980s were turning into the 1990s, bourbon was the cheap booze your kid brother snuck into the movie theater or passed around the bonfire. In Nelson County, the distilleries were troubled and in Louisville, there no such things as a craft cocktail bar. A bourbon list of 20 options was generous. 

Things had begun to change, as Bill Samuels Jr. returned from law school with a promise to work for his dad at Maker's Mark. He told Bourbon Story this spring during a visit to Kentucky that he didn't have much to add in making the whiskey. What he knew was marketing, and that's what he did. He began selling his father's winter-wheat whiskey one barkeeper at a time, urging its adoption in upscale bars in big cities. With a push from The Wall Street Journal, it worked. And in doing so, Samuels helped create the domestic premium bourbon category.

It's worth noting now that nowadays, premium bourbon is the second-cheapest category, as super-premium and high-end premium are the categories with the fastest growth. 

As interest in the bourbons grew, Samuels and the other heads of Kentucky distilleries banded together to form the Kentucky Bourbon Trial, a tour of distilleries across central Kentucky. A wonderful museum opened in Bardstown and every year in the fall, the distillers would hold a festival.

A few years ago, Louisville started thinking it was missing out. After all, the city had its own wonderful, rich and old old history of bourbon involvement to tout. Investment has flowed in by the tens of millions -- $50 million in capital projects alone -- and jobs followed. 

Jefferson County is one of the biggest winners in the Bourbon renaissance, with the signature industry providing 4,200 jobs, $263 million in payroll, $32 million in tax revenue and $50 million in capital projects in 2012, Mayor Greg Fischer announced today.

These days, more than a score of bars and restaurants have joined the Urban Bourbon Trail, with each one offering 50 or more bourbons. 

So really, this week's Kentucky Bourbon Affair is about two things. The Kentucky bourbon industry is putting on its formal wear to take a bow -- and, with aged bourbon selling for unheard of prices, who could blame them? -- and the city of Louisville is raising its hand to make a claim as the real heart of the bourbon industry in Kentucky.

But no matter what, it looks like a fabulous time in Louisville this weekend. (BourbonStory recommends eating at Jack Fry's and Bourbons Bistro and having a drink at the Garage Bar and Jack's Lounge.) Take a look below at the package of photos from the first night, compiled below on our Storify account. Cheers! 

In Chicago, a homesick homage to the working man's bourbon

By Allen Helm
Chicago Editor /

CHICAGO – The 140th Kentucky Derby has come and gone, and already attention has turned beyond Louisville and onto Madison Square Garden, where the NFL had its draft last weekend, and onto next Saturday’s Preakness Stakes. Soon, they’ll be running the fast cars at Indianapolis, and bourbon drinkers will just have to get used to the idea that it’ll be another long year before the return of the annual festival to their favorite drink – which is one way, and a pretty good one, to think of the Derby.

That means, for me, it’ll be another year before I drink the drink of the Derby, the muddled-mint-and-sugar that turns Kentucky brown into a mint julep. The mixture ought to be an abomination – and it is at any other time of year. But I readily grant a dispensation on Derby Day.  Not only will I drink them but I will enjoy them. Timothy Leary described psychotropic experiences being about “set and setting.”  I’ll say the same thing about mint juleps, and the Derby (or a Derby party) is THE set and setting. 

With the Derby gone, it also means it’ll be at least another year before I am welcomed into a special kind of Derby party, held annually at a bar in Chicago that you’ve probably never heard of but, but ought to get to know. It’s a bar that stands out against a backdrop of cult-cocktails, premium pours and handcrafted drinks. 

Home Tavern in Chicago’s Lake View neighborhood is none of those things, and every bit your father’s (and grandfather’s) bourbon bar. That’s not much in fashion these days, when a 750 ml bottle of bourbon aged in a boat for a year can be sold for $80. It is a place worth celebrating, especially at Derby. It reminds bourbon drinkers that the industry – and the beverage – was here long before bartenders had to measure it out one ounce at a time.

Once, I would have endearingly called it “a dive,” but that term seems to have been re-appropriated recently.  People now often refer to any establishment that lacks either a velvet rope in front, a live band, or a bank of plasma screens as “a dive.”  I reject that.  This place is a tavern…where people from the area congregate to celebrate, lament or just shake off a tough day.  There was a time when places like this were the anchors of the community, and in some cases they still are.  Their histories should be respected and exalted.  Chicago is described as a “city of neighborhoods”, and the Home Tavern is a neighborhood joint from an era where each neighborhood had many joints. 

It opened in 1938, and Michael and Kathie Ziwei bought it in 1966, eight years after they arrived from Germany. They’ve passed on, but their son Michael continues to run the bar and he prides himself on his Derby parties.  Years ago the Home Tavern served food.  There are stories of workers from this then-industrial stretch of Lincoln Avenue waiting in long lines for Kathie’s schnitzel and a beer or two (and maybe a shot) for lunch. Now, the factories are condos and Starbucks and the Home Tavern only serves food when Mike feels like it, and when he does he gives it away.   Fortunately, Derby Day is one of those days. 

There is an outstanding selection of good German beers on tap and a reasonable selection of liquors (including quite a few bottles of German schnapps).  But joints like this don’t mess with super premium brands, and I’d be disappointed if they did.  There are plenty of places in town to order high-end bourbon for sipping and that’s great, but this is a place where you come to knock back a few.  

I had reviewed the horses for most of the races the night before and made all my wagers early Saturday afternoon online.   It was now time to go to the Derby - Chicago style.  Ziwei is a horse enthusiast and knows his way around a racing form as well as anyone I know, so it’s not uncommon to come in and see a horse race on the TV.  It is less common to walk in and smell ham cooking and see Ziwei prepping a large bunch of mint for juleps.  It is just before the sixth race of the day and I enter with racing form in hand and an official Churchill Downs 140th Derby glass that my mom sent me as part of a Derby care package.  Mint juleps always taste better in these glasses!

This year, Ziwei made his simple syrup a day in advance and boiled it with fresh mint in it to extract the flavors.  He must not have heated it too long because there is no hint of bitterness that can accompany overly steeped mint.  He fills my glass with ice, fills it about ¾ with Maker’s Mark and tops it off with the syrup and a sprig of mint.  Fantastic.   Maker’s wouldn’t be my first choice in a mint julep because I find the bourbon’s sweetness a bit much with the syrup and mint.  But Ziwei’s heavy hand on the whiskey increased the punch, decreased the sweetness, and the flavors blended really well. As I walk in, the crowd is still fairly sparse.  A couple regulars are sitting at the still-subdued bar.  There is a salesman who has been coming to the Home Tavern since he moved from New England years ago and the other is a pedicab driver who is still deciding the best time to go out and pick up those in want of an open air “cab “ ride on this sunny spring day that Chicagoans have been dreaming about since October.  The salesman made his bets last night and is relaxing with his first julep of the day.  A former Bostonian, it’s not surprising that Wicked Strong is his pick of the day.  The pedicab driver is not drinking yet (he still has work to do) but anticipates coming back as the place gets more crowded and the food is served.  The place itself reminds me of the basement bar that my great-aunt Honey used to have back in Louisville when I was a kid.  Even before I could drink, it was a fun place to hang out, with all the trinkets behind the bar and on the wall, the dirty joke ashtrays, and drink-mixing paraphernalia.  The only difference is the Home Tavern hasn’t had ashtrays since Illinois banned smoking and Aunt Honey never had Cubs gear hanging up everywhere.

As the races continued, and my worthless wager tickets became tiny paper airplanes, I talked to Ziwei about bourbon while he concocted more juleps. Mike says his favorite bourbon in a julep is Woodford Reserve, but he adds that it is too expensive for many of his regulars who come in for the races.  He’s not shy about his views on much of anything, bourbon included, even the relatively newly fashionable brands like Pappy Van Winkel, Pappy might age its bourbon for 15, 20 and 23 years – but he’s not having any. When asked why not, Ziwei says he’s too old for that.  “Old people don’t drink new things.  I wear old pants.  Hell, I’m 10 years away from wearing polyester pants.”  In his mid-50s I wouldn’t say he’s old – but he is set in his ways.  Normally a beer drinker, he told me that when he drank more bourbon he enjoyed Cabin Still (from Heaven Hill) and Walker’s DeLuxe, which Hiram Walker and Sons made until its Peoria distillery closed in 1981, several years after the bottom had fallen out of the bourbon market. I hate to break it to him.

His take on higher-proofed bourbons is equally direct:  “All bourbon should be 86 proof.  When you go higher your customers get fucked up and you end up with a bunch of drunks on your hands.”  When I remind him that sometimes it’s OK to just have one or two he smirked, shook his head, and asked if I was nuts. 

The man behind the bar at Home Tavern isn’t a bourbon connoisseur—and neither are many of his customers. There was a time when most bourbon drinkers weren’t. Derby Day is as good a day as any to remember the role they played in keeping the industry alive when it was down.

In the 1960s, as attitudes among young people changed, appetite for bourbon fell steeply. Distilleries closed and brands died. The crisis deepened throughout the 1970s as bourbon was cheap, overstocked and not especially respected. Mike Veach, the Louisville-based bourbon historian and author of Kentucky Bourbon History, told Bourbon Story in March that it wasn’t until the rise of premium single-malt scotch in 1980s that a brighter path appeared ahead for the bourbon industry. That path was all about changing the image of bourbon to a drink fit for finer company, and that’s exactly what distillers have succeeded in doing over the past 25 years. 

But Veach also noted that before the bust in the late 1960s, there was a boom. He calls the 1950s “the golden age of the Kentucky bourbon industry” – a time when a bust seemed as unlikely as one does today. When it came, many distilleries closed – but many remained, and those that did owed a large debt of gratitude to hard-core loyalists like Mike Ziwei and his parents, and their clientele. They kept the market going, sluggish as it was, and they were doing so in places like Home Tavern all over the country.  Sometimes, with the headlines full of shortages and buzz over hard-to-find 23-year-old bottles of Pappy, it’s easy to forget that.

Last year, bourbon and Tennessee whiskey supplies took in $2.4 billion in revenue, about the same as rum suppliers and more than any other kind of whiskey. Most of those sales, though, came from the high-end juice. Value brands accounted for just $172 million in sales, and shipped just 3 million cases, about one sixth of the bourbon and Tennessee whiskey total.

That Mike and his clientele are out of fashion is easy to see. According to numbers supplied by Frank Coleman, top spokesman for the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, some 18 million cases of bourbon and Tennessee whiskey were sold last year. That’s 5 million more cases than were sold in 2002. The good news for the distilleries is that all of that growth happened in the premium, high-end premium and super-premium categories. Value bourbon? It sold just about exactly the same number of cases in 2013 as it did a decade before.

The loyalists who like their Old Fo’ or Old Crow are still at it, plugging and chugging (and enjoying) while the Super Premiums often bask in the glory.
This brings me back to the Home Tavern.  While Ziwei’s bourbon selection is not shabby, you’ll not see any Willett’s Single Barrel, Michter’s or Blanton’s.  What you will see are the workhorses of Maker’s Mark, Jim Beam, and Wild Turkey 81 – all of which you can pick up at your corner liquor store for $15 to $20, give or take a few bucks. And you’ll see them continuously emptied, replaced, and emptied again…day-after-day…Bourbon boom or not. 

As they call the horses to the post for the 11th race of the day (the Kentucky Derby) they start playing “My Old Kentucky Home” and the goose bumps rise.  The smell of the ham really starts to permeate the place and I go for another julep.  The race goes off, California Chrome rides to the finish, and once again my picks are left in the dust.  The place has started to fill up with regulars and non-regulars alike.  

Following the race, Ziwei sets up the buffet with his ham, a pork shoulder that he slow-roasted the day before, some German-style coleslaw and assorted other sides.  I brought over some Benedictine spread that I made the night before (I had no idea it was basically glorified artificially-colored cream cheese).  Even though I was over 300 miles away from Churchill Downs I was enjoying some pork products with friends, noshing on a Benedictine sandwich, and sipping on a mint julep with a pocketful of worthless betting slips.  It doesn’t get more Derby than that, no matter where you are.

Dr. Allen Helm (@bourbonstoryAl) is Chicago editor for Bourbon Story Magazine. Email him with suggestions at

In Louisville, Iron Chef Edward Lee wants you to eat your bourbon, too

The Bison Rib-eye Carpaccio at Louisville's highly-touted 610 Magnolia restaurant is served on a deeply charred bit of warmed-up bourbon barrel stave. The restaurant suggests diners scrape the char off the barrel and eat it. Photo courtesy 610 Magnolia.  

By Kevin R. Hyde
Kentucky Editor /

LOUISVILLE -- It is not every meal that you are encouraged to drive your fork into a piece of wood as you eat, but that’s exactly what was suggested during a recent meal at 610 Magnolia, the wildly creative fine-dining experience offered by Chef Edward Lee in Louisville.

The six-course meal that evening featured an appetizer, the Bison Rib-eye Carpaccio, with a decidedly bourbon vibe. The dish was served on a warm bourbon barrel stave that was cut at the restaurant, preserving the original char made by the distiller, says Ricardo Barillas, manager of 610 Magnolia.  

The stave is warmed before it is topped with the carpaccio, so that the steam from the bourbon-soaked oak creates a smoky scent, Barillas says. “We encourage our guests to scrape some of the char from the stave as they take some of the bison bites to finish that smoky flavor that pairs up so well with the other ingredients.” 

Carpaccio is a traditional Italian appetizer of raw meat or fish that is sliced or pounded thin. 610 Magnolia’s bison rib-eye version, which was created by Chef Lee – his motto, ‘I Never Met a Bourbon I Didn’t Like’ -- along with the restaurant’s Chef de Cuisine Nick Sullivan, was served with a horseradish puree and chervil, topped with sel gris (sea salt), toasted Nigella seeds and mustard oil.

Even the wine pairing—or in this case cider pairing—for the appetizer utilized the ever-popular delights of charred American oak. The Mitten from Michigan-based Virtue Cider Company is a blend of last season’s best cider, “aged in bourbon barrels for three seasons with the new season’s fresh-pressed apple juice,” Barillas says. Like with bourbon, the barrel aging gives the cider notes of vanilla and caramel.

Louisville boasts one of the most interesting food scenes in America, with an eclectic mix of local restaurants that utilize and highlight ingredients grown and raised by area farms. Dozens of them have joined the Urban Bourbon Trail, which means they serve at least 50 brands of bourbon. And more and more you see the state’s native spirit employed in the creation of innovative new dishes.

Chef Lee, a farm-to-table culinary artist who has been featured in several national magazines, has been Louisville’s very own celebrity chef since 2012 when he was a fan favorite on Bravo’s popular reality show Top Chef. Two years earlier, he appeared on Iron Chef America, defeating Chef Jose Garces in a battle that featured tongues and cheeks.

Kevin Hyde (@kevinrhyde) is Kentucky editor for Bourbon Story Magazine. Email him at

Texas aims for Kentucky-like devotion to its whiskey, but wants to keep Texas flavor

Texas Editor /

HOUSTON -- My first newspaper job out of the University of Texas was writing about municipal bonds. Never mind that I knew next to nothing about the topic. It was a recession and a job was a job. In order to get to know the denizens of my new world, I set up meetings with investment bankers, plying them with questions as I plied them pours of Macallan and Glenfiddich. Lucky for me, my then-bosses didn’t bat an eye at the accumulated $100 tabs, usually at the now departed Beau Nash at the Crescent, that I was submitting for a single night’s source meeting.

That was also my introduction to world of Scotch whisky smoky and sweet, mellow and peppery. In time, bourbon found its way into my glasses, too.

Those brands still reign today, of course, and premium bourbons are commanding as much attention as the single-malts of early encounters. But mumblemumble-years later, the focus on craft-distilling and locavore nourishment has spurred a homegrown whiskey industry in Texas, one that has brought new bourbons and other whiskeys to Texas palettes. In just the last few years, half a dozen homegrown distilleries have begun producing Texas-style whiskey and bourbon, drawing on Kentucky’s traditions but embracing local agriculture and tapping our harsh summers to create a unique Texas flavor.

“The idea is to make a Texas product, not to just try to copy what’s going on in Kentucky,” says Ryan Baird, co-founder of Yellow Rose Distillery in Houston, which makes four spirits, including a rye, that sell for as much as $65.

The result is attracting fans—and recognition. Yellow Rose, which produced its first batch only 18 months ago, was named best in category at the American Distilling Institute’s most recent judging of artisan spirits last fall. Balcones Distilling in Waco last year took home a trifecta of accolades, including World Single Malt of the Year, in the Wizards of Whisky awards in London.

At a time when legacy whisky brands are scrambling, unable to keep up with drinkers’ thirst, the emergence of Texas-based distillers is helping to fill the void. “I keep Balcones in the back,” says Everett Lynch at the Houston Wine Merchant of the distillery’s signature Baby Blue corn whiskey. “People have to ask for it.”

It’ll be a while before Texas distillers will command the devotion of their Kentucky brethren—and even longer before their sales measure up to the millions of barrels already aging in the Bluegrass State. Long lead times in production and a prevalence of smaller bourbon barrels mean a lot of room for tinkering. Baird acknowledges that a Texas pedigree needs 10 or 20 years to be fully formed.

But such immaturity, so to speak, hasn’t dissuaded Texas whiskey’s loyal following. “People in Texas like things from Texas,” says Lynch at the Houston Wine Merchant. “And they’re willing to pay premium prices for it.”

On a recent Friday afternoon, a growing gaggle of Brooks Brothers-besuited young men gathered at Leon’s Lounge, chugging on beer bottles and sipping single malts. As I asked the bartender about the interest of patrons in Texas whiskeys, we overheard one of them say to another, Hey, I heard they’re pretty good. What’s that one you had?

And so begins a tradition.

Of the group of us at Bourbon Story, I am the official novice. But I do know that Texans’ enthusiasm for their compatriots along with a healthy competitive spirit means I’m in for a lively learning curve. I’m looking forward to coming along this journey with you.

Angela Shah (@angelashah) is Texas editor of Email her with ideas, suggestions or complaints at



In the West, bourbon supply is stretched, giving boost to scotch, rye

Colorado's take on a classic, The Mountain Manhattan made with Breckenridge Bourbon, distilled over a mile and half high at what's billed as the highest distillery in the world. (Photo by Hudson Lindenberger.)

“My customers are experimenting with a wide swath of high-end whiskeys, when we struggle to get Pappy, Blantons, and such, we steer them towards single malts.“ -- Nate Maston, bar manager at OAK at fourteenth in Boulder.

Colorado Editor / 

BOULDER  -- Mark Twain could have been talking about 2014 when he said, “Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough.” Demand for whiskey – especially premium bourbon, but other pours, too – keeps growing. Last year, more than a billion dollars worth of Kentucky bourbon and Tennessee whiskey were sold overseas, and 18 million cases – about $2.4 billion worth -- were sold in the U.S.

Distillers are struggling to keep up. Some have removed age statements from bottles, choosing to bring out their bourbons sooner by a year or two. Even the venerable Maker’s Mark distillery flirted with, and then abandoned, plans to lower the potency of its bourbon to make it stretch further. And for those that haven’t changed their standards – think Pappy Van Winkle -- outages are becoming common.

But here in Colorado, and elsewhere, it’s not just the makers of the whiskey who are running short. Increasingly, bar managers are aiming to offer expansive, sophisticated bourbon menus – and it’s getting harder to keep the shelves stocked.

“We have a bourbon list with over seventy-five brands and if it was not for our strong relationships we have forged over the years we would struggle too maintain our diverse selection,” said Caroline Johnson, bar manager for the recognized Boulder bourbon hotspot, The West End Tavern, which boasts it has the “most knowledge staff of bar-keepers in the state” and a menu of bourbon, beer and barbecue.

“As little as two to three years ago we could order without issues. Now we get allocations of higher end brands,” Johnson said.

Sometimes even the best connections can’t keep the best bourbon on the shelves in Colorado, adds Nate Maston, bar manager at OAK. ”A member of the family that owns Sazerac, makers of Buffalo Trace bourbon, tried to get us a barrel for the restaurant, but unfortunately their supply is so tight, she could not help us. Her family owns the brand, but even she could not pull liquid out of production.”

Welcome to one of the downsides to the worldwide boom in bourbon: There isn’t always enough to go around.

The shortages are especially pronounced in places like Colorado, where demand for whiskey is rising faster than the allotments distillers are giving the state. Nearly 3.2 million people live in the 12-county Denver-Aurora-Boulder area, and all those thirsty souls aren’t quite enough to make an impression on the big distilleries when it comes time to decide who gets the shipments and who doesn’t.

The Colorado market sometimes loses shipments to other regions, sources at Southern Wine and Spirits, one of the larger distributors of bourbon, confirm.

But if economics teaches us anything it’s that if demand is sufficiently high, thirsty folks will find a way to boost the supply. In Colorado, that has meant getting creative. The state is famous for its abundance of microbreweries and that entrepreneurial spirit is spilling into spirits. Colorado is now home to more than 40 micro distilleries, with several more slated to open this year.

But even the best-known Colorado distilleries, like Stranahan’s, produce very small quantities when compared to such heavy demand for whiskey.

Not every distiller ages its whiskey like the better bourbon-makers tend to, but even so it is going to be a long time before the microdistillers in Colorado are producing enough whiskey – bourbon or otherwise – to give bar managers like Nate Maston a meaningful back up when the premium stuff from Kentucky and elsewhere is tough to get.

For now though, consumers and retailers alike are getting creative as they look for ways to keep interesting options on the shelf, or in their glass. Drinkers in Colorado are embracing rye whiskey, a product left for dead 15 years ago, to the extent that demand is outgrowing the inventories in restaurants and bars, according to Southern Wine and Spirits.

Scotch, too, is appearing on more cocktail lists in Boulder, and across the country, where total single malt scotch revenues were up 14.7 percent last year. OAK has added 10 new offerings in the last four months to keep up with demand. Nate Maston offers this view: “My customers are experimenting with a wide swath of high-end whiskeys, when we struggle to get Pappy, Blantons, and such, we steer them towards single malts.“

So the bottom line for bourbon? In Colorado, drinkers are thirsty for premium bourbon. But if supplies remain tight, they are going to be happy to try something new in their glass – and every year they’re going to have more choices to buy what they want from distilleries located right here.

Hudson Lindenberger is Colorado editor for Follow him on twitter at @hlindenberger or e-mail him at

What makes the Kentucky Derby unique? No other event is so married to its place, its history and its people

Derby Day 2013 was rainy, and cool -- and fabulous. Like every year, it was a bourbon-fueled celebration of the perfect marriage of event and place. In a word: It was Louisville. (Photo by Nicole Ehrlich.

When the bugler calls the horses of the 140th Kentucky Derby to the post a little after 6 p.m. today, and the band begins to play My Old Kentucky Home, the fans at the track and countless Kentuckians watching far from home will share a moment unlike any other in American sport. More than the race itself -- described once as "130 seconds of earth-borne bliss" -- the Derby represents a perfect and unique marriage of place and event. You can play the Super Bowl anywhere, and no place, not even New York City, has a claim on the World Series, but you could no more take the Kentucky Derby out of Kentucky than you could run the Ohio River in Nebraska. 

I wrote those words four years ago atop a piece I published in TIME Magazine, and the editor wrote back to say he had 'trimmed some of the exuberance from your lead." He was a wonderful editor and usually right. But sitting here in Washington on Kentucky Derby Day 2014, it's easy to understand the exuberance I felt then about the singular nature of the Run for the roses. I feel it now. 

The link between the Kentucky Derby and the place it is held is powerful because it's organic, unmanufactured and 100 percent authentic. It's no slight to say that the Masters, for all their spring glory, have essential no connection to Georgia other than the accident that the August National has managed to stage one hell of a golf tournament down through the years. Indianapolis embraces its 500 every year with vigor, but the state of Indiana is not defined by motor racing the way horses, bourbon, and Southern hospitality -- all the things that make up the Kentucky Derby -- are essential parts of Kentucky.  

That authenticity is what makes bourbon so interesting, and it's the reason for this magazine. Kentucky doesn't just boast about bourbon, it makes it -- and in turn is in part defined by it. 

All over the world, consumers are looking for authenticity in the things they eat and drink, especially, from coffee to the farm-to-table movement to, yes, whiskey. There's a lot of hype to go along with the heritage, and one of our roles here at Bourbon Story will be to sort out the two, and help our readers remember what the different between history and heritage and mythology. 

All these things seem especially important today of all days. The brilliant shine that the Kentucky Derby puts on the surface of Kentucky thoroughbred industry obscured some very rough challenges, reminding us all that with every boom comes the risk of a bust. Things that seem to be eternal -- like whiskey and horse racing and tradition -- can decline and even disappear. 

The TIME story from 2010 that ran with a less exuberant lead wasn't just a celebration of The Kentucky Derby -- for that, check out last year's 5,000-word essay The Biggest Week in Bourbontown -- it was a warning cry that the racing industry was in trouble in Kentucky. From that piece:

"After nearly a century of dominance, Kentucky is losing its grip on the horse racing industry. Even more troubling? Its status as the breeding capital of the world -- the multi-billion-dollar business that keeps those beautiful fences painted as they snake through pristine horse country -- is under siege. Most of Kentucky's racetracks are struggling, some to the point of possible closure, and at every track racing dates and purses -- or both -- have been cut. States like Pennsylvania and Louisiana, powered in large part by revenues from trackside casinos, are threatening to erode Kentucky's breeding dominance. "It's as serious as a heart attack," Kentucky horseman Brereton Jones, who was governor from 1991-1995, told TIME last week." 

Four years later, the fears have become more manifest. Racing is in trouble all over the country, as Salon notes this morning. The New Orleans paper published a five-part series -- with dozens of follow-ups -- blasting Churchill Downs for being a bad steward of the 142-year-old Fairgrounds racetrack. In fact, the racing commission in Louisiana deferred action on a 10-year renewal of CDI's license to operate racing at the track and last week issued a one-year conditional extension instead. Churchill has promised improvements

But maybe today isn't the time to worry about all those problems. Maybe today it's time to remember that what makes the Derby special is its connection to its place. 

As for me, though, when the horses do head to the gate and the crowd goes still ahead of the singing of My Old Kentucky Home, I'll remember that bourbon, like horse breeding, has had its ups and its downs over its long history in Kentucky. We're seeing a mighty up right now, and there are a lot of bets being made that the story of Bourbon will only get better. 

But as Damon Runyon put it in his 1937 classic, "All horseplayers die broke." That's useful reminder, but not one anyone needs to spend too much time with on a day like this. Like the rest of you, I'll have a bourbon in my hand come time for the horses to run by and when I see them -- on television this year, alas -- I'll be thinking of another great phrase maker who described the burst out of the gate in 1955. 

Only a little over two minutes: one simultaneous metallic clash as the gates spring. Though you do not really know what it was you heard: whether it was that metallic crash, or the simultaneous thunder of the hooves in that first leap or the massed voices, the gasp, the exhalation—whatever it was, the clump of horses indistinguishable yet, like a brown wave dotted with the bright silks of the riders like chips flowing toward us along the rail until, approaching, we can begin to distinguish individuals, streaming past us now as individual horses—horses which (including the rider) once stood about eight feet tall and 10 feet long, now look like arrows twice that length and less than half that thickness, shooting past and bunching again as perspective diminishes, then becoming individual horses once more around the turn into the backstretch, streaming on, to bunch for the last time into the homestretch itself, then again individuals, individual horses, the individual horse, the Horse: 2:01[4/5] minutes.


Betting big on bourbon: Louisville aims to stake its claim as heart of the booming industry

LOUISVILLE -- This week in Louisville, Derby fans will be betting big and buying up plenty of ultra-expensive bourbon all over the city. After all, dozens of restaurants and bars are now official stops on the Urban Bourbon Trail, which according to the rules means they must keep at least 50 brands of bourbon behind the bar.

Last Christmas, I bellied up to one of the best places in town to eat, or drink, or talk with someone who knows his bourbon. The bartender at Jack Fry's told me that sure, he keeps Pappy Van Winckle on hand -- just not in view. "It's under the bar, where we keep it until Derby time. That's the only time people are foolish enough to pay what we can charge for it."

(By people, he meant out-of-towners. Louisvillians like their Pappy, same as anyone, but they remember just a few years ago when the good stuff was easy to find -- and for under $100 a bottle.) 

A few days later, I met some friends at the Bristol Bar & Grille, a casual-but-cozy place in the city's old Highlands neighborhood that's been around for longer than I've been legally entitled to order a drink. When the waitress asked for orders, my friend ordered a Pappy 12 year old, neat. No, he called her back a few moments later, make it a 20-year. It was Christmas and he was throwing money around.

The waitress came back and inquired. "Do you want that mixed with coke?"

I relay this story to tell you something you should know. The bourbon boom in Louisville is real. There's good bourbon at more places, and in more variety, in its restaurants and bars than in any city in the world. Trust me on this. But it's also a city whose enthusiasm for bourbon is rising so quickly, that even well-known spots like the Bristol find themselves capable of both being a stop on the Urban Bourbon Trail and of hiring servers who ask a drinker if he wants his Pappy served in a class of soda pop. 

Inside that juxtaposition of two seemingly incompatible truths is a warning: The Bourbon Boom is as likely to be a bubble as it is to be the Start of Something Real. Looked from that perspective, a waitress asking a diner to drink his Pappy with his coke is nothing if not an exhibition of irrational exuberance. 

Two men at a Louisville still. Image used courtesy of city of Louisville. 

And yet, there's plenty of signs that suggest smart people in Kentucky understand this risk, and working to both minimize it and to survive it should the boom turn into a bubble that can, as so many in the past, burst. 

The stakes are high that they do. Louisville's leaders are betting big that by fully embracing its bourbon heritage, it can do more than earn a place in the hearts of drinkers like me and you. They are betting that the boom in bourbon is going to shake the city free of a long period of doldrums. They are betting on booze to bring jobs, tourism and taxes.

The city's mayor is a forward-thinking former business executive. He helped invent an ice machine that turned a small business his father set him up in into a major concern. He keeps a bar full of bourbon in City Hall, one so well stocked that it would make Prince Charles ask for seconds. He also knows that the bourbon boom isn't guaranteed to last. 
“As we all know, bourbon is ‘hot’ right now,” said Mayor Greg Fischer, in releasing a report Monday about the future of the bourbon industry in Louisville. “Fortune Magazine recently said we’re in a ‘Billion-Dollar Bourbon Boom.’ But while trends come and go, bourbon is a proud part of Louisville’s history, a big part of our present and, with this plan, will be an even bigger part of our future. This is our chance to increase the momentum so that Louisville and bourbon are as classically paired as Napa Valley is to wine.”

Now's the chance, he said. And Louisville better grab at it. 

The report was the work of the mayor's hand-picked committee of 60 or so advisors on how to make the city a drinks powerhouse. It was chock full of distillery types and business titans. They made six major recommendations, and one of the first was to solve what I'll call the Bristol Bourbon Blunder Problem. 

Recommendation: Create a bourbon certification and recognition system in which the hospitality industry (especially front-line servers and bartenders) would become certified bourbon experts. The goal is for every hospitality employee to know the history of bourbon and be able to expertly discuss brands with customers. The Filson Club will be a key partner in this effort because it already has the Bourbon Academy. Emphasis theirs.

That might not sound like a big deal, but it does show that someone at the city, or on the panel anyway, is listening. I brought the Bristol problem up in March, when I toured Maker's Mark distillery with chairman emeritus Bill Samuels, Jr., and it struck a nerve then. I'm glad he helped see that it was addressed in the report. 

Why does it matter? Louisville woke up a few years ago and realized that bourbon was back, and yet not one in 100 bourbon fans who could cite the pedigree of any seven of the distilleries in Kentucky knew that Louisville had played an important role in birthing the bourbon industry.

In short, it's heritage had disappeared from the common knowledge of even Louisvillians, who believed like everyone else that the bourbon industry started, or started to get serious anyway, in Bardstown and its environs just before and after Prohibition. 

But the state's largest city played an enormous role in the development of bourbon back from the frontier days -- it was founded in 1778, and stills were being licensed just a few years later. Heck, by 1783, my own ancestor James Patten would sell 660 acres of land to a distiller named Marsham Beshears, for the price of 165 gallons of whiskey.

By the 19th Century, scores of offices for distilleries stood one after another along the city's famous Whiskey Row. During Prohibition, 10 distilleries in America were licensed to keep making, and selling, whiskey. For medicinal purposes, you understand. One of them was Brown Forman, which is still controlled by the family who founded it. (Last month, I asked master distiller Chris Morris how the company got so lucky, when so many others nearby had not. His answer: Despite, years of effort to find out, the reason remains a mystery.

The last few years have seen Louisville move fast to rectify that historical oversight. The distillery tours -- first offered by Maker's Mark, and with others soon following -- will always be the main draw for bourbon fans seeking to get close to the source. But Louisville now boasts scores of locations to drink quality bourbon and -- in just the past year or so -- has begun opening tasting rooms and, in some cases, small distilling operations by the giant bourbon companies. The Evan Williams Experience, put on by Heaven Hill, is not to be missed. More facilities are opening this year, and more are planned for further down the road. 

There is a reason for all this: Bourbon means bucks. In 2012 alone, distilleries spent $50 million on capital projects in Louisville, where the report issued Monday says some 4,200 people are employed by the bourbon industry. The city's bourbon industry generates some $42 million in tax revenue, the report says. 

What the recommendations in the report are really, then, is proof that the city knows its chance to capitalize on its heritage is fleeting. Bourbon isn't going anywhere, but the boom we're seeing today doesn't have to last. The industry has certainly seen its share of booms and busts over the long history. What Louisville is hoping to do is to cement its place as the beating heart of the industry, a place where it's easy to find good bourbon -- and to find servers who know the good stuff isn't ever going to look good in a class of Coca Cola. 

(Editor's note: Thanks to the city of Louisville, office of the mayor, for use of images above, and to graphic designer Priscilla Daffin for her timeline (top) of the history of Bourbon in Louisville.) 

Fear and Drinking? Remembering Hunter Thompson's Derby Week encounter with Jimbo from Houston

Kevin Hyde, our Kentucky editor, has his own personal tradition when it comes to getting ready for the Kentucky Derby in his hometown. It involves Hunter S. Thompson and a double shot of Old Fiztgerald  on the rocks. On Saturday, the horses will race for the 140th time. Forty-four years ago, another Louisville native declared the race an excuse for the whiskey gentry to run amuck. 

Kevin Hyde, our Kentucky editor, has his own personal tradition when it comes to getting ready for the Kentucky Derby in his hometown. It involves Hunter S. Thompson and a double shot of Old Fiztgerald  on the rocks. On Saturday, the horses will race for the 140th time. Forty-four years ago, another Louisville native declared the race an excuse for the whiskey gentry to run amuck. 

A Personal Derby Tradition:
Get him some good whiskey

“Anybody who wanders around the world saying, 'Hell yes, I’m from Texas,' deserves whatever happens to him." -- Hunter S. Thompson, 1970 in his first piece of Gonzo journalism, "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved."

By Kevin R. Hyde
Kentucky Editor /

LOUISVILLE – It is Derby Week in Derbytown … and all kinds of grand traditions abound. The best traditions, though, are the personal ones. 

My favorite among these is an annual reading of Louisville native Hunter S. Thompson’s balls-out piece of sports journalism, “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved.” It’s indeed the most wonderful time of the year, and nothing gets me into that jangled Derby spirit like Thompson’s words.

This is how I like to do it: I pour a double Old Fitz over ice, put on the Rolling Stones album Sticky Fingers, which includes the country number “Dead Flowers” with its Derby-themed second verse (“Well, when you’re sitting back/In your rose pink Cadillac/Making bets on Kentucky Derby Day”), and grab my dog-eared paperback of The Great Shark Hunt. Subtitled Gonzo Papers Volume 1, Strange Tales from a Strange Time, the book is a collection of Thompson’s magazine articles from his professional and creative prime—a period that started with a trip home to Louisville.

The June 1970 publication of the "Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved" in the short-lived sports magazine, Scanlan’s, was a crucial moment in Thompson’s writing career. While he had achieved national notoriety with his acclaimed 1966 novel Hell’s Angels, he had yet to hone his unmistakably ferocious style and voice.

It was in his Kentucky Derby piece, one that found him on a bit of revenge trip against his hometown’s Old Money Blue Bloods who he’d felt rejected him as a youth, that he found that voice. It was also during that trip to cover the Derby that he first met the British illustrator Ralph Steadman, whose drawings would become perpetually (and for Thompson often frustratingly) linked to his writing. It was the beginning of a very weird friendship, as Steadman proved the perfect foil for Thompson’s biting observations, humor and hijinks.  

Steadman told Bourbon Story’s Michael Lindenberger last winter that he had never heard of Thompson, and had never considered the Kentucky Derby, when the editors asked him to meet the writer in Kentucky.  


“I had never heard of Hunter S Thompson, so they asked me, ‘How would you like to go to Kentucky and meet an ex-Hell’s Angel who just shaved his head and he’s looking for an artist?” “’How do you mean, ‘a Hell’s Angel?’ I asked. ‘Well, he used to ride with them, he wanted to write a book about them, so he used to ride,’ they told me. ‘Oh.’

“I was looking for work, so I said yes.”

When Thompson traveled to New York in the wake of his lost Derby weekend with Steadman—one very much fueled by Kentucky bourbon—he holed himself up in a hotel and struggled for several days to write the article. He was sick, and then fell into a depression over the Kent State massacre that happened just two days after Derby Day. He missed his deadline and had to be nursed and prodded by Scanlan’s editors and staff to complete his story. The experience was humbling, and Thompson worried he had done mortal damage to his professional career. 

The opposite was true. When the “Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved” was published, it made a big national splash. After reading it, one colleague referred to it as “gonzo journalism,” the first time the term was used in connection with Thompson’s writing.

Hunter himself described his luck as falling down an elevator shaft into a pool of mermaids. Though, for Steadman, Thompson’s ability to see so clearly America – the whiskey gentry included – was one of a kind. “As far as I am concerned, he was the bull’s eye when it comes to America,” he said. “I felt as if I had just been introduced to the bull’s eye.”

Thompson often described his classic gonzo writing—“The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Fear and Loathing on the ’72 Campaign Trail—as an attempt at writing “cinematically.” And why not? The movie industry at the dawn of the 70s was in the midst of its second Golden Age.  Thompson even asked his agent to pass along his Derby article to Hollywood connections, cleverly pitching the story as “Dr. Strangelove meets Gone With the Wind.”

I’d certainly love to see this flick, and have even taken a few stabs at adapting the article into a screenplay. The rollicking opening scene, when Hunter has a little fun in the airport lounge with the over-enthusiastic Texan, Jimbo, is made for the silver screen. 

It is excerpted here, to help get you into the Derby spirit. Pour yourself a double Old Fitz on ice and enjoy.

Ralph Steadman with a portrait of his late friend, Hunter S. Thompson. The two men met in 1970 in Louisville to cover the Kentucky Derby.. 

Ralph Steadman with a portrait of his late friend, Hunter S. Thompson. The two men met in 1970 in Louisville to cover the Kentucky Derby.. 

“The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved”

Welcome to Derbytown

I GOT OFF the plane around midnight and no one spoke as I crossed the dark runway to the terminal. The air was thick and hot, like wandering into a steam bath. Inside, people hugged each other and shook hands … big grins and a whoop here and there: “By God! You old bastard! Good to see you, boy! Damn good … and I mean it!”

In the air-conditioned lounge I met a man from Houston who said his name was something or other — “but just call me Jimbo” — and he was here to get it on. “I’m ready for anything, by God! Anything at all. Yeah, what are you drinkin?” I ordered a Margarita with ice, but he wouldn’t hear of it: “Naw, naw … what the hell kind of drink is that for Kentucky Derby time? What’s wrong with you, boy?” He grinned and winked at the bartender. “Goddam, we gotta educate this boy. Get him some good whiskey …”

I shrugged. “Okay, a double Old Fitz on ice.” Jimbo nodded his approval.

“Look.” He tapped me on the arm to make sure I was listening. “I know this Derby crowd, I come here every year, and let me tell you one thing I’ve learned — this is no town to be giving people the impression you’re some kind of faggot. Not in public, anyway. Shit, they’ll roll you in a minute, knock you in the head and take every goddam cent you have.”

I thanked him and fitted a Marlboro into my cigarette holder. “Say,” he said, “you look like you might be in the horse business … am I right?”

“No,” I said. “I’m a photographer.”

“Oh yeah?” He eyed my ragged leather bag with new interest. “Is that what you got there — cameras? Who you work for?”

“Playboy,” I said.

He laughed. “Well goddam! What are you gonna take pictures of — nekkid horses? Haw! I guess you’ll be workin’ pretty hard when they run the Kentucky Oaks. That’s a race jut for fillies.” He was laughing wildly. “Hell yes! And they’ll all be nekkid too!”

I shook my head and said nothing; just stared at him for a moment, trying to look grim. “There’s going to be trouble,” I said. “My assignment is to take pictures of the riot.”

“What riot?”

I hesitated, twirling the ice in my drink. “At the track. On Derby Day. The Black Panthers.” I stared at him again. “Don’t you read the newspapers?”

The grin on his face had collapsed. “What the hell are you talkin about?”

“Well … maybe I shouldn’t be telling you … ” I shrugged. “But hell, everybody seems to know. The cops and the National Guard have been getting ready for six weeks. They have 20,000 troops on alert at Fort Knox. They warned us — all the press and photographers — to wear helmets and special vests like flak jackets. We were told to expect shooting … “

“No!” he shouted; his hands flew up and hovered momentarily between us, as if to ward off the words he was hearing. Then he hacked his fist on the bar. “Those sons of bitches! God Almighty! The Kentucky Derby!” He kept shaking his head. “No! Jesus! That’s almost too bad to believe!” Now he seemed to be jagging on the stool, and when he looked up his eyes were misty. “Why? Why here? Don’t they respect anything?”

I shrugged again. “It’s not just the Panthers. The FBI says busloads of white crazies are coming in from all over the country — to mix with the crowd and attack all at once, from every direction. They’ll be dressed like everybody else. You know — coats and ties and all that. But when the trouble starts … well, that’s why the cops are so worried.”

He sat for a moment, looking hurt and confused and not quite able to digest all this terrible news. Then he cried out: “Oh … Jesus! What in the name of God is happening in this country? Where can you get away from it?”

“Not here,” I said, picking up my bag. “Thanks for the drink … and good luck.”

He grabbed my arm, urging me to have another, but I said I was overdue at the Press Club and hustled off to get my act together for the awful spectacle. At the airport newsstand I picked up a Courier-Journal and scanned the front page headlines: “Nixon Sends GI’s into Cambodia to Hit Reds” … “B-52′s Raid, then 2,000 GI’s Advance 20 Miles” … “4,000 U.S. Troops Deployed Near Yale as Tension Grows Over Panther Protest.” At the bottom of the page was a photo of Diane Crump, soon to become the first woman jockey ever to ride in the Kentucky Derby.3 The photographer had snapped her “stopping in the barn area to fondle her mount, Fathom.” The rest of the paper was spotted with ugly war news and stories of “student unrest.” There was no mention of any protest action at a small Ohio school called Kent State.4

I went to the Hertz desk to pick up my car, but the moon-faced young swinger in charge said they didn’t have any. “You can’t rent one anywhere,” he assured me. “Our Derby reservations have been booked for six weeks.” I explained that my agent had confirmed a white Chrysler convertible for me that very afternoon but he shook his head. “Maybe we’ll have a cancellation. Where are you staying?”

I shrugged. “Where’s the Texas crowd staying? I want to be with my people.”

He sighed. “My friend, you’re in trouble. This town is flat full. Always is, for the Derby.”

I leaned closer to him, half-whispering: “Look, I’m from Playboy. How would you like a job?”

He backed off quickly. “What? Come on, now. What kind of a job?”

“Never mind,” I said. “You just blew it.” I swept my bag off the counter and went to find a cab. The bag is a valuable prop in this kind of work; mine has a lot of baggage tags on it — SF, LA, NY, Lima, Rome, Bangkok, that sort of thing — and the most prominent tag of all is a very official, plastic-coated thing that said “Photog. Playboy Mag.” I bought it from a pimp in Vail, Colorado, and he told me how to use it. “Never mention Playboy until you’re sure they’ve seen this thing first,” he said. “Then, when you see them notice it, that’s the time to strike. They’ll go belly up every time. This thing is magic, I tell you. Pure magic.”

Well … maybe so. I’d used it on the poor geek in the bar, and now, humming along in a Yellow Cab toward town, I felt a little guilty about jangling the poor bugger’s brains with that evil fantasy. But, what the hell? Anybody who wanders around the world saying, “Yes, I’m from Texas,” deserves whatever happens to him. And he had, after all, come here once again to make a 19th century ass of himself in the midst of some jaded, atavistic freakout with nothing to recommend it except a very saleable “tradition.” Early in our chat, Jimbo had told me that he hasn’t missed a Derby since 1954. “The little lady won’t come anymore,” he said. “She just grits her teeth and turns me loose for this one. And when I say ‘loose’ I do mean loose! I toss ten-dollar bills around like they were goin’ outa style! Horses, whiskey, women … shit, there’s women in this town that’ll do anything for money.”

Why not? Money is a good thing to have in these twisted times. Even Richard Nixon is hungry for it. Only a few days before the Derby he said, “If I had any money I’d invest it in the stock market.” And the market, meanwhile, continued its grim slide.

Our Chicago editor recalls his 'last Derby Week as a Louisvillian'

Last year, editor Michael Lindenberger told the story of his family's connection to Louisville, to bourbon and th eKentucky Derby in The Biggest Week in Bourbontown. Allen Helm, now Chicago editor for, was quoted about the pull the week, and the city, had over him as a young man. Here's Allen's full story, published for the first time. 

Last year, editor Michael Lindenberger told the story of his family's connection to Louisville, to bourbon and th eKentucky Derby in The Biggest Week in Bourbontown. Allen Helm, now Chicago editor for, was quoted about the pull the week, and the city, had over him as a young man. Here's Allen's full story, published for the first time. 

'I drank it in pretty deeply.  This was Louisville.  This was Derby.  This is why they invented bourbon.'

By Allen Helm
Chicago Editor /

I was the first person in my family to get a bachelor’s degree.  Up until then, everybody got out of high school and immediately went to work or hit a junior college (sometimes graduating with an associate’s, and sometimes not).  Nobody left town…in fact, most everyone lived within a few miles of each other…a tight-knit, German Catholic family.  My brother and I (the oldest grandchildren from a family with a strong matriarch who had five kids) were encouraged strongly to get a bachelor’s degree by my parents because they believed a formal education was the way out of the daily paycheck-to-paycheck grind that they endured.  

We both went to the University of Louisville and graduated.  I decided to keep going.  A few years after graduation, and discovering I liked working in research labs (work that started as work-study at U of L), I decided to get a Ph.D. in microbiology from somewhere out of town.  It wasn’t that I didn’t love Louisville and my family…it was just something I felt like I had to do.  Many of my friends went away to college.  I loved the idea of that but I didn’t have enough money to do that, and my grades in high school weren’t nearly good enough to get any sort of scholarship.  

Not to mention, I was a bit of a Deadhead then, and maybe even a hippie (albeit an employed one with prospects!) As Robert Hunter wrote in Truckin’: “I guess they can’t revoke your soul for trying / Get out of the door, light out, and look all around.” I really took that to heart.

Enter the Come Back Inn in Louisville.  This Italian-American restaurant and bar was opened by Mark Wagner and his then-girlfriend (now wife) Gena not too long before I left.  I really loved that place and got to be a regular (for both food and booze, in particular bourbon, even more particular, Wild Turkey).  In the short time it was open (before I moved) I got to be friends with Mark, Gena, and some of the staff.

Derby week 1997…Leaving Louisville was a big deal, it was something that people in my family just didn’t do.  Although I didn’t know where I was going to be next year, I knew that this was going to be my last Derby Week as a Louisvillian.  I had plenty of vacation time at my lab tech job at U of L.  I took the entire week off.  I decided to spend Thursday afternoon/evening at the Come Back Inn, where many of the people in the Pegasus Parade met up before the event to get their bearings, knock back a few, and got ready for their march. 

I started the day by reading “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved”, and then headed to the CBI.  It was a beautiful afternoon and I settled into a few glasses of my beloved Wild Turkey on the rocks.  As people filed in I heard the guy next to me talking about newspaper stuff, as if he were an insider.  I started talking to him and then realized soon that it was Jeffrey Lee Puckett, someone I had always admired as an important member of the Louisville music scene (even if I occasionally disagreed with his reviews).  If I remember correctly he was drinking Woodford Reserve.  He was there because there was a Courier-Journal float or car or something taking part in the parade.  He was waiting for the rest of his CJ compadres to arrive.  We chatted for a good bit.  It was really amazing for me to be able to get a good chunk of Louisville culture, at my favorite bar, with my favorite bourbon, on a gorgeous afternoon.  As we spoke, more CJ folks arrived.  He introduced me to Nick Anderson, and then Rob King who did the comic strip “Family Business”, and then Kevin Baker (who I remembered from her work on the U of L newspaper The Cardinal).  We hung out for about an hour, they with their Woodford, and me with my Turkey…each drink over rocks if I remember correctly.  I remember the frosty glasses catching the sun coming through the large windows at the entrance of the bar. 

After a while, it was time for them to hit the trail, to go to the start of the parade.  I stuck around to watch the parade on TV, over yet another Wild Turkey.  I drank it in pretty deeply.  This was Louisville.  This was Derby.  This is why they invented bourbon.  And this was the reason that, even to this day, I almost always hit the CBI on my trips back to Louisville before my final destination (usually my folks’ house, where I stay when I visit).  No matter how bad or long or tedious the trip was, that first taste of ice cold Turkey on the back of my throat brings me back to that day. 

I could write volumes on my many trips back to Louisville since I moved all those years ago and most of them begin with a Wild Turkey at the CBI (Derby and non-Derby visits), but none of those stories put a smile on my face as readily as that last Derby Week as a Louisvillian.

The Biggest Week in Bourbontown

The Kentucky Derby is a week out, and thus begins the biggest week in Bourbontown. A year ago, journalist Michael Lindenberger took a long look at the "that brown liquor called bourbon that snakes through the story of Louisville like the muddy river on whose banks it was founded."

He ought to know, as his family helped settled Louisville in 1778 and has been there ever since. We're running the story again below -- many of the best things about the Derby don't change fast, or much at all -- to help launch Bourbon Story Magazine, a new publication that you'll hear more of in the days to come. 

Check back each day this week as we get ready to launch our subscription drive beginning May 1. And if you haven't gotten your tickets to Louisville -- or made your bets -- what's keeping you? 


When the editors of the brand new Sports Illustrated cobbled together the money to pay William Faulkner to come to Louisville to write about the mad scene leading up to the 1955 Kentucky Derby, they had but one real concern: How to keep the famously thirsty Southern writer away from the city’s equally well known, and forgiving, attitude toward bourbon drinking long enough to keep him writing. They needn’t have worried. Faulkner was on a roll. On the day he arrived, Tuesday of Derby Week, he won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and by the end of the week had produced, in daily chunks of 300 words each, one of the most famous pieces of sports journalism of the last century.

I am not going to promise that you will have that same kind of luck this week should you decide to join me in Louisville for the horserace, which will go off again on Saturday in front of 165,000 or so whiskey-drunk gamblers and maybe 15 million Americans watching from the safety of their living rooms. But as the Lotto hucksters keep telling us, you can’t win if you don’t play – and there’s never been a better place to be on the first Saturday of May than in Louisville, Ky., when the bugler calls the horses to post and the lonesome notes of Stephen Foster’s My Old Kentucky Home wash over the more or less awe-struck, already hopped-up crowd beneath the white twinned spires of Churchill Downs.

By the end of that week in 1955, Faulkner had understood just that. He was, after all, a man who knew something about the power of place, of history—and of that brown liquor called bourbon that snakes through the story of Louisville like the muddy river on whose banks it was founded.

The race was already old in 1955, having been run year after year since 10 years after the slaves were freed, long enough then to count as a permanent fixture on the spring social calendar in all the right places in the South, but not yet so venerable a fact of life that very old folks couldn’t remember a time without a Derby.

But that didn’t limit Faulkner’s imagination.

“This saw Boone:” the piece began, “the bluegrass, the virgin land rolling westward wave by dense wave from the Allegheny gaps, unmarked then, teeming with deer and buffalo about the salt licks and the limestone springs whose water in time would make the fine bourbon whiskey; and the wild men too—the red men and the white ones too who had to be a little wild also to endure and survive and so mark the wilderness with the proofs of their tough survival—Boonesborough, Owenstown, Harrod’s and Harbuck’s Stations; Kentucky: the dark and bloody ground.”

Which was fine, as far as it went, but by focusing so hard on the Kentucky aspect of the race, he missed something important—something maybe no son of Mississippi could have seen.

The Kentucky Derby may be named after the state in which it runs, and where most of the nation’s fastest thoroughbreds are still sired, where 95 percent of all the bourbon in the world is made, but the first thing to understand about the Kentucky Derby is that it belongs entirely, from hoof to harness, to the city of Louisville, the city where I was born and where my father’s forefathers, eight generations back, helped settle two hundred and thirty five years ago this month.

It’s the one time of the year that Louisville acknowledges the inarguable fact that it is located in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, which means, like it or not and many don’t, Louisville is in the South.

But hell, cultural loyalties can be confusing. All you need to understand about the race that’s going to happen on Saturday is that the real experience of the Derby has everything to do with the place where it happens—and that place is a city, maybe Kentucky’s only city. And it’s a place with its own dark and bloody history.

The Ohio River stretches nearly 1,000 miles from Pittsburgh to Cairo, Illinois—and if you stepped onto a boat at its mouth and floated downward, you wouldn’t stop for 600 miles. “The Ohio is the most beautiful river on earth,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in his Notes on the State of Virginia. “Its current gentle, waters clear, and bosom smooth and unbroken by rocks and rapids, a single instance only excepted.”

It was at that singular instance that settlers of Louisville stopped in May of 1778. They were 20 or fewer families, tagging along behind a solider and whiskey drinker named George Rodgers Clark who was on a secret mission for Gov. Patrick Henry of Virginia. Clark’s purpose was to establish a fort at the Falls and from there raise men to push westward in the hopes of extending young America’s boundaries by the time peace would be negotiated with Great Britain.

He had allowed the families to come along reluctantly, but soon realized their value in obscuring the military nature of his expedition. Clark’s victories the next year at Vincennes and elsewhere would be credited for a peace treaty with Britain that included the whole of the Northwest Territories.

My father’s great-great-great-great grandfather was one of the soldiers Clark left behind to guard the settlers when he pushed westward. Within a couple of years, Capt. James Patten was an original trustee of the town of Louisville and would go on to build Louisville’s first stone house, a two-story affair with a view of the Falls and a kitchen built right into the trunk of a still-living and gigantic sycamore. After the Revolutionary War, and when Kentucky became a state in 1792, he was named the first—and for years the only—riverboat pilot on the Falls licensed by the Kentucky legislature.

But back in May, 1778 there was no town at the falls—only a tiny island set a long stone’s throw from the densely forested southern shore. Worried about Shawnee warriors, Clark ordered the settlers to build a temporary camp on the island, which stretched just five hundred yards across and what would be less than ten city blocks long.

The families cleared trees on the little island and soon had their first crop of corn rising out of the mud, and the settlement had a new name: Corn Island.

Corn, of course, is the main ingredient in the whiskey that Louisville’s finest and others in Kentucky would soon get busy distilling. In 1782, my ancestor James Patten and another man sold a tract of 660 acres to Marsham Beshears, a fellow member of the town board of trustees. A deed recorded the purchase, and the price, too: 165 gallons of whiskey.

Whether Beshears is the first commercial distiller in the city is a matter of debate. Most accounts suggest that honor should go to Evan Williams, another town trustee, who opened and operated a still at the foot of Fifth Street beginning in 1783, quickly earning a reputation as a man whose whiskey was strong proof against the winter chill.

Williams was later indicted for selling whiskey without a license and his distillery declared a nuisance on account of the foul runoff it produced, but clearly the whiskey habit had taken hold: By 1810, government records would show that some 2,000 stills were operating in Kentucky. And you can still buy Evan Williams bourbon by the bottle.

It would be another six and a half decades before the grandson of Clark’s younger brother William—the explorer who launched an expedition to the Pacific from Louisville with Meriwether Lewis in 1803—would create the Derby, but by then the brown liquor was already coursing through the intertwined histories of Louisville, of Kentucky and, later, of the Kentucky Derby, like a river all its own.

It was the mighty Ohio that gave Louisville its first purpose and which still lends it a beauty that landlocked cities must envy. The Iroquois called it Oyo, which means the great river, and the Frenchman René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, one of the first Europeans to see it, recorded it on his 1669 map as, simply, ‘la Belle Riviere,” or the beautiful river.

Slaves and abolitionists would come to know it by another name, however: the River Jordan, in a nod to the freedom that lay just on the other side from Louisville.

Any discussion of Derby City has to acknowledge that it’s a place that generations of slaves sought to slip past, to avoid at all costs, to flee from. If they were caught, whether at the river or deep in the north, they were often dragged back in chains and sold at auction on street-corners in downtown Louisville. Kentucky may have sided with the Union, but it was a slave state. As my family was in this town from the beginning, slavery was part of their story too. Last year, deep in the archives at the massive genealogical library maintained by the Mormons in Salt Lake City, I discovered the 1810 Census form for Capt. Patten. There, in faded black marks, was incontestable proof that five years before he died in the house overlooking the Falls of the Ohio, he was a slave owner. Among the oldest legal records in Louisville is a death sentence recorded for a slave named Tom, for the crime of stealing less than three yards of fine Cambric linen from that same ancestor of mine, Patten.

Those things aren’t easy to learn, and harder yet to square on a week like Derby week, where Louisville tries to turn its traditions into an unalloyed, glorious good time. But blacks have been part of the Derby from the beginning, sometimes in unexpected ways. When Meriwether Lewis Clark’s year-old track hosted the first Kentucky Derby in 1875, in front of some 10,000 fans, thirteen of 14 starters in the Derby were ridden by black jockeys, including the winning rider aboard Aristides. Black jockeys won many of the first 25 Derbies, but have long since dropped out. There hasn’t been a black winner since 1902.

For 15 years, Chicago filmmaker Barbara Allen traveled to Louisville to meet friends from all over the world and party the weekend of the Derby. Her memories of the city and the race remain fond, she told me, three years after she was here last. “I still love the Derby.”

But she also recalled that faces like hers, black faces, were rare at the white parties that so define the public image of Louisville during Derby Week—at least they were rare among the guests.

“There seems to be two Derby celebrations: One white, where the blacks work and pick up extra cash catering,” she said. “And another, distinctly black, with family gatherings and reunions, neighborhood parties and clubs open all night. Unfortunately, the black parties always got harassed by the police, but we’d have a good time anyway.”

Many black voices in Louisville say the harassment, or at least heavy watchfulness, of the police has remained a fixture over Derby weekend. In 2006, the then-mayor Louisville announced that the city would no longer permit ‘cruising’ on Broadway, the main east-west drag downtown. The year before someone had been shot, and 400 police had since been assigned to monitor the impromptu gatherings that took place along West Broadway in historically black west Louisville.

In recent years, with the cruising officially banned, police by the hundreds monitor the west Louisville’s main drags throughout Derby weekend. With tens of thousands of mostly white residents crowded bars all over the rest of town, that has left some sour taste for some in the west end.

Still, the parties continue in other ways. Families gather by the hundreds in Shawnee Park and elsewhere to party on Derby Day, and there doesn’t seem to be any less fun even if the menu has fried bologna instead of the garlic-crusted prime rib with Henry Baines sauce served by the uniformed waiters on the fourth- and sixth-floor seats known as Millionaire’s Row at Churchill Downs.

It raises the question of whether the Derby truly belongs to all Louisvillians. A story: Years ago, I was on assignment for Reuters, prowling Millionaire’s Row in between races. In walked Muhammad Ali, shuffling slowly across the room.

He might as well have been walking on water, for all I cared. He has always been, and always will be, the first citizen of the city of Louisville, even if some few of its older residents have never stopped seeing him as a draft dodger.

I approached Ali gingerly, his face a mask. “Welcome home, champ,” I said. “How does it feel to be back home?”

He bent forward and I leaned in to hear. “This isn’t my home,” he said in a barely audible whisper.

The words startled me and I looked up at his face. His expression never changed and in a moment he was shuffling by.

I’ve thought about that ever since, and wondered what he really meant. I still wonder, but it’s hard to say. Legend says he tossed his gold medal from Rome into the same river James Patten used to trawl as a pilot. But then, Ali has never stopped bragging about Louisville, either, and images of him showing off the pink Cadillac he bought his parents the day he turned pro aren’t easy to forget. He bought the car with the $10,000 signing bonus he received from the syndicate of 11 wealthy, white businessmen, led incidentally by an executive of the Brown Forman distillery.

Ali bought a home in Louisville in 2007 and talked about moving back for a while. He still might.

And this year, against all hope, one of the leading contenders for the Derby is a horse named Goldencents that will be ridden by Kevin Krigger, a 110-pound jockey who is the first black rider in the Derby since 2000.


How much of this history, the new stuff or the old, will be known to the mint julep drinkers who will be betting close to $200 million this Saturday is anyone’s guess, but the smart money says not much.

That they will still be standing by then, some of them anyway, will be testament enough to the tough frontier stock from which Louisvillians are made of.It’s always been a mad scene. In 1970, the race was 95 years old, and Hunter S. Thompson was 32. It had been 14 years since he had been released from a Louisville jail on condition that he leave for the Air Force immediately, and he hadn’t been back to a Derby for a decade. And yet, as he wrote in his seminal piece for Scanlan’s Monthly, The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved, looking out onto the stands from the press box on the day before the Derby, he had a pretty good idea of what to expect the next day. Standing next to Ralph Steadman he pointed to the Infield.

“I pointed to the huge grassy meadow enclosed by the track. ‘That whole thing,’ I said, ‘will be jammed with people; fifty thousand or so, and most of them staggering drunk. It’s a fantastic scene–thousands of people fainting, crying, copulating, trampling each other and fighting with broken whiskey bottles. We’ll have to spend some time out there, but it’s hard to move around, too many bodies.”

“Is it safe out there?” Will we ever come back?”

“Sure,” I said. “We’ll just have to be careful not to step on anybody’s stomach and start a fight.” I shrugged. “Hell, this clubhouse scene right below us will be almost as bad as the infield. Thousands of raving, stumbling drunks, getting angrier and angrier as they lose more and more money. By midafternoon they’ll be guzzling mint juleps with both hands and vomiting on each other between races. The whole place will be jammed with bodies, shoulder to shoulder. It’s hard to move around. The aisles will be slick with vomit; people falling down and grabbing at your legs to keep from being stomped. Drunks pissing on themselves in the betting lines. Dropping handfuls of money and fighting to stoop over and pick it up.”

If that sounds over the top, maybe it is—a little. Like much of Thompson’s most imaginative journalism, when it comes to the Derby it can be hard to draw the line between fantasy and reality, even by people who have lived it.

Take my friend Kevin Hyde’s recollection. He’s a writer and a stay-at-home dad and a drinker. He isn’t entirely sure where the line between Derby myth and Derby fact is drawn. He blames it on the whiskey, of course.

“I grew up in an east side Louisville suburb, which looked like it was pulled right out of a late-1970s, early-80s Spielberg movie,” he told me last week. “There was a middle-aged woman who lived down the street from us–a doctor, an MD, as I recall. Every once and awhile, as we ran and played throughout the neighborhood, my friends and I would see her in her backyard, slowly rolling a large wooden barrel back and forth.

“It turns out that every spring she procured a used bourbon barrel from her brother, who worked at Brown-Forman. She would splash about a gallon of water into the bottom and close it up. Throughout the summer, she periodically rolled it, thus pulling the alcohol from the wood and producing a nice, little 40-proof batch of pure Kentucky brown wine. “I don’t need to add water,” she once told my dad. “I just pour it over ice.”

“Now, this might be a childhood memory severely altered and romanticized by years of bourbon drinking. But I swear I remember seeing her once, in full Kentucky Derby regalia–the beautiful spring dress, the hat, the whole thing–holding a drink and kicking that big, damn barrel back and forth in her yard.”

He added: “If it didn’t happen, it should have.”

There’s a kind of hazy allure about the Derby for those who have lived it year after year after year that makes those kinds of recollections seem entirely normal in Louisville.

Allen Helm, a microbiologist on staff at the University of Chicago, remembers Derby Week in 1997, the last year before he left town for good to pursue his doctoral studies.

“I was the first person in my family to get a bachelor’s degree,” he told me. “Up until then, everybody got out of high school and immediately went to work or hit a junior college. Nobody left town… in fact, most everyone lived within a few miles of each other… a tight-knit, German Catholic family.”

He made sure, then, that he would do his last Derby week the right way. He spent much of it in bars, in particular a restaurant called Come Back Inn, where they poured his favorite brand, Wild Turkey. It was a sunny afternoon on Thursday, and the annual Derby Parade was just about to start. In through the door streamed a bunch of local writers and others ready to talk about the city, its politics, culture and music. He was in heaven.

“We hung out for about an hour, they with their Woodford Reserve, and me with my Turkey… each drink over rocks if I remember correctly. I remember the frosty glasses catching the sun coming through the large windows at the entrance of the bar.”

The others left for the parade, and Helm stayed inside. “I stuck around to watch the parade on TV, over yet another Wild Turkey. I drank it in pretty deeply. This was Louisville. This was Derby. This is why they invented bourbon.”

There are more people who feel that way in Louisville than is easy to explain, even with a Ph.D.

And then there are others, of course, who stay away from the madness altogether, who see the whole season as a great time to go on vacation. Or some just remain and shut out the madness like the groundskeepers on some beastly old manor in the English countryside on the one day of the year when the locals are allowed to traipse through the gardens and have a picnic.

Take Kevin Morrice, another writer from Louisville, who now lives in England. “I’m a native Louisvillian from the school of thought that the Derby is for out-of-towners,” she explained, though she couldn’t help but admit that this time of year she gets homesick for the balloons, the flowers and the parties. “I’d like to come back and maybe get young Charlie (her 12-year-old son) hooked on all of it.”

But then, my father is 84 and except for a brief stay in Chattanooga during the Great Depression, he’s never lived anywhere but Louisville – and hasn’t attended a Derby and wouldn’t if the governor asked him to sit right next to him. He’s typical of a very different kind of Louisvillian than the ones I know best: He’s someone who would no sooner exchange his daily beer and glass of wine—one of each, please—for a bottle of bourbon than he would switch his Marlboros for marijuana, which is to say it’s never going to happen.

It’s Wednesday of Derby Week and that means you’re already late for the party. What you missed: Fully half-a-million locals crammed on the banks of the Ohio River watching fireworks two weekends ago, the official start of the Derby Festival. Also: Runners snaking through the city on a marathon last Saturday, a hot-air balloon race, and nightly drinking and music festivals that used to be known as Chow Wagons but now just mean food, drinks and music at sites scattered throughout the city.

If you get here today, right now, you might see the Great Steamboat Race, easily the most crooked competition in the history of sporting spectacle, that nonetheless will bring thousands of drinkers to the banks of the river to watch the Belle of Louisville steam boat race up the river and back again, usually against a rival boat from Cincinnati.

Tomorrow: The annual Derby Parade in downtown Louisville, which means floats and bands and yet another excuse for Louisvillians to cut work early and drink in the afternoon.

In fact, that’s pretty much what has been happening all week: Long lunches, multiple drinks and nervous scanning of the racing forums as everyone asks, “Have you got your horse yet?” Few do, so soon, and those that have used some combination of gut instinct, folk lore and intelligence overheard in the men’s room and picked a winner keep it entirely to themselves.

No matter where you go this week, it will be crowded. Although the winters in Louisville are often mild, Derby Week is seen by nearly everyone—everyone besides my dad, perhaps—as an excuse to get out and stay out much later than anyone with any sense would suggest.

The other part of all this is the food. It’s probably better than the food in your city, unless you call New Orleans or New York or San Francisco home. And it’s better than usual, come Derby Week.

If you’re meeting me this week in Louisville, you’ll find me having lunches—more than one, when I can, like a hobbit and his breakfasts— and that means you’ll find me happy. You may find me in the West End, a large area of town that is largely black and largely poor. It’s also close to the river and often beautiful. And best of all, there’s Big Momma’s Soul Food Kitchen near 45th Street and Broadway, where if you don’t mind standing in line at a shack not much bigger than a taco truck, you’ll leave with a pile of fried chicken, pork chops—smothered chops on Fridays—collard greens, green beans and everything else that’s good.

If you’ve remembered to bring a clean shirt, you might meet me at Jack Fry’s for lamb chops and Manhattans—but not if you haven’t made reservations months ago. After dinner at Jack Fry’s, take a cab or clear your head with a walk over to the newly lively area east of downtown called—with it must be admitted a tremendous lack of imagination—NuLu. You might find me amid the art galleries and hipster coffee joints for a game of outdoor ping pong at the Garage Bar, owned by a whiskey heiress. Or I might be down the street still further at Meat, a cocktail lounge in Butchertown situated on top of the Blind Pig, where the meat is good.

Or maybe everyone will be sitting in the Oak Room at the same old fancy Seelbach Hotel where Scott Fitzgerald used to lunch and rub shoulders with some of the biggest gangsters in the Midwest, and where he’d later stage Tom and Daisy Buchanan’s wedding reception in The Great Gatsby.

But it’s the bourbon, not the food, that Louisville does better than anywhere else on the planet.

If you don’t believe me, ask Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer.

He keeps a bourbon library that would make Jay Gatsby green. “In the first week or so of being the mayor,” he said, “one of the distilleries sent me a bottle of their bourbon and I put it in the office. Within about two weeks of being mayor, I think I had a bottle out of every distillery around. Now, I joke that we have the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, the Urban Bourbon Trail (in the city) and a third option we call: My office.”

The advantages of office don’t stop there. “You know this is one of the best perks of being mayor, every year at Derby. I mean I can just get in the car and they will drive me right down Fourth Street right up the gates and I can get out and walk right into the Kentucky Derby. That’s pretty good.”

But the unelected and unanointed have plenty of places to drink as well in Louisville. At Jack’s Lounge in the east end, the co-author of the exquisite Kentucky Bourbon Cocktail Book tends bar, as she has for a generation, and if she can’t teach you the difference between bourbon and rye then you really ought to be in Lansing, not Louisville, this week.

Slip into Bourbons Bistro along the train tracks in old Crescent Hill, and you’ll be handed a menu with more than 100 bourbons – and you can always ask for the reserve list if that’s not enough.

It’s not just that there’s more places serving bourbon in Louisville than anywhere else. That’s true, but it’s also true that there is just more of the stuff to go around. Bourbon is booming. Last year, for the first time since 1973, Kentucky bourbon distilleries produced a million barrels.

A few months ago, when Makers Mark distillery announced it would water down its bourbon to make it go further and when Louisvillians collectively gasped so loudly that the company backtracked almost within a week, I had called the governor of the state, Steve Beshear, to see where his administration stood with regard to the emergency. Maker’s Mark, he said, had learned something he learned a long time ago in politics: You don’t mess with people’s religion, their families or their bourbon.

I asked him if he was a drinker himself. He paused, and then spoke slowly, as if to a child. “You can’t be governor of Kentucky if you don’t drink bourbon,” he said.

Good point. Last week, I asked the mayor of Louisville if he was a drinker, especially around Derby. Of course, Fisher said. He’s newer to politics than the governor, and he added, sheepishly, “responsibly.”

We can mark that down to the innate caution of a man who just announced he’s seeking a second term, because everyone, including the mayor of Louisville, knows there is nothing especially responsible about restraint during Derby Week.

This is a town, after all, that keeps its bars open till 4 a.m. every day of the year, except Friday and Saturday of Derby Week, when they are open till 6 so everyone can have their fill of whiskey without feeling rushed by the coming dawn.

In fact, the whole week is one big excuse to stop rushing, stop worrying, and to start drinking—or for those who prefer to count their vices one at a time—to at least start gambling.

Really, the only reason to rush this week, is in the getting here. And, since it’s Wednesday of Derby Week already, if you’re not yet in Louisville, you’re late.


This piece was initially published on Wednesday of Derby Week 2013 by the excellent folks at 








Once upon a time, Hunter S. Thompson walked into a bar in Kent ...

HUNTER-Study in Gamboge Hatjpg.jpg

Years after they first met in Louisville for the 1970 Kentucky Derby, the Welsh artist Ralph Steadman invited Hunter S. Thompson to his home in Kent, in southern England. He introduced Thompson to the artist's local publican, who poured measured out Thompson a scotch.

As the story in the audio clip above reveals, the prevailing custom when it came to portions were not Thompson's liking. An intervention was required, but Steadman reports Thompson and the barkeep became good friends. "He even offered me his daughter," Thompson later told him. 

For more on the friendship between Steadman and Thompson and for a longer clip of the interview I conducted for Beacon last fall, go here. There is also a story up about Louisville's weeklong Gonzofest here.  

Editor's note: This post was corrected to note that Steadman was living in Kent, not Wales, at the time of the visit.


Tennessee whiskey battle over, but threat to bourbon is alive, says historian

The great Tennessee Whiskey brawl has ended, and for now Jack Daniel's and its Louisville-based parent, Brown-Forman, are the winners.

But the issues it raised have consequences far beyond the borders of the Volunteer State, far beyond, too, the international jujitsu between Brown-Forman and Diageo, the whiskey titans that own Jack Daniels and George Dickel, the two leading Tennessee Whiskeys.

The booming demand for American whiskey is offering short-term incentives for distillers of all kinds to stretch the rules hone it comes how they make their liquor -- and still be able to call it by names that command loyalty from drinkers when they see it on the shelf. Bourbon Story traveled to Kentucky to talk to one of the wise men of bourbon, to get a sense of what was at stake in the Tennessee tussle and to ask how some of the same questions are being raised in the bourbon industry.  

But first a quick recap on what's happening in Tennessee. We brought the details to you last week. In short; Tennessee lawmakers were debating undoing rules they codified last year with a statute requiring that all Tennessee Whiskey be made like Jack Daniel's and George Dickel are now -- including the costly requirement that the whiskey be aged in brand-new charred oak barrels. Dickel's parents were pushing to change the rules, and Daniel's owner, Brown-Forman of Louisville, was trying to keep the rules in place. 

Now that the bill has been withdrawn in Nashville, the matter will rest for another year. (More coverage: here and here.) But the issues it raised -- namely, will strict rules stymie innovation among small distilleries? Do they protect the quality of the product? Does the boom in whiskey sales mean more and more makers will try to skirt the rules, even if they are in place? -- are all questions that resonate far beyond Tennessee.

To get a sense of what's at stake for the American whiskey movement, Bourbon Story Magazine visited historian Mike Veach, author of Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: An American Heritage. Veach is bourbon historian at the FIlson Club in Louisville, one of the nation's oldest and most-respected private historical associations.  He told us plainly that he understands both sides had good arguments, and was especially sensitive to the position of the craft distillers who might want to experiment with the ways they want to make whiskey in Tennessee. 

But he had a stark warning, both for those makers and for some of the bourbon titans that are beginning to find ways around bourbon's rules, too.

"Brown-Forman did that to ensure that the quality of whiskey remains good, because they spent 60, 70 years building that reputation for Tennessee Whiskey," Veach said. "And it doesn't take but a few really bad products being put out there to tear down that reputation."

The growing demand for American whiskey, and especially whiskey that consumers will recognize and trust, means that distillers will find themselves under increasing pressure to monkey with the product to find news way to satisfy the demand, stretching the limits of the definition as they go. 

Stretch it too far, and the consumer will lose confidence in what a bottle that has "Kentucky Straight Bourbon" or "Tennessee Whiskey" has in it. Once that happens, the whiskey-makers will have squandered a relationship with consumers that has taken decades to forge. 

It's already happening, he said, noting Jim Beam's new-fangled Red Stag flavor-infused liquor and, slightly less worrisome to him, Angel's Envy bourbon finished in port barrels -- something he said should make it a potentially fine whiskey, but not a bourbon.  

"Same thing is happening to bourbon now. In my opinion, they never should have allowed the word bourbon go on a product like Red Stag (from Jim Beam) or Angel's Envy because once you add other flavors to it it's no longer bourbon," Veach said, noting that he is especially worried about Red Stag. "They are adding cherry juice to it, how is that different from making a blended whiskey? What they are doing is capitalizing on the same market that flavored vodkas have got. Yes, they are selling a lot of product on the short-run, but look at the reputation of vodka over past 10 years. It has gone down hill horribly. Basically they are saying now you have to have a flavored vodka to sell a good vodka. I don't want to see bourbon go down that route." 

Every tumbler tells a story: Bourbon and basketball in the Bluegrass

The University of Kentucky plays out the last few seconds of its upset of previously undefeated Wichita State at Proof on Main bar, Sunday March 23. Photo for Bourbon Story by Michael A. Lindenberger  

The University of Kentucky plays out the last few seconds of its upset of previously undefeated Wichita State at Proof on Main bar, Sunday March 23. Photo for Bourbon Story by Michael A. Lindenberger


LOUISVILLE -- I was speaking to January in late March in Kentucky, and that meant basketball was on in her bar as she built me a Manhattan. Could a visit to my hometown really ever be so perfect? 

On screen behind the bar at Proof on Main, five freshmen for the University of Kentucky were handing Wichita State its first loss of the season, setting up a game next weekend against the defending national champions Louisville Cardinals -- and tension was already crackling in every corner of the city and would soon be washing over the rest of the Commonwealth like the Ohio River jumping its banks in a spring flood. 

I had told January I am in town for the week to do bourbon research -- the best kind of work -- and asked her to build a Manhattan that would teach me something. She set down a bottle of Antica Formula vermouth and a bottle of Rock Hill Farms Single Barrel Bourbon and I knew I was being taken to school.

As she worked in the ice cubes and began to stir, I told her I wanted to talk about the importance of the 'story' behind a bourbon in today's market. It's my theory -- and indeed the premise behind the Bourbon Story Magazine, which will soon launch with editors in cities across America -- that even the best-tasting hooch is never going to get anywhere without a tale about how it is made and how it's somehow connected to the hoary myths of the pre-prohibition days of bourbon's youth and its frontier-days infancy.

You can see this in the story behind nearly brand: A grand-father's recipe suddenly discovered, and whiskey aging in a forgotten warehouse suddenly is the magic behind a bottle that's going to cost you $50. Sometimes, the stories are true. And it's then that a Kentucky native like myself can feel as it we taste where we came from in the burn of a jolt of bourbon as it marches down our gullet like trail of gun powder leading to a box of dynamite that never quite goes off.  

You could see it last year, too, when Maker's Mark announced it would lower its proof from 90 to 84 and instantly its fan base recoiled. I followed that story in TIME and elsewhere and it was remarkable how quickly the brand's suffered. Classic bartenders from Houston to San Francisco, on the front lines of the cocktail craze that is doing so much for the premium bourbon industry that Maker's helped found decades ago, told me they would stop using Maker's in cocktails. “When you are building a cocktail, you really reach for a higher element of proof as a backbone to stand up against the dilution and other ingredients in the cocktail. A lower proof really makes a significant difference,” explained Alba Huerta, of Houston's handcrafted-cocktail joint, Anvil Bar and Refuge.  

Marker's Mark recovered, of course. Bill Samuels Jr. and his son, Rob who is now the distillery's president, reversed course and promised to keep the bourbon the same proof it had always been. The recovery was so complete that many observers argued that Maker's had staged the whole thing. I never believed that, both because it didn't make much business sense -- Maker's was already selling out; the problem it faces was one of supply, not demand -- and because it underestimated the real damage the move would have done to the brand had Samuels not reversed course so quickly. . 

The story of a brand is everything in this market, where a big part of the craze behind the bourbon boom is the same search for authenticity that makes shoppers look for butchers who can tell them where their rib-eyes lived when they were cows, and the same impulse that makes Five Guys burgers hang a chalkboard next to their counter telling you which farm raised the potatoes that became the french fries you're about to eat. 

Maker's story is one of Bill Samuels' father inventing a new recipe 50 years ago and resuming the family business with a batch of booze high of winter wheat and long on age. Watered-down bourbon, whether you can taste the difference of not, weakened that story.

That's what was on my mind as I watched my drink taking shape Sunday. January knew right away what I was taking about. "I call it folklore," she said adding that it's not always gospel truth. "Take this," she said, pointing to the bottle of Angostura bitters she was using to build the drink. "That's a nice name but there's no Angostura bark in that bottle."

The drink she placed in front of me wasn't cheap -- a $19 cocktail is happy hour prices at some places in DC, but they still raise an eyebrow in Louisville -- but it was fine. Balanced and with enough high-pitched squeal to cut against the sweetness to remind you that you're drinking whiskey. I guess that comes from the 100 proof.

As I settled in, I looked at the Bourbon Library on the menu. It's a nice collection, though in Louisville there are dozens of places that have 50 or more bottles of bourbon on the menu. Still, it tickled me to see that the most expensive Scotch on the list -- a $50 glass of Bowmore 12 year old -- was matched the Van Winkle family, when it's available, at prices up to 70 dollars a drink and the 20 year Mitchner's for $85. Bourbon has definitely gone upscale.

January told me she loves Scotch just fine, and the bar sells plenty of it. But chances are, she said, a whiskey lover who stops in her bar knows where they are, meaning in Kentucky. And Kentucky, means bourbon.

And in March, especially, is also means basketball. Next Friday, about 6 million or so Kentuckians or their spirits will head -- in spirit, if not in person -- two hours north to Indianapolis to see the Cardinals take on the Cats in the Sweet 16. I trust you don't need to know what will be in there flasks.

Whoever wins, it will be a helluva story. 

As titans take sides, Tennessee lawmakers look to dilute whiskey rules

Diageo is the world's largest spirits company, but a small player in American whiskey. But its new Barterhouse 20 year old bourbon is part of its Orphan Barrel project, which is generating a lot of buzz despite the fact that the company actually doesn't own an operating bourbon distillery. Barterhouse was made at Bernheim distillery. (Photo by Michael A. Lindenberger)

Diageo is the world's largest spirits company, but a small player in American whiskey. But its new Barterhouse 20 year old bourbon is part of its Orphan Barrel project, which is generating a lot of buzz despite the fact that the company actually doesn't own an operating bourbon distillery. Barterhouse was made at Bernheim distillery. (Photo by Michael A. Lindenberger)

Lawmakers in Tennessee will be weighing new bills in the House and Senate Tuesday that would weaken the requirements that Tennessee Whiskey be a whole lot like Kentucky Bourbon, when it comes to how it is distilled and, critically, how it is aged. 

The Wall Street Journal has a fascinating read this morning about a tussle between the parents companies, both Fortune 500 firms, of Jack Daniel's and George DIckel Tennessee Whiskey.

Dickel's owners, the UK-based Diageo, the world's largest spirits company, wants to do away with the rules that require all Tennessee Whiskey to be aged in new charred barrels, just like bourbon. They argue that the primary requirement for whiskey to be allowed to be called Tennessee Whiskey should be that it's made in Tennessee. 

Louisville-based Brown-Forman owns the far larger distillery at Jack Daniel's, and it says relaxing the rules would diminish the quality of the whiskey marketed as Tennessee's finest, a position many whiskey experts agree with.  

But it's not just Dickel and its parent company that want to relax the rules, which were just enshrined in state law last year at Brown-Forman's behest. Joining in the fight is a push by new boutique bottlers who, just as in the bourbon industry, are popping up with increasing frequency as the American whiskey industry continues to boom. The WSJ notes: 

Popcorn Sutton Distilling LLC, one of a growing number of small distillers in the state, also wants the rules relaxed. The Nashville distiller recently began aging whiskey without charcoal filtering—a recipe it says it inherited from Marvin "Popcorn'' Sutton, a legendary Tennessee moonshiner who died in 2009.

"Popcorn Sutton naturally wants to call their product Tennessee Whiskey,'' said William Cheek, an attorney for the company, which began distilling in 2012 and last year produced about 10,000 cases of so-called white whiskey that wasn't barrel-aged.

State Rep. Bill Sanderson says he wants to roll back last year's legislation after some small distillers also told him they are struggling to secure new barrels because of booming demand. "I'm not doing it for Diageo. I'm doing it for the little guy,'' said Mr. Sanderson.

The WSJ isn't the first to look closely at the debate over the meaning of Tennessee Whiskey. On Saturday, The Bourbon Truth published a piece asking whether we weren't seeing the dumbing down American whiskey.

Diageo now wants to change the Tennessee law on Tennessee Whiskey. You see Tennessee Whiskey must use all the Bourbon requirements plus the Lincoln County process which is putting the new make through 10 feet of Maple Charcoal. One distillery, Prichard’s filed for an exception and got it so their Bourbon doesnt need to use the process. They also use a rebarreled sourced product in the Double Bourbon but are up front about it and its good stuff.

A new Whiskey barrel costs about $150 a used one around $80 unless you own them, like Diageo’s Dickel, and they are free. Diageo nor others own their own Cooperage that makes barrels such as Brown Forman does and there is a barrel shortage currently. Barrels are the most expensive part of Bourbon/Tennessee Whisky production unless the law was changed to make it permissible. 

There's plenty of irony in the story, including the fact that Brown-Forman is a Kentucky company, defending the integrity of the Tennessee whiskey industry. After all, Jack Daniel's is made in a way that would qualify it to be called bourbon, but it has always preferred to emphasize its Tennessee roots, and the famed charcoal-filtering that it says makes it different than bourbon.

Diageo says it has no plans to stop using new barrels for Dickel, but others aren't so sure. The Telegraph in London also weighed in Monday, with a piece pitting the struggle as one between two titans in the spirits business. 

The standards and special branding of Tennessee whiskey are an outgrowth of the special designation granted long ago to bourbon. Half a century ago, Congress declared bourbon a distinctive product of the US. By law, bourbon must be made of a grain mix of at least 51pc corn, distilled at less than 160 proof, have no additives except water to reduce the proof and be aged in new, charred white oak barrels.

Spirits that don’t follow those guidelines can’t be sold as bourbon. One example is Brown-Forman’s own Early Times, which is marketed as a “Kentucky whisky” because it is made in reused barrels.

Phil Lynch, a vice president at Brown-Forman, said Jack Daniel's competitors are free to make whiskey in Tennessee anyway they want to, but they just have to call it something different. 

"If you don't want to use new barrels or charcoal filtering, you can't call it 'Tennessee Whiskey.' You can call it 'whiskey from Tennessee' or 'whiskey made in Tennessee' or any other combination,'' he told the Journal. 

My bottom line: It's nice that so many start-ups are trying new things with their whiskeys -- and the lawmakers in Nashville ought to give them what help they can. But they ought to also keep in mind that the less stringent the requirements for calling your whiskey Tennessee Whiskey become, the less powerful the brand will be in the eyes of the consumers. 

In an market where so many of the players, big and small, are so busy creating new bottles, new brands and new story lines, consumers are already hard-pressed to know what they can expect when they take a bottle off the shelf.

If all it takes to be called Tennessee Whiskey is that it be made in Tennessee, the appellation will no longer mean anything at all. How much information does calling a wine a 'California wine' give you? None at all, until you know the grape at the very least. Tennessee Whiskey gives the brands that can use it an advantage -- it communicates something to consumers about what's in the bottle. Its rivals can thank Jack Daniel's for that -- and they may well find that they'll miss it when it's gone, if the legislation passes.