Kentucky's bourbon gentry gathers in D.C. to celebrate Henry Clay and art of compromise

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a life-long student and admirer of Henry Clay, spoke about The Great Compromiser and Kentucky bourbon Tuesday night at the Willard Hotel. Legend has it that Clay brought a barrel of bourbon with him to Washington to "lubricate the process of legislation." At right, is Clay's distant relative Robert Clay, co-chairman of the Henry Clay Center for Statesmanship in Lexington, Ky. Photo: Michael A. Lindenberger / Bourbon Story Magazine. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a life-long student and admirer of Henry Clay, spoke about The Great Compromiser and Kentucky bourbon Tuesday night at the Willard Hotel. Legend has it that Clay brought a barrel of bourbon with him to Washington to "lubricate the process of legislation." At right, is Clay's distant relative Robert Clay, co-chairman of the Henry Clay Center for Statesmanship in Lexington, Ky. Photo: Michael A. Lindenberger / Bourbon Story Magazine. 

By MICHAEL A. LINDENBERGER / Bourbon Story Magazine

WASHINGTON—Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had just finished his oration — a brief but heart-felt homage to Henry Clay and bourbon, two of his home state of Kentucky's most accomplished products — and I was parched. I worked my way back through the crowd of 200 or so specially invited weeknight boozers at the historic Willard Hotel to where the bartenders were still pouring.

There were lots of choices of brands — Kentucky's finest had brought plenty to choose from — but very little choice about how to drink your selection. On the rocks or neat as a newborn.

That seemed about right for a room full of purists. I asked for Baker's this time, and took mine with ice. Standing next to me was a tanned and trim gentleman who looked exactly like House Speaker John Boehner.

Except of course it couldn't really be him, standing so alone — so unnoticed — in the back of a room just lousy with congressmen and assorted barons of the Kentucky spirits industry, all of whom were busy up front being congratulated.

As I eyed my neighbor, the speeches were unfolding on the stage, where there was a big barrel of -- it was alleged — bourbon mixed from distilleries all over Kentucky. Whether this was actually true, I tend to doubt. For one thing, who wants to waste all the good bourbon by sloshing it together with a dozen other varieties like so much Kool Aid and hooch? For another, there are all kind of silly laws about shipping whiskey across state lines, and while Kentucky was a border state in the Civil War, it sure as heck doesn't border D.C.

The bus traveled from Ashland, the preserved estate of Henry Clay, to Louisville to Washington.  

The bus traveled from Ashland, the preserved estate of Henry Clay, to Louisville to Washington.  

But I digress. I'm happy to pretend the barrel was what it was said to be, and to go ahead and tell you the name they had picked for the event at the Willard: The Bourbon Barrel Compromise. There was a bus outside with that name, and there was, as I've said, a big barrel sitting under a flag of some sort. 

The whole idea had started when President Obama commented on the Republican takeover of the Senate last fall, He had said that sure, he and McConnell had their differences, but he'd happy to sit down and talk over a bourbon with the new majority leader.

The distillers, who know marketing even more thoroughly than they know distilling, wasted no time dreaming up the idea. When the Henry Clay Center for Statesmanship, in its eighth year and co-chaired by a distant cousin of the Greater Compromiser himself, jumped aboard too, the plan took shape. Just like Clay himself nearly 200 years ago was said to have done, the idea was to put a barrel of the good stuff in a big bus and take it to the Willard for a bourbon summit. 

The Willard, incidentally, was where Clay is said to have introduced the Mint Julep. As McConnell said in his speech, the man was a maniac for details — and his own recipe, said to be the first ever to be published, called for "mellow bourbon," fresh and tender mint leaves "pressed firmly against the bank of the silver-coin cup with a silver spoon." 

The President didn't come, but until the day of the event there was strong hopes that Vice President Biden would. He didn't show either — no one said, but after all, there was a crisis in Jordan, and the king himself was at the White House right as the bourbon began to pour Tuesday. So instead, former Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson, now Obama's director of intergovernmental affairs, was there to represent his new boss.
 

Speaker John Boehner came in a bit late, and remained in the back, unnoticed, for most of the program. 

Speaker John Boehner came in a bit late, and remained in the back, unnoticed, for most of the program. 

Back to Boehner and me, back in the back. It could have bene a dopelganger, so strange did it seem that he'd stand back there unannounced, undiscovered during all the pomp up front. On other hand, there was no way two people could look that tan in February. So I asked him, "What are you drinking, Mr. Speaker?" 

He hesitated a moment. "Bourbon. Of course." 

"Naturally. Which did you choose?"  I asked, waving at the table full of brands on the bar. 

"It's a secret," he said. "You're not going to get me in trouble."

Clearly, a politician. It reminded me of Gov. Steve Beshear's answer a couple years ago when I asked whether he was a bourbon drinker. Son, he said, "you don't get to be governor of Kentucky if you don't drink bourbon." Which brand do you drink, I continued? "And you don't get to be governor if you pick favorites, either." 

Meanwhile, the speaking hadn't yet run its course. Now that all the congressmen had been hailed, there would be introductions for each of the half-dozen or more bourbon princes in the room.
 

"You're kidding." Boehner was saying, or something very close to it. We were both drinking a bit after all, and I wasn't taking notes at that moment. But he was certainly grousing, but in good spirits. "They're still talking." 

I didn't blame him. They were going on. Next, they called out Bill Samuels Jr., the marketing genius behind Maker's Mark's success and bourbon's storyteller-in-chief. His dad and mom invented Maker's Mark, and he ran the company for years. He's now chairman emeritus and his son Rob run it. "Bah," Boehner said with a relish, "I can tell you a story about him." 

He wasn't addressing me, but I perked up, and said: "I'd like to hear it."

He shrugged and next they called out Al Young's name, who was there as the brand ambassador for Four Rose's bourbon. They noted he's a member of the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame. (Note, Young was too modest to say so when I had met him earlier, but he's also the distillery's historian and an author.) 

"Hall of Fame? Well, they have a hall of fame?" Boehner asked no one in particular, continuing his running commentary. 

But when Jimmy Russell, the master distiller at Wild Turkey who has been making whiskey there for at least 54 years, ambled up to take his place in the line of dignitaries, Boehner, second in line to the presidency behind Biden, stopped his more or less good-natured grumbling and said with enthusiasm: "Now that's something. He's the real thing."

Someone from somewhere walked up to him and said, Mr. Speaker, would you like to come up to the front? He looked like he had been caught smoking behind the school. "Me? No, I don't want to go up there."

Whoever it was, they cajoled the Speaker out the side door of the ballroom, and down the hallway toward the door closer to the front. A minute later, the emcee stopped the festivities with an announcement: "Wait, everyone, I have just seen a great presence. The Speaker of the House of Representatives has made it after all. Here he is."

There he was. Boehner walked in the door and moved toward the front, and stood there while more talking carried on. The idea was to have a double toast — one by Rep. Andy Barr, a Republican who represents Clay's old neighborhood in Lexington, and another by Abramson, a Democrat.

Turned out, though, that by then Abramson had bolted. Barr stood up to give his toast, and gave a speech instead, Boehner and McConnell cooled their heels. 

It was all over a few minutes later. I asked Boehner as he came by, a fresh drink with what looked like a twist of lemon and could have been ginger ale in his hand, if he'd tell me the story. I had told Samuels a moment before that I was going to ask, figuring it could have been anything. "So I have permission now," I said to Boehner.  

"Well, I am going to tell you," he said, smiling. "So I was at Bill Samuels' house (in Louisville), doing an event for one of my colleagues. I decided that maybe I should have a Maker's Mark Old Fashioned. He had no bitters in the house." He paused. "You can't make an Old Fashioned with out bitters. I am an Old Fashioned expert. I've made lots of them."

At this point, I should note that his aide leaned over to me to push the tape recorder down. 'You don't want to be recording this,' he said. Boehner, though, responded faster than I could ."It's fine, it's fine," he said. "This is a true story."  

Which is good to know. The trues are usually better anyway. Like a Kentucky gentleman, he shook my hand and smiled as he left. He told me he was glad to help with the story.

It wasn't such a bad story. Not even for Samuels — though there is no doubt he fell down on his hosting responsibilities. Kentuckians are duty bound to have the fixings for an Old Fashioned, especially if you're the heir to a whiskey lineage as old as America and you've invited the Speaker of the House over for drinks. 

Later on that night, Samuels joined the other distillers at Jack Rose Dining Saloon over in Adams Morgan. It's a whiskey palace of extraordinary resources. A buddy of mine from back in Catholic elementary school in Louisville — Nate Bishop is his name, and yes, it seems like eons ago — was sitting with me in a booth enjoying a fabulous new find* when Samuels stopped by the table.

"Well, he told me the story," I told him. "I'm a little surprised you couldn't make the Speaker of the House an Old Fashioned when he wanted one."

"Hell, the problem was, he didn't ask me," Samuels said. "If he had asked me, I'd have found him what he needed. Instead, he disappeared. I mean, we thought we had lost him. He just was gone. We found him back in the kitchen rooting through the cabinets looking for oranges, and bitters, trying to make his own drink. That's the story."

Samuels slid on out, claiming an early plane. In a few minutes, I was headed home too. But not before we ran into another whiskey magnate, Tom Bulleit, who revived his great-great-grandfather's bourbon in 1987. He was talking guns with a man at the bar. I introduced myself as a Louisvillian and editor of Bourbon Story. He smiled and then did something that's going to seem weird to everyone reading this who isn't from Louisville, but that will seem utterly normal for everyone who is. He asked me where I went to high school. 

I told him. "And he went there too," I added, pointing to Nate. Bulleit shook his head. Turns out, he did too. 

It's a small city, Louisville. Sometimes embarrassingly so. But on a chilly Tuesday night in the capital, it seemed just the right size to bring the worlds of both bourbon and politics down to a size so friendly that anything — maybe even compromise over on Capitol Hill — seemed possible. 

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*Here's your reward for reading all the way through: Harvey Fry, the whiskey advisor at Jack Rose, recommended we try the Willet Pot o' Gold bourbon. It's heavy on the wheat, and so powerfully robust in the brandy glass it came in, it went down like a bargain, even at $27 an ounce. (As for Harvey, he's reason enough alone to spend an evening at Jack Rose. Read about him here. For the record — he says his go-to favorite bourbon remains Booker's, the 120+ proof signature bourbon by Booker Noe. Why? Because in an age of marketing machinations and all sorts of tomfoolery, Fry said this product from Beam remains 'unfingerfucked'.) 

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Michael Lindenberger

Michael Lindenberger is a 2012-13 Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University, where he will spend a year developing a business model for blogs that looks beyond advertising and subscriptions for revenue. He is on leave from The Dallas Morning News, where he is a senior reporter writing about the nexus between the politics and policy of transportation on the local, state and national level. He is founder and co-author with Rodger Jones of the Dallas Transportation Blog. His print journalism was recognized in 2012 as the previous year's best example at The News of work that brings perspective, interpretation and analysis to bear on difficult topics. Also in 2012, the newspaper nominated his work for the Pulitzer Prize in local reporting. A 2006 graduate of the night program at Louis D. Brandeis School of Law at the University of Louisville, Michael also is a contributing national legal affairs writer for TIME.com and a former adjunct professor of media law at the University of North Texas Mayborn School of Journalism. His work has appeared in newspapers, wire reports and magazines around the world, including The New York Times, Reuters, The ABA Journal, Robb Report Magazine and others.