Driven to Drink in Kentucky

By Scott Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 28, 2008

Wait, why was I here again? Oh, that's right. It was Joe's idea.

"You've hit the mother lode!" he told me. "Do you know how much booze they give away at those hall of fame things? You won't buy bourbon for a year."

"But wouldn't you feel a little funny about . . ."

"Trust me, just go."

I didn't really think they'd give me a year's worth of bourbon, and I couldn't have accepted it if they had, but there was something irresistible anyway about attending an awards ceremony for the seven newest members of the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame, each of whom was to receive a two-foot trophy in the shape of a copper still. Which is how I found myself, a half-hour later, in Jideco Hall on the outskirts of Bardstown, Ky., 45 minutes south of Louisville, toting two minibar-size bottles of bourbon.

I'd met Joe while following the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, a patchwork of paths that leads to seven well-known distilleries (and soon eight) in the central part of the state. A rural Ohioan, Joe told me he'd set out on the trail to "discover the rich history and proud tradition of America's official native spirit." I informed him that I had read the trail brochure and therefore knew he had lifted those words verbatim.

"Why are you here?" he laughed. "For the free bourbon, of course."

It's not as if free bourbon is hard to come by in the state that created it, but seeing just how much free bourbon you can get is something of a side bet for true devotees of the spirit. Which is why Joe suggested we visit the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History, also in Bardstown, which happened to be offering free tastings of a premium bourbon called 1792 (named for the year Kentucky became a state). All we'd have to do was make a little small talk, ooh and ahh over the antique copper stills and then belly up to the bar.

"This is a bad thing to say, but bourbon doesn't care about the economy," said Pam Gover, who works for the company that produces 1792, when we got to the museum. Gover is a former head of the town's annual bourbon festival and, she is quick to tell you, only the second woman ever to make it into the Bourbon Hall of Fame. "When the economy's good, people drink expensive bourbon. When it's bad, they drink cheap bourbon."

The only time people will drink no bourbon, it seems, is when some temperance type like Carrie Nation inspires the authorities to pass laws forbidding its sale. True, that hasn't happened in more than 90 years, and Nation has been dead for almost a century, but that doesn't mean the wounds aren't still fresh.

"She 'bout wrecked our lives," said an elderly woman staring at a photo of Nation displayed in the museum. Nation brought national attention to the temperance movement, which eventually brought about Prohibition in 1919 and temporary economic ruin to the bourbon industry. (Even today, 52 of Kentucky's 120 counties are dry.) In the picture, Nation is a bespectacled Whistler's mother accessorized with a Bible in one hand and a hatchet in the other.

"Just 'cause her husband was a drunk. I mean, get over it!"

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