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Driven to Drink in Kentucky
Bluegrass Views and a Taste Of the State's Bourbon Trail

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!"

Thus spake Mary Ellyn Hamilton, the museum's curator, who happened to be flying by while readying the place (a former Catholic boys' school still owned by the archdiocese, by the way) for the day's expected crowd, the museum having become an essential first stop on the Bourbon Trail. Before you could say "freshen this," Hamilton had whisked me to her office for a quick introduction to bourbon history. I gave Joe a look.

"I'll be in the tasting room," he said with an evil smile.

"After the Revolutionary War, Kentucky had about three or four people in the state," Hamilton said. I slumped down in my chair. "People of Irish, English and Scottish descent came here and brought their whiskey recipes with them."

To these recipes, she continued, Kentuckians added their own ingredients, chiefly corn, which the Indians grew in abundance. Even today, corn must account for 51 percent of the grain used in order for a whiskey to call itself bourbon.

"And all of our water is filtered through limestone beds," she said. "That takes out the nastiness, the iron taste, and makes for softer water. And then the area was filled with these massive oak trees." No small amount of the pleasure that is bourbon comes from the years it spends aging in oak barrels. (And that name? The area that includes Bardstown was once known as Bourbon County. In the late 18th century, many places in Kentucky were given French names -- Louisville and Versailles among them -- in recognition of the help France gave the United States in the Revolutionary War.)

During the next quarter-hour, Hamilton took me from the Battle of Goliad to the Civil War to Prohibition to the Asian markets' growing interest in bourbon to the mini-distilleries that are cropping up across the country. I had to admit it was all pretty fascinating, especially because the bourbon in these newest distilleries has a few more years to age yet, and no one knows what its impact on the Kentucky economy will be.

But there was no way I was going to admit that to Joe. I hastily put on my best perturbed face and walked right past him on the museum steps. He was wearing a goofy grin, thoroughly buzzed.

"What?" he said. "Is this not history as you always wished it was taught?"

The town of Loretto is 15 miles south of Bardstown, a slow trip that winds over and around the fabled bluegrass hills of this part of Kentucky. It was late September, and the maple trees were just starting to glow along the route. In due course we arrived at the Maker's Mark distillery, where we were met by Betty Peterson, a perky senior sporting a flower-print blouse and tiny Maker's Mark bottles dangling from her earlobes.

"We're going to tour the mash tubs, and I'll show you the grains that we use," Peterson said to our 20-person tour group. "You'll also see the vats where the yeast is added and the copper vats where alcohol is condensed back into liquid. And I'll also tell you about our anaerobic digester."

And then?

"We'll walk through the bottling house and see workers dipping bottles into our trademark red wax."

Then?

"We'll have a tasting."

Hallelujah.

It seemed like quite an ordeal just for a small snifter of Maker's Mark but one that any MM lover (of whom I am one) would gladly endure. One of the happy surprises about the bourbon distilleries is that they truly are working factories; the public is encouraged to peek in, but little is altered for its benefit. In fact, watching the process was so engrossing that Joe and I forgot for a moment about our ulterior motive. We marveled at the open-air wooden fermentation vats, the yeast bubbling in its 9,600-gallon grainy stew. We even stuck our fingers in for a taste.

"Kind of like light beer with sand in it," said Joe sadly, though not so sadly that he didn't dip his finger in a second time.

A few minutes later we were in the bottling room. There, red-shirted Maker's Mark employees took bottles off the assembly line one at a time, plunging the tip of each into a trough of red wax, then quickly turning the bottle over, producing the dripping wax stopper that is the company's signature. And a few minutes after that, we were finally in the tasting room, each of us given two small glasses of liquid, one clear, the other brown.

"Try the clear glass first," Peterson said. "This is what bourbon looks like before it's aged in the barrels."

What happened next remains a matter of dispute, even now. Joe will tell you that I did a spit-take with the stuff, known as white lightning, and sprayed it back into the glass, becoming a wholesale embarrassment to bourbon drinkers everywhere. In my version of the story, the hooch spews gently from my mouth and into the cup whence it came.

In any event, Joe got quite a kick out of that scene, laughing as if he were watching one of those sitcoms where the city slicker comes to humiliation in front of the country folk, a sort of "Green Acres" with me in the Zsa Zsa role. Small wonder, then, that he was so gung-ho about me selling beers at the Kellie Pickler concert the next night.

How that came about: At the Kentucky Hall of Fame reception I bumped into Dixie Hibbs, who until last year was the mayor of Bardstown and who, she is quick to tell you, was the first woman ever to make it into the Bourbon Hall of Fame. Hibbs, who has since moved on to philanthropic pursuits, told me she has been trying to raise money to put a new roof on the Wickland mansion, a 19th-century Georgian treasure in town. Pickler (who rose to prominence after achieving sixth place in Season 5 of "American Idol") would be performing with country singer Blake Shelton at the Bluegrass Entertainment & Expo Center, and all profits from beer and soda sales would go toward that new roof.

"Do it! You have to do it!" said Joe, predictably.

"Why? They're not even serving bourbon."

"It'll be an experience. And besides, this is Kentucky. Someone's bound to have bourbon."

The someone Joe was referring to was Hibbs's grandson Adam, who works at Toddy's Liquors in Bardstown and who Joe was convinced would hook us up with cheap bourbon.

"Are you sure?" I said.

"Of course," Joe said.

"I'll pick you up in front of Toddy's at 5:45," Hibbs said.

I shouldn't have fallen for it, but after a few more hours on the Bourbon Trail, my resistance had weakened. After the Maker's Mark scene, Joe and I had driven to Heaven Hill's distillery, home of the venerable Evan Williams bourbon brand. We sat through the obligatory historicopromotional film and then were escorted around the distillery by a "bourbon host" named Joan. Like all of our guides and indeed most of the people I met in Bardstown, Joan was a feisty woman of a certain age: Carrie Nation, but with a bourbon bottle instead of the Bible.

She took us through the warehouses, beastly hot in the summer, freezing in the winter, where bourbon sits in barrels for five years or sometimes twice that, while the oak and alcohol combine to produce the spirit's distinctive taste and amber color. We walked and walked around the grounds, just as we later did at the Jim Beam distillery in Clermont and later still at the Wild Turkey distillery in Lawrenceburg, and which we might have done at the distilleries for Buffalo Trace, Woodford Reserve and Four Roses. But no matter how much you love free bourbon, a man can watch only so many historicopromotional films in a day, and besides, it was almost time to meet Dixie Hibbs at Toddy's.

There are moments in life when you wonder about the road less traveled, when you ask yourself, Is this all there is, or would I be happier selling beer at a Kellie Pickler concert in rural Kentucky? I was having one of those moments on the way to Toddy's. Without exception, every person I'd come upon in Bardstown was friendly, courteous, all the virtues. They truly did take pride in their traditions and rich history and all that other brochure stuff. They reveled in simplicity but not backwardness -- they knew what they were getting with Kellie Pickler -- and wouldn't dare miss a free concert under the stars on a Kentucky fall evening. I got Bardstown.

I saw her, standing next to her car, before she saw me. Even from a block away I could tell there was something different about Hibbs. The blue stretch pants were the same but now they were matched by her demeanor, which appeared to have lost its sunniness. Next to her was her grandson.

"Kellie Pickler has strep throat. I'm Adam," he said, when I got to the car.

"Scoot over, Adam," said a sullen Hibbs, introducing me to a third member of the back seat, a visitor from Dallas who also had been recruited for beer duty. "Blake Shelton will just have to play longer, that's all."

The car was quiet on the way to the fairgrounds, and I decided that now would not be the proper time to steer the conversation toward free bourbon. Besides, Adam informed his grandmother that he would be able to help her for only a few hours.

"I heard you the first time," Hibbs said.

We'd been told to expect a lighter crowd and paltry beer sales as a result of the Pickler cancellation, but wouldn't you know it, the opposite turned out to be the case. Having been judged "good with numbers" by yet another woman frosted and feisty, I was assigned to sell beer tickets, which I did nonstop for the next four hours, except for the few blessed minutes when Shelton sang "Ol' Red," his hit song about a man and the dog he befriends while in prison. Otherwise, my line was usually 50 deep, and the longer the customers waited, the louder, madder and less Bardstownish they got.

"Are you gonna give me a cold one this time?" screamed a blond in tight jeans at one point. " 'Cause that last one was hotter than horse [urine]."

"I . . . Sure."

"Is she giving you problems?" asked a biker chick within earshot. "Don't let that Jezebel talk to you like that."

"What did you call me, [female dog]?"

"Je. Ze. Bel."

"Get over here, [female dog]."

The two disappeared into the crowd and were never heard from again.

"Well, I guess it's my turn," laughed a man in a Jim Beam T-shirt. "I'll have a bourbon and Coke."

"I'm sorry, sir. All we have is beer and soda."

"Let me get this straight. This is Kentucky and there's no [flippin'] bourbon? Are you [flippin'] kidding me?" He turned to his friend. "This [male illegitimate child] says they don't have any bourbon."

"Why the hell not?"

"I don't know why not," I yelled back. "It doesn't make any sense to me either. I'm only here because my [flippin'] friend Joe told me I'd get some cheap bourbon out of the deal, and if that [manure]-head was here right now, I'd beat the [darn] [flippin'] [manure] out of him."

The men looked at each other for a moment.

"It's all right, buddy. I'll have a beer."

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