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On the Bourbon Trail
Finding Treasures in Your Own Backyard

Posted: May 4, 2005

By Jerald O'Kennard, jerald@tastings.com

The lush, rolling countryside of Kentucky is home to some of the finest horses and friendliest people that you’re ever likely to meet. And as almost every whisky drinker knows, it’s also the home of one the world greatest spirits, bourbon whiskey. What’s not so well known is that every September the bourbon industry takes a week off from the stills and marketing offices and welcomes the world to its doorstep in the picturesque small town of Bardstown for the annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival.

Last year, I was fortunate enough to attend the numerous public and trade events organized around the festival. Everything from barrel making shows and races, to charitable auctions of rare, Pre-Prohibition bottles of whiskey, to extensive distillery tours and tastings. Anyone with even a passing fancy for bourbon will walk away from the festival a zealous convert armed with an arsenal of miniature bottles, BBQ sauces, tasting glasses, and great stories about the rich history and traditions of the bourbon families and companies.

Having already been proselytized, I walked away with a lot of “insider information” about the cordially competitive relationship between the producers, new products (and the resurrection of old ones like Old Pogue), distilling facts and history, and a great respect for the fascinating combination of down-home gentility, grace, and international-corporate-savvy that characterizes the people in the bourbon business.

As far as facts go, did you know that the excise taxes paid by the bourbon industry are the second largest source of income for the US government—after the IRS? Or that the bourbon industry, because it can only use its character-defining, charred oak barrels once, is the largest supplier of used oak barrels for the rum, tequila, and Scotch whisky producers of the world? As Fred Noe, the great-grandson of Jim Beam, will tell you that’s what makes Scotch whisky OK, “`Cause it’s got a little bourbon in it.”

Some of the more interesting things going on these days are the various ways that producers are trying to recapture market share that was steadily lost in the last quarter century or so to rum and vodka. The largest bourbon producer, Jim Beam Brands, does extensive promotion of its core brand Jim Beam “White Label” by sponsoring numerous music concerts and events to try and capture the critical twenty-one to thirty-year-old market as well as enticing more sophisticated drinkers with its small-batch bourbon collection and Jim Beam Black. Maker’s Mark Distillery, a relatively small yet seemingly omnipresent, single brand producer focuses on grassroots promotion through bars and retailers and very catchy image branding with its distinctive red-wax-motif advertisements and paraphernalia.

Brown-Forman’s Master Distiller, Chris Morris, is trying a different approach. He’s focusing on educating consumers about the different types and characters of bourbon whiskies with the hopes that increased consumer understanding will lead to increased sales for their (and other!) bourbon brands, Old Forester and Woodford Reserve. To accomplish this he’s devised a category system (with representative examples) for what they say are the three primary bourbon types: “Soft & Sweet” (Makers’ Mark); “Robust and Spicy” (Wild Turkey); and “Extra Aged/Wood Character” (Knob Creek.) He and former Master Distiller Lincoln Henderson used this model to create a combination all of these attributes for the “honey-barrel” flavor character of Woodford Reserve bourbon. A subsequent tasting of the representative brands and Woodford Reserve confirmed their work and, hopefully, this will be a useful tool to help people find the right whiskey for their tastes. A noble effort indeed.

Earlier this year we conducted our own tasting of North American whiskies and found some great examples of bourbon, Canadian, and Tennessee whiskies. Of particular note were two vibrant bourbons from the Buffalo Trace Distillery, Eagle Rare 10 Year Old Bourbon (92 points) and Buffalo Trace Bourbon (93 points). We hope that all the efforts of our friends in Kentucky will be successful in persuading you to try and to perhaps rediscover America’s only indigenous spirit. Consider it a patriotic duty.

If you are at all interested in experiencing the warmth and culture of bourbon community, I highly recommend that you go to www.kybourbonfestival.com for information about this year’s festival. In the meantime, the following links will take you to recommended products from our recent and North American whiskey tastings and perhaps down the whisky path that leads to you nearest retailer!

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