Full steam ahead in Kentucky

Full steam ahead in Kentucky

The times they are a-changing in Kentucky as the bourbon producers enjoy a renewed interest in their products. Dominic Roskrow reports

News | 30 Nov 2005 | Issue 52 | By Dominic Roskrow

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The road is a nightmare. Little more than an uneven dirt track, its entrance sufficiently concealed that we drive by it twice.We’re just outside Bardstown in Kentucky, and we’re meant to be getting a glimpse of bourbon’s future. Right now, in the dust and glare of the late summer sun, it seems we’re doing anything but.When we reach the site of the distillery, it doesn’t look promising. The ground is unkempt and overgrown, and littered with rusting pieces of farm machinery.The warehouses, which in Kentucky tend to be huge carbuncles, grim and unwelcoming at the best of times, are in a state of disrepair. The paint is flaking off them, and all the windows are broken.Finally we find signs of work in progress, paint and wooden floorboards placed by a warehouse door, so we park up and stroll across. And as soon as we enter the building our misgivings are thrown aside. Welcome to Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, a father and son operation with an eye on becoming the newest addition to the bourbon family.Actually we don’t get to meet Kulsveen senior. He’s up a ladder in the middle of installing the wooden beams that will one day form the floor for the planned tourist trail.Elsewhere it’s a hive of activity as work goes on to build an operational distillery.“We’re hoping to be making whiskey here in about a year from now,” son Even Kulsveen tells us. “We’ve been bottling for other people on site for some years but this is a dream of dad’s. We’re hoping to produce high quality small batch bourbon from new stills.” Life goes at a nice ‘n’ easy pace in Kentucky.Long before an Irish stout discovered the concept of waiting for the finer things in life, the bourbon folk had turned the philosophy in to an art form. One of the nice things of going back to Bardstown, Frankfort or any of the state of Kentucky’s towns, is you know that little will have changed since last time you were there.This year, though, something else is afoot.Not so much change as the feeling that bourbon is moving forward. It’s like one of the trusty old paddle steamers on the Ohio River in Louisville – looks the same, feels the same.But somebody’s fired up the engines and the paddles are turning.Over at Maker’s Mark Dave Pickerell has a theory about why that might be.“There are definitely two points of view about the position of bourbon, depending which side of the Atlantic you’re on,” he says.“Over in Europe there are those who believe that bourbon is being forced aside and Scotch single malt is the only thing that matters.“But there are plenty on this side of the Atlantic who believe that its day has yet to come, and there is a potential for bourbon to grow in both the standard and premium sectors. And the manufacturers are battling to establish their place in that growth.” For Maker’s Mark the sale of Allied is being regarded as good news, therefore.New owner Fortune, predicts Dave, will treat the brand seriously and give it the best shot. And indeed, by early November he was in London promoting the brand with its distinctive red wax top to interested parties – the most serious hands-on promotional activity for the brand in 12 years.With demand on the increase, distillers are facing up to the fact that their businesses may have to be reshaped. Across the state producers are predicting shortages of stocks or already experiencing them. Decisions are being made as to which markets to service. A consequence of such shortages is the rationalisation of some fringe brands as the distillers free up whiskey production for their big players. That’s what is happening down at Barton Brands, a monster of a distillery just a few hundred yards out of Bardstown. It boasts one of the success stories of recent years, with its Ridgemont Reserve 1792.It can also lay claim to the state’s youngest distiller – the highly affable Greg Davis, who takes us on a tour of the Barton site.Even in late summer the warehouses are scorching at the top levels and just about bearable at ground level. The highest warehouses at Barton have commanding views over the surrounding area, and as we sip 1792 drawn straight from the cask, Greg explains that the elements are key to 1792’s rich flavour.“Up here in summer you’re looking at 40 degree temperatures or more,” he says. “But in winter icy winds cut across here and bring snow. The difference in temperature across the year is massive and that has a big effect on the maturation of the whiskey.” 1792 is just one of several brands looking to establish itself as Europe’s best-placed premium bourbon. And when they’re not battling for that market, the distillers are branching out in to unchartered territory.Heaven Hill’s Bernheim Original Wheat Whiskey, for instance, has recently launched to almost unanimous approval. Limited to just 12 markets and already in short supply, the new whiskey has a minimum of 51 per cent winter wheat as well as corn and rye.The resulting whiskey is smooth and rich, and its mellowness means that drinkers who find bourbon too harsh but appreciate the style of American whiskey are particularly drawn to the product.“We hope our customers will see this as a true experiment in whiskey,” says master distiller Parker Beam.“Right from the start the wheat was a complete experiment. As we tested in the early years it seemed to mature at an accelerated pace and took on a sophistication typically reserved for older spirits.” Then experimentation bug has spread elsewhere in Kentucky, too. Over at Buffalo Trace, for instance, the traditional antique collection (featuring widely respected heavyweights Sazerac Rye 18 Years, George T Stagg and Eagle Rare 17 Years) has a new member: William Lerue Weller. Buffalo Trace’s Kris Comstock believes that the distilleries are finally set to take advantage of the growth in interest for premium whiskey – providing stocks last.“There can be no doubt that these are good times for bourbon, but some hard decisions have to be made,” he says. “Stock levels are an issue which all of us have to face up to. But there are worse problems to have.” Wheat, high maturation and heat have played a key role in the new whiskey’s development, too, because it has been matured for 12 years on the fifth floor of Warehouse Q at the Buffalo Trace distillery. It’s sold unfiltered, made to a full flavour, and it is a weighty 121.9 proof (66% ABV).Brown Forman isn’t missing out either, having launched the long-awaited four grain version of Woodford Reserve.And stable-mates and Tennessee gatecrashers Jack Daniel’s is also responding to an increased interest in small batch, limited or specialised whiskeys.“We’re getting orders for Single Barrel Jack Daniel’s from all over the world and from some pretty strange places,” says national brand manager Mark Grindstaff.“As a brand we have always enjoyed a huge level of loyalty but more people are now interested in taking it up a notch and seeking out the special versions such as Gentleman Jack and Single Barrel.” Elsewhere the like of Wild Turkey has experimented too, most recently with Wild Turkey Heritage, which is a blend of specially selected casks.It makes for heady times in Kentucky. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that it’s gone all modern on us suddenly, though.Back at the Talbott Tavern in Bardstown after two days of hearing about the future, myself, our sales guy Gordon and Glencairn Glass’s Paul Davidson are, as always, befriended by the locals. They are, almost inevitably, drinking Wild Turkey 101.Suddenly, one of my new friends going by the name of Dixie Hibbs, asks me if I’d like to speak to his grandmother. She is, he says, Mayor of Bardstown. And without further ado he dials the number.So there I am, large whiskey in hand, some time very late, thanking the Mayor for the city’s fine hospitality while she tries to work out whether I’m putting her on.It’s a truly surreal moment, the sort that seems to occur with remarkable frequency in Kentucky.No matter what happens to the bourbon, long may it continue.
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