To proud Kentuckians, bourbon is spirit of America

June 30, 1991|By Chicago Tribune

BARDSTOWN, Ky. -- In such a health-conscious age, it migh seem strange that some Kentuckians celebrate their bourbon as proudly as their horses.

They have a Museum of Whiskey History here that portrays more than 200 tumultuous years of Kentucky bourbon as "the only truly American spirit."

And for a closer look -- or smell -- visitors are welcome to drive the twisting country roads to neighboring distilleries, where the air is heavy with the pungent aroma of fermenting sour mash.

But don't expect free samples.

Bourbon has meant cash to Kentucky since 1789, according to Flaget Nally, the museum's curator.

That's when the Rev. Elijah Craig, the legend goes, accidentally burned some white oak barrels he intended to fill with corn whiskey at his distillery in Kentucky's Bourbon County. Though some of the barrels were scorched inside, Craig -- being a thrifty sort -- decided to use them anyway.

The Baptist minister sent the whiskey to New Orleans, unaware that the charred wood had transformed the clear corn whiskey into a more mellow amber-colored drink that would make Kentucky famous.

"Bourbon was a different product -- in color, taste and aroma -- than ever before," explained Mr. Nally. "People in New Orleans said: 'Whatever they are making in Bourbon County, let's get more.' "

By 1850, everyone in Kentucky was charring their whiskey barrels-- and the rest, as they say, is history.

Which is why a whiskey museum stands in Bardstown.

"It chronicles the history of an industry never chronicled before," said Mr. Nally, from Colonial times, Carrie Nation and the Temperance Movement, through the Prohibition era and to the present.

Displayed are stills, a Victorian bar and antique bottles, jugs and barrels. There's an 1854 bottle produced by Philadelphia liquor dealer E. G. Booz, from whom the word "booze" originated, and a collection of never-opened bottles of Prohibition-era medicinal liquor -- obtainable only with a doctor's prescription.

Much of the collection was donated by the family of the late Oscar Getz, a Chicago distilling executive.

Last year, 42,000 visitors came to the museum's redbrick building, which once housed a college and a seminary.

"People have a great fascination with liquor and the distilling business," said Mr. Nally. "It's been a great tourist attraction and added a great sense of pride and dignity to the town."

Bourbon has been a major industry in central Kentucky, where as many as 2,000 distilleries once operated. Only a few are left.

But if the whiskey museum leaves visitors with a thirst for knowledge about how bourbon is produced, they are welcome to tour a distillery that is more than 100 years old and listed on the Interior Department's National Register of Historic Places.

Maker's Mark distillery is about 20 miles southeast of Bardstown.

There, visitors are likely to encounter tour guide Regina Johnson welcoming them with a tray of bourbon chocolates.

"You-all don't get samples [of whiskey] on the tour, I'll let you down right now," said Ms. Johnson in her dazzling Southern accent. "But when we get to the mash house, you can have a taste."

The distillery, a collection of dark-brown buildings with red shutters, has been in continuous operation for more than 100 years. It was cited by the Interior Department in 1974 and 1980 for historic significance -- one of 18 U.S. distilleries so designated since 1972. Nine are in Kentucky.

The tour starts from the visitors' center and passes the Quart House. According to Ms. Johnson, the building is "believed to be America's oldest package liquor store. Farmers came with their jugs and filled then from the barrels there."

Then on to the still house, where grain is cooked and placed in fermentation vats before distillation.

It takes about three days to make a batch of bourbon before it is placedin charred barrels to age for an average of six years. Legally, it must age one to two years in Kentucky to be called Kentucky bourbon.

"I'm even going to give you the recipe so you can go home and make some sour mash bourbon," said Ms. Johnson.

It's 75 percent corn, 10 percent rye and 15 percent barley malt, although Maker's Mark uses wheat instead of rye.

Eighty percent of the nation's bourbon is made in Kentucky, where limestone water supposedly imparts a unique taste.

One of the high points of the tour is seeing sour mash bubbling in eight 9,300-gallon wooden fermentation vats, their surfaces covered with cooked grain and resembling backwater swamps.

"This is where you get a taste of it, if you want," said Ms. Johnson, ceremoniously stirring a finger in one of the vats before popping it into her mouth with an impish grin. "You'll never know what it tastes like if you don't try." (It tastes like thin buttermilk.)

This is as close as anybody gets to taste the 90- and 101-proof bourbon.

"It's not like a winery," said Ms. Johnson. Samples could result in tipsy visitors -- and an encounter with federal revenuers.

The fermented grain is sold as cattle feed to nearby farmers. "That's why we have a lot of happy cattle around here," Ms. Johnson said.

In the bottling plant, Ms. Johnson pointed out that every bottle carries a health warning label.

"It tells you it's bad for you," she said with a grin.

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