A Fact-Soaked Odyssey Through Kentucky’s Bourbon Country

Senior Editor
05.03.16 23 Comments

Vince Mancini

It’s no coincidence that Patton Oswalt’s nerdy-outcast-all-grown-up character in Young Adult is into making whiskey. It’s easy to see how the process might appeal to anyone with a mind for nerdy minutiae. In a macro sense, it’s deceptively simple, like the plot outline of A New Hope. Take a sugary substance — a mash of fruit, grain, rice, potatoes, anything with starch, really — add yeast to convert starch into alcohol, boil off the alcohol to concentrate it, and voila! You’re distilling booze.

Dig a little deeper and things get mind-blowingly complex. Each step of the process involves a simple technical choice and an almost endless capacity for specialization and embellishment — world-building potential, to extend the Star Wars metaphor. And with possibility comes debate, factions, purism, pedantry. Rich with arcane jargon, historical trivia, and all manner of esoterica, liquor production and connoisseurship is the perfect hobby for the 21st century American adult. We may not have culture, but we have interests, dammit, and we’re willing to delve, to obsess. Nowadays, whiskey is yet another sandbox to play in, a kid’s tinker toy hobby with a grown up reward: You get to get drunk at the end.

That last part, of course, brings people together, “nerdy” or not. And it was mostly that step that brought me to Kentucky — that, along with an invite from Marriott and Maker’s Mark to sample their new “bourbon program.” I didn’t know what a “bourbon program” was, but it had “bourbon” in it so I figured it was worth investigating.

Since 2004, there’s been nearly a 40 percent growth in sales of bourbon and Tennessee whiskey in the United States, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS). Whiskey sales are expected to overtake vodka and tequila by 2018. You drink vodka when you want to get drunk, you drink whiskey when you want to get drunk while also discussing the vanilla notes and smoky profiles. That’s the perception, anyway.

Facty justifications aside, I jumped at the chance to see how the sausage was made, and so it was I eventually found myself in the Maker’s Mark plant in Loretto, Kentucky (one of the most out-of-the-way stops on the “Bourbon Trail”), listening to Maker’s Mark COO Rob Samuels deliver a lengthy spiel on the types of grain, wood, malt, aging, distilling, and bottling of the whiskey he extols for a living. Rob also happens to be the grandson of Maker’s Mark founder Bill Samuels Sr., whose family had been making whiskey since the Civil War days. Nice work if you can get it. Incidentally, Maker’s Mark was bought by Hiram Walker in 1981, and Jim Beam in 2005, and is now part of the Beam-Suntory “family.” But it still clings tightly to its “traditional methods.”

And I was about to find out just how tightly.