Louisville, Ky.—Yo, Napa Valley winemakers, better watch your backs. The South is rising again, this time in a battle for tourist dollars.
In an effort to win hearts, minds and a larger market share, the bourbon distilleries of Kentucky are "taking a page from the book of California's vintners," said David Pickerell, head of production for silky-smooth Maker's Mark bourbon whiskey.
"We sometimes refer to it as wine country with stone fences," said state tourism official Jayne McClew.
There are some differences: no vineyards, for instance. But there are lush, rolling hills, huge casks of spirits quietly aging in dark warehouses and fun tours that sometimes end with free tastings. And these samples are 40% to 60% alcohol or more, not wine's paltry 5% to 13%.
That's why I visited here a couple of weeks ago and happily sipped my way around bourbon country in the Bluegrass State -- taking care, of course, not to sip and drive. In the process, I learned a lot about the whiskey called bourbon, the down-home folks who make it and the picturesque thoroughbred horse country of central Kentucky, where many of the distilleries are.
At the Jim Beam distillery in Clermont, I walked into the elegant Victorian house where tastings are held and found five young ad agency employees from Chicago grinning widely and holding thin crystal glasses up to the light. They were sniffing and swishing and tasting -- just as they would have at a winery.
"We're just sipping mash and talking trash," said one.
"Yowch," bellowed another, surprised at the kick from the uncut, unfiltered Booker's Bourbon, which is bottled at 121 to 127 proof (more than 60% alcohol).
Lately I'd been hearing more about bourbon, even before visiting Kentucky. The rich amber liquid, which began to fall out of favor during the '70s, is seeing an upswing in popularity, particularly in trendy bars and restaurants in America's large cities. And it's the expensive, premium bourbons -- ranging from $20 to $250 a bottle -- that are leading the charge.
"It's definitely coming back into full fashion," said Heather Simon, lead bartender at the Cameo in Santa Monica's Viceroy Hotel. The bar's top-selling bourbon drink is the Knob Creek Manhattan, which features a 9-year-old premium Jim Beam bourbon. In New York City at the boutique Time Hotel, Knob Creek is the primary ingredient in the bar's popular Country Time Martini. At the Bellagio hotel and casino in Las Vegas, Maker's Mark is ordered so frequently that it's now "on the gun" and can be automatically dispensed by bartenders to save time.
In Kentucky, bourbon drinking probably hits its peak on the first Saturday in May on Derby Day -- the Big Event of the year. The Kentucky Derby, May 3 this year, features three things the region is renowned for: fast horses, fine bourbon and blueblood families. More than 80,000 mint juleps, featuring premium Woodford Reserve bourbon, will be sold Derby weekend at Churchill Downs racetrack in Louisville (pronounced loo-ah-ville). It will also be poured in massive quantities in the richly furnished salons of old-line aristocrats, many of whom raise and race thoroughbreds, and in Millionaires Row, a reserved area of the grandstand where tickets are selling for $4,000 to $5,500 each.
But Kentucky is a state of many contradictions. While it makes more than 90% of the world's bourbon, the whiskey can be sold in fewer than half its 120 counties. The rest are dry, meaning alcohol sales are not allowed.
"Most of Kentucky's still living in Prohibition," drawled Jimmy Russell, the man behind the Wild Turkey brand, when I stopped by his distillery, high on a hill overlooking the Kentucky River in Lawrenceburg.
Russell, 68, is the master distiller, the man responsible for quality. Like the Wild Turkey motto -- "Not the latest thing, the genuine thing" -- Russell is the genuine thing. An affable, aw-shucks sort of guy, he's as likely to lead a distillery tour as he is to sit behind a desk.
"This is the last place for 100 miles that you can find a bar or a restaurant that serves liquor. You know why? Southern Baptists and bootleggers. And neither of them wants the law to change," Russell said.
Wild Turkey's tour takes visitors into the buildings where fermenting vats and stills turn grains -- corn, rye and barley -- into "white dog," a clear, uncut, unaged liquid similar to the moonshine still made in parts of the Kentucky hills.
"Here, taste this," Russell said, handing me a glass. Was that a touch of a grin I saw?
"Ha, your face is puckering up," he said as my eyes began to water and my knees began to knock. "Burns all the way down, doesn't it? Makes my toes get warm," he said gleefully.