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A Shot of America

Born in the USA, Bourbon in the '90s--like coffee in the '80s--is making a comeback with more premium brands and marketing smarts.

October 07, 1998|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Twelve hundred people crowded into a big white tent Sept. 19, the men in tuxedos, the women in formal gowns. You heard a lot of gracious Kentucky accents in the excited crush but also Japanese and even Czech.

Well, sure. The Black Tie Bourbon-Tasting Gala is the highlight of the International Bourbon Festival held in Bardstown, Ky., every year. But it does have its peculiar aspects. For starters, a lot of people think of Bourbon as an earthy, working-guy sort of drink, not particularly black-tie at all.

And nothing might seem less international. Bourbon is utterly American; it's the only form of liquor actually invented in this country. From the start, it was the drink of the frontier. When a cowboy asked for a shot of "red-eye," he was calling for this reddish-amber whiskey.

The annual Bourbon Festival--this year's was the seventh--is part of a Bourbon comeback that parallels what happened in the coffee trade in the 1980s. International marketing agreements had discouraged excellence in coffee, and coffee-drinking had declined; then the agreements were scrapped and premium coffee spearheaded a coffee renaissance.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday October 14, 1998 Home Edition Food Part H Page 2 Food Desk 1 inches; 18 words Type of Material: Correction
In last week's Bourbon story, the date of the fire at the Heaven Hill distillery was given as Nov. 7, 1966. It was actually in 1996.

Likewise, 45 years ago, when 40% of the liquor sold in this country was Bourbon, the economic outlook convinced most distillers to concentrate on low price rather than on premium quality. The result: decades of declining sales. Bourbon now accounts for only 8% of the liquor market.

The bright side of this picture is that Kentucky eventually learned what Scotland had long known with its single-malt Scotches; namely, that people will pay extra for extra quality. Every Bourbon distiller now produces premium and even super-premium bottlings. There are dozens made exclusively for the Bourbon-mad Japanese market.

There's another parallel with coffee. Wine comes in so many forms--red, white, sweet, bubbly, fortified, to say nothing of the various grape varieties--that the differences between wines are obvious. By contrast, all coffee tastes pretty much like coffee, and all Bourbon tastes like Bourbon. The differences are more subtle than among wines but no less fascinating.

Foodies, it must be said, have been a little slow to pick up on the Bourbon revival. But Booker's (Jim Beam), Blanton's (Leestown Distillers), Kentucky Spirit (Wild Turkey) and other super-premiums have been impressive. So this year I used the Bourbon Festival as an occasion to learn a little about the resurgent Kentucky spirit and the people who make it.

Brown-Forman Distillers, situated in Louisville, played a crucial role in establishing Bourbon as a quality drink about 125 years ago. Until that time, whiskey had always been sold by the jug. You took your jug to a "barrel house" where it was filled before your eyes, but nobody knew whether the owner had adulterated his barrels, or with what. George Garvin Brown was the one who first sold Bourbon in sealed bottles. Those original bottles are the model for the sturdy, handsome bottles Brown-Forman uses for Woodford Reserve, its new premium brand. (See "The Littlest Distillery," this page.) Its old premium line is Old Forester; its biggest seller is Jack Daniels, which is actually made in Tennessee.

The company Brown founded has a sophisticated, urbane style. One of its Louisville office buildings is a former barrel-aging warehouse that has been California-ized with fountains and a central air shaft lit by a skylight. Brown-Forman actively encourages its employees to train their tasting abilities in its sensory evaluation laboratory. A sensitive sniffer can earn such prizes as a better parking place.

There's one other distiller in Louisville, with the significant name United Distillers. It represents the merger of a number of old-time operations including, Schenley, Fleischmann and Medley. (Consolidation has long been the name of the game in Bourbon; see "So Many Brands," H6.)

For a while, U.D. operated two distilleries. A sign in front of one of them read "No Chemists Allowed." That distillery was recently shut down and is being used only for warehousing these days.

Meanwhile, a state-of-the-art new distillery was built on the other site in 1992. And it's run by a chemist, Michael Wright.

This is the most completely automated Bourbon distillery yet. Apart from Wright, the entire staff is two assistants who monitor computer screens and two men "in the field" who do a few manual chores such as tank clean-up.

Everything from dumping grain into the mash cooker to sending the raw whiskey to the barreling operation is computer-controlled. Wright points out that there isn't a single manual valve in the plant. "Yes," he observes matter-of-factly, "year 2000 is a serious concern with us."

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