When you picture the places that define American capitalism, what do you think of? Stoic, looming Wall Street skyscrapers? The low-lying urban sprawl of Hollywood? My money's on the fact that you don't think of the white picket fences and rolling valleys of rural Kentucky – bourbon country.
And yet, when it comes to building and strengthening its economy, at least historically speaking, the US owes arguably as much to whiskey as its banking and film industries put together. American whiskey has been used as a currency; it's got the country through civil and international wars; it's been drunk by everyone from blue-collar working men to presidents. The story goes that the term 'brand name' came from the whiskey industry, when the spirit became drinkable enough to market based on the distillery it came from, and the name was literally branded onto the barrels of the first few truly profitable gallons of the liquid.
But there is a curious dichotomy around bourbon, which has been the US's favoured whiskey since its inception in the 1800s. It's in many ways the classic frontier spirit – an unfussy, easy-drinking style of whiskey (that's whiskey with an 'e', because it's American) distilled largely from corn, malted barley and rye. It's traditionally, but not exclusively, created in Kentucky, and characterised by a sweetness from its high corn content (a minimum of 51%, according to the traditional recipe or 'mash bill'). It's made with natural limestone-fed water, aged in new, charred, American oak barrels and sipped slowly and unassumingly.
But in the 21st century its reputation at the high end of the market is booming, just as it was at the low end in the 19th, as more distillers create and curate fantastic examples of the spirit and sell them at appropriately lofty prices. This is what the industry denominates 'super-premium' bourbon.
One such exponent of the more recent whiskey revolution is Woodford Reserve. You'd almost certainly recognise Woodford's whiskey from the dominant, balls-out (and, according to the brand's master distiller Chris Morris, particularly expensive) bottle. Ever since I first tasted it I've loved the idea of its distillery in old Woodford County – the heart of bourbon country – which looks so beautiful in pictures it's almost too good to be true.
But is it? That's the main question that comes to mind when I get the chance to go and pay it a visit in person – first at the official launch of its brand new rye whiskey in New York, and then 'in person' at the distillery itself. It's the chance to see where the whiskey lives, and where it's born; the fast-paced, ever-evolving mixology scene of Manhattan and the sleepy, bucolic setting where it starts its journey.
Bourbon, and Woodford Reserve in particular, thrives in the bars of London, New York and New Orleans. But it's created in Versailles, in Woodford County, Kentucky, a place that's breathtaking in its rural beauty; in its undeniable Americana-ness. Put simply, it's exactly the kind of place you would hope to find a whiskey distillery: its buildings painting a landscape in golden wood and red bricks, and seasoning the surroundings with the unmistakable smell of bourbon drifting through the air.
While some distilleries look more industrial than agrarian, the setting here is no coincidence. Woodford as a brand is very up-front about its relative youth (having been set up by Brown-Forman as a super-premium, small-batch bourbon in 1996), but the distillery itself has been there since 1812.
"We weren't making Woodford there at the time," says the bourbon's brand ambassador Tom Vernon. "But Elijah Pepper and Oscar Pepper were making whiskey there with Dr James Crow." Those are three luminaries of the bourbon's boom time – though the distillery's buildings look new, make no mistake: this is hallowed ground.
"It was kept going through prohibition, and the guy who owned it before Brown-Forman was a farmer, so he just wanted the land. He kept the distillery in the middle of it just because he thought it looked so pretty. So we were very lucky that the distillery was still there, and it's still the original site from 1812 – nothing's changed; we haven't added anything to it."
Reid Mitenbuler, self-professed whiskey geek and author of the excellent Bourbon Empire: The Past and Future of America's Whiskey, is effusive in his praise for the site upon which Woodford is made. "For me, if someone's doing a tour, it's probably the prettiest distillery out there," he tells me. "It's in the middle of horse country, all the bluegrass – just to get there you've got to go on that winding path. One time I went there was even a light spring rain," he says, painting a picture for me that makes me long to come back again soon.
"It's peak relaxation – the patter of rain on these really green leaves, a little creek burbling by, old stone – you get that whiskey smell. It's a total experience."
Bourbon and its birthplace are indelibly linked, and you can find traces of one running throughout the other. Even Kentucky's state motto is 'unbridled spirit' – a veiled reflection of its pride in its marquee product. It also seems to me a state that's perfectly suited to an aged product. You'll rarely find bourbon aged for decades like scotch – Kentucky's hot summers and cold winters mean the spirit ages much more quickly – but it's still a liquid that doesn't rush itself.
A walk through the barrel house gently presses that point home. Barrels are laid on tall shelves, being turned intermittently, for six to eight years, and the dustiness, the beautiful aroma, and the quiet, contemplative, restful feel of the place – even more so than the sun-kissed distillery itself, with its leafy gardens and babbling brooks – makes time feel like it's standing still. I'm filled with something approaching childlike excitement when I'm allowed to taste some whiskey straight from the barrel – something few who tour the distillery get to do.
That's the spirit
If you want to read more about whiskey's unique heritage and culture, as well as the part the drink has played in shaping American economics and politics during the 19th and early 20th century, look no further than Reid Mitenbuler's Bourbon Empire: The Past and Future of America's Whiskey. The book provides a clear, concise and often witty picture of the spirit's incomparable story.
Published by Viking (US). Buy it here.
Meandering through this otherworldly rural setting feels a world away from sites you might attribute to the bourbon boom we're seeing now; from the racks of high-end bars, where it's turned from sipping whiskey into something altogether more experimental.
I love cocktail culture – bars such as Nightjar, where the spirit is mixed in everything from the classic Old Fashioned to off-the-wall house signatures like the Horse's Neck, with cream soda and wasabi – but this is something else. The chance to experience, first hand, the place where the spirit is born – a place whose unforgettable stamp is all over the spirit itself – makes the soul sing.
Kentucky may be a curious case – a juxtaposition of Northern and Southern mentalities; a state whose largest city is home to one of the world's biggest logistics companies, but whose rural areas are designed for wasting blissful, dilatory days; whose history is intimately linked to the inception of capitalism, through the creation of a spirit aged for years and sipped slow.
Here, though, in Versailles, Woodford County, KY, with the smell of wood and whiskey in the air, the other side of the state – the serious side – feels a whole world away.