Column: Kentucky Bourbon News Is Good Medicine For American Whiskey

| December 1, 2020

Despite the gut punch bourbon tourism took from COVID-19, Kentucky distilleries never stopped humming along 24-7, making your favorite American whiskeys. Production numbers for 2019 (released in October of 2020) for distilleries topped 2018 numbers with new records: 2.1 million barrels filled (vs. 1.7 million in 2018) and 9.86 million barrels in aging (vs. 9.1 million in 2018). In the only U.S. state to tax whiskey while it ages, that adds up to a lot of revenue for schools in the Bluegrass. So, to all Kentucky whiskey lovers, thanks for the boost and keep drinking our products!

But record production is creating even better news. The whiskey industry here is incredibly generous, helping public and private causes with big checks, donated barrels and bottles. But amid the pandemic, Maker’s Mark is doing something extraordinary in partnership with the LEE Initiative, a restaurant-centric relief organization.

In March, when the pandemic forced restaurant closures nationwide, the LEE Initiative created the Restaurant Workers Relief Program (RWRP) to feed restaurant industry employees struggling financially due to virus-related closings. LEE Initiative cofounders chef and restaurateur Edward Lee and Lindsey Ofcacek turned Lee’s acclaimed 610 Magnolia restaurant into a place to prep and pass out meals. On opening day, 250 meals were given away; 350 more the next day. Meal counts only grew from there.

Maker’s Mark CommUNITY Bourbon

Maker’s Mark CommUNITY Bourbon (image via Maker’s Mark)

“It showed us this was a serious crisis, and that people were going to be suffering for the long run,” said Lee. “Who knew back then that this would become an 8-month-long ordeal we now know will go much longer?”

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Maker’s Mark learned of the relief effort and donated money to support it, and helped RWRP expand to 19 U.S. cities. As of November, RWRP has served 600,000 meals.

Wanting to do more, Maker’s Mark then envisioned donating a special-release bourbon that could be sold and generate proceeds RWRP. It wouldn’t be another collector’s edition beauty bottle for which the brand is known, rather it be centered on its Private Selection releases. (If you’re not familiar with these jewels, click here for some insight.)

To create the special bottling, Maker’s Mark’s director of innovation, Jane Bowie, asked multiple restaurants, bars and other businesses if they’d contribute their “recipe” (i.e. unique combination of finishing staves for their Private Selection barrel) to make a mega-mingling of Private Selections. In all 37 recipes were contributed, and Maker’s Mark recreated them all in 37 separate barrels. After the standard 9-week Private Selection rest in Maker’s Whisky Cave, the barrels were dumped into a stainless-steel tank for mingling, then returned to the original barrels for five more weeks. After the second dump, the whiskey mingled two weeks more in stainless before bottling.

“You’re talking 37 barrels of whiskeys with strong personalities,” Bowie said of the appropriately named CommUNITY batch. “The vatting really created something new; a completely different whiskey.”

The 107.7 proof result is loaded with dark and cooked fruits, browned butter and honey, high-cacao chocolate and baking spices. It is visibly darker than other Private Selection iterations, bold and multidimensional, gigantic on the palate and packs a lengthy, warm finish. It begs to be paired neat with grilled steak, brisket, prime rib or pan-seared duck.

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Lee stated that 95 cents of every dollar gained through his group’s relief efforts go directly to aid. That’s a great thing when you’re talking about 7,500 bottles of whiskey sold for $70 each!

“Our accountant didn’t believe (we could do that),” Lee said. “The average is 60 cents of every dollar donated to charity going to aid.”

Click here to find out how to get one of these beauts. PS: Maker’s made clear that the lion’s share of these bottles will be released Dec. 1 in Kentucky, so put your Bluegrass bottle hunters on watch.

New book details Bardstown’s bourbon-blamed growing pains: Shameless plug alert—This year I co-authored a book titled, “The Rebirth of Bourbon: Building a Tourism Economy in Small-Town, USA.” The title refers to the ongoing bourbon boom and its impact on tourism in Bardstown, the rightfully self-proclaimed “Bourbon Capital of the World.” My research included 54 interviews with everyone from distillery owners, bar and restaurant owners, hoteliers, tourism experts, etc., to examine the effects of whiskey-loving crowds converging on this quaint, 13,500-resident town. Some view as similar to what happened in Napa Valley, Calif., when American wine took off in the 1980s, but in reality, the similarities are few, and that’s the way it should be.

Wine making and whiskey making are agricultural pursuits, and that’s about where the two diverge. How each is made and the unique cultures that have evolved around them are vastly different—which is a great thing if you like both, which I do. The book reports on the difficult adjustments Bardstown is making to accommodate the surging number of tourists, but it also includes loads of fun stories from the funny, friendly people there. Click here to get your personalized copy.

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A truly good guy gets some deserved props: If you don’t know Shane Baker, he’s co-founder and master distiller at Wilderness Trail Distillery (WTD), and one of the friendliest guys in the business. That’s saying a lot given the competition includes his best friend and WTD cofounder Pat Heist, who’s equally funny and friendly. Both are serious about whiskey making and WTD is one of the best new(ish) distilleries in the country. Their continually sprawling operation in Danville should be on your must-visit list when you visit Kentucky.

In November, the Kentucky Distillers’ Association honored Baker with the Esprit de Corps Award, which praises those who personify the industry’s spirit of camaraderie and integrity. Not only does Baker deserve the award, it’s one locals probably think took too long for him to receive.

Bourbon events returning in 2021: In hopes that these much-ballyhooed coronavirus vaccines do the trick, organizers of two large bourbon events have released their dates for 2021. The Kentucky Bourbon Festival will take place in Bardstown, Ky., on Sept. 16-19, and the Bourbon Classic, will move from its normal spring spot to November 3-6 in Louisville, Ky. To see those events come back next year would be giant steps toward a national return to normality.

The Whisky Exchange
The Whisky Exchange


Steve Coomes

Steve Coomes is an award-winning journalist and book author specializing in whiskey and food. In his 30-year career, he has edited and written for national trade and consumer publications including USA Today, Southern Living, Delta Sky Magazine, Nation’s Restaurant News, Pizza Today, Restaurant Business, Bourbon + and American Whiskey magazine....