By Doug Graves
LEXINGTON, Ky. – While Kentucky might be best known for its horse racing, the state’s production of bourbon is also a major player in the state’s economy. Kentucky’s $9 billion bourbon industry accounts for a third of all distilling jobs in the United States (22,500) and 95 percent of the global bourbon supply.
Kentucky’s natural environment and weather are perfect for bourbon distilling, so when European immigrants (who knew how to distill spirits) settled in Kentucky in the 1700s, it was a match made in whiskey heaven.
“Distilleries, jobs, wages, revenue and investment are up triple digits across the board in the last 12 years,” said Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear. “This amber wave has spurred more corn production, barrel cooperages and other supply-side manufacturers that are sustaining families and adding vibrancy to local communities.”
As a way of educating the next generation of distillers, The James B. Beam Institute for Kentucky Spirits, in collaboration with the Kentucky Distillers’ Association (KDA), will hold the 4th annual Bourbon Industry Conference March 13-15 at the University of Kentucky Gatton Student Center in Lexington. The Beam Institute is led by the UK College of Agriculture, Food and Environment.
“This conference will assist distillers through curriculum and events that develop skills for undergraduates, graduate students and professionals in the distilled spirits in Kentucky and beyond,” said Seth DeBolt, Beam Institute director. “It incorporates a dynamic mix of business, technical and sustainability talks. The talks this year will be outstanding and serve to tackle emerging and current issues. This is always a great few days and we price it incredibly affordable to serve our stakeholders and allow everyone in the industry to attend.”
According to DeBolt, the conference is annually attended by scientists, farmers, representatives and staff from regional, national and international distilleries, secondary industries and tourism for three days of continuing education.
“This conference brings together the best leaders, visionaries, researchers and pioneers that the signature industry has to offer for an event for anyone involved in distilling,” said KDA President Eric Gregory. “The innovations in research, cutting-edge technologies and best practices are incredibly valuable. This event is great if you want to know what’s what and who’s who in the distilling industry.”
Kentuckians can credit the state’s status in the bourbon industry to the first European settlers who arrived in Harrodsburg, Ky., roughly 250 years ago. They came with something crucial in tow: the first rugged stills and the knowledge from their homelands to use them.
Further settlement of Virginia’s Kentucky County was incentivized by the Corn Patch & Cabin Rights Act in 1776, which offered 400 acres to any settlers who built cabins and planted corn. This led to the wholesale cultivation of corn and thus provided the foundation for the classic bourbon mash bill – a unique mixture of grains that are cooked, fermented, then distilled. By law, every bourbon mash bill must contain 51 percent corn, leaving the other 49 percent up to the distiller (normally a mix of rye, wheat and malted barley).
To pay off the significant debt incurred by the American Revolution, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton proposed an excise tax upon spirits distilled within the United States. Congress passed legislation in 1791, imposing the first ever tax on a domestic product.
The Louisiana Purchase in 1803 opened markets for trade in southern states along the Mississippi River. This meant that whiskey could now be shipped downstream from Kentucky and sold further south into New Orleans. Steamboats are credited with playing an important role in the growth and distribution of Kentucky bourbon.
In 1818, Catherine Carpenter, of Casey County, recorded the first-known recipe for sour mash, a game-changing technique that enabled a more consistent whiskey-making process and product. Eventually, James C. Crow went on to industrialize the method in the 1830s.
Until the 1840s, whiskey generally was referred to generically or given name of the closest town, that is, Bardstown whiskey. Historians are split. Some say that the name “bourbon” actually originated from a long lineage of French royalty. Others believe the name was derived from Bourbon Street in New Orleans, the final destination of much of the whiskey from Kentucky. In fact, Bourbon County in Kentucky was named in honor of the French royal family who had provided military and financial assistance to the colonies during the Revolutionary War.
In 1870, George Garvin Brown innovated the bourbon packaging process by producing the first bourbon sold exclusively in sealed, glass bottles. Prior to that, distillers packaged their whiskey in barrels and kegs.
By 1880, bourbon distillers met in Louisville to form the KDA for the purpose of protecting America’s spirit from needless and obstructive laws and regulations. (The KDA is one of the oldest trade associations in the U.S., older than 13 states, the Statue of Liberty and even zippers).
By 1920, Prohibition came, a time when bourbon barons fell, bootleggers ran rampant and one needed a doctor’s prescription to get hands on some whiskey. Prior to the 18th amendment, Kentucky was home to more than 200 distillers. By the time it was all said and done, only 34 went on to re-open. Just six distillers were able to operate at all during Prohibition.
When the 21st amendment was ratified in 1933, Prohibition was repealed and “the Great Experiment” finally came to an end. By 1938, the number of distilleries operating in Kentucky had climbed back up to 70 and the industry was back with a vengeance.
In 1919, Ruth Hanly Booe and her friend, Rebecca Gooch, left teaching to start a candy business in Frankfort, Ky. They perfected the process of blending bourbon and candy, creating the famed, tasty bourbon balls. In fact, the Gooch House where the boozy confection was invented now serves as the headquarters for the KDA.
In the mid-1950s, the one-of-a-kind, full-flavored Maker’s Mark bourbon emerged. Credit to this bourbon goes to Margie Samuels, who made the brew then used a home fryer to melt wax and hand-dip the bottles from her kitchen. The traditional melting of each bottle top is still performed to this day.
Congress recognized bourbon whiskey a distinctive product of the United States by Congressional Resolution on May 4, 1964. It then became official: no other country in the world can produce bourbon. And now everyone knows, bourbon’s roots began in Kentucky.
Most of the world’s bourbon comes from 70 distilleries in Kentucky. All of the big bourbon names are found in the Bluegrass State – Jim Beam, Woodford Reserve, Maker’s Mark and Wild Turkey, among others.
Early bird registration for the full conference is $300 and $175 for one-day passes through Jan. 27. Starting Jan. 28, full conference registration will increase to $350 and day passes will increase to $200. Faculty registration is $100 and student registration is $25. The price includes educational sessions, exhibits, lunch and snacks and networking opportunities. To register as a participant or vendor, visit the conference page at https://bit.ly/BEAMCONFERENCE23.