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    Photo by Mickie Winters

    Here in Kentucky, much of the rhetoric surrounding bourbon is that if it’s not made here, it’s not the real deal.

    “When you go overseas and ask for bourbon, nine times out of 10 they’re going to try to sell you Jack Daniel’s,” says Chris Renninger, manager of bottling operations at beverage-development company Flavorman/the Distilled Spirits Epicenter, on Eighth Street just south of Broadway. “They don’t know. We don’t realize the word is not held in as high regard as it is here.”

    A 1964 U.S. Congress resolution established the guidelines once and for all: A legitimate bourbon must be made in the United States — not necessarily in Kentucky, though our state’s Distillers’ Association estimates that 95 percent of bourbon is produced here. Its mashbill must contain at least 51 percent corn. It must be aged in a new, charred oak barrel, distilled at no more than 160 proof, put into the barrel at no more than 125 proof and bottled at no more than 80 proof. To be a “straight” bourbon, it must age for at least two years. Straight bourbons aged fewer than four years must disclose that on the label. A bourbon cannot include any added coloring or flavoring. (Jack Daniel’s, a “Tennessee whiskey,” goes through an added charcoal-filtering process that gives it its own distinctive taste profile.)

    The so-called “bourbon boom,” which began about five years ago when consumption started increasing all over the world, has motivated non-Kentucky companies to get into the bourbon game. But, of course, aging bourbon takes time. It’s just now that we’re seeing shelves with a number of new craft bourbons, with a good age on them, made outside the commonwealth. Which begs the question: Can you make good bourbon outside Kentucky? 

    Loyalists often speak of the importance of Kentucky’s natural landscape and resources — our distinctive limestone water and unmistakable seasons (hot summers and cold winters that force bourbon into and out of the oak, which creates a complex flavor). If you take the same recipe and adapt it to, say, the Great Lakes region, Napa Valley or the Rockies, will the product come out the same way?

    For answers, we recruited Renninger, Peggy Noe Stevens (founder of Bourbon Women and the world’s first female “master bourbon taster”), Michael Minton (owner of Dauntless Distributing) and Richard Atnip (director of sales at Dauntless) to sample bourbons made outside the Bluegrass. On a scale of one to ten, most rated  out-of-state bourbons lower than five.

    Sonoma County Distilling

    Laws Whiskey House

    Journeyman Distillery
    Long Road Distillers

    New York
    Black Dirt Distillery
    Kings County Distillery
    Taconic Distillery
    Tuthilltown Spirits Distillery 

    Chambers Bay Distillery
    J.P. Trodden Distilling
    Oola Distillery

    “I think some of these are playing fast and loose with the definition of bourbon,” Stevens says, noting the low aging period — as little as a few months — on several of the samples. Younger whiskeys may lack bourbon’s depth of flavor. “Kentucky’s been in the business 200-plus years. If anything, I’d like to see more respect around the definition and not semantics.”

    In a bourbon market struggling to meet demand (remember the long aging process?), quick releases are an opportunity for a small distillery to increase its reach with a product that’s likely to sell. It’s worth noting that many of the new labels popping up over the last five years are from distilleries whose flagship spirits are whiskeys, vodkas, tequilas or gins, which are often quicker to produce. “You can’t just come out of the gate with a fine 12-year-old bourbon that is a perfect product,” Renninger says. “You can’t do that and expect to be able to keep your lights on with nothing else to sell.” 

    The label that perhaps stood out the most was Sonoma County Distilling’s West of Kentucky Bourbon No. 1. Over the phone, Sonoma County owner and distiller Adam Spiegel stresses that Sonoma’s West of Kentucky series aims to honor the history of bourbon while also embracing it as a California spirit. No. 1 incorporates cherry-wood-smoked barley, giving the whiskey a pleasant floral note and a sweetness, something that, according to Spiegel, provides a distinctive California taste. As far as whiskies go, our taste-testers agreed that it’s a good one. As far as bourbons go, though, it fell out of bounds of some of the typical characteristics. It’s a phenomenon that’s difficult to reconcile: innovation or experimentation.

    “I don’t think we should get caught up in the word bourbon as much. We should champion that these are whiskeys,” Renninger says. “It’s a pretty young industry, craft spirits. Can you really compare a project that is five years old to a distillery that’s been established for 100 years?”

    This originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazine, click here. To find your very own copy of Louisville Magazine, click here. 

    Michelle Eigenheer's picture

    About Michelle Eigenheer

    A Louisville transplant beginning to appreciate all the city's small things.

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