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« Bluegrass Bound | Main | Making Time for John »
Tuesday
Oct222013

Kentucky: Day 1 - Headed for Ken-tuck-ee

There was always some part of me that wanted to be in charge. Pretty much insisted on it. Wanted people to listen to what I had to say. But there was a part of me too that just wanted to pull everyone back in the boat. If I've tried to cultivate anything it's been that. I think we are all of us ill prepared for what is to come and I don't care what shape it takes. These old people I talk to, if you could have told them that there would be people on the streets of our Texas towns with green hair and bones in their noses speaking a language they couldn't even understand, well, they just flat out wouldn't have believed you. But what if you'd of told them it was their own grandchildren? Well, all of that is signs and wonders but it don't tell you how it got that way. And it don't tell you nothin' about how it's fixin' to get neither. 

If you've ever seen the movie No Country For Old Men, you don't really need to read the book. I just finished reading it on the plane for the fun of it, because I like Cormac McCarthy as a writer, but the book and the movie are pretty much identical to one another. That quote above is from Sheriff Bell, played by Tommy Lee Jones in the film, and it's in both versions of the story. I identify with those words greatly -- not just the self-description given, but also with the idea that as we age we're often unprepared for the changes ahead of us. Not only do we not anticipate them, but we're not happy about them either. In essence, that's the gist of the story. You think you've seen it all, but there's always the potential for more. And Anton Chigurh is the face of it (Javier Bardem's Oscar-winning role in the movie).

We're headed for Dallas at the moment, where we'll have an hour to kill before we board the flight to Louisville. Having just finished the novel, I'm pondering the parallel in the current narrative to Kentucky's thriving Bourbon industry. If you would have told Julian "Pappy" Van Winkle fifty years ago that his name would become synonymous with a whiskey so coveted that thieves were willing to risk breaking into the distillery, stealing a huge portion of what was bottled, and attempting to sell that whiskey for three times the retail value on the black market, do you think he would have believed it? Do you think Four Roses distiller Jim Rutledge ever imagined retailers having to raffle off his special selections and that accounts would call him, bitching and screaming about not getting their fair share of the allocation? Do you think anyone in Kentucky would have believed you if you had told them by the year 2010 people around the world would be taking pictures of their products, portraying them like trophies, creating cellars full of the choicest collections, and yearning for Bourbon whiskey at such a level that their own distilleries would be unable to supply the insatiable demand?

I don't think so. As Sheriff Bell said, "they just flat out wouldn't have believed you."

The revival of enthusiasm concerning Kentucky whiskey has created a fanaticism for the liquid that I have to believe outshines any other period in history. I've read about previous spells of Bourbon hysteria, about speakeasies and bootleggers, and the trade of barrels down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. But unlike today those periods were mainly focused on providing consumers with something tasty to drink. In the past, I have to think that if the barrel made it down to Louisiana safely the mission would have been considered successful. Today's needs are not necessarily based on consumption, however. There's plenty of Bourbon to be drunk. Hell, I think Jim Beam alone can make enough whiskey for most communities to fortify their needs. Today's desires are about connoisseurship, but also about self-indulgence. There's an excitement created when someone lets you in on the inner secrets of the whiskey world -- the idea that there are richer, rarer, more pleasurable experiences possible for consuming a glass of Bourbon. As soon as that door is opened it's difficult to go back through.

When I started working with the spirits at K&L (a job no one wanted back then), I was totally captivated with the Bourbon selection. Not because the bottles were famous, collectable, or highly-desired (because they weren't at that time), but because they seemed so romantic -- so quintessentially Kentuckian. The forest stenograph depicted on the Black Maple Hill bottle looked so quaint and peaceful. The cigar nestled in the mouth of the Pappy reminded me of a real-life Colonel Sanders. Back then these whiskies were just sitting on our shelves and I would look at them for hours each day as I walked the liquor aisle. What were these whiskies? Why were they more expensive than the others? What did age do to the flavor of Bourbon whiskey? I remember shelling out for a bottle of Vintage 17 and loving it. I remember getting my first bottle of Willett 20 and closing my eyes as I took in the richness and spice. Man, was that exciting to me. I remember trying to convey that passion to other customers as they pondered which selection to purchase. I didn't really know anything about whiskey as a whole, but I knew how excited I was about Bourbon.

Today there's little semblance of that time left within me. 

Part of it was I always thought I could at least someway put things right and I guess I just don't feel that way no more. I don't know what I do feel like. I feel like them old people I was talking about. Which ain't going to get better neither. I'm bein asked to stand for somethin that I don't have the same belief in it I once did. Asked to believe in somethin I might not hold with the way I once did. Now I've seen it held to the light. Seen any number of believers fall away. I've been forced to look at it again and I've been forced to look at myself. For better or for worse I do not know. I don't know that I would even advise you to throw in with me, and I never had them sorts of doubts before.

Back in the day I used to get the question from customers, "What's a special Bourbon that I could give my father as a gift this Christmas?" and I would light up. "I've got all kinds of options!"  I would say, half-running over to the Bourbon shelf, brimming with the light of the newly initiated. These days I've got plenty of tasty Bourbon, but the special ones are more trouble than they're worth. These days I spend most of my time explaining to people why they can't get a bottle of Stagg, or Weller Larue, or the 2013 Limited Small Batch from Four Roses. And I just mostly ignore the requests for Pappy anymore. I'm disappointed in what the Bourbon experience has developed into for me personally, not because of the rabid demand (I love talking to people about booze), but because of the anger, the anxiety, and the dissatisfaction I see in people's faces and hear in their voices. It's Pappy or nothing for many consumers because they don't really care about whiskey, or Kentucky, or understanding what makes a bottle of Bourbon so enjoyable and exhilarating. It's mostly about the hunt and what they're willing to do to win. When you legitimately care about booze, when it's of the utmost importance to your daily life, that mentality is so off-putting that it's hard to keep putting on a smile on the sales floor. I'm losing my smile, as Shawn Michaels once said.

Yet, here I am on a plane headed towards Dallas, where I will board a connecting plane to Kentucky. I'm hoping that my first visit to Bourbon country will reinvigorate me as my previous trips to Scotland and France have done for my enjoyment of single malt and brandy. I'm hoping that tonight, somewhere in Louisville, I can find something beautiful about Bourbon that overpowers the status quo of trophy hunting and reminds me that people and places are ultimately what matter. Most importantly, I'm hoping that -- if I do indeed find what I'm looking for -- I can capture it, take a photo of it, and use my keyboard to convey it in words. I know a good number of K&L customers who are rather sad about the current state of Kentucky whiskey. The scarcity of beloved bottles, the buy-now-or-forever-be-doomed-to-wonder state of affairs. Like Sheriff Bell, I've realized that -- as much as I'd like to -- there's nothing I can do to change that. 

Maybe I can explain it, however. And maybe along the way I can learn to appreciate what we have rather than long for what we don't.

-David Driscoll