It’s a fitting symbol of one of Kentucky’s signature products. But it’s also a message in a bottle; a tribute to the centuries-old agricultural history and tradition that make Kentucky bourbon.
Over the past decade, the Bourbon Trail and tours at Kentucky’s bourbon distilleries have not only contributed to an explosion in bourbon sales and exports. They’ve connected hundreds of thousands to the sights and smells of Kentucky agriculture.
“More than 75,000 people tour through here each year,” says Harlen Wheatley, master distiller at Buffalo Trace Distillery. “Every single person learns about the ingredients. We show them our silo and where we store thousands of bushels of grains. We talk to them about the farmers.
“It’s all part of the story of bourbon.”
That story was born on Kentucky farms more than 200 years ago.
Chris Morris, master distiller at Woodford Reserve, points out that his distillery has its roots as a 500-acre working family farm with cattle and grain owned by Oscar Pepper. The farm couldn’t store grains for long, so it established a gristmill for making bourbon. When Pepper died in 1865, his obituary listed him first as a farmer, then as a distiller.
“So you can say our roots are definitely in agriculture,” Morris says.
Early Kentucky farmers had trouble getting their crops to larger markets over Kentucky’s rough, steep terrain. Converting corn to whiskey and bottling it was a practical way to send it beyond the Commonwealth’s borders. It was shipped in large oak barrels and labeled according to its county of origin, Bourbon County, which was much larger than it is today. By the time the liquor reached its destinations, it had turned amber. Folks in those far-off destinations who liked the drink saw Bourbon etched on the oak barrels and the whiskey got its name.
Contrary to popular myth, bourbon does not have to be distilled in Kentucky to earn the name, but most of it is.
Transportation methods have changed dramatically, but the essential process behind bourbon distillation hasn’t. The main ingredient – by law 51 percent or more – is still corn.
Most of the corn that goes into bourbon is grown in Kentucky. The other grains – wheat, rye and barley – grow better in northern climes, but they’re often purchased through local co-ops.
One thing slow to change in the bourbon industry is its relationship to farmers. In bourbon, relationships matter.
“Most distilleries have had the same farm contracts for generations,” says Eric Gregory, president of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association. “Any change in the quality of the corn can impact the product. They like working with the same farmer, and the same quality and the same control measures.”
Bourbon may be an old industry. But it’s got a lot of new excitement behind it. The Kentucky Bourbon Trail and increased marketing efforts have produced what the industry calls a bourbon revolution.
The bourbon industry has seen four percent job growth in the last decade, while the rest of the manufacturing base in Kentucky was shrinking, according to a University of Louisville economic impact study completed in January 2012.
Only three of 244 manufacturing industries in Kentucky have more jobs and a higher spin-off factor: automobiles, meat packing and light trucks/utility vehicles.
The industry cites 9,000 direct and spin-off jobs in Kentucky with an annual payroll of $415 million.
Even on a national scale, Kentucky ranks high. Nearly half of all distilling jobs are in Kentucky, and bourbon is the largest export among all distilled spirits.
Industry analysts and the distilleries themselves expect the revolution to continue. Kentucky has 491 million barrels stockpiled. For most industries, stockpiling huge amounts of goods is a bad thing. For bourbon, “high inventory is a good thing,” Gregory says. It means everyone feels comfortable that growth is going to continue.
That’s not bad for an industry that got started because farmers were trying to figure out how to keep grains from going to waste.
Today, waste is still a concern. But distilleries have found a way to even turn that distilling waste into a positive for Kentucky agriculture.
After grains have been distilled and their starches captured, they still contain useful vitamins and minerals. On a given day at any distillery, slop trucks from local cattle farms pull up and load up the spent grain mixture. It’s a boon for cattle.
“The grain grows on local farms and it’s returned to local farms,” Morris says. “That’s the way we like it.”