Before vacation season ends, experience wonders close to home

August 12, 2014

140731Maker'sMark0168This art glass installation in the ceiling of a barrel warehouse is the newest visitor attraction at the Maker’s Mark distillery in Marion County. Below, Ward Hall in Georgetown is a Greek Revival masterpiece. Photos by Tom Eblen 


There’s a chill in the air this week. Schools are back in session. Fall is beginning to arrive.

But if you want to stretch vacation season a little longer, here’s an idea: Find time to visit some Central Kentucky wonders. You know, the places tourists come from around the world to see but locals often forget about.

Here are a few suggestions. For more details on many of them, go to, the Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau’s website.

Horses. This may be the horse capital of the world, but when did you last see one? Spend a day at the Kentucky Horse Park ( or visit a Thoroughbred farm. Several farms welcome visitors who schedule in advance. Or you can do like out-of-towners do and book a horse farm bus tour.

Keeneland Race Course is the best place to see Thoroughbreds in action. The park-like grounds are open year-around. The yearling sales are Sept. 8-21. The fall racing meet is Oct. 3-25. More information:

Bourbon. More than 90 percent of this globally popular whiskey is made within a short drive of Lexington. The Kentucky Bourbon Trail is becoming a major tourist draw. My favorite distilleries to visit include Buffalo Trace in Frankfort, Wild Turkey and Four Roses near Lawrenceburg, Maker’s Mark near Lebanon and Woodford Reserve near Versailles. More information:

Country roads. Some of my favorite places to enjoy Central Kentucky’s beauty are the country roads that connect the region like a vast spider’s web. These are perfect for scenic drives. I like to go by bicycle, but it takes experience to know which roads are safe and comfortable for cycling. The Bluegrass Cycling Club has well-managed group rides each week. Check the calendar:

Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.comArchitecture and history. This was a rich agricultural region before the Civil War, and remnants of that era can be seen in Central Kentucky’s grand mansions. Architectural styles include Federal, Greek Revival, Italianate and Gothic Revival.

Many historic homes are still private residences, but some of the best are open for tours. Among them: Ward Hall in Georgetown, White Hall in Madison County and these in Lexington: Waveland, the Hunt-Morgan House, the Mary Todd Lincoln House and Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate. Other must-sees: Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill in Mercer County and the Old Capitol in Frankfort.

Nature. Perhaps the least-known attractions in Central Kentucky are natural areas, but they can be spectacularly beautiful. I especially love the Palisades region of the Kentucky River, which stretches from Boonesboro to Frankfort.

Lexington’s Raven Run park is the most-visited natural area in the Palisades region. Others include Lower Howard’s Creek Nature and Heritage Preserve (, Floracliff Nature Sanctuary ( and Buckley Wildlife Sanctuary, all of which have more-limited public access.

Julian Campbell, a botanist and authority on native Kentucky plants, has begun leading monthly hikes to promote awareness and conservation of natural areas. More information: or email

But you don’t have to go hiking in the woods to see Central Kentucky’s oldest and most magnificent natural specimens.

A unique feature of the Bluegrass landscape is huge burr and chinkapin oak, blue ash and kingnut hickory trees, some of which are thought to be 300-500 years old. Tom Kimmerer, a forest scientist, has launched a non-profit organization to study how to better care for these “venerable” trees, as he calls them. More information:

Because Lexington has literally grown up around these old trees, they can be found in some strange places.

Recent brush-trimming has highlighted a magnificent burr oak that Kimmerer is conserving for Ball Homes beside a new subdivision at Harrodsburg Road and Military Pike. In the 1990s, a parking structure for medical offices was built around another huge oak tree, near the corner of Harrodsburg and Mason Headley roads.

Other notable examples can be found in front of an Avis car rental office on South Broadway; on the lawns of Sullivan University and the mansion at Griffin Gate; and scattered among new buildings along Sir Barton Way in Hamburg.

Here’s an idea: as you drive around on your weekly errands, start an ancient tree scavenger hunt! Anything to make the lazy days of summer last a little longer.

140807Gainesway0018This burr oak tree on Gainesway Farm is likely several hundred years old. 

Abandoned since 1972, the Old Taylor Distillery awaits restoration

August 31, 2013


The Old Taylor Distillery at Millville in Woodford County near Frankfort was built in 1887 and has been essentially abandoned since 1972.  Photos by Tom Eblen


MILLVILLE — When Col. E. H. Taylor Jr. built his distillery along Glenn’s Creek in 1887, he had more in mind than a place to make good bourbon whiskey. He wanted to create an eye-popping showplace.

The Old Taylor Distillery was built from hand-cut limestone to resemble a castle, complete with turrets and ramparts. A spring where water was drawn to make bourbon was surrounded by an elegant pergola with stone columns. The property had elaborate sunken gardens and fish ponds.

Old Taylor’s 83-acre complex became a popular tourist attraction and a place for gatherings and weddings. Bill Samuels fondly remembers trips there as a child in the 1940s.

“It was the most fascinating place in Kentucky,” said Samuels, who grew up to build his father’s Maker’s Mark bourbon into an international brand. “I was taken to a lot of distilleries when I was a kid. That’s the one I remember.”

130828OldTaylor-TE0201But since 1972, when the distillery shut down, the property has been vandalized, neglected and reclaimed by nature. It is now one of Kentucky’s most fascinating industrial ruins.

I have been taking bicycle rides past this out-of-the-way spot between Versailles and Frankfort for years. And I have often wondered: With bourbon tourism booming, why hasn’t some distillery bought and restored Old Taylor as its showplace, just as Brown-Forman Corp. did with the Labrot & Graham distillery down the road?

E.H. Taylor, a longtime Frankfort mayor and descendant of Presidents James Madison and Zachary Taylor, was a bourbon industry leader and visionary. He died in 1922 at age 90. The distillery was sold in 1935 to National Distillers Corp., which later consolidated it with the adjacent Old Crow distillery.

Jim Beam later bought the distilleries, but shut them down in 1972 when bourbon sales slumped. Whiskey barrels continued to be aged in Old Taylor’s warehouses until the early 1990s. Old Crow’s warehouses are still in use.

A group of Atlanta-based investors bought the Old Taylor property in 2005. They took down a couple of the big warehouses to salvage and sell brick, stone and valuable heart-pine lumber.

The investors created an elaborate website that said profits from the salvage business would go toward restoration of the distillery. But when the housing boom went bust, the restoration never happened.

The property is now for sale, with an asking price of $1.5 million. Last week, I toured the ruins with Realtor Hill Parker and Eric Gregory, president of the Kentucky Distillers Association and an avid preservationist.

“I actually had a dream the other night that we had a Kickstarter campaign and restored it,” said Gregory, who estimates it would take $30 million or more to fix up the place and turn it back into a distillery and entertainment venue.

At the moment, the Old Taylor Distillery is more of a nightmare than a dream. Vandals have done significant damage over the years, smashing windows, throwing stone blocks through the roof and generally trashing the place. An on-site caretaker now tries to prevent further damage.

Where vandals left off, nature did its work. The property includes a brick-and-stone warehouse that is one of the largest in Kentucky — four stories high and the length of two football fields. But trees, vines and weeds have swallowed the huge building, all but hiding it from view.

“The first thing you would have to do is come in with a tanker truck of Roundup and see what you have under all this,” Gregory said, referring to the powerful herbicide.

Surprisingly, most of the buildings look structurally sound. The brick and stone walls are solid and crack-free. Old-growth timbers and woodwork seem to have suffered little decay despite decades of neglect. One exception is a brick office building across the road. Its façade might be saved, but the interior has crumbled since most of the roof collapsed.

Parker said several groups of investors wanting to start small “craft” distilleries have recently inspected the property. The morning we were there, technicians for one potential buyer were assessing the lead paint and asbestos hazards.

“It’s a great property,” Parker said. “But there are significant challenges.”

Gregory said Old Taylor would make a great “boutique” distillery and could have considerable cache as a tourist attraction. The Kentucky Bourbon Trail of distillery tours attracted 509,000 visitors last year.

“Hopefully, we’ll have a buyer soon,” Gregory said. “Someone who will fix this place up and put it on the Bourbon Trail.”



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Maker’s Mark quick change earned barrels of free publicity

February 25, 2013


Rob and Bill Samuels at the Maker’s Mark distillery, March 2011. Photo by Tom Eblen


I’m not saying Bill and Rob Samuels planned this all along, but I sure wondered last week when I heard they had quickly canceled plans to water down Maker’s Mark whisky to make supplies go further.

Maybe I wondered because Bill Samuels is one of America’s sharpest marketers, or because I was a business editor at the Atlanta newspapers when the New Coke affair was still fresh in everyone’s mind.

Whatever the case, the Maker’s Mark affair was anything but the “debacle” some media reports called it. In case you weren’t paying attention, here’s what happened:

Rob Samuels, who has been taking over the reins of the Beam Inc. brand from his father, announced Feb. 9 that there just wasn’t enough Maker’s Mark to keep up with demand, despite the distillery’s frequent expansions in recent years.

So, he said, they had decided to dilute their bourbon from 45 percent alcohol, or 90 proof, to 42 percent alcohol, or 84 proof. They said the decision was made after much testing to make sure that a tad more water wouldn’t change the taste.

Nine days later, Rob Samuels reversed course, saying, “You spoke. We listened.” He said the company, which has its offices in Louisville and its distillery near the Marion County town of Loretto, got thousands of complaints from loyal customers who didn’t want their favorite bourbon messed with.

The Samuelses had to know there would be pushback, because bourbon lovers are a tradition-loving bunch. There’s a reason Kentucky bourbon has been marketed for more than a century under labels of “old” this and “old” that.

Bourbon’s popularity is booming around the world, and a big reason is that so much good stuff is now being made. A few decades ago, when many bourbon distillers were producing mediocre stuff, Maker’s Mark was one of the few quality choices. Now, the top shelf is a crowded place, with dozens of great bourbons to suit every taste.

The Maker’s Mark affair will go down in marketing textbooks as another stroke of Samuels genius. Think about it: if nobody had complained, the distillery would have had more bourbon to sell. When, predictably, customers raised hell, Maker’s Mark got a barrel full of free publicity.

Expert helps me taste-test a 112-year-old bottle of family bourbon

January 2, 2013

Wild Turkey master distiller Jimmy Russell prepares to taste some Old Barbee, distilled in 1901 and bottled in 1914. Photo by Mollie Eblen


You don’t have to be a bourbon whiskey expert to know that age is good and more age is usually better. But how old is too old?

I have pondered that question for 25 years, ever since I was given a pint of Old Barbee. It was distilled in 1901 when my wife’s great-grandfather was president of the company that made it.

This bourbon was aged for 13 years in a charred, white-oak barrel to acquire its color and flavor, just as bourbon is made today. It was bottled at 100 proof in 1914, according to the tax stamp, but never opened.

I always wondered: Would this Old Barbee still taste good? Or, after almost a century in a bottle, would it be nasty — or even poisonous?

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to find out.

I took my grown daughters, Mollie and Shannon, to Anderson County to open and taste my Old Barbee with one of Kentucky’s bourbon experts: Jimmy Russell. The third-generation distiller has worked at Wild Turkey for 59 years and been the master distiller there since 1966.

Russell explained that bourbon does all of its maturing in the barrel. Once bottled, the process stops. As long as the amber liquid remains clear, he had told me, my Old Barbee should taste as good as the day it was bottled.

The cork stopper and celluloid wrapper had started to disintegrate in recent years, causing nearly half the bottle’s contents to evaporate — distillers call it “the angels’ share.” As Russell readied some snifters, I removed the cork carefully.

I had heard about Old Barbee since the late 1970s, when my wife, Becky, and I began dating. According to her family lore, it was a smooth bourbon with excellent flavor.

My wife’s great-grandfather Herman Volkerding was born in 1869 to a German family in Cincinnati. He moved to Louisville and worked for John T. Barbee & Co. By the early 1890s, he was the distillery’s president.

The company’s offices were on Louisville’s Main Street, then known as “Whiskey Row.” The distillery was in Woodford County, along Griers Creek near the Kentucky River, within two miles of where Wild Turkey is made.

John T. Barbee & Co. prospered, and Volkerding and his wife, Mary, lived in a West End mansion with their eight children. But he died in 1912 at age 42, and his partners sold the business to the Weller distillery.

When Prohibition came in 1919, the remaining stock of Old Barbee was sold as “medicinal whiskey,” which required a doctor’s prescription. The Woodford County distillery was abandoned and reclaimed by nature.

I have researched Old Barbee over the years, and that led me to the person who, in 1987, gave me the unopened bottle.

My daughters and I watched as Russell poured small samples into four snifters. He swirled his glass and held it up to the light.

“It’s got a great color, that good, bright, which means it should still be a good-tasting product,” he said. “When it stays that same color all those years you know it’s well-made, been aged well.”

Russell took several deep sniffs. “It’s got a great nose on it,” he said.

Then he took a sip, rolling it around his mouth for several moments as Herman Volkerding’s great-great-granddaughters and I held our breath.

“Typical old-fashioned bourbon,” Russell finally said with a smile. “It’s got the sour mash, it’s got the caramel, vanilla, the sweetness. And that age it’s got a lot of woody, oaky taste to it.

“The thing I really like about it is the finish. It’s got a great finish on it. To me, that’s one of the most important things is the finish. What kind of taste does it leave in your mouth?”

With Russell having pronounced Old Barbee good, my daughters and I took sips.

Then, as if drawn by a sixth sense for special bourbon, Eric Gregory, president of the Kentucky Distillers Association, and Rick Robinson, Wild Turkey’s distillery director, walked in, and I offered them a taste.

We all agreed that the oldest bourbon any of us had ever had was mighty good stuff.

When Becky’s family came to our house for Christmas, I put eight small glasses on an Old Barbee serving tray she had inherited and poured everyone a taste. Then we offered a toast to Herman Volkerding for a job well done.


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Kentucky bourbon baron’s great-grandsons trying to save his Lawrenceburg mansion from ruin

June 12, 2012


Thomas Beebe Ripy completed this Queen Anne-style mansion in 1888.


LAWRENCEBURG — When cousins Tom Ripy and George Geoghegan were boys in the 1940s, their great-grandmother’s home on Main Street was the center of activity for their large extended family.

Sallie Ripy was then a spry woman in her 90s, and she shared her 11,000-square-foot mansion with several of her 11 children and their spouses.

On Christmas Day, the great-uncles would give each child in the family a silver dollar. One great-aunt kept a drawer full of candy and taught all of the children how to blow bubble gum, “much to our parents’ disgust,” Tom Ripy recalled.

The biggest treat of all was climbing up into the house’s four-story tower, which offered a commanding view.

“It was a very happy place,” Ripy said. “We all felt at home there.”

So it was with great alarm that Ripy and Geoghegan watched in recent years as the house, which was sold out of the family in 1965, fell into extreme disrepair. In 2010, the cousins, both retired government lawyers, pooled their resources and bought it at foreclosure.

“There were rumors that somebody would buy it and sell it for salvage,” said Ripy, who lives in Arlington, Va. “So I left my wife in Virginia and brought her checkbook.”

“That’s literally true,” confirmed his wife, Minnie Sue Ripy.

Minnie Sue Ripy, Tom Ripy and George Geoghegan

The bank gave them a good price — $186,000 — because the Thomas Beebe Ripy mansion wasn’t just any house. Completed in 1888 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980, the Queen Anne-style house might be the grandest of a string of mansions that bourbon barons built along Main Street when this was a center of Kentucky’s whiskey industry.

T.B. Ripy (1847-1902) bought, sold and ran several distilleries, including the one on the Kentucky River at Tyrone where Wild Turkey is now made.

“He was a wheeler-dealer, alternately well off and broke,” Ripy, his great- grandson, said. “Frankly, I’m not sure I would have wanted to do business with him.”

Ripy, 73, and Geoghegan, 69, bought the family homeplace with the hope of finding someone with the resources to restore it and put it to good use. “We certainly didn’t buy it to live in,” Geoghegan said.

Until they find a suitable buyer, they are trying their best to clean up the place, which has been quite a chore.

They hired a crew to clear five acres of brush and trees that had almost swallowed the house.

“I was going to recommend it for the next Jurassic Park movie,” Geoghegan said. “It was that bad.”

They hauled out tons of junk. They replaced roofing and gutters that had let rain flow into the house. Mildew was everywhere, but, fortunately, the thick brick and plaster walls had kept out mold, Geoghegan said.

The cousins brought in a bee keeper to remove an active hive, 8 feet wide and 2 feet thick, in the grand second-floor hallway. They continue to battle bats, which fly in from the attic through holes in ceiling plaster.

With cleanup almost complete, the next step is a costly restoration. There is a lot to work with: sumptuous woodwork of mahogany, walnut and cherry, and amazing stained-glass windows. The main floor has 14-foot ceilings and a grand mahogany staircase.

“At this point, we’re doing it with our own money, but retired government lawyers are not exactly members of the 1 percent,” Ripy said. “Before I die, I would like to see this place restored as an asset for the community.”

The most likely scenario is for someone to buy the mansion for a commercial use, which would make the property eligible for federal and state tax credits to help with restoration costs.

Lawrenceburg is now an important stop on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, a successful effort by the Kentucky Distillers Association to attract tourists to distilleries. Association members will discuss the Ripy mansion’s potential at their June 26 meeting, said Eric Gregory, the executive director.

“It’s a treasure,” said Gregory, who has restored several old houses. “As fast as our industry is growing, there is always a need for event space. Mansions like this with ties to the bourbon industry don’t come around very often.”


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Bill Samuels leaves his mark on Maker’s Mark

April 18, 2011

LORETTO — Bill Samuels Jr. didn’t get his family into the whiskey business. His great-great-great-great grandfather did that.

He didn’t create the recipe for Maker’s Mark bourbon or the marketing philosophy behind it. His father did that.

Samuels didn’t think up the name Maker’s Mark, design the bottle and label or add the iconic red wax that drips down each bottle’s neck. His mother did that.

And he didn’t start bourbon tourism by restoring the old Marion County distillery and inviting customers to visit. His parents and sister did that.

But as Samuels steps down as president and chief executive of Maker’s Mark, there is a lot he can take credit for. He turned his parents’ little company into an icon and helped create a more flavorful version of their bourbon. Along the way, he rewrote the rules of marketing and set Kentucky’s bourbon industry on a path to growth and success.

Samuels will hand over the reins of the company to his son after Friday’s running of the Maker’s Mark Mile at Keeneland. Rob Samuels, 36, has led the distillery’s international growth efforts for five years, after a decade of sales and management experience with other liquor companies. He also has done business graduate studies at Harvard and the University of Chicago.

A father-to-son transition might seem strange for a company that hasn’t been family-owned since 1981, when high inheritance-tax rates prompted the Samuels family to sell to the first of three corporations that have owned it. Fortune Brands, like its predecessors, sees no reason to mess with the Samuels family’s success. The company has had annual double-digit sales growth for more than two decades.

“His grandparents created the gem,” Samuels said as his son sat across an antique table in the distillery’s office. “I was able, with a lot of help and some luck, to take it to icon status in the United States. His job is global icon status.”

Global icon status is quite a leap from what Samuels found when he joined the company in the early 1970s, after law school at Vanderbilt and a couple of years working in the aerospace industry.

The Samuels family had been making whiskey since Robert Samuels came to Kentucky in 1784. After their distilleries were shut down during Prohibition and World War II, Bill Samuels Sr. and his wife, Margie, decided to get back into the business in 1951 with a new recipe.

He created a smoother bourbon by using wheat instead of rye. She chose the name and created the packaging. They restored the historic distillery and invited customers to visit. By the 1960s, Maker’s Mark had a loyal following in Kentucky, but it was unknown and unavailable almost everywhere else.

When Bill Samuels Jr. became president in 1975, he knew Maker’s Mark needed to grow. But there were two big problems: Bourbon had lost national popularity, and his father refused to advertise.

His father wanted customers to discover Maker’s Mark themselves, then recommend it to friends. An excellent product, he was certain, would sell itself. “I was convinced he was an old fuddy-duddy,” Bill Samuels Jr. said.

With help from Jim Lindsey of Louisville’s Doe-Anderson advertising agency, Samuels studied his father’s business philosophy to try to create a growth strategy they could both live with.

That strategy paid off in August 1980, when The Wall Street Journal published a front-page feature about the craftsmanship of Maker’s Mark. The article generated thousands of letters and phone calls, giving the distillery an interested customer base that the senior Samuels was comfortable appealing to.

Maker’s Mark promotions are now considered landmark examples of relationship marketing. They have a personal feel, from advertising copy written like friendly letters to humorous plays on the bottle’s patented red wax.

Samuels not only changed advertising theory; he changed bourbon. Once other distilleries noticed the success that Maker’s Mark was having with a better-tasting product, they developed their own premium brands. Bourbon, like single-malt Scotch, increasingly attracts connoisseurs around the world.

As he neared retirement, Samuels decided he wanted a greater legacy “than not screwing up what my parents created.” He began wondering whether it would be possible to create a bourbon that brought out more of the natural flavors of the charred American white oak barrel without getting bitter.

“We wanted the Maker’s taste profile on steroids,” said Samuels, who worked secretly for a couple of years with master distiller Kevin Smith and cooper Brad Boswell.

The result is Maker’s Mark 46, which went on sale last year. To achieve Samuels’ goal, seared French oak staves are inserted into a barrel of Maker’s Mark during the last two or three months of the six-year aging process.

That achievement made Samuels feel better about retirement — not that he really plans to retire. At age 70, Samuels is a bundle of nervous energy that he tries to keep hidden behind a folksy, laid-back demeanor.

“I told Rob I would help around here,” he said. “And I told my wife I wouldn’t stay home, since she wasn’t going to tolerate it anyway.”

Samuels plans to work at least 30 hours a week as a brand ambassador.

“My first job was to write Bill’s new job description, which was interesting,” Rob Samuels said.

Bill Samuels, who has long been active in civic and charitable efforts, has a couple of big ones on his to-do list: he is chairman of the Bridges Coalition, a group lobbying for renovation of the Ohio River bridges at Louisville, and he is leading a $100 million capital campaign for Bellarmine University.

Bill Samuels Jr. said he thinks his son will be a better leader than he was. His fascination was always with ideas, he said, whether related to marketing or product development. “I’ve never considered myself a creative person,” Bill Samuels said. “But I am spectacular at giving creative direction.”

But will Samuels struggle with his son the way he struggled with his father?

“Dad always said that even when he was boss, I was trying to tell everybody what to do,” Samuels said. “People say, ‘You’ll never be able to take a subordinate role,’ but I’m going to prove them wrong.”

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Milestones in Maker’s Mark History

1784: Robert Samuels begins distilling in Kentucky; each generation of his descendants follows suit.

1840: T.W. Samuels opens the family’s first commercial distillery in Nelson County.

1951-1954: After the family’s distillery is shut down during Prohibition and again during World War II, Bill Samuels Sr. gets back in business. He ditches the family recipe and creates a new one, using wheat instead of rye to give his bourbon a smoother taste. Samuels and his wife, Margie, buy and restore an old distillery near Loretto. She names the bourbon Maker’s Mark after the craftsmen’s marks on the fine pewter she collects. She designs the bottle and label, and she creates the dripping red wax seal that becomes the Maker’s Mark signature.

1959: Maker’s Mark goes on the market for $7 a bottle.

1967: The company makes its first profit.

1968: Samuels Sr. hires his daughter, Leslie, to develop a visitor program at the distillery. The concept eventually grows into the Kentucky Bourbon Trial.

1975: Bill Samuels Jr. becomes president and CEO. He and Jim Lindsey of Louisville ad agency Doe-Anderson begin creating a marketing strategy designed around Bill Sr.’s dislike of marketing. The strategy emphasized craftsmanship and personal recommendation.

1980: The Wall Street Journal publishes a front-page feature about Maker’s Mark, which Samuels credits with creating national interest in high-quality bourbon.

1981: Fearing then-high inheritance taxes, the Samuels family sells the distillery to Hiram Walker & Sons.

1987: Hiram Walker sells Maker’s Mark to what becomes Allied Domecq.

2005: Allied Domecq sells Maker’s Mark to Fortune Brands, where it becomes part of Beam Global Spirits & Wine.

2006: Samuels Jr.’s son, Rob, joins the company as global brand manager after working for a decade in sales and distribution for other liquor companies.

2010: Maker’s Mark 46 goes on sale. Maker’s Mark begins a $110 million expansion that will increase capacity by 50 percent. Sales surpass 1 million cases after double-digit sales growth every year since 1980.

2011: Samuels Jr., 70, hands over the role of president and CEO to his son, Rob, 36, but will continue working as a brand ambassador.

Sources: Bill Samuels Jr., Maker’s Mark,, news reports

Distillers take steps to protect ‘signature’ industry

February 6, 2011

For a century, Kentucky seemed to have a virtual lock on two signature industries: horses and bourbon.

We have heard a lot about what is happening with the horse industry. Other states are luring away Kentucky’s Thoroughbreds with breeder incentives and higher race purses, mostly subsidized by casino gambling.

Things have been different with bourbon. The past three decades have seen a bourbon renaissance with big Kentucky distillers successfully selling new premium-priced brands to a growing international market of spirits connoisseurs.

But just as craft brewers are taking a bigger slice of the beer market, craft distilleries are the hottest trend in liquor. Kentucky’s spirits monopoly is threatened because many of these small distillers are setting up shop elsewhere.

The Kentucky Distillers’ Association has taken a couple of steps to support craft distillers in the state — and to try to attract more of them. “Our craft distillers are very important to what we’re doing as a state and as an industry,” said KDA President Eric Gregory.

The association decided, after 131 years, to admit craft distillers as members. The first is Alltech, the biotech company that brews Kentucky Ale and recently branched into distilling. Alltech last year began selling a malt whiskey, Pearse Lyons Reserve, named for the company’s founder and chief executive. It also makes a bourbon-and-coffee drink called Bluegrass Sundown and is working on a bourbon.

Later this year, Alltech will begin construction of a distillery building beside its brewery, off Maxwell Street west of downtown Lexington. It also has created a charming visitors center in a former ice house.

A few blocks west on Manchester Street, Barrel House Distilling Co. is making Pure Blue vodka and waiting for its bourbon and bourbon-barrel rum to age. Corsair Artisan Distillery in Bowling Green makes a range of spirits including Vanilla Bean Vodka and Pumpkin Spice Moonshine. MB Roland Distillery near Hopkinsville makes corn whiskey, spiced rum and flavored moonshines. It also has a bourbon on the way.

The KDA also wants to help craft distillers — and its other members, too — by cutting the industry’s state taxes. Kentucky has the nation’s highest distillery taxes.

“That’s the big issue,” said Bill Samuels, president of Maker’s Mark Distillery in Loretto. “I know most of the craft distillers around the country, and they just laugh when you talk about Kentucky.”

Kentucky is the only state with an ad valorem tax on spirits aging in barrels. Distillers don’t want to repeal the tax because the money goes directly to counties where they operate. But the KDA is backing legislation to provide a credit to offset the tax.

“The main thing it would do is give us a fighting chance to compete for craft distilleries,” Samuels said. “If you’re starting off a craft distillery and you have problems with cash flow anyway — where you make it and you don’t sell it for five, six, seven years — the last thing you need is for it to be taxed like a finished product when it’s not a finished product.”

Kentucky has lost 20 percent of its total manufacturing jobs since 2000, but distillery employment has grown by 6 percent during the decade, to more than 3,200 direct and several thousand more spinoff jobs. That’s according to an economic impact study the KDA commissioned last year by University of Louisville economist Paul Coomes.

Samuels said Maker’s Mark employment has grown more than 40 percent in the past three years, from 80 to 117. Multimillion-dollar facilities expansions are underway at Maker’s Mark, Heaven Hill, Jim Beam and Wild Turkey distilleries.

“I think the legislature needs to think about us as a signature industry rather than a demon,” Samuels said. “And then I think we could continue to serve the commonwealth with lots and lots of jobs and taxes.”

Kentucky now makes 96.5 percent of the world’s bourbon whiskey. “If we don’t get a lot of these new craft operators, it’s going to be a whole lot less than that,” Samuels said. “When something gets going, people are willing to take risks and invest. And bourbon’s going. So why not keep it here in the commonwealth?”

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Kentuckians crave taste of home at the holidays

December 5, 2010

If you can’t be home for the holidays, you can at least bring a taste of home to you. The folks at Ale 8 One and other companies that produce some of Kentucky’s signature food and drink see it every year.

The Ale 8 One bottling plant in Winchester, which distributes only in parts of Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio, does a healthy mail-order business all year in soft drinks and souvenirs. T-shirt sales have been especially strong, thanks to Orlando Bloom wearing one in the 2005 movie Elizabethtown and rock climbers from all over the world who come to the Red River Gorge and leave with a taste for the sweet, gingery drink in the distinctive green bottle.

But when the holidays roll around, Ale 8 One sales spike, and most of it comes from homesick Kentuckians living far away. Direct sales rise by about one-third each November, and triple in December, compared to other months.

“It’s a familiarity, a nostalgia, a memory for people,” said DeAnne Elmore, the company’s marketing director. “It’s a connection to home, and the holidays trigger all of that. We have people who tell us they toast with it on New Year’s Eve.”

It can cost as much as $30 to have a 12-pack of Ale 8 One shipped to the West Coast. “The shipping costs a lot more than the product, but we don’t have any control over that,” Elmore said.

At Harper’s Country Hams in the Western Kentucky town of Clinton, the last 60 days of the year account for nearly 40 percent of annual sales.

Harper’s ham is easier to find outside Kentucky than Ale 8 One, owing to a distribution network that includes most of the Southeast. But Kentuckians elsewhere who yearn for that salty goodness can go to and order gift packages and even whole country hams, which range in price from $43 to $83. “Sales are getting bigger every year because of the Internet,” Harper’s spokesman Mike Morgan said.

Morgan said orders come in from all over the world, but shipments to some countries can be tricky because of cultural and religious biases against eating pork. When a Harper’s employee was serving in the military in Iraq a few years ago, his colleagues here cooked up a batch of country ham jerky to send him, and it managed to get past the pork police, Morgan said.

Rebecca Ruth, which has been churning out bourbon chocolates since 1919, does a large percentage of its business through Internet and catalog sales. Sales rise dramatically around the holidays.

Many orders come from families that have been customers for generations, said owner Charles Booe, whose grandmother, Ruth Hanly Booe, started the company with partner Rebecca Gooch.

“The fourth quarter is the best time for buying chocolates for a variety of reasons,” Booe said. In addition to holiday feasts and gift-giving, the weather is cooler and safer for shipping.

The holidays also bring more tourists to Rebecca Ruth’s kitchen, located in an old house near the state Capitol in Frankfort. How many tourists?

“A lot,” Booe said. “I don’t count them, but they come in every day.”

The Kentucky Bourbon Trail promotion has created a dramatic increase in visitors for distillery tours.

Maker’s Mark Distillery will have special free candlelight tours of its decorated grounds near Loretto in Marion County on Dec. 4 and Dec. 11 from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

Liquor laws prevent distilleries from selling mail-order bourbon, but all of them do a brisk business in souvenirs. Besides, most popular brands of bourbon are now available in liquor stores just about everywhere.

Each year, Kentucky distillers roll out special bottles and gift packs that include glasses or flasks. The flasks offered with Four Roses Single Barrel this year celebrate the 100th anniversary of its distillery building near Lawrenceburg.

Some distilleries also produce special whiskeys. Buffalo Trace’s 2010 Antique Collection includes five limited-release whiskeys of various recipes and ages. Woodford Reserve’s annual Master’s Collection this year features a limited bottling of what it says is the first bourbon finished in a maple, rather than oak, barrel.

Alltech expects big holiday sales of its Lexington-made Kentucky Ale, which has been around for a decade.

Some of that is because its Bourbon Barrel Ale gained an international following during the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.

As with bourbon, bourbon chocolate, Ale 8 One and country ham, Kentucky Ale isn’t just for homesick Kentuckians anymore.

A quick introduction to Lexington for our visitors

September 19, 2010

Welcome to Lexington. We thought you would never get here.

We have been getting ready for the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games for five years — and thinking about them even longer.

The Kentucky Horse Park opened in 1978 with the World Championship Three-Day Event. Each year since then, the park has played host to what is now called the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event.

Years of improvements have made the Kentucky Horse Park perhaps the world’s finest equestrian facility. It is a big contributor to the local economy, with museums, horse shows and other events. But we have always had something bigger in mind, and that is what brought you here.

After the first World Equestrian Games were held in Sweden in 1990, we considered going after the second Games four years later. We competed for the 2006 Games but lost to Aachen, Germany. Our 2004 bid for this year’s Games was chosen over Normandy, France, which will host the 2014 Games.

Over the past few years, Lexington’s city motto may as well have been, “Clean up! Company’s coming!” We have raced to complete many long-deferred highway, street and sidewalk improvements. Be careful: some of the cement may still be wet.

As you can see, our natural landscape is gorgeous. John Filson, one of the first people to visit and write about Kentucky, described this place in 1784 as a “new Eden.” But much like Adam and Eve, we have not always appreciated it.

Lexington has tried for a half-century to control urban sprawl, with mixed success. Only recently have most people in the Bluegrass realized it is not a good idea to continue paving over the landscape that makes us unique. It gives me hope that eventually more people will realize that blowing up Kentucky’s mountains to extract coal isn’t such a good idea, either.

The Bluegrass has many beautiful, old buildings. The oldest ones date from a time two centuries ago when Lexington was the most progressive city on what was then America’s western frontier. We would have many more of those old buildings, but we spent the last half of the 20th century demolishing them, often to make way for nothing more special than a parking lot.

And how, you may wonder, did Lexington end up with a fenced pasture in the center of town? Don’t ask; it’s too embarrassing.

Central Kentucky is filled with good, friendly people who genuinely want you to enjoy yourself while you are here. There are many fine restaurants, museums, galleries and other attractions, although they are not always easy to find. Ask one of us for recommendations.

Kentuckians are proud of their home, but we have a bit of an inferiority complex. That’s partly because many of us are afraid of change, suspicious of new ideas and wary of taking risks. We have always been too quick to settle for second-best.

But that’s not just a Kentucky trait; transplants often have a clearer view than natives do of a place’s worth and potential. A good example is Pearse Lyons, an Irishman who came to Kentucky three decades ago and started Alltech. His energy and money are a driving force behind the Games you are about to see.

Kentuckians are working hard to show you a good time, but glitches are inevitable. Be patient. And if you get anxious, try a bottle of Alltech’s Kentucky Ale or a few sips of Kentucky wine or bourbon. (By the way: 95 percent of the world’s bourbon whiskey is made within a two-hour drive of Lexington. Most distilleries offer free tours. Some even give samples.)

So, welcome to Lexington. You love horses. We love horses. This should be fun.

Kentucky bourbon a growing ‘signature industry’

September 13, 2010

Before the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games begin later this month, there will be a big celebration of another Kentucky signature industry.

The annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival begins Tuesday in Bardstown with events every day through Sunday. Last year, the festival attracted 55,000 people from 43 states and 13 foreign countries. An even bigger crowd is expected this year.

Bourbon is on a roll. While Kentucky manufacturers overall cut 20 percent of their jobs during the past decade, distillery employment grew 6 percent, according to an industry study published early this year. Nineteen distilleries in eight Kentucky counties employ more than 3,200 people.

Kentucky distilleries are expanding to meet rising worldwide demand for bourbon. Just last month, Heaven Hill Distilleries in Bardstown announced a $4.2 million project to build two new barrel storage warehouses.

Thanks to Kentucky’s central location, distillers of other drinks are shipping more of their product to bourbon distilleries here for bottling, which is creating additional jobs.

Bourbon’s popularity is splashing over into the rest of Kentucky’s economy, too, thanks to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. The six distilleries that offer tours as part of the promotion organized by the Kentucky Distillers Association recorded more than 400,000 visits last year, and expect to shatter that record this year, said association president Eric Gregory.

Although no longer an official part of the Bourbon Trail because of a dispute with the distillers association, the huge Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort also has seen tour attendance skyrocket.

Bill Samuels, president of Maker’s Mark Distillery in Loretto and perhaps the industry’s best marketer, isn’t surprised. He said his off-the-beaten-path distillery in Marion County had 13,000 visitors in July, and they spent $300,000 in the distillery gift shop. “It’s not a big profit center, but it does allow us to give visitors a first-class experience,” he said.

As a student at the University of California at Berkeley in the early 1960s, Samuels said he saw how tourism began in California’s Napa Valley wine country. Since then, it has blossomed into a huge economic engine for that state.

Samuels thinks the Kentucky Bourbon Trail has similar potential. “It could become the most important new tourist attraction in the middle part of the country,” he said. “And without any state incentives.”

Samuels thinks it is time for communities near Kentucky’s distilleries to capitalize on the Bourbon Trail with new festivals, restaurants, bed-and-breakfast inns and other hospitality businesses.

What made Napa Valley tourism take off was when local chambers of commerce and public officials got behind the effort. “We need that same kind of community leadership to make it happen here,” Samuels said.

“A signature industry ought to be able to be leveraged for the benefit of the people of Kentucky,” he said. “And the spirits industry is in a position to do that.”

As with the horse industry, though, Samuels worries that Kentucky could lose out on a lot of economic growth because it has taken the bourbon industry for granted, punishing it with high taxes and onerous sales restrictions. Those have been driven largely by opportunistic politicians and anti-liquor church folk.

Kentucky now has the nation’s second-highest liquor taxes. More than half the cost of a bottle of bourbon bought in Kentucky is federal, state and local taxes.

How is that hurting economic growth? For example, Samuels said, only two of the nation’s 16 recent startup spirits distilleries are in Kentucky, largely because this is the only state with an ad valorem tax on spirits aging in warehouses.

Kentucky produces 95 percent of the world’s bourbon now. “But if we don’t do something about that ad valorem tax, it’s going to be a hell of a lot less than 95 percent,” he said.

Bourbon aging at Buffalo Trace Distillery, Frankfort. Photo by Tom Eblen

A brief Bluegrass history lesson as the Games begin

September 12, 2010

How did Central Kentucky become the Horse Capital of the World? A clever combination of good geology, good marketing and good luck.

When the first white settlers arrived in the 1770s, they discovered that horses grew strong and fast from drinking the limestone water and munching bluegrass grown in the mineral-rich soil. Race horses became a big business until the Civil War made a mess of things.

By the late 1800s, Northeast industrialists discovered the “sport of kings” and began breeding and racing operations in New York and New Jersey. But savvy Kentuckians lured them here with a clever marketing campaign built around an Old South myth of the mint julep-sipping Kentucky colonel. That story is told in the soon-to-be-published book, How Kentucky Became Southern, by retired Herald-Leader turf writer Maryjean Wall (University Press of Kentucky, $29.95)

This is a big year for horses because of the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, Sept. 25 to Oct. 10. The Games will be at the Kentucky Horse Park, which is a great place to learn about our equine heritage.The Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau has information about horse farm tours. And every April and October, you can see “racing as it was meant to be” at Keeneland Race Course.

But horses are just one part of Central Kentucky’s rich and colorful history waiting to be explored. This has been a popular tourist destination since Native Americans began wandering through about 13,000 years ago. When white surveyors first came here in 1750, Kentucky was a hunting ground for the Shawnee, Iroquois, Cherokee and other tribes.

By the 1770s, Britain’s colonies along the East Coast were getting crowded, and real estate speculators began eyeing land beyond the mountains. Richard Henderson bought much of Kentucky from the Cherokee in one of history’s biggest private land deals. Henderson tried to form his own colony, Transylvania, and hired a frontiersman named Daniel Boone to blaze a trail through the Cumberland Gap.

Boone also built Fort Boonesborough along the Kentucky River, not far from James Harrod’s fort at Harrodsburg, the first permanent settlement west of the Allegheny Mountains. Harrod’s fort has been reconstructed at Old Fort Harrod State Park in Harrodsburg, and a reconstruction of Boone’s fort can be seen at Fort Boonesborough State Park (for information on both, go here).

Authorities were not amused by Henderson’s land grab, and they voided his claim. Kentucky became a Virginia county and then, in 1792, the 15th state.

Land-hungry settlers rushed to Kentucky, in part because of author John Filson, whose 1784 best-seller, The Discovery, Settlement and Present State of Kentucke, described this region as a “new Eden.” One place still recognizable from Filson’s descriptions is the Kentucky River Palisades, or steep limestone cliffs. You can see them on the one-hour Dixie Belle River Cruise from Shaker Landing.

The Shakers, a religious sect, sought their own Kentucky Eden, founding a utopian community in Mercer County in the early 1800s. The Shakers made elegantly simple furniture, architecture, crafts and music. But they didn’t believe in sex, which is why there are no more Shakers. The restored Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill near Harrodsburg is a great place to visit, stay overnight, eat and shop.

People found that Central Kentucky’s limestone water made good whiskey as well as strong horses. More than 90 percent of the world’s bourbon is still made here, and several distilleries welcome visitors.Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort has tours but isn’t part of the official Bourbon Trail.

Agriculture and trade made Lexington the most prosperous and cultured town in western America in the early 1800s. Young men came from all over to study at Transylvania University, and Lexingtonians proudly called their town the “Athens of the West.”

Loyalties were divided during the Civil War. Lexington was a big slave-owning town, but it also had been home to Henry Clay, who for decades fought harder than anyone else in Congress to preserve the union. Mary Todd, a Lexington girl, might have been married to Abraham Lincoln, but that didn’t stop many of her relatives from fighting for the Confederacy.

Lexington has several historic home museums that offer a glimpse into aristocratic 19th-century life, including Waveland State Historic Site (; the Mary Todd Lincoln House; Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate; and the Hunt-Morgan House.

Downtown and surrounding neighborhoods are filled with history. The Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation has mapped a Bicycle Tour of Historic Lexington (drive if you must), and Doris Wilkinson, a University of Kentucky sociology professor, developed an African-American Heritage Trail.

For an overview of local history, visit the Lexington History Museum downtown. A good place to explore Kentucky history is the Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History in Frankfort.

This column is from the LexGo Guide to Central Kentucky. To read other articles from the Guide, click here.

UK frat brothers find a niche: The Bourbon Review

August 9, 2010

The four University of Kentucky fraternity brothers didn’t know much about writing or photography or advertising or marketing or magazine publishing. And all they knew about bourbon was that they enjoyed drinking it.

Sitting around a Lexington bar one night in late 2007, the Delta Tau Delta alumni were trying to come up with ideas for a business they could start together. They kept talking about the California wine magazine where one of them had done financial work.

“Wine magazines are a dime a dozen, so we were thinking, ‘What could be our niche?'” Seth Thompson said. “How about bourbon?”

That discussion led them to start The Bourbon Review, which is both a fan magazine for Kentucky’s native spirit and a visitors’ guide to the distillery region between Lexington and Louisville, where 95 percent of the world’s bourbon is produced. The Bourbon Review will soon publish its 10th quarterly issue.

Thompson said the four scraped together enough personal savings to print 10,000 copies of the magazine’s first issue in May 2008. The business has grown steadily since then to a press run of 25,000 copies.

Most copies are given away through advertisers and at selected shops and bars, or they are sold at Liquor Barn and Joseph-Beth Booksellers. The Bourbon Review also has more than 2,000 paying subscribers in 48 states and two foreign countries, Thompson said.

The four young men have earned respect within the bourbon industry, where distillery executives have started calling them the Bourbon Boys.

“We’ve been very impressed with those guys,” said Eric Gregory, president of the Kentucky Distillers Association. “The magazine is pretty well done.”

Bill Samuels, president of Maker’s Mark distillery, said the magazine is becoming an important player in efforts to leverage Kentucky’s bourbon industry into a major tourism phenomenon.

“What The Bourbon Review did early was give a focus to that content beyond just distillery tours,” he said.

Thompson said the magazine appeals to aficionados who want to know more about bourbon, including new ways to mix, drink and cook with it. Readers also want to know more about the people who produce bourbon, and how and where they do it.

“We want somebody to look at our magazine and say, ‘Wow, this is beautiful. How do I get there?'” he said.

Thompson, 28, who grew up in Powell County, handles much of the advertising and marketing. His brother, Justin, 30, is the magazine’s chief editor. Their fellow co-publishers, Lexington natives Bob Kenney Eidson, 30, and Brad Kerrick, 26, help manage the company. All four write and take pictures, with help from several freelance contributors.

Art director Josh Rubin designs the magazine, which is printed in Shepherdsville. All but Eidson now live in Lexington and work out of their homes full-time for the magazine. Eidson lives in California, where he also does financial management for other companies.

Distilleries are the magazine’s biggest advertisers, followed by restaurants, bars and other hospitality businesses. But as the partners try to make The Bourbon Review more of a lifestyle magazine, they are appealing to other advertisers, too, including real estate agents, physicians and even firearms dealers.

The partners say they put a lot of emphasis on social responsibility. The magazine’s masthead reports that the company contributes at least 50 hours of manpower and 1 percent of profits each year to philanthropic work, and it donates advertising space to promote Kentucky land and water conservation.

Thompson sees a lot of growth potential. Bourbon is developing the kind of national and international following that wine and Scotch whisky have had for decades.

The magazine’s current cover story is about bourbon culture in San Francisco. An upcoming issue will feature bourbon bars in Chicago.

The partners are redesigning their Web site, which they hope to turn into a major e-commerce destination for bourbon-related merchandise.

“It is an interesting and scary world in publications these days,” Thompson said. So far, though, The Bourbon Review’s success has exceeded the partners’ expectations.

The three who still live in Lexington are supporting themselves with the magazine. The partners own all of their company’s equity, and, so far, Thompson said, “we haven’t had to borrow a dime from a bank.”

The Bourbon Boys know a lot more about writing, photography, advertising and marketing than they did three years ago. And they know a whole lot more about bourbon. After all, frequent sampling is now just part of the job.

Maker's Mark Master Distiller Kevin Smith, center, poses with The Bourbon Review founders (left to right) Bob Eidson, Seth Thompson, Brad Kerrick and Justin Thompson. Photo Provided

Maker's Mark Master Distiller Kevin Smith, center, poses with The Bourbon Review founders (left to right) Bob Eidson, Seth Thompson, Brad Kerrick and Justin Thompson. Photo Provided

Old bourbon industry innovating, growing

January 18, 2010

Bourbon is one of Kentucky’s oldest products, and distillers have always cloaked themselves in nostalgia.

Even a century ago, distillers promoted their whiskey with images of log cabins and white-suited “colonels.” Brands included Old Crow and Old Barbee, which was made by a long-gone Woodford County distillery run by my wife’s great-grandfather.

Today’s brands include Old Forester, Old Fitzgerald and Old Weller. A glass of Pappy Van Winkle is about as good as bourbon gets.

But beneath this antique image is an innovative and growing industry.

The Kentucky Distillers Association last week released its first-ever economic impact study, prepared by University of Louisville economist Paul Coomes. Its findings may surprise some Kentuckians.

While other Kentucky manufacturers cut 20 percent of their jobs over the past decade, distilling employment grew by 6 percent.

The 19 distilleries in eight Kentucky counties employ 3,200 people with an annual payroll of $244 million, plus benefits. They represent 43 percent of all distilling workers in the United States.

Each distilling job creates more than twice as many spin-off jobs as other Kentucky “signature” industries such as horse breeding, tobacco farming and coal mining.

More than $1.5 billion worth of bourbon is produced in Kentucky each year. It accounts for 26 percent of the value of all distilled spirits produced in the United States. Kentucky bourbon is exported to 126 countries.

Kentucky now makes 95 percent of all bourbon, although it is seeing new competition from micro-distilleries elsewhere.

Bourbon’s fortunes have improved considerably since the 1970s, when “brown” spirits declined in popularity and many young adults saw bourbon as an “old people’s” drink.

Innovations such as super-premium brands in the 1980s and fresh marketing made bourbon popular again and fueled an international following that has caused exports to soar.

In the past decade, distilleries have invested millions to turn their factories into successful tourist destinations on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Distilleries have recorded more than 1.5 million tourist visits during the past five years.

“The best thing we can do is bring a tourist to Kentucky and give them a pleasant experience,” said Louisville hospitality consultant Peggy Noe Stevens, who comes from a famous bourbon family and worked 17 years in branding for Brown-Forman. “We create, in essence, ambassadors for Kentucky.”

The economic impact study was commissioned last year after the bourbon industry was slapped with yet another tax in the General Assembly’s scramble to balance the state budget.

The study notes that Kentucky spirits production and consumption produce $125 million each year in state and local taxes.

Kentucky has the highest distilled spirit taxes of any open-market state except Alaska. About 60 percent of the price of a bottle of bourbon bought in Kentucky is some form of state, federal or local tax.

“With the legislature actively talking about comprehensive tax reform, we would like to have a seat at the table,” said Eric Gregory, president of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association. “We think we’ve earned a seat at the table.”

One more sip with the bourbon masters

September 2, 2009

Here’s a piece of my interview with bourbon industry legends Elmer T. Lee, Jimmy Russell and Parker Beam that I didn’t have room for in today’s column:

Considering their combined 150-plus years of experience in bourbon distilling and tasting, I wanted to know how they judged one bourbon to be better than another.

They said individual taste plays a big role, so the question of whether one bourbon is better than another is often subjective. Russell said it’s like how some people prefer Coca-Cola and others like Pepsi. “If they all tasted the same, we’d just need one (distillery),” he said.

Beam said his tastes were shaped by the tastes of his father, who was Heaven Hill’s master distiller before him. “But Elmer and Jimmy are going to have a little different palate than what I’ve got,” he said.

All three agreed that one of the most important characteristics of a fine bourbon is a good “finish.”

“It just kind of lingers on the palate and gets better the longer it lays there,” Beam said. “I like that.”

“What he’s telling you,” Russell said, “is that it’s so good he wants another one.”

Bourbon’s elder statesmen are real-life characters

September 1, 2009

FRANKFORT—These guys don’t look like rock stars at first glance.

Or second glance. Or third.

Yet, they travel the world making public appearances, posing for photographs and signing autographs, usually on bottles of Kentucky’s best bourbon, some of which have their picture on the label.

This is officially Bourbon Heritage Month in Kentucky. The 18th annual Bourbon Festival is Sept. 15-20 in Bardstown. The eight-distillery Kentucky Bourbon Trail is expecting a record number of tourists.

So I figured this was a good time to sit down with three of bourbon’s elder statesmen: Elmer T. Lee, 90, former plant manager at Buffalo Trace; and master distillers Jimmy Russell, 74, who has been at Wild Turkey in Lawrenceburg for 55 years, and Parker Beam, 67, who is celebrating 50 years at Heaven Hill in Bardstown.

Bourbon sales have been growing steadily for 25 years, especially in international markets such as Japan, Australia and Europe. Distillery production is up 50 percent since 1999.

Much of the credit is given to Lee, who introduced Blanton’s Single Barrel in 1984, launching the premium bourbon market that has been the industry’s growth engine. Single barrel and small batch recipes have transformed bourbon’s image from a commodity into a craft product, like fine wine.

You also can’t discount the marketing genius of Bill Samuels at Maker’s Mark in Loretto, who taught a conservative industry how to be folksy and hip at the same time.

More than 95 percent of all bourbon is made in Kentucky, creating a $3 billion industry with 3,200 direct jobs. Although some distilleries are now owned by international conglomerates, they’re almost all run and staffed by Kentuckians with old bourbon family trees.

Russell and Beam are third-generation distillers, and their sons are distillers, too. Beam’s grandfather, for whom he was named, was master distiller at the operation owned by his grandfather’s brother, Jim Beam.

I visited with Russell, Beam and Lee around a table at Stony Point, the hilltop home where Col. Albert Blanton once commanded the 110-acre distillery now called Buffalo Trace. These three friends and rivals have known each other for decades. They can, and often do, give each other a hard time—and finish each other’s sentences.

The first thing I wanted to know was how these experts drink their bourbon.

Russell sips his “neat”— or straight—from a brandy snifter so he can enjoy the aroma. In summertime, he might drink it over ice, or chill the bottle in the refrigerator. Beam also is a straight-bourbon man, although he sometimes chases it with a little water. Lee prefers his bourbon mixed with 7Up or Sprite.

Russell, whose personal brand is Russell’s Reserve, and Beam, who developed Evan Williams Single Barrel, have a drink most days, but not every day. Lee is a daily drinker, but, like the others, in moderation.

“I don’t try to drink it all every night,” Lee said. “Just one good highball.”

Does Lee, the namesake of Elmer T. Lee Single Barrel, give bourbon any credit for his living to be 90? “I give it a whole lot of credit,” he said. “It ain’t hurt a damn thing.”

Beam jumps in: “Booker Noe, my cousin (and former master distiller at Jim Beam in Clermont) always said, there’s too much living proof bourbon won’t hurt you. Look at all us old-timers.”

Decades of practice have taught these men what good bourbon tastes like, but they have a hard time describing it — and sometimes chuckle when others try. They talked of hearing bourbon aficionados wax poetically about hints of caramel, vanilla and spice — and even tree leaves, leather and tobacco.

“I’ve always said when you’ve got some of those kind of tastes in your bourbon, you’ve probably got problems,” Beam said with a laugh.

Lee then had to tell one on Russell. One time, at a tasting in Missouri, someone began equating a particular bourbon’s taste to exotic fruits and vegetables. Russell leaned over to another distiller and whispered: “I don’t know about y’all, but we don’t put any of that crap in our bourbon.”

These three seem to enjoy being international bourbon ambassadors almost as much as being distillers. They have a lot of funny stories, such as the time Lee called down to the front desk of a hotel in Japan to ask for a bucket of ice. The bellman delivered a bucket of rice.

Lee, Beam and Russell were born and raised within a few miles of the distilleries where they have spent their lives, and their most common travel stories involve how people sometimes react to their folksy charm.

“One time, at a tasting in California, I introduced myself and after I poured the product this guy kept kind of staring at me,” Beam said. “Then he pointed his finger and said, ‘You’re a real person! … I thought you were just some fictitious character they had come up with in marketing.”

Beam, Russell and Lee are real, all right. But they’re characters, too.

Click on each thumbnail to see complete photo:

Bourbon industry fighting back on new tax

May 13, 2009

Bill Samuels’ speech to the Bluegrass Hospitality Association was a lot like the Maker’s Mark bourbon his company produces: smooth with a distinct flavor — and a kick.

Samuels talked Wednesday about how Kentucky has a monopoly on making premium bourbon. How it is a growing industry, which has doubled production since 1999. How it directly employs 3,200 people, has made $100 million in capital investment and creates $3 billion in gross state product.

Then he talked about how bourbon is creating a spinoff tourism and hospitality industry with huge growth potential that could rival Scotland’s whisky trail and California’s wine country.

Samuels unveiled a new logo and souvenir passport for the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, a 10-year-old marketing effort that he said has brought millions of tourists to the eight participating distilleries.

Then he delivered the kick.

Samuels blasted state officials, accusing them of trying to kill the bourbon industry with excessive taxes and unfair sales restrictions. And he signaled that the industry will be fighting back.

“We’re not looking for subsidies from our commonwealth,” Samuels said. “But we’re sure as hell not looking to be thrown under the bus.”

The bourbon industry is smarting over the General Assembly’s eleventh-hour move earlier this year to balance the state budget by adding the 6 percent sales tax to alcohol.

On Kentucky Derby weekend, a group of industry players ran full-page newspaper ads in Lexington and Louisville demanding that the governor and legislature reconsider.

“Kentuckians already pay the second-highest taxes on beverage alcohol in the U.S. We say enough is enough,” the ad said. “If you see the governor or one of our legislators during the Derby Season, let them know what you think of their unfair tax policies because it’s time to restore common sense to the Commonwealth.”

The Kentucky Distillers’ Association is working on developing a legislative strategy, President Eric Gregory said. He said the industry wants to make sure it has “a seat at the table” when lawmakers discuss much-needed tax reform.

“There are now seven different taxes on bourbon,” Gregory said. “That’s insane.”

Why is liquor so heavily taxed? Because it’s an easy political mark, especially in a state where many Christian denominations consider drinking a sin. Forty-nine of Kentucky’s 120 counties ban alcohol sales, and an additional 41 counties restrict them. A big reason for that is church folks and their legislators.

“I travel all over the world, and the only place I have ever heard the signature product, the signature industry, referred to as sin is in Kentucky,” Samuels said.

“If the majority of our elected officials believe that what we’re producing is sin, we need to confront it. And if they win, we need to shut all this stuff down, because we wouldn’t want to embarrass them. I would contend that’s an issue that needs to be dealt with. We’ve got to call their hand on it. We’re going to force that issue.”

Last year, Rep. Steve Riggs, a Louisville Democrat, suggested that only “wet” counties should receive the benefits of future alcohol taxes. In a General Assembly dominated by legislators from those mostly rural “dry” counties, the idea went nowhere.

Samuels suggested legislation removing all local-option restrictions and forcing counties that want to ban alcohol sales to vote “dry” again. And, he said, those that did should not get any alcohol tax revenues.

“It was estimated that to do that would have raised twice as much money as adding the tax, which took our product, of this signature industry, to the second-highest in the country,” he said.

State tax receipts on distilled spirits dropped by more than half last month as the new tax took effect. But it’s too early to know if that was because of the tax, the overall economy, or simply because people stocked up before the new tax went into effect.

Samuels had two points to make to the tourism people. One was that the bourbon industry is a major, growing contributor to Kentucky’s economy. The second was that bourbon-related tourism and hospitality has huge growth potential.

“This is the cheapest economic investment that the state could make,” he said of lowering taxes on the bourbon industry. “In my judgment, (bourbon-related tourism) has every bit the potential for being for Central Kentucky what Napa and Sonoma are for California. But if the industry itself is not viable, it has no chance.”

What’s your favorite Kentucky treat?

December 15, 2008

I try never to leave Danville without stopping by Burke’s Bakery on Main Street for some gingerbread men.

It’s hard to pass the Rebecca Ruth shop on U.S. 60 between Versailles and Frankfort without buying some bourbon balls. (I recommend the pound bag of “boo boos,” which are cheaper and taste just as good.)

Every few months, I go by Sharp’s Candies on Regency Road in Lexington for a pound box of orange creams, my wife’s favorite. I’ll usually get some Kentucky pulled cream candy for myself, too.

My freezer still has a serving or two of barbecued mutton from the Fancy Farm Picnic. I never head to Graves County on the first weekend of August without a cooler in the back of my car to bring some home.

When country hams are being smoked in the Jackson Purchase, I can’t help but look for a restaurant serving some with eggs and biscuits. I can never drive by the Buffalo Trace, Wild Turkey or Woodford Reserve distilleries without getting just a little thirsty. And an advertising jingle I remember from childhood remains true today: “If it’s baked by Magee’s, it has to be good!”

What’s your favorite Kentucky treat?  You know, the one that makes you pull off the road and stock up?