The system for monitoring the distillation process at one of the corporate conglomeration distilleries.
Are you proud of where you're from? I wasn't always. When I went away to a tiny private college out of state I didn't feel any pride in saying I was from Kentucky. In fact I probably hastened to add that I was actually born in Ohio, as if that mattered more than where I spent my formative years. I learned from a skilled voice and diction professor to speak without a trace of my Kentucky accent. And the more I traveled and saw the country – and later the world – in my younger years, the more inferior I felt to people from cooler places.
I wish that weren't so, but I let my fear of peoples' perceptions about my state rule my own feelings about it. I'm old enough to know better now, and while I'm not sure how much of it I can attribute to any wisdom, and how much of it is that we have a lot of kick-ass things to offer the world, either way I'm proud to answer, "Kentucky" when someone asks me where I'm from. Ordering a bourbon, neat, at an airport earlier this year after three weeks away, I was paid quite the compliment, in fact, when a fellow said, “You must be from Kentucky.”
So, relatively newfound though my pride may be, I tend to get fired up when I think we're not being recognized for the fine things we have here. An article in GQ recently that purported to be about the family tree of bourbon distilleries (a fascinating topic!) led with this:
Kentuckians like to tell you that 95 percent of the world’s bourbon comes from their state. What they won’t tell you is that pretty much every last drop of that bourbon comes from a handful of conglomerate distilleries. In this chart—excerpted from The Kings County Distillery Guide to Urban Moonshining, on shelves now—the guys behind Brooklyn’s oldest craft distillery parse out, once and for all, the complicated kissing cousins of the bluegrass state’s bourbon industry.
Wow. I'd like to sit down and chat with these guys – who run a distillery founded in 2010 – and ask them what their beef with Kentucky is. And ask where they get the idea that anybody's hiding anything. Nobody made it any secret when I researched the numbers for an NBCNews.com story. Eric Gregory, president of the Kentucky Distillers' Association, told me straight up that the “Big Six” distillers — Jim Beam, Heaven Hill, Wild Turkey, Four Roses, Brown Forman and Diageo — account for 90 percent of the world's bourbon. That's a lot. I don't know how you do your math up there, but that's not “every last drop,” Brooklyn fellows.
If they'd done a little more asking and a lot less rushing to talk trash, they'd have learned about the small, family-owned operations that make up the other five percent. They'd have maybe learned about the generations of families that work in distilleries, that yes, are owned by big companies. Who else can afford to own them?
Bourbon comes from Kentucky. Good bourbon can come from other places of course, and does. I've enjoyed some fine Detroit and Portland, Oregon, bourbons. But we have a long, fascinating heritage with our whiskey, and one has to wonder why these guys want to get snarky now that the rest of the world has begun to appreciate bourbon like Kentuckians do.
I got a little hot under the collar again a few days later when a editor visiting from out of state told me she enjoyed visiting Louisville because she likes to go to “emerging markets.”
Emerging? Really? I know some of our trendier restaurants have gotten national press lately (I try to write about our gems nationally whenever possible myself!). But that doesn't mean we weren't a great food town before the big city papers and magazines “discovered” us. Thanks to people like Kathy Cary – who was cooking farm to table long before chefs and PR people started playing locavore Mad Libs with their menu – among a vanguard of exceptional chefs and diverse talent pool of people from all corners of the globe feeding a town hungry for seriously good food, we've been kicking ass here for years.
The food, the bourbon – it's going to get even better from here. I'll have to learn to keep my cool when I think someone belittles or downplays our accomplishments. But I don't mind too much, this getting fired up business. I'm proud to be a Kentuckian, and what's more, I'm glad for that pride. I just wish I could get that accent back.