Thursday, July 22, 2021

Salena Zito: How Bourbon Rose From a Humble Grain To Embody American Exceptionalism

  About 250 years ago, farmers looking for a way to make their surplus corn crop profitable decided to distill it. Today, that leftover grain has become a billion-dollar industry and a symbol of the Bluegrass State's identity, economy and culture. 

         "How bourbon came about is (what) ... the American spirit looks like: business, independence, freedom, a little bit of luck and a lot of perseverance," said Justin Thompson.

        Thompson and his colleague Justin Sloan are the proprietors of The House of Bourbon, the world's largest bourbon store, located on West Main Street in Lexington right across from Mary Todd Lincoln's childhood home.
        And right now, business is booming.

        Thompson and Sloan started collecting rare and vintage bottles of bourbon 20 years ago, when the drink was out of favor. Then, four years ago, the state passed a law allowing the resale of distilled spirits and the duo opened their store, selling not just their stockpile but the history of the drink itself.

        Bourbon is concocted from a strict formula. "By law it has to be made with a minimum of 51% corn, aged in charred new oak barrels and stored at no more than 125 proof and bottled at no less than 80 proof," Thompson said.
        But its sweet, rich flavor was actually born out of happenstance. In the early days, the best market for bourbon was on the East Coast, so farmers had to ship their barrels down the Mississippi to Louisiana then around Florida and up the coast. The trip took months but also allowed the whiskey to age beautifully.

        "When merchants along the East Coast started marveling about this red whiskey with its unique flavor, that marked the beginning of the bourbon industry," said Thompson. 

        In 1964, Congress deemed bourbon the nation's native spirit, and there's nothing more American than enjoying a sip of the brown stuff in a classic cocktail like a mint julep or an Old-Fashioned on the Fourth of July weekend.
        But it's only in the past 10 years that America's appetite for bourbon has really skyrocketed -- and Kentucky tourism along with it. 

        While bourbon can technically be crafted in any state, Kentucky makes 95% of the world's supply. The whiskey is now the state's $8.6 billion signature industry, generating 20,100 jobs with an average salary of $95,000, an amount that has climbed by 23% since 2009. 

        According to the Kentucky Distillers Association, tourists to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail spend on average between $400 and $1,200 a trip -- with more than 70% of visitors coming from outside the state. 

        "This industry is a testament to the American spirit of making something from nothing, or making something from something leftover," said Kentucky state Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer, a Bourbon County Republican. 

        Right now, Kentucky has $2.3 billion in bourbon-related capital projects planned, including a massive $1.2 billion expansion at Buffalo Trace, the country's premier distillery dating back to the late 18th century. Buffalo Trace now crafts some of the world's most sought-after brands, including Elmer T. Lee, E.H. Taylor and Pappy Van Winkle, which can retail for more than $1,000 a bottle. 

        "Like works of art, they are more than likely snapped up by collectors and either kept for themselves or sold at highly inflated prices," said Thayer. 

        But while some labels have vaulted into the realm of luxury, the bourbon industry as a whole would never have come about without humble grit and ingenuity. Over the years, it has survived fickle consumer trends, natural disasters like flooding and drought, and government overreach in the form of Prohibition to become a symbol of our nation -- and the pride of Kentucky. 

        "Kentucky has two unique signature industries, horses and bourbon. And no offense to other states, but if we don't protect horses and bourbon in terms of the economic effect of both, we're West Virginia or Mississippi," said Thayer. 

        "And while those are fine places, we have two things that are unique to Kentucky like nowhere else." 

Photo: Justin Sloan (left) and Justin Thompson of Lexington's House of Bourbon own the state's largest bourbon store. Photo credit Salena Zito.       

Salena Zito is a national political reporter and columnist for the Washington Examiner as well as a weekly columnist for the New York Post. She reaches the Everyman and Everywoman through shoe-leather journalism, traveling from Main Street to the beltway and all places in between. To find out more about Salena and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at



Anonymous said...

I wonder how many lives and entire families have been destroyed by bourbon. I say this as a former bourbon drinker myself, who took 10 more years than I should've to stop drinking. All I can say if to hell with bourbon.

Anonymous said...

I loathe the fact bourbon is as popular as it is now. I've been partaking in the drink for years and what I used to drink regularly is almost impossible to find these days.

Side note: I wish Mississippi's Old Soul Bourbon was better than it is.

Anonymous said...

Sigh. I remember the good ole days - just a mere decade ago- where you could walk into Briarwood or Corkscrew and pick an Old Rip right off of the shelf. The popularity killed it for me.

Anonymous said...

Kentucky thanks Don Draper. The Old Fashion became fashionable again.

I suggest watching Heist on Netflix - Bourbon Kings.

Anonymous said...

A physician said that bourbon and cigars are covid deterrents. That plus the shots make me mask free.

Property Pros, LLC said...

Yeah. Hopefully the Old Soul boys have had enough time to distill their own hooch. I agree their sourced blend is not that great.

Anonymous said...

Strange how tobacco products are no longer accepted as it once was yet corn squeezins' is so popular. The number one factor in social decay is alcohol.
Can't pay your rent or children needs new clothes, no money for groceries and the light bill is way past due, but there is always money for, you know, corn squeezins'.

Kingfish said...

Had a Maker's at lunch and it was pretty damn good.

Anonymous said...

What percent of people that are on food stamps smoke and drink. It’s theft.

Anonymous said...

Costo has SAMS beat on liquor prices- just saying-

Anonymous said...

@4:29 pm

I am sincerely sorry for your drinking history and congratulate you on your sobriety. I wish you every good thing. Alcoholism is no joke.

On the other hand, for a substantial fraction of my life I have taken two or so drinks of something pretty much every day. Most days a single shot, very rarely indeed a third drink. When I was a boy, during the 1950s, my dad, who drank not a drop, owned a saloon. He held drunkards in great contempt, particularly rum drinkers, "rummies," he called them. Sorta in his honor my drink of choice these days is a double shot of Myers dark rum over ice cubes with a lemon wedge. If I am feeling particularly frisky, I'll wedge a lime and throw it in as well.

I know it's un-American but I'd do without rather than drink the stuff.

Anonymous said...

@7:09 PM

Let it go already. Quit demonizing the poor. We all have vices. What percentage of us middle class and affluent are assholes for no real reason?

Anonymous said...

No better time than to interject this rather colorful bit of Mississippi history:

Noah Sweat was a member of the Mississippi legislature when he gave this speech in 1954. The "Whiskey Speech" concerned
the question of the prohibition of alcoholic liquor, a law that was still in force in Mississippi at the time the speech was

My friends, I had not intended to discuss this controversial subject at this particular time. However, I
want you to know that I do not shun controversy. On the contrary, I will take a stand on any issue at
any time, regardless of how fraught with controversy it might be. You have asked me how I feel about
whiskey. All right, here is how I feel about whiskey:
If when you say whiskey you mean the devil's brew, the poison scourge, the bloody monster, that
defiles innocence, dethrones reason, destroys the home, creates misery and poverty, yea, literally
takes the bread from the mouths of little children; if you mean the evil drink that topples the Christian
man and woman from the pinnacle of righteous, gracious living into the bottomless pit of degradation,
and despair, and shame and helplessness, and hopelessness, then certainly I am against it.
But, if when you say whiskey you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine, the ale
that is consumed when good fellows get together, that puts a song in their hearts and laughter on
their lips, and the warm glow of contentment in their eyes; if you mean Christmas cheer; if you mean
the stimulating drink that puts the spring in the old gentleman's step on a frosty, crispy morning; if you
mean the drink which enables a man to magnify his joy, and his happiness, and to forget, if only for a
little while, life's great tragedies, and heartaches, and sorrows; if you mean that drink, the sale of
which pours into our treasuries untold millions of dollars, which are used to provide tender care for
our little crippled children, our blind, our deaf, our dumb, our pitiful aged and infirm; to build highways
and hospitals and schools, then certainly I am for it.
This is my stand. I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise

Shazam said...

While you are busy demonizing alcohol, don't forget to hit the Kroger pharmacy up on the way home to get those scripts re-filled. I drink daily, am in generally good health and haven't taken so much as an Advil in over 20 years. Everyone is different, with different habits both good and bad. No need to point fingers just because someone is not like you.

Anonymous said...

So we can even fight over Bourbon?
We can exalt it to the symbol of American exceptionalism? And ignore the history of other countries?

I think we are becoming #1 in ornery as well as killing each other.

Anonymous said...

Sober for the most part now but I sure do try and enjoy me a Charter 8 every once in a while.

Anonymous said...

I long ago learned to never trust a man who couldn't hold his liquor.

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Trollfest '09

Trollfest '07 was such a success that Jackson Jambalaya will once again host Trollfest '09. Catch this great event which will leave NE Jackson & Fondren in flames. Othor Cain and his band, The Black Power Structure headline the night while Sonjay Poontang returns for an encore performance. Former Frank Melton bodyguard Marcus Wright makes his premier appearance at Trollfest singing "I'm a Sweet Transvestite" from "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." Kamikaze will sing his new hit, “How I sold out to da Man.” Robbie Bell again performs: “Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be Bells” and “Any friend of Ed Peters is a friend of mine”. After the show, Ms. Bell will autograph copies of her mug shot photos. In a salute to “Dancing with the Stars”, Ms. Bell and Hinds County District Attorney Robert Smith will dance the Wango Tango.

Wrestling returns, except this time it will be a Battle Royal with Othor Cain, Ben Allen, Kim Wade, Haley Fisackerly, Alan Lange, and “Big Cat” Donna Ladd all in the ring at the same time. The Battle Royal will be in a steel cage, no time limit, no referee, and the losers must leave town. Marshand Crisler will be the honorary referee (as it gives him a title without actually having to do anything).

Meet KIM Waaaaaade at the Entergy Tent. For five pesos, Kim will sell you a chance to win a deed to a crack house on Ridgeway Street stuffed in the Howard Industries pinata. Don't worry if the pinata is beaten to shreds, as Mr. Wade has Jose, Emmanuel, and Carlos, all illegal immigrants, available as replacements for the it. Upon leaving the Entergy tent, fig leaves will be available in case Entergy literally takes everything you have as part of its Trollfest ticket price adjustment charge.

Donna Ladd of The Jackson Free Press will give several classes on learning how to write. Smearing, writing without factchecking, and reporting only one side of a story will be covered. A donation to pay their taxes will be accepted and she will be signing copies of their former federal tax liens. Ms. Ladd will give a dramatic reading of her two award-winning essays (They received The Jackson Free Press "Best Of" awards.) "Why everything is always about me" and "Why I cover murders better than anyone else in Jackson".

In the spirit of helping those who are less fortunate, Trollfest '09 adopts a cause for which a portion of the proceeds and donations will be donated: Keeping Frank Melton in his home. The “Keep Frank Melton From Being Homeless” booth will sell chances for five dollars to pin the tail on the jackass. John Reeves has graciously volunteered to be the jackass for this honorable excursion into saving Frank's ass. What's an ass between two friends after all? If Mr. Reeves is unable to um, perform, Speaker Billy McCoy has also volunteered as when the word “jackass” was mentioned he immediately ran as fast as he could to sign up.

In order to help clean up the legal profession, Adam Kilgore of the Mississippi Bar will be giving away free, round-trip plane tickets to the North Pole where they keep their bar complaint forms (which are NOT available online). If you don't want to go to the North Pole, you can enjoy Brant Brantley's (of the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance) free guided tours of the quicksand field over by High Street where all complaints against judges disappear. If for some reason you are unable to control yourself, never fear; Judge Houston Patton will operate his jail where no lawyers are needed or allowed as you just sit there for minutes... hours.... months...years until he decides he is tired of you sitting in his jail. Do not think Judge Patton is a bad judge however as he plans to serve free Mad Dog 20/20 to all inmates.

Trollfest '09 is a pet-friendly event as well. Feel free to bring your dog with you and do not worry if your pet gets hungry, as employees of the Jackson Zoo will be on hand to provide some of their animals as food when it gets to be feeding time for your little loved one.

Relax at the Fox News Tent. Since there are only three blonde reporters in Jackson (being blonde is a requirement for working at Fox News), Megan and Kathryn from WAPT and Wendy from WLBT will be on loan to Fox. To gain admittance to the VIP section, bring either your Republican Party ID card or a Rebel Flag. Bringing both and a torn-up Obama yard sign will entitle you to free drinks served by Megan, Wendy, and Kathryn. Get your tickets now. Since this is an event for trolls, no ID is required. Just bring the hate. Bring the family, Trollfest '09 is for EVERYONE!!!

This is definitely a Beaver production.

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Trollfest '07

Jackson Jambalaya is the home of Trollfest '07. Catch this great event which promises to leave NE Jackson & Fondren in flames. Sonjay Poontang and his band headline the night with a special steel cage, no time limit "loser must leave town" bout between Alan Lange and "Big Cat"Donna Ladd following afterwards. Kamikaze will perform his new song F*** Bush, he's still a _____. Did I mention there was no referee? Dr. Heddy Matthias and Lori Gregory will face off in the undercard dueling with dangling participles and other um, devices. Robbie Bell will perform Her two latest songs: My Best Friends are in the Media and Mama's, Don't Let Your Babies Grow up to be George Bell. Sid Salter of The Clarion-Ledger will host "Pin the Tail on the Trial Lawyer", sponsored by State Farm.

There will be a hugging booth where in exchange for your young son, Frank Melton will give you a loooong hug. Trollfest will have a dunking booth where Muhammed the terrorist will curse you to Allah as you try to hit a target that will drop him into a vat of pig grease. However, in the true spirit of Separate But Equal, Don Imus and someone from NE Jackson will also sit in the dunking booth for an equal amount of time. Tom Head will give a reading for two hours on why he can't figure out who the hell he is. Cliff Cargill will give lessons with his .80 caliber desert eagle, using Frank Melton photos as targets. Tackleberry will be on hand for an autograph session. KIM Waaaaaade will be passing out free titles and deeds to crackhouses formerly owned by The Wood Street Players.

If you get tired come relax at the Fox News Tent. To gain admittance to the VIP section, bring either your Republican Party ID card or a Rebel Flag. Bringing both will entitle you to free drinks.Get your tickets now. Since this is an event for trolls, no ID is required, just bring the hate. Bring the family, Trollfest '07 is for EVERYONE!!!

This is definitely a Beaver production.

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