An Encounter with the Spirit World - Some Insights from the Kentucky Bourbon Festival


An Encounter with the Spirit World - Some Insights from the Kentucky Bourbon Festival

by Alan Moen (Brewing Techniques - Vol. 7, No.1)

A museum display about Prohibition invites comparison with today’s anti-alcohol crusade.

This fall, I engaged in my own Whiskey Rebellion — a break from beer events in the Northwest and elsewhere to attend the Kentucky Bourbon Festival. Held in the hamlet of Bardstown, about 40 miles southwest of Louisville, this four-day event celebrates the region’s famous bourbon distillers, including Jim Beam, Heaven Hill, Maker’s Mark, Four Roses (Seagram), Labrot and Graham (Brown-Forman), Barton Brands, and Wild Turkey (Austin Nichols). It included many “spirited” activities for both the industry and the general public, culminating in a black-tie gala tasting and dinner on the grounds of Steven Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home.”

It was my first time in Kentucky, and the heat and humidity took some getting used to. I generally drink my whiskey neat, be it bourbon or Scotch, but it was practically impossible, given the weather, to enjoy bourbon in its home state other than watered-down and cold. Imagine making the rounds at a beer festival and attempting to taste warm brews on a hot day, and you’ve got the idea. And sampling bourbon after bourbon is not a job for amateurs! Although I am used to tasting a healthy sample or two from each brewery at an event, at the Bourbon Festival I had to adopt a more cautious approach to avoid total inebriation (which I managed to achieve anyway).

When my head cleared sufficiently to examine my surroundings, I found that Bardstown reeks of history as well as bourbon. In the center of town is one of America’s oldest inns, the Talbott, built in 1797 and still standing despite a recent fire. Bardstown also sports the first Catholic cathedral built west of the Allegheny Mountains, some lovely Southern mansions, and a restored pioneer village. Naturally, for me the most interesting historical sites were those connected with distilling. At the Jim Beam visitor center in nearby Clermont, I viewed the oldest known pot still in the United States, dating from about 1779. Back in Bardstown, I visited the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History in Spaulding Hall and enjoyed its amazing collection of bourbon trivia and lore.

Not all of the displays were merely entertaining, however. An entire room of the museum is devoted to Prohibition, with a giant photo mural on one wall depicting the moment of repeal in New York City on 5 December 1933. Temperance society banners and handbills were on display, including an axe made by a distiller bearing the legend “All Nations Welcome But Carrie” (for Carrie A. Nation, the famous prohibitionist who enjoyed smashing up saloons).

It was appropriately sobering to view the relics of the moralistic attack on alcohol consumption just 80-odd years ago, especially in light of the DARE and MADD rhetoric of today (“Large Streams from Little Fountains Flow — Great Sots from Moderate Drinkers Grow,” one banner read). Even the typical male laissez-faire attitudes about inebriation and manhood were attacked by those Savonarolas of the saloons. A turn-of-the-century engraving showed drunken men at a bar juxtaposed against the image of a drunken woman among a group of horrified men at another tavern. The caption read, “What’s the Difference?”

Of course, the hypocrisy of the prohibitionist ban on alcohol was that it produced both more drinking and more crime. Distilleries took advantage of a loophole in the law to produce bourbon for “medicinal” purposes. This whiskey was frequently of lower quality (I tasted a syrupy, woody 1933 bottle at the Festival). Evidently a lot of prescriptions were written in those days. It’s the same old story: the more absurd the law, the more difficult its enforcement. Create laws that attempt to deny people what they want, and they’ll simply find another way to get it.

As I left the museum, I almost felt I had come out of a Civil War exhibit. The casualties of Prohibition in America were truly enormous. People obtained alcohol under false pretenses, made it, hid it, smuggled it. Although some whiskey producers, like Jim Beam, got into limestone quarrying and other businesses, others had their fortunes and livelihoods destroyed by a government that made them a scapegoat for the evils of society.

The surrealistic quality of those times seems far removed from the realities of today, yet once again prohibitionist thinking seems to have returned to the forefront in today’s culture. An anti-alcohol climate that seeks to identify all drinking with drug abuse has made both beer and whiskey evil words among today’s politically correct. In Wisconsin, a recent MADD billboard reads, “Fourteen kids die every day from drinking.” Our children are shown only the personal and social problems caused by abusive drinking, with no mention of the benefits of moderate alcohol consumption. These days, those in the alcoholic beverage business are forced to explain to their kids that their livelihood should not be destroyed by the latest “war on drugs.”

Our laws continue to lower the legal blood alcohol limit for drivers (now 0.08 in my state), when research clearly shows that most fatal accidents are caused by those with much higher alcohol levels (0.14 and above). With freedom comes responsibility, or so we are told. But there’s the rub: to deny the freedom to drink is also to deny the opportunity to drink responsibly — or even have a bit too much occasionally. The prohibition of alcoholic beverages in society just might be the most irresponsible action of all.

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