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  • Writer's pictureJoseph Bourbon

Neat: The Story of Bourbon

Trailer on Youtube.

I was midway through a Friday night and not finding much to watch. It is amazing how one can have 100+ channels (a far cry from the old 5 I grew up with) and still find nothing on. I brought up a streaming service we share with our children, and stumbled across “Neat: The Story of Bourbon”. I remember the chatter when this documentary came out in February 2018 and had forgotten all about it. Soon, like finding that elusive bottle you’ve been searching for, I was instantly drawn in for the next 85 minutes.

The Characters

Directed by David Altrogge and Vinegar Hill productions, and hosted by actor-comedian Steve Zahn, “Neat” reflects the simpleness of this native spirit itself. The story begins where all bourbon does – from its humble beginnings in the soil. Bourbon draws its flavors from grains (corn, barley, wheat, and rye), the oak it is barreled in, and water. Three simple ingredients – grains, water, and wood – nothing more.

You’re immediately immersed in a myriad of bourbon personalities:

  1. Freddie Johnson: employee & tour guide at Buffalo Trace

  2. Marianne Barnes: first female master distiller at Castle & Key

  3. Jimmy Russell: master distiller at Wild Turkey

  4. Denny Potter: now, master distiller at Makers Mark, but then, at Heaven Hill

  5. Brent Elliot: master distiller at Four Roses

  6. Fred Noe: master distiller at Jim Beam

  7. Dixon Dedmon: master distiller at Kentucky Owl

  8. Chris Morris: master distiller at Woodford Reserve

  9. Jackie Zykan: master taster at Old Forester

Bourbon Basics

Bourbon is a true, native spirit. Stills were brought on the Mayflower and carried across the Appalachian Mountains. Ultimately, farmers seeking to preserve corn quickly turned it into whiskey to be used as a medicinal and eventually a currency. While bourbon can be produced anywhere, we learn that Kentucky’s limestone-filtered water, rich in calcium and minerals, but low in iron, makes a perfect foundation for bourbon. As “Neat” evolves, we learn that the story of bourbon is less about whiskey and more about the people that make the product.

Denny Potter (sporting a Heaven Hill vest at the time, but now back at Makers Mark) explains that bourbon is as simple as the ABCs:

A – American made B – Barrel – newly charred to impart caramel and vanilla flavor C – Corn – at least 51%. This unique to many whiskeys and adds the unique sweetness D – Distillation – <= 160 proof (most vodkas go to 190 proof driving out all flavor) E – Entry proof into the barrel <= 125 proof F – Fill proof into the bottle at least 80 proof G – Genuine – no added flavors or colors

Boom, Bust, and Rebirth

While bourbon is experiencing a boomtime, it’s not the first time this spirit has seen an uptrend. Following the Civil War, there was huge demand, and some sought to short-cut the process – rectifiers – took grain neutral spirits, added acids, tobacco spit, and prune juice to make a product. People were literally dying from a dangerous product. Enter Colonel Taylor, who built a first-class limestone castle for his distillery in 1884 and worked for 10 years on Bottled-in-Bond legislation. It’s interesting to consider that product safety didn’t start with food or medicines – it started with whiskey.

In 1920, Prohibition came, and left just a handful of distillers able to produce medicinal bourbon, available by prescription and dispensed at your local pharmacy. 13 years later, in the depths of the Great Depression, prohibition was repealed. Through the war years and the 1950s, bourbon sales rose, only to stumble as a new generation favored lighter and clearer spirits. The bourbon industry tried to match the changing palate, producing lighter and lighter spirits. Still, consumers left for beers, wines, and clear spirits. Good distilleries closed as demand evaporated.

By the mid 1980s, bourbon was at its darkest and lowest point. Innovators like Elmer T. Lee began a revival to jumpstart the industry. For decades, distillers had blended barrels together to create a consistent product. But Elmer was aware that each distillery had “honey barrels” – those spots in the warehouses that generated a superior product. Rather than blending these in with other barrels, he introduced Blanton’s – the first single barrel produced up to that point. Other distillers quickly followed with small batches – Knob Creek, EH Taylor, Maker’s Mark, and Wild Turkey.

The Real Stars

And while bourbon is the star of this documentary, the headline stars presented throughout are Marianne Barnes and the Castle & Key Distillery (formerly the Old Taylor Distillery), and Freddie Johnson. In 2015, Marianne left her job as heir-apparent to Master Distiller Chris Morris of Woodford Reserve, to go to start-up Castle & Key. Named by Forbes as one of the 30 best businesswomen, she shares how the corn used in her product comes from Walnut Grove Farm. While the early settlers brought the grains of rye and barley, Native Americans introduced the settlers to corn, and corn really adds that unique, sweet mouthfeel and is the star of the show.

Marianne continues, sharing that the 45 acres of non-GMO white corn will be turned into 250,000 bottles of bourbon, with each bottle of containing 2 – 2 1/2 pounds of corn. “The corn takes 4 months to grow, an oak tree 40-50 years. You’re literally drinking history,” she comments in the documentary. We get numerous glimpses into her work at Castle and Key. It’s incredible to see the work that has gone into transforming the former Old Taylor Distillery into a true gem.

We’re also introduced to Freddie Johnson, a 3rd-generation Buffalo Trace employee. We were lucky enough to meet Freddie as our tour guide when we toured BT in 2015. Freddie takes us on a tasting experience, tasting the White Dog all the way through experiencing the finished product. We learn that there’s no wrong way to enjoy bourbon – “the best way to enjoy bourbon? Just the way you like it!”

We’re also transported to a simpler time as he shares his own, personal story. He had been given a fine bottle of bourbon – undoubtedly a bottle of Pappy. He recorked the bottle after pouring a drink for his father, brother and himself. His dad responded, “what are you doing? Never save old bottles of bourbon. It’s meant to be enjoyed with friends and family. There will always be more old barrels of bourbon. It’s not about the whiskey. It’s about people and the lives you touch.” And, they finished the bottle over the next few hours. And, nine months later, his brother and father were gone. Freddie leaves us with his own words: Never bring out old aged bourbons unless you’re with friends and family, and not in a hurry.

The Finish

“Neat: The Story of Bourbon” is just like the product itself – with a nose and palate that has richness, sweetness and character that is uniquely American. In the end, we learned the story isn’t as much about the whiskey, as it is about the lives touched and the people we meet. In today’s busy world, bourbon is much needed.

Bourbon can’t be rushed and it parallels with a lifestyle we should all learn from. While bourbon ages in the warehouse, it’s exposed to life’s sunny days and snowy days, and in the end, it’s really beautiful. While other spirits can be quickly downed, bourbon, by its own nature, almost draws us to stop, breathe deeply, and slow down. And the finish? Long, smooth, and lingering.

As you lift your next glass, find yourself transported back in time and reconnected with this natural spirit.

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