Bourbon & Women, Pt. 1
Let me start by saying, I won Christmas this year. My husband is probably the best gift giver anyone could hope for. After my father passed away, he had an artist hand make a miniature replica of a wooden sign that hung at our family home growing up that embodied everything my father loved. It was a scene of the lake with a boat on the water. It was a rather large sign that my husband took and asked someone to make into an ornament as an exact replica. I mean, who does that? He’s a hard act to follow.
BUT, this was my year and I came through in a big way!
My husband is a bit of a bourbon connoisseur. He loves the pursuit of understanding the complexities of the craft and its history. I did not share that with him until I gifted him a trip on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail for Christmas. We took that trip last weekend and it delivered in all the ways I had hoped.
I expected to learn a lot about bourbon which, frankly, I could take or leave as a hobby. What I didn’t expect was to find all the ways that women have influenced the popularity and economy of this sustaining spirit since its inception.
The craft of bourbon making is as old as our nation. I discovered its survival over time is due in no small part to women. If you take the time to notice, you see all the best traits of women reflected in its story. Over the next few issues, I hope to share with you a few of the many insights I learned on the Bourbon Trail. There were three big observations that emerged from the outset. Like women, bourbon is all of the following.
Bourbon is RESILIENT
We often think of Bourbon as the great enemy to the Prohibition movement. Women rose up against the “deadly ills of whiskey” because their men were literally dying from drinking it. There were no regulations in place to prevent disreputable practitioners from substituting chewed tobacco, iodine or other more deadly substances into the recipe. The influence of women first resulted in the Bottled in Bond Act of 1897 that put regulations in place that standardized the production of whiskey and insisted that the ingredients be pure. This one move played a big role later when Prohibition came to bear. Whiskeys that produced to these standards, such as Old Forester, were placed in the front of the line to be sold for medicinal uses; ensuring their economic survival through Prohibition. More than 6 million prescriptions for whiskey were written in Kentucky alone during this time.
Bourbon enjoys COMMUNITY
It can be said of most women that we are the nucleus of our spheres. We instinctively know who to call when a need arises. We manage the emotional wellbeing of our families and friends with fierce loyalty. We all have that one friend who makes it her life’s ambition to be sure everyone is included. Wherever we travel or live, we build community. This is a quality most bourbon connoisseurs share as well. In the documentary ‘Neat’, Freddie Johnson, 3rd Generation Buffalo Trace Distillery Guide and new close personal friend to my husband, describes a memory of his late father. His father was the first African-American foreman at Buffalo Trace. When he got sick, he sat down with Freddie and opened a very expensive bottle of bourbon. Freddie recounts that his father implored him to do this often with his friends. “Bourbon is meant to be sipped”, he said. In other words, it’s meant to be enjoyed over time and in conversation with your community. It’s meant to mark the memories that give you life and kindle your passions. We were lucky enough to share one of those sort of memories with new friends when we spent time at Buffalo Trace. It was a reminder to draw close the things that move us FORward.
Bourbon is COMPLEX
I’ll be honest, bourbon tasting is lost on me. We were told at one tour that women have 50-70 more taste receptors than men and the more complex bourbons are the result of this robust contribution by women. More and more distilleries are employing women in the top positions as engineers, master distillers, marketing executives and COOs or CEOs. Peggy Noe Stevens is an industry leader and trailblazer for women in bourbon careers. I learned that all bourbon is whiskey but not all whiskey is bourbon and when you have had one glass of bourbon, you have had one glass of bourbon. Each is unique with varying layers of taste because of how the product draws its flavor from nature. Learning about the formation of those complexities is analogous to the work we do at CWLI. Each woman is unique and layered by her diverse experiences. We seek to honor those dimensions and elevate their value in our community. It is those very complexities that ask the right questions and explore the right possibilities. Those who are part of our network share a passion for giving those talents the time and space needed to emerge and design a sort of “perfect bourbon”.
We have so much more to learn about how to take all of the things that women have to offer and maximize them into the fabric of our area. In the next issue, we will explore the economy of bourbon and its expansion in recent years. As you can guess, women had a lot to do with it!