Thanks for posting the photos, Gayle. I actually brought my camera, but left it in the car (duh!)
Linda & I both thought it was a great event, excellently staged and produced, and the Bourbon Society should be right proud of themselves. The Pendennis Club, which is a beautiful building just reeking with bourbon history and ambiance, was a brilliant choice of venue, and the staff there made everyone feel as if we were each members in good standing of this elite club. That especially extended to some few of us who wandered beyond the areas actually reserved for the Bourbon Society event
Mike Veach's revival of the Bourbon Heritage Discussion Panel that he pioneered at the old Bardstown Bourbon Festival was, again, a brilliant display of how some of bourbon's real heroes interact with one another -- this is what sets the whiskey business apart from nearly every other type of business. The panel consisted of Chris Morris from Brown-Forman (Old Forester/Woodford Reserve), Four Roses' Al Young, Jimmy Russell (Wild Turkey's distiller extraordinaire), Hunter Chavanne (Kentucky Bourbon Distillers' many brands, including his own family's Willett), and Joy Perrine, the no-nonsense author of "THE KENTUCKY BOURBON COCKTAIL BOOK
The subject of the panel discussion was, of course, Repeal. Meaning the ratification of the 21st amendment to the United States Constitution which, as Mike emphasized in his introduction, was the ONLY amendment passed to nullify another amendment -- that being the 18th (Prohibition), which itself was the only amendment to REMOVE a right from the people.
Prohibition -- and Repeal -- had a profound effect on the whiskey industry, and each of the panel members had much to say about how it specifically affected them and their businesses.
For Hunter, the effects were relatively minimal. As he pointed out, the Willett family's distillery in Bardstown was built in 1935, and thus Prohibition didn't really affect it at all. One might argue, of course, that their decision to convert their existing farm to a distillery was profoundly influenced by the fact that it had recently become legal to do so. And the sudden demand for new whiskey sources was certainly a result of fourteen years of non-production. But for the most part they were the least affected of those on the panel
The Ripy Brothers' distillery in Anderson county that would later become Wild Turkey was driven out of business by Prohibition. According to Jimmy, they shifted their attention to the rock quarry just down the hill and operated that until Repeal brought them the opportunity to start up the distillery again. I don't know if they have any involvement still with the quarry, but it's certainly still there -- you have to watch out you don't get squashed by the quarry trucks when you leave Wild Turkey's visitor parking lot.
Chris and Al's distilleries were uniquely affected by both Prohibition and Repeal, due to the fact that Old Forester and Four Roses were among both the handful of distilleries licensed to produce medicinal spirits. Old Forester's claim to be the only company to produce bourbon before, during, and after Prohibition seems to be correct, but mainly that's because the same company, Brown-Forman, never ceased ownership and production, while the Four Roses brand (and its distilling facilities) changed hands a few times, so that the same COMPANY didn't own it during all that time. Still, the brand certainly existed before, during and after that period.
The effects of the 18th and 21st amendments were different, however, for each of the two companies. Old Forester had always positioned itself as an ultra-high quality medicinal whiskey which also just happened to taste wonderful. So the necessity to become associated with bourbon-as-medicine only enhanced its already-established reputation. Four Roses took a different route to make the medicinal requirements work in their favor by pioneering innovative ways to create packaging that frustrated attempts at counterfeiting their product and ensured the customer of a legitimate purchase. Bottles were sealed into tin cans, packaged with special cardboard boxes that couldn't be opened without destroying them, even provided with closures designed to prevent refilling. Al told us all a humorous story about how he and Mike were once confronted with such a bottle at an event where it was to be opened and tasted, and it wouldn't allow the contents to be poured out. Mike, appearing to be a brilliant as, in fact, he really is, succeeded by sucking on the opening until the contents poured. Not long afterward, Al noticed that the label on the box had suggested doing just that in case of difficulty in pouring.
These four panelists were, of course, speaking from the point of view of whiskey PRODUCERS, which is the one we are accustomed to hearing or reading about. Joy, on the other hand, approached the issue from the angle of whiskey SERVERS and RETAILERS. Not only because she's served bourbon to Louisvillians for nearly a quarter century, and acquired fame as a cocktailian, but also because her personal background ties in so very closely with what Prohibition and Repeal were all about to the people who made their living selling liquor. It was, she says, all about money. Supply and Demand. Prohibition never stops anything; it only drives up the demand and the prices. In her best un-Kentuckian-even-after-all-these-years New Joisey accent, Joy told us about how, when she was growing up in Long Island (NJ, not NY), her family operated a hotel and restaurants. These were quite prosperous, if somewhat disreputable, and that success was the result of Prohibition, which came and went before she was born. They were part of a larger community of families on the New Jersey shore who were not opposed to Prohibition at all. That's not because they rejoiced in the idea of temperance and abstention. Far from it. It was because they were bootleggers
. Ships from Canada and Europe would anchor offshore and rum-running boats would go out to pick up barrels of liquor and bring them back in. Joy's family was involved; everyone's family was involved. It was how folks made their living at that time. And they weren't ashamed of it. It was a good living. And when all the whiskey makers and soon-to-be-legal distributors were rejoicing over the passage of Repeal, the bootleg liquor business came to the same crashing end that Prohibition had brought to the distillers fourteen years earlier. Profitability from liquor sales dropped so fast that the family's restaurants stopped selling liquor entirely and just concentrated on food, until even that finally dried up by the 1960s. She pointed out, to applause from the audience, that the bootleg liquor business of the twentieth century was no different from the bootleg drug business of the twenty-first. Sure, there are all those glamorous underworld kingpins, but mostly it's just plain folks making a living out of providing something that people want and are prevented from obtaining honestly. Her story was a refreshing reversal of what one expects to hear about Prohibition and Repeal, and her manner of telling that story was priceless.
Mike went on to offer a couple more topics, and there were some really good questions posed by audience members. The time allotted for the forum ended way too soon for me; I'd love to have seen it last all night. I'd also have enjoyed having participants from Buffalo Trace, Jim Beam, and Heaven Hill on the panel. I'm hoping that the success of this event will entice them for next year's. Also, I'd like to see Julian or Preston Van Winkle there, teaming with Hunter or his brother-in-law Drew Kulsveen to represent all those producers of finished bourbon selected independently from distillers. Those made up a much larger portion of brand marketers in the days before and right after Prohibition and Repeal surely must have had a somewhat different effect upon their business.
In addition to the discussion forum, there were several tables set up by Kentucky bourbon firms to offer samples of their wares, similar -- albeit on a much smaller scale -- to the way it is at the Kentucky Bourbon Festival Gala or the various Whiskyfests. Wild Turkey, Four Roses, Old Forester, and Willett were there, as well as Heaven Hill. Another table, which got a great deal of attention, was that of The Party Source, a retail liquor store located in Bellevue, Kentucky, manned by spirits manager Jay Erisman and his assistant Alex Gehler. For some time, Jay has taken the concept of specialty bottlings well beyond the normal "add a sticker with your store's name on it to our regular product" idea. He was a pioneer of store-selected-and-purchased single barrel bottlings, actually participating in the selection of prime barrel examples of whiskeys that are normally vattings of many barrels. Using a bit of his clout as a major retailer and a whole lot of his personal charm as a Kentucky whiskey enthusiast, Jay has moved beyond even that and is now working with KBD and Buffalo Trace to obtain personally-selected expressions of their products that are then made available only through The Party Source. In the case of Buffalo Trace, this has gone even another step: Jay has obtained the ONLY barrel(s) of some of BT's experimental bourbons and ryes. Many of us are familiar with Buffalo Trace's experimental whiskeys, marketed in 375 ml bottles labeled with full information. They can be found only in very tiny quantities. But these particular experiments, similarly packaged, are available only at The Party Source and nowhere else. Except tonight, at the Bourbon Society's event, where Jay and Alex offer tastes free to all.
The Pendennis Club, perhaps the epitome of elite private mens' clubs, has been the home-away-from-home for Louisville society, or at least the male part of it, since 1881 (women are allowed to become members now, but only very recently). It's original building, the former Belknap family mansion, was used throughout most of Prohibition. It was visited by President Chester Arthur, and is considered to be the birthplace of the Old Fashioned, a mixed drink that may have been the first to be called a "cocktail". During Prohibition, it has been rumored that alcohol beverages may have been served there to club members. But what makes the Pendennis Club so special to the world of Kentucky whiskey really began in 1927, with the construction of the current building. Opened in late 1928, the new Pendennis Club, presided over by Old Forester's Owsley Brown, became the social center for all the movers and shakers in the Louisville whiskey world. It was here, with The Great Experiment crumbling all around, that deals were made, brands were conceived, and the fathers and grandfathers of today's whiskey greats sat in leather chairs, lit up their cigars, sipped their bourbon, and re-built an industry from the ashes left by Prohibition. One can imagine Pappy Van Winkle, even years later, sitting at a table beside the dark oak paneling (as Linda & I did last night), composing this month's witty column for the New Yorker or Sports Illustrated. It was the perfect choice for such an important commemoration. Also, the Pendennis staff put out a lovely hors d'oeuvres buffet and provided impeccable wait service. In addition, and probably not receiving the attention they deserved, we had the music of Swing 39, a trio specializing in music from the Repeal era. The band is made up of a string bass, an acoustic guitar, and a violin, although "fiddle" might be a more appropriate term here, as they brought a decidedly "Kentucky" flavor to the swing tunes they played. Playing continuously (at low volume), they provided exactly the right background for the event. Had there been enough time, I'd like to have seen them perform a short set as a focal point.
The evening ended all too quickly, which is a sign of how well it succeeded. There were drawings for door prizes and further mixing after the panel forum. Merriment was still in high gear when we left. I believe everyone had a great time. I know we certainly did.