Why am I here?
"Here" is Owensboro, Kentucky, an Ohio River town in Daviess County (pronounced "Davis") in Western Kentucky. I am attending (or, rather, just left) the Owensboro Rotary Foundation's Bourbon Heritage Celebration and Valentine's Day Dinner Dance.
So, why am I here? (Without a date, I might add.)
No, seriously, how come?
I asked this question when I was invited. I asked it again when I got there and my name wasn't on the list. I asked it again as I scanned the room full of men and women I didn't know. (Though all were nicely dressed and many were attractive.)
Then I spotted Tom Fischer of Bourbon Blog. Tom is an earnest and indefatigable bourbon documentarian. If bourbon is being consumed in a public place, Tom and his camera are there. It was nice to see him.
Then I spotted Eric Gregory, the new president of the Kentucky Distillers Association (KDA), and met his number two, Kristin Meadors. I don't know Kristin's exact title, but she is KDA's other employee, representing a 100 percent increase in personnel since Ed O'Daniel's tenure.
Eric and I talked a little about Kentucky's recent decision to become one of the highest tax states in the country for alcoholic beverage consumers, despite Kentucky's status as the leading producer of America's native whiskey. The new sales tax primarily burdens consumers, but it's like a spit in the eye to Kentucky's whiskey producers. As Eric said, "that's no way to treat one of Kentucky's signature industries."
He told me that he recently was in Frankfort and in one room, lawmakers were planning incentives to attract new industries to Kentucky, while in an adjacent room lawmakers were making plans to tax one of Kentucky's best existing industries to death.
Okay, but I could have done all this on the phone. Why am I here?
I came because this event, albeit primarily a fund raiser for the local Rotarians, is the first time Angostura, the new owners of Charles Medley Distillers Kentucky (the new name, conveniently abbreviated for us as CMDK), has let the public in to see what they're up to.
The party was held in the old bottling house, which is slated to be the new visitors center. It's a nice space that comfortably held the 250 guests. They had a display of some CMDK hats and t-shirts, to represent where the gift shop will be. When I drove in there was a nice, new sign, and three lighted flag poles.
So far, that's about it. No one offered to show me anything other than the space we were in, and I'm confident that's because there was nothing else to see. I spent a few minutes with Derek Schneider, the Plant Manager, who is overseeing the refurbishment now and will run the place when it opens. He said it has been slow going and they hope to be fixing up the still house in earnest by fall. Roof repair has taken a lot of attention, as almost every building sustained roof damage in Hurricane Ike last fall.
I'll have more details from my chat with Derek later. Trust me, there's no rush.
Maybe the first CMDK new make will be entered into barrels in 2009, but I wouldn't bet on it.
So, all that was good, but worth a 7+ hour drive from Chicago?
Then I sat down for dinner and providence put me next to Dan Medley, whose father, John, was one of the five brothers who ran the Medley company back in the day. He was wearing an official Medley Kentucky Colonel tie, one of the distillery's trademarks in its heyday. (The five Medley brothers would wear nothing else.) He told me his family had researched the history of the distilling industry in Daviess County and determined that it had once contained 150 licensed whiskey distilleries.
Maybe, before too long, it will have one again. Keep your fingers crossed.
Woodford Reserve Master Distiller Chris Morris was also there as a special guest. Chris was at Glenmore after it merged with Medley but before it merged with what is now Diageo, as the brand manager for bourbon, which is the long way to say he worked there when Glenmore owned CMDK, which was the last time CMDK made whiskey. He gave a nice speech about Prohibition and its aftermath, but the speech was a bad idea. The lighting and sound were unsuitable, and the crowd was restless. They were ready to dance.
They did. I left. I looked around for Chris, but I suspect he was already halfway to Louisville by then.