Saturday, February 8, 2014
Big Trouble in Bourbon Country
Bourbon is a Kentucky thing.
The law says you can make bourbon whiskey anywhere in the United States but Kentucky bourbon is special, so special the best-selling American-made whiskey in the world won’t call itself bourbon, even though it is exactly like bourbon, because it isn't made in Kentucky.
Bourbon is a Kentucky thing but it isn't the only Kentucky thing. The Hot Brown is a Kentucky thing. Thoroughbred horses are a Kentucky thing. Bluegrass music is a Kentucky thing. So is barbecued mutton.
Those are all good things, even barbecued mutton.
But not every Kentucky thing is a good thing.
Unfortunately, small-timer syndrome is a Kentucky thing too. Small-timers are people who are obsessed with limits. They are obsessed with failure. They devote way more time to threats than to opportunities. They believe life is always a zero sum game. They most certainly do not believe there is ever more than enough for everyone. They are careful not to aim too high. Better to not take the chance.
Their God is Icarus.
Ask a longtime Louisvillian what happened to the Louisville School of Art or Louisville’s independent public television station. Ask any Kentuckian why UK refused to play U of L in major sports for 60 years.
The reasoning is that having two of something is wasteful. It’s better to have just one because then that one can be better, maybe even outstanding. The possibility that Kentucky could have two or three or four of something and all of them be outstanding is inconceivable to a small-timer.
In no way is everyone in Kentucky a small-timer. Many people are not. The small-timers hate them most of all.
Small-timer syndrome is threatening the best thing that has ever happened to Kentucky, the explosion in American whiskey’s worldwide popularity. When people fall in love with bourbon, the first thing they want to do is go to Kentucky and have a bourbon experience. Maybe they want to tour distilleries but maybe they want to have other kinds of bourbon experiences too. The producers can provide some of that. The new Evan Williams Experience in downtown Louisville is a great example. But the producers can’t do everything and shouldn't try. That’s the genius of the thing. Everything anyone does that provides a visitor with a satisfying bourbon experience inevitably benefits the producers, even when they have nothing to do with it. Who would refuse that deal?
There are small-timers in Kentucky right now who think they own bourbon. They want to decide who gets to celebrate bourbon, how much and in what way, and if they approve of what you want to do they demand a piece of the action.
They are important people, powerful people.
And there is a very real danger they will screw the whole thing up.
This phenomenon that is American whiskey isn't the property of any producer or group of producers. No one has the right to control it. No one should even try. Ultimately, it is the property of consumers. Anybody who honestly strives to give whiskey drinkers what they want is a friend of the industry. Anybody who tries to limit or stifle how whiskey drinkers can enjoy whiskey and the incredible culture of the land where it is produced is the enemy of the industry, because he has set himself above the interests of whiskey drinkers. Anyone who loses sight of that, who thinks their personal interests or the interests of their organization are more important than the interests of whiskey drinkers is way out of line.
They need to stop it right now.