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?

A small-timer.

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.


Dennis Shaffner said...

But look where the people associated with the Louisville School of Art (now Papa Land USA) took fine arts across the nation.

Anonymous said...

I'm lost. Little help here?

Anonymous said...

I'll second that hopelessly lost sensation

ShaneC said...

So I'm guessing, somebody is refusing to participate in the Chuck Cowdery Bourbon tour experience without an outrageous greasing of the palms. Doesn't surprise me. Such small timers shun the light. Shine some light and watch them scurry.

Harry said...

I don't live in Kentucky, and, like Towellee on South Park, I have no idea what's going on. I do know I've been drinking whiskey legally for over 49 years. I also know that about six of the roughly dozen or so Kentucky distiller/producers of whiskey (meaning bourbon, rye, blends, etc.) are members of the Kentucky Distillers Assn. and promote the Bourbon Trail (I've seen the signs on the interstates) and that the rest of the D/Ps, in varying ways, are promoting their bourbons specifically and, therefore, bourbon generally. I sure hope there's not a regional or intrastate struggle going on that's parochial in nature but that could, incidentally, affect my enjoyment of both KDA and non-KDA products. I'm the customer, and the customer is always right. Don't make me angry. I'll go drink that smoky stuff from overseas. Or craft beer. Or microdistillery output. Or, heaven help me, fortified wine. I might even drink whiskey made outside of Kentucky regardless of what they call it.

merd said...

Chuck, let me know if you need some F bombs tweeted at anyone specific. I'll assume ShaneC hit the barrel on the bunghole that small timer = narrow minded big pants syndrome that didn't like someone with some background tellin' stories they ain't tellin' directly themselves. Maybe they're afraid of actual historical fact of distorted fairy tales. Maybe they believe all your monies belong to bourbon and all your bourbon belong to them. Maybe our speculation is a bunch of hooey... But in any event in sure the collective here would be obliged to listen in to what's got you speaking in veiled parables. You're not one to talk down the smalls let alone the bigs not have you really done so blatantly here but someone certainly peed in your wheaties and we don't like it either. All ahm sayin' is let us know who to cuss an' pleeeeease tells us the dirt.

Anonymous said...


This is a very unsatisfying post! I read to the very end, hoping to find out what you were talking about. My hope was dashed. This post is very atypical of your informative writing style! But I'll still read your next post, hoping that it is more informative than this one. I'll bet it will be.

Tom Troland

Jon Hill said...

"Hey, you kids get outta my yard!"

First time I recall you holding back. A mystery post? Or .. a private message to some "you know who you are" player?

Finish the article.

Anonymous said...

Come on Chuck, quip playin' with your readers. Much more of this "guess what this article is about" stuff and I'm outa here.


Anonymous said...

Chuck's post is is clearly aimed at toward a specific person/entity who knows who they are. I'll bet Chuck is giving said person a chance to rectify his/her/its stupid actions that got Chuck's blood boiling. If Chuck gets what he wants, great, and this spat will not become public. If Chuck remains spurned by an intransigent (insert naughty descriptive term), only then may we see Chuck unload shock and awe style. We'll just have to wait and see. Your move unnamed Kentucky person...

Doug said...


The story was vague for sure, but it doesn't surprise me that the Kentucky folk are so possessive of Bourbon. I don't think the small-minded people can change the trend in non-Kentucky bourbon, whiskey and rye-too much momentum. But if they could sneak some legislation through before anyone knew about it to make Bourbon a Kentucky thing exclusively I would probably stop drinking it too, just on principle.

EllenJ said...

@ShaneC ('cause yours was the first pick up on it) and others...

Chuck CAN'T be more specific. These buttholes represent a large and powerful organization that depends to a small extent on subscription, to a much larger extent on outright extortion, and mostly on vicious litigation. To their credit, they have played a very important role in the re-discovery by Americans of the Kentucky bourbon industry after the economy and the international marketers practically destroyed it in the 1980s. OTOH, one could probably find redeeming things to say about Mssrs. Capone and Luciano, too.

There's really nothing new, here. Historically, commercial Kentucky distillers, especially the most successful ones, have long been the targets of trusts and marketing organizations. In fact, if you consider the likes of Diageo, Pernod Ricard, Proximo, and Sazerac (also no friend of those Chuck may be referencing), such remains the case today. Those organizations affect bourbon at the production level, but others focus more on marketing and promotion. They act as gateways to information for publications, event organizers, media, local tourism, and the like. Gateways can swing both ways, though, and there are some that will quickly slam shut on you if you don't (a) outright pay the gatekeepers, and/or (b) agree to remain only upon paths approved by them.

My guess is that Chuck ran into the second situation. He is trying to put together educational and enjoyable tours of Kentucky bourbon distilleries, so as to raise conciousness and appreciation of them. Especially of the most historic, important, and influential of them. There is at least one organization (no, I'm not saying which one) which interprets that as a confict of their interests. I know what Chuck is saying; I've dealt (2nd hand) with them myself.

Let me leave a warning for those of you who don't realize what conversations like this can lead to... big names -- such as corporate CEOs and widely-read media persons -- aren't the only potential targets for large, institutional legal staffs with nothing better to do to justify their costs. Please do not try to be "the smart guy who figgered this all out" and publish names, at least not on Chuck's blog. He monitors his comments, so I doubt he'd let that through anyway, but he doesn't need the "help". At least not that kind. If you're planning to visit Kentucky, though, you really ought to check out going on one of Chuck's tours; I can guarantee you'll visit and learn things you won't find elsewhere. And don't mind that he might choose not to use the words "Kentucky Bourbon" in the tour description :-))

Dan Garrison said...

What gives Chuck? We love Kentucky bourbon down here and hate to hear there's trouble in paradise.

beer guru, jr. said...

Mitch McConnel or Rand Paul?

Chuck Cowdery said...

Want to know more? Take a close look at KDA's latest project "The Kentucky Bourbon Affair." If they sell every ticket, they will take in almost $400,000. It's not going to charity. Maybe the goal is to raise money for the combine so it can do more without raising dues. This is how the distilleries like it. There are only two 'group' events, at the beginning and end. Everything else is done by individual distilleries. Every event is ticketed and the average ticket price is $150. They have a lot of firepower. Evidentially, they figure they are the 'product,' so they should control access and message. Where does this leave the average bourbon drinker? Exactly where you think.

Anonymous said...

Bottom line: Anybody who doesn't do what Chuck wants is pure evil and his kids are ugly. You're 100% with Chuck or you're 100% against Him. Chuck and nobody but Chuck represents the customers, all of them.

The OP is the rant of a narcissistic megalomaniac. Maybe the target Chuck is passive-aggressing against us just as bad, or maybe he just doesn't care to take orders from a man who reacts with narcissistic rage to disagreement. Last time I looked at this blog, i saw some similar unpleasantness. Decided to give it a second chance. Ha ha ha.

Chuck, a man can't get his own way all the time, and if he's a reasonable man he accepts that fact and tries to keep a good relationship for next time -- and for plain old good karma.

An overgrown spoiled child... well, that's another matter.

sam k said...

Having spoken with EllenJ about this very issue, I understand where Chuck is coming from and agree with him entirely. This is not some self-centered rant.

Bottom line: it's really a good example of someone looking out for our best interests as bourbon consumers.

Chicken shit? Asshole works equally well.

Anonymous said...

Not only that, Mr. Bottom Line's grammar suggests a sorry education. It's hard to take somebody so illiterate very seriously.

Anonymous said...

Wherever one stands on whatever it is that is going on, there is one undeniable and pretty objective point:

A vague rant directed at anonymous people and/or groups serves no useful purpose whatsoever, except maybe letting Chuck blow off his steam. If it's meant as a warning, why make it in public? If it's not a warning, it didn't accomplish much beyond confusing 99% of the people who read it.

Might I suggest hitting the bar with some like minded friends, ordering a double of our favorite libation, and blowing off steam that way?

Chuck Cowdery said...

It's my blog and if I want to post a vague rant from time to time it's my business and no one else's. Don't like it? Don't read it, but what's the point of bitching about it?

I can assure you that well more than 1% of the readers of this blog know exactly what I'm talking about and didn't even consider my message vague.

Anonymous said...

Good luck keeping your readership with that attitude, let alone expanding it. You just lost this at least this one this time around...