Igor Guryashkin

Igor Guryashkin is a writer based out of Louisville, Kentucky in the good ol’ USA (by way of Soviet Russia and rainy Manchester). His work has appeared in the The New Yorker, ESPN The Magazine, Salon, Fox News Latino and Sharp. He has cats.

Follow him: @iguryashkin

The best time to drive in Kentucky is in the morning, along the dew-coated, fog softened narrow two-lane capillaries that surround Lexington, and head west in the direction of the state’s capital, Frankfort. There’s a good chance you’ll see some interesting things.

Perhaps a small lorry piled precariously high with giant shrivelled tobacco leaves, that occasionally drop off the back like limp elephant ears. You may pass through small old farming towns with familiar names like Versailles (but pronounced ‘Ver-sales‘ round here), or Lawrenceburg (less familiar). And there’s no way in hell you’d miss the bleach white fences that hug tightly along the length of every thoroughfare, built by ”Old Money” to keep multi-million dollar racehorses in and to keep “No Money” out.

Kentucky – also known as ‘The Bluegrass State’ – is horse country. The setting for an annual gathering of hundreds and thousands of people in Louisville (the state’s largest city) for the world famous Kentucky Derby. But on this early outing, on which there’ll be few drivers to encounter along the winding roads, you’ll likely drive past something else: a distillery. The place in which a rather unique American contribution flows slowly out of dusty, charred oak barrels… Bourbon.

Gone is the grainy image of grizzly men in smoke-filled rooms intent on washing down years of sadness and regret, wincing with every sip.

Let’s get something straight. Bourbon is as about as American as America gets, and aside from racehorses, it’s about as ‘Kentuckian’ as Kentucky – a place that’s already an epicentre of bluegrass music, banjos and basketball (three other unique American cultural creations) – gets. And while bourbon doesn’t have to be made here to be named as such, the fact that the state is responsible for 90% of the world’s supply and has a greater number of barrels ageing patiently in its warehouses than its 4.4 million residents, it’s easy to understand why bourbon and Kentucky are inextricably linked. You can forget the fried chicken-eating, white suit-wearing, pink Cadillac-driving Colonel, because bourbon is Kentucky’s greatest export. It’s the drink’s historic home and it’s something folks around these parts are mighty proud of, and now, ever increasingly love to show off.

In fact, in recent years, the drink has become a booming source of local tourism. Gone is the grainy image of grizzly men in smoke-filled rooms intent on washing down years of sadness and regret, wincing with every sip. Nope. Bourbon is cool, hip, and is being produced in record numbers. It’s steadily positioning itself as a boozier (but still classy, of course) alternative to the Merlot sippers of Napa Valley. The magnet so far has been ‘The Kentucky Bourbon Trail’ – a route taking visitors around nine different distilleries, each one all too willing to tour, teach about the process, give you the history of and, perhaps more importantly, offer free samples in sizes which border on naughty. So naturally, I got into the car with a friend – the days’ designated driver (after all, safety first) – to experience it for myself.

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THAT’S THE SPIRIT

Having spent the night in Lexington, we set out for the Trail’s first stop, Woodford Reserve, a brisk 30 minute drive past rolling horse pastures and down lanes where the thought of two passing cars makes you queasy. Built in 1797, it’s the smallest and oldest distillery in the state, and a perfect example of where the bourbon industry is right now, or at least the direction it’s heading.

Pull in and a shiny new visitor’s centre greets you. Inside, nearly everything is constructed from copper, reclaimed wood or a combination of the two. There’s a tasting room, more copper – chairs this time – and a grand, modern fireplace sitting at the room’s centre, where a lardy cat lurks. Our guide, John, was on hand to give us a private tour; flat cap, walking stick, and a slow gait, he took this job after retiring from a government career. He loves bourbon (as does every other guide) and it ensures the tour is that much more enjoyable. Interested in the history? Then listen up. If not, the endless sights, smells and sounds are what make the hour long tour equally fun. Steam here, bubbles there, huge wooden vats releasing pungent yeasty odours. The highlight though, is the giant stone room known as the rackhouse – the place barrels are stored for aging. On entering, you’re greeted with a column of light breaking through the window high above. You look up. Breathe in. You find the air thick like syrup, with the smell of vanilla, caramel and burnt wood. For at least seven years each barrel calls this place home, until it’s finally evicted and rolled gently down metal tracks, to be cracked and bottled.

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Back at the visitor’s centre, the tasting room is full. A bachelor party is getting rowdy, but remains good natured, and chocolates are being handed out. It’s time to get taught about tasting or, more accurately, learning things about your mouth you didn’t previously know. Smell, take a sip, add ice, bite the chocolate, take another sip. What did you taste? Praline? Banana? Anything, aside from the sour taste of fear if this just ain’t your thing? No matter, you have bourbon lining your belly way before midday. Well done. On to the next.

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A MATTER OF TASTE

The next stop, Four Roses distillery is a far cry from the genteel environs of the sample-sipping, round your mouth swilling, lounge-y vibe of Woodford Reserve. If Woodford was the aging quaint castle, perched on the banks of a relaxed stream, Four Roses looks like a cotton mill at the zenith of the Industrial Revolution; austere, red brick buildings with smoke and steam pluming from the high-reaching chimneys. This isn’t meant to disparage. After all, just because real-life chocolate factories look nothing like Willy Wonka’s den of wonder, it doesn’t mean you’re any less keen to wander in, look around and try and reach a frowned upon blood-alcohol level.

Apparently, somewhere in there are subtle hints of ripe cherries, pear and currants. All I could taste was a mix of adrenaline and the American Dream.

Our guide, Pam, who’s quick with a joke, is everything you want from someone whose job consists of ‘Pied Piping’ a bunch of booze nerds around the same pre-determined route day after day. And what Four Roses lacks in quaintness, it more than makes up for with its bourbon. Why? A different county mean different laws, which mean a very different size of pour – in the best possible way. We’re offered three different varieties of whiskey, the final one reaching a heady 60% proof. Apparently, somewhere in there are subtle hints of ripe cherries, pear and currants. All I could taste was a mix of adrenaline and the American Dream.

I decided to take a few minutes in the parking lot to get some fresh air, enjoy the sunshine and, frankly, prepare myself for more time in a car that was about to wind down some twisting lanes once more.

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THE OLD MASTERS

Wild Turkey was the final stop of the day, managing to be both a let-down and an unexpected treat. If Four Roses looked like a Victorian match factory, then Wild Turkey resembled a mid-size car plant; big, industrial and more than a bit ‘meh’. Adding to that, we arrived only to be told that tours were fully booked and it would be an hour and a half wait before the next one. As we were informed of this, the bachelor party from Woodford Reserve poured past, only this time they were equipped with lit cigars and were audibly more rambunctious than when we last saw them.

About to leave disheartened, the receptionist who only seconds ago had broken the bad news of the long wait, announced that Jimmy Russell, Master Distiller for Wild Turkey, was in the visitors centre. Why was he there? Apparently, just because. Sure enough, a glance left produced a soft-edged elderly gentleman perched on a stool in the corner, the occasional bourbon geek approaching him to get a bottle signed. I walked over, introduced myself and provided some small talk, while he nodded both knowingly and vacantly.

Russell’s first day at the distillery was on September 10, 1954. He’s now the oldest master distiller on planet Earth, the inside of his mouth is an invaluable vault of history, taste and consistency. He says every day is like a hobby, but then again how could it not be? Drinking bourbon every single day for six whole decades, while trying to ensure the taste is just as delicious every single time is quite the knack.

The tour guides of the Bourbon Trail
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On the drive back home, further and further away from the distilleries, I got thinking. Is there anything more American than a moustachioed bartender, dressed as if he momentarily stepped out from inside a Civil War-era daguerreotype, before casually sliding across a glowing and boozy Old Fashioned cocktail your way? Yes, this might be the sad and tragic way some ‘mixologists’ dress nowadays, but the drink he slides over is pure red, white and blue at heart, because it’s basically all bourbon – the perfect distillation of history, culture, local pride and pure alcohol.

So go take a drive through Kentucky. Pullover. Walk into a small dive bar. Order a shot. Then knock it back and taste America.

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Words & Images by Igor Guryashkin 

Published 20th July 2015

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