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How do we do that without the bourbon?
Plus: Nobody tell the taters!
Editor’s note: Today’s newsletter is a guest edition by Scott Hines, writer of the deeply unfocused and just-as-deeply delightful The Action Cookbook Newsletter. Scott’s eclectic coverage spans food, drink, humor, and light emotional terrorism; naturally, I’m a big fan. For a limited time, Fingers readers can get 25% off a year of The Action Cookbook Newsletter, a deal so good you'd basically be losing money not to take it:
A few weeks ago, I was working a table at a career fair for my non-writing job, visiting the University of Cincinnati–my alma mater–which is about 90 minutes up the road from my current home in Louisville, Kentucky. My colleague and I had spent the better part of two days trying to sell a series of bright-eyed, bushy-tailed architecture students on why they might want to come work and live in Louisville, a city I quite enjoy living in, but one that isn’t necessarily a marquee destination for young people dreaming of working in New York, London or Copenhagen.
“We should put together a presentation that shows them all the stuff there is to do in Louisville,” my colleague remarked at one point.
“How do we do that without the bourbon?,” I replied.
My comment was meant in jest, but there was a substantial kernel of truth in it, too. I’ve long argued that Louisville has a punch-above-its-weight elevator pitch to tourists for a city of only around 600,000 people. There’s the Kentucky Derby, of course, one of the biggest sporting events of the year and a bona fide holiday season here in town. (My kids will grow up thinking that everyone gets Oaks Day–the Friday before a horse race–off from school. This is very funny to me.) There’s the Louisville Slugger Factory and Museum, a Main Street mainstay that once led a friend of mine to joke in a now-deleted tweet that “tourists in downtown Louisville are impossible to miss and impossible to rob, they’re all carrying baseball bats”. There’s a great food scene, beautiful countryside, and the bars stay open until 4am.
(I even wrote a wholly-biased and not-at-all-comprehensive tourism guide to Louisville on my newsletter, a handy way of not having to retype my recommendations every time someone planning a visit asks.)
As important as all of that is, though, Derby is two minutes in May and the Slugger Museum isn’t an itinerary unto itself. No, any discussion of tourism in Louisville (and Kentucky at large) starts and ends with bourbon tourism–or, as the administration of Louisville’s previous mayor Greg Fischer termed it, “Bourbonism”.
Let’s get something out of the way: I like bourbon very much. It is not why I moved to Louisville a decade ago, but it certainly didn’t hurt the sales pitch. I share cocktails (among other things) every week on The Action Cookbook Newsletter, and I don’t need to go back and count to know that bourbon is the most heavily-represented spirit over the past four-plus years of me doing so. In the midst of writing this, I got up and checked my personal bar, and I have eighteen different bottles of bourbon open right now. (I really didn’t expect it to be that many. I might’ve let out an “ah, shit” after the first dozen.) This is all to say: I am–both in a demographic sense as a middle-aged suburban man with disposable income and in the actual specifics of my personal consumption habits–very much the target market for the bourbon industry.
And I still can’t believe how much goddamned money is going into bourbon tourism–excuse me, bourbonism–these days.
I’m an Old who likes to watch the local television news every night, and hardly a week seems to go by without the let’s-read-press-releases section of the broadcast including the announcement of a new or massively-expanded distillery, a new downtown tasting room, a bourbon-themed restaurant, hotel, bar, or theme park.
(Okay, no theme parks yet. But I would not be the least bit surprised if Six Flags Over Buffalo Trace were announced tomorrow. You could have the log ride drop into a vat of sour mash!)
That’s anecdotal, so let’s talk reality: In an article in The Bourbon Review titled “New Distilleries, Huge Expansions, 2022 Was a Year For Kentucky Bourbon”, you can read about more than a dozen tens-of-million-to-billion-dollar distillery projects announced last year alone. Of course, that’s bourbon production, not tourism, right? Okay, let’s talk about tourism. After a brief, global-pandemic-induced hiccup in 2020, bourbonism was right back to the races last year.
From Fortune in February of this year:
Attendance at distilleries along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail surpassed 2 million in 2022 for the first time ever, the Kentucky Distillers’ Association announced. Venerable bourbon producers and industry newcomers alike benefited from the surge.
Total visits exceeded 2.1 million last year, easily beating the pre-pandemic record of 1.7 million stops in 2019, the distillers’ group said. In the past decade, the “amber adventure” has had a 370% surge in attendance — a boon to the state known around the world for bourbon production, it said.
“The success of Kentucky’s bourbon industry isn’t slowing down anytime soon,” Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said.
That’s all great, right?
Seriously, it’s great. I am not a “get these tourists of my town” crank, not by any measure. I saw what it was like in 2020 when they weren’t here, and I could’ve kissed the first person I saw walking down Main Street carrying a bottle of bourbon and a miniature baseball bat in summer 2021. We were all figuring out our social boundaries anew at the time, so I didn’t, but I could’ve. I’m truly thrilled that my town and region have something that we can latch onto like this–something that’s from here and something that legitimately can’t be done better anywhere else.
(I grew up in Ohio, and I’ve had Ohio bourbon. I do not recommend the experience.)
Still, as an elder millennial whose brain consists mostly of old Simpsons quotes, I can’t help but hear every new hundred-million-dollar bourbon project announcement and think of Homer Simpson investing in pumpkins:
It takes a while to build a distillery. It takes much longer to distill and age bourbon that people are actually going to want to drink. By all the time these projects and all those millions of barrels mature (famously, there’s more barrels of bourbon than people in this state, and it’s not especially close), is that line still going to be going up?
The public’s tastes for alcohol are fickle and cyclical. The bourbon boom over the last decade or two has followed a long fallow period in which clear spirits dominated. If you’re my age or older, you remember a solid two decades where you couldn’t open a magazine or look at the side of a bus without seeing an Absolut Vodka ad. Aging millennials like me might love bourbon, but Gen Z–at least right now–seems to favor artificially-flavored seltzers and THC edibles over barrel-aged spirits.
(They also think we part our hair wrong and that our tattoos and usage of emojis are “cringe”. Thankfully, I don’t know what any of that means.)
If bourbon cycles back into a “grandpa’s drink” space in the collective consciousness, where does that leave a city and region that’s gone all-in on barreling up enough to flood the state?
How do we do it without the bourbon?
📬 Good post alert
OK, it’s Dave again. Look at this good-ass post:
🥃 Nobody tell the taters
Oh you thought you were done with all the bourbon talk for the day? Think again, Fingers Fam, because just as Scott led off today’s boozeletter, I’ve published a new piece at The Action Cookbook about my editorial fascination with the brown-liquor lunatics fueling “whiskey mania” with their embarrassing, sometimes illicit accumulation tactics. Here’s a taste:
People—OK, let’s be real, it’s mostly dudes—have gone absolutely hog-wild for the brown liquor in the past half-decade or so, and it’s creating bizarre distortions in the marketplace.
“Today, $75 is the new $35,” Dixon Dedman, the creator of Kentucky Owl (owned by Stolichnaya since 2017) told the New York Times in December 2022. The article, by the seasoned whiskey writer Clay Risen, ran under the headline “Where Did All the Bargain Bourbon Go? Blame the Whiskey Mania.” I certainly do.
As someone who used to be able to occasionally buy and drink Blanton’s without signing up for special email lists and throwing down hundreds of dollars for the privilege, I think all this sucks very much. But as an independent journalist who covers drinking in America, I think it rocks. The current brown-liquor gold rush we’re living through has people doing all sorts of insane shit, and insane shit is a lot of fun to write about. Which brings us to “taters.”
Remember, reader, we can’t have nice things, but we can enjoy watching the Blanton’s-addled hordes eat shit in public, dimwitted, and potentially criminal ways. And we must. Read my full piece here.
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