Meet the Folks Who Make Bourbon

By John Gregory | 6/03/17 3:00 AM

For as long as Kentucky has been a state, people have combined corn grown in the rich soil of the Bluegrass with water that’s percolated through the local limestone topography to create bourbon whiskey. Now one of the state’s signature industries, bourbon generates $3 billion in revenues and employs more than 15,000 people.

A new documentary profiles many of the master distillers and company executives responsible for producing what’s called America’s native spirit. Kentucky Bourbon Tales: Distilling the Family Business features excerpts from more than 30 hours of interviews to tell the story of bourbon today.

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A Multi-Generation Family Affair
The bourbon-making tradition has been passed down through long lines of several Kentucky families. For example, the Brown family of Brown-Forman has made bourbon since 1870 when George Garvin Brown took the innovative step to sell whiskey in glass bottles rather than by the barrel.

The Beam family runs through several Kentucky distilleries. Master distiller Fred Noe is the great-grandson of the company namesake, Jim Beam. He’s proud to say he’s the seventh generation of the Beams to make bourbon in Kentucky. The Beam family also branches into Heaven Hill, where father and son distillers Parker and Craig Beam oversee bourbon production.

With so many family connections at the various distilleries, it’s not surprising that many of the distillers and executives featured in the program started in the business at a young age. Heaven Hill President Max Shapira, who succeeded his father and uncles in running the company, says he was 8 years old when he started working in the guardhouse of the Bardstown distillery. Brad Boswell was about the same age when he started sweeping the floors and punching a time clock at his family’s cooperage. He would be the fourth generation to work in that business.

Starting on the ground floor provided an invaluable training to every aspect of bourbon production. “Just as soon as I’d know a job real well, they’d move me over here, move me over there,” jokes Wild Turkey Master Distiller Jimmy Russell, who just celebrated his 60th year at the Lawrenceburg operation. “I thought they was trying to get rid of me, but they was teaching me the whole thing.”

Kentucky-Born Rock Stars
As the people charged with managing bourbon production, master distillers must ensure the quality and consistency of each bottle, and serve as ambassadors for their brands. That means they can be sampling from barrels at their warehouses one day, and the next day they’re making public appearances in New York, London, or Tokyo. That took some getting used to for distillers more accustomed to working a production line.

“At first I was scared to death to stand up in front of people and talk,” says Jim Rutledge, the master distiller at Four Roses. “I’d walk away with my shoes squishing because I’m sweating so much. But then I realized I love talking about bourbon.”

Now many of the master distillers have become rock stars among spirit connoisseurs. Hundreds of fans line up at tasting events for the opportunity to meet the people who make their favorite bourbon and get their autographs.

“People want you to sign bottles, and they’ll say, ‘I’m never gonna open this bottle,’” reports Jim Beam Master Distiller Fred Noe. “And I’ll say, ‘Well I’m not gonna sign it. This stuff’s for drinking, it’s not for saving!”

The Bourbon Renaissance
But bourbon hasn’t always been so popular. In the 1950s and ‘60s, there was dwindling demand for the beverage generally considered to be a southern gentleman’s drink. By the 1970s and ‘80s, vodka, Canadian whiskey and even white wines had surpassed bourbon in popularity.

“When I got in, in 1967, it was pretty clear that bourbon was totally at the bottom end,” says Bill Samuels, chairman emeritus of Makers Mark. “If we had’ve known what we was up against, we would have quit.”

But the industry persevered. In the 1990s several brands added premium and small batch bourbons to their product lines, which helped reignite interest in the Kentucky spirit. Domestic bourbon sales increased, and international exports soared. Now, with the help of social media and the popularity of bourbon-based mixed drinks, some companies sell as much as a third of their product overseas.

Riding Along the Bourbon Trail
Seeing the rock-star popularity of the master distillers and the global interest in bourbon, industry executives decided their customers needed to experience the bourbon-making process first-hand.

“We’ve always felt that tourism, going out to the distilleries, touching the product, seeing the properties, was the very best advertising anybody could ever do,” says Pete Rutledge, a retired executive vice president at Brown-Forman.

The Kentucky Bourbon Trail launched in 1999 and now features 18 major and smaller craft distilleries where visitors can tour the operations, meet the people who make the bourbon, and sample the products. In the last five years alone, more than 2 million people from all 50 states and 25 countries have toured the trail.

“I think we will continue to see development of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail,” says Andrea Wilson, general manager for Michter’s Distillery. “I think it’s very exciting for the people of Kentucky to get their opportunity on the world stage to showcase our products.”

Kentucky Bourbon Tales is produced by the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History in the University of Kentucky Libraries, and directed by Joanna Hay. The full oral history interviews on which the program is based can be viewed at www.nunncenter.org/bourbon.