Kentucky bourbon is an amber ribbon that ties strangers together.
Every May, Louisville racehorse owner Anita Cauley goes to the Kentucky Derby and has a mint julep at Churchill Downs. Not just any old julep: She gets the $1,000 Woodford Reserve version, made by master distiller Chris Morris, who sprinkles gold on homegrown mint leaves and personally presents the drink in its silver and gold cup.
"Complete strangers will come up to us and say, 'Where did you get that?' and have their picture taken with it," Cauley said.
In September, Sgt. David Laumeyer, a 26-year-old Army medic, returned to Savannah, Ga., from a deployment to Afghanistan. Before heading to dental school, he came home to Kentucky to visit family — first his mother, Laureen, and then Jim Beam, where he got his face on a bottle beside Fred Noe.
"Bourbon's been a big part of my life. My mom's kind of grown me up in it," Laumeyer said.
Bill Thomas, proprietor of whiskey bars Jack Rose Dining Saloon and Bourbon, made a pilgrimage from Washington, D.C., to Bards town. He was there to add to his personal collection of pre-Prohibition whiskey at the annual Master Distillers' Auction at the Oscar Getz Whiskey Museum, a fundraiser held annually during the Kentucky Bourbon Festival.
He bought a rare bottle of 1912 Tom Moore bourbon for $500, then filled a trailer with other whiskey and memorabilia found going through people's garages, American Pickers-style. That will join the 2,500 or so bottles he already has at home.
"I spent $10,000 down there," Thomas said. "I get really rare, funky stuff. ... I get a little geeked out over it. At my next place, I want to open up a museum."
And for the past five years, Lexington social worker Laura Kaplan has spent a fall weekend on the side of the road outside Harrodsburg in the middle of the night, waiting for hundreds of runners in the 200-mile Bourbon Chase to wend their way from distillery to distillery along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
As they run from Maker's Mark in Loretto to Four Roses in Lawrenceburg, after a loop around Danville and Stanford, they pass through her stages of the relay before dawn Saturday.
"They run on the highway, with a head lamp. In the dark. ... It's kind of amazing," Kaplan said. "It reminds me of Field of Dreams."
Four people with nothing in common except bourbon. But if you pour it, they will come.
The bourbon lifestyle
Bourbon isn't just a drink, it's a lifestyle.
Each September, as many as 50,000 people come to Bardstown's Kentucky Bourbon Festival. Started in 1992, in a tent on the town golf course for a few hundred enthusiasts, the six-day festival now fills hotel rooms for miles around and sells out hundreds of tickets well in advance for major events such as the black-tie gala and cooking classes.
"I've talked to people who have come for the first time, who saw it on the Internet, or it was on their bucket list," said Linda Harrison, director of the festival, which this year took place in mid-September and next year will be Sept. 16-21. "And some who come every year, who want to talk to master distillers, rekindle old friendships."
They book vacations around the festival, plan get-togethers with far-flung friends on online bourbon message boards and bring bottles to share.
Often the draw is a chance to sample the new drinks for the next year and be among the first to brag about it online.
Many distilleries use the festival to show off their new releases, such as Four Roses' 125th anniversary bourbon, poured for an enthusiastic crowd at the distillery this year.
The draw isn't only the new bourbons. Last year, Jim Beam unveiled its American Stillhouse visitors' center in nearby Clermont to festival crowds.
Dubbed "bourbon Disneyland," the Stillhouse, with full sensory immersion into all things Beam, was an immediate success.
By the end of 2012, visitors and merchandise sales at the distillery, a prime spot on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail tourism program, were both up at least 25 percent from the year before, with no end to the growth in sight, Beam executives said.
"Every month, we're breaking attendance records," said Kim Bennett, director of the $30 million Jim Beam Heritage Center, which also encompasses the Beam Global Innovation Center at the Clermont campus. "We built this to host more than 200,000." Already, in the first 11 months of operation, she said, the center had seen 140,000 visitors.
With the year not over, Beam already is thinking of expanding its state-of-the-art tasting room — where fans can try two samples of anything they like — which tends to be packed, she said.
That provides some intriguing insights into customer demand. The tasting stations were set up to have only one of each Beam bourbon-related offering — except for Jim Beam Honey, a flavored whiskey that is fueling Beam sales growth almost everywhere.
"Because of its popularity we had to add four of those," Bennett said. "There were lines of people just waiting to try it. It still remains the No. 1 product tasted in there."
But that could change: Beam's new releases appear in the tasting room first, and savvy fans often swing by to swig something they can't find in stores yet.
"We just put in Red Stag Hard Core Cider," Bennett said of an apple cider-flavored bourbon liqueur, "and the Red Stag fans love that."
Beam has figured out another way to work the captive audience: Fred's Smokehouse, an on-site restaurant, opened in August.
Tours of Beam's distillery fill up quickly, and the Smokehouse gives people something to do while they wait, Bennett said.
"People were trying to make the decision between a 90-minute tour or a self-guided one, and their next question was, 'Do you have any place to eat?'" she said.
Beam's goal is in master distiller Fred Noe's slogan: Come as a friend, leave as family.
But on a deeper level, it's all about giving visitors plenty of time to soak up the bourbon message and take it with them when they go.
Race to cash in
That is why the Stillhouse has kicked off a multimillion-dollar arms race. Almost every distillery on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail and elsewhere has expanded or is working on increasing public access.
■ Heaven Hill, which has a visitors center in Bardstown, is building a much flashier one, the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience, which will open on Main Street in Louisville in November.
■ Wild Turkey in Lawrenceburg is erecting a glass cathedral to bourbon above the Kentucky River to open next year.
■ Craft distillers felt left out, so the Kentucky Distillers' Association, or KDA, came up with a craft tour. Now even more distilleries want in, including Angel's Envy, which is working on a $12 million distillery in Louisville. And ancillary businesses such as tours, hotels and more have become Bourbon Trail "partners."
All to cater to the boom in bourbon tourism.
The Kentucky Bourbon Trail includes seven member distilleries; there are two more major ones not on the trail and at least seven craft distilleries with more in the works.
On any given day, out-of-state (or even out-of-country) visitors line up at the various distilleries across Kentucky to see where bourbon is born. On weekends, it is not unheard of to get 1,000 visitors a day at Woodford Reserve or Beam's Stillhouse. Frankfort's Buffalo Trace, which is not a member of the Bourbon Trail, saw almost 2,000 visitors on Oaks Day, the Friday before the Kentucky Derby.
In 2012, there were a record 500,000 visits to at least one Kentucky Bourbon Trail distillery. (People who go to more than one are counted at each distillery.) And 18,360 people went to all seven, according to the Kentucky Distillers' Association, which tracks the numbers.
"The Kentucky Bourbon Trail has skyrocketed in attendance," distillers association president Eric Gregory reported to the World Whiskies Conference trade meeting in April in New York.
In 2007, the KDA created its "Passport," which sends a T-shirt to people who complete the entire trail, Gregory said. "That year, we had 189 people complete the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Now, it's 18,000 — a 9,614 percent increase."
In four years, he said, that number could easily double.
"Based on growth patterns of the past couple of years, by 2016 we'll have approximately 800,000 visitors a year at the distilleries," Gregory said, with as many as 40,000 people going to all seven.
The demographics are impressive. Based on surveys of people who completed the trail, bourbon fans have money and time, and are eager to devote both to the bourbon lifestyle. They come from outside the state, usually just for the Bourbon Trail, and stay at least one night in Kentucky.
According to studies done in recent years by University of Louisville economists for the KDA, the economic impact from the trail is about $12 million. Tourists who go to all the distilleries on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail spend an average of $737 apiece.
"People travel 200 miles to get the T-shirt every year," a bemused Jimmy Russell, Wild Turkey's famed master distiller, told the spirits industry conference in New York. "They gotta have that T-shirt."
"They spend $737 a year to get a $10 T-shirt," Gregory said, smiling.
Bars, restaurants and hotels, too
Now, everyone seems to be eager to tap into the whiskey-flavored revenue stream.
Louisville has created the Urban Bourbon Trail, which features bars and restaurants, each serving more than 50 bourbons, and a Marriott hotel in Louisville's East End has a bourbon theme to its rooms.
Willett, a craft distillery in Bardstown, is building a bed and breakfast among its bourbon barrel warehouses.
John and Martha Gray — known for their historic preservation efforts in Frankfort, including the Broadway building housing the popular restaurant Serafini — bought the 1910 YMCA building next to the "Singing Bridge" to renovate it. They hope to turn it into a boutique hotel to cater to bourbon tourists.
"I consider the Kentucky Bourbon Trail perhaps the most innovative and best example of private-sector tourism development we have ever seen in Kentucky and perhaps we will see in the United States," Marcheta Sparrow, who was Kentucky's tourism secretary at the time, said during a May news conference announcing that the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience would give Louisville an anchor on the trail.
A slow start
But it wasn't that way in the beginning.
During the early 1990s, there were some tours and seasonal efforts at a trail for distilleries in the Bardstown area. But nothing was really coordinated or statewide.
"One statistic I distinctly remember when I opened Woodford Reserve, around 1995-96, bourbon didn't even make the Top 10 'things to do in Kentucky'" from the data collected by state tourism officials, said Peggy Noe Stevens, who was the director at Woodford Reserve when Brown-Forman re-established the distillery.
"Bourbon just wasn't even on the tourism radar," she said.
Stevens and her counterparts at Jim Beam and Maker's Mark approached the Kentucky Distillers' Association about working together on a brochure to tout them all collectively.
"It took something like three years to get a consensus among all the members about how to go about organizing the Bourbon Trail and what its function should be," said Ed O'Daniel, who was KDA president at the time. "I used to say to the distillers, before the Bourbon Trail was organized, 'Each of you can have your own tourism effort or you can do it as an industry and the whole will be bigger than the sum of the parts.' And I think it's several times bigger than the sum of the parts."
In 1999, the Kentucky Bourbon Trail was finally launched, but it was "less than participatory," O'Daniel said. "In the beginning, the distilleries couldn't even sample their products — we had to get state law changed to allow sampling and we had to get the General Assembly to allow distilleries to sell their own products."
That took another year.
"The backwardness of Kentucky law was such an inhibitor to developing a tourism appeal," O'Daniel said. "That's certainly one of the things that stood in the way, in the beginning, of getting the united front of a Bourbon Trail."
Now the trickle has grown to a torrent, with tourists first becoming fans and then bourbon ambassadors.
It really doesn't seem to matter which bourbon they like best.
"We're all after the same thing: the bourbon consumer," Stevens said. "Or even better, the one who doesn't understand bourbon but goes on the trail and falls in love. That's nirvana."
They are there.
On a spring morning at Wild Turkey, a young couple from West Virginia said they came for a fun weekend getaway on the Bourbon Trail. This was actually their second trip; they already had done half of the trail.
Were they big bourbon fans? Not in the beginning, but they were going home with a trunk full of whiskey.
"What you do with the consumer is touch them emotionally," Stevens said. "They can smell it, taste it, see the landscape, fall into the romance of the industry."
Now, she has elevated her bourbon evangelism to outreach, with near-missionary zeal.
Two years ago, she and other like-minded women founded Bourbon Women, an organization of women who like to taste and talk about bourbon. The group has grown to about 530 members and expanded to other states, where the group has hosted tasting parties.
"Bourbon is a universal language," Stevens said. "No matter where you are, where you go — and I've traveled all over talking about bourbon — it's an immediate connection."
Running wild for bourbon
Mike Kuntz, former U of L track coach and founder of the Bourbon Chase overnight relay race through Central Kentucky, knew that.
In 2001, Kuntz ran the mother of overnight relays, the hugely popular Hood to Coast race in Oregon. As he was sitting on a curb afterward, he said, he began thinking of how to get one off the ground back home.
The Kentucky Bourbon Trail had just started. Why not run from distillery to distillery?
He finally pitched it in 2007. But he hit some surprising opposition.
"Tourism got it right from the beginning," Kuntz said. "But to be honest, when I went to the distillers, they didn't. ... It was a bunch of older men, most of whom did not run, and they just stared at me. Except for one man: Bill Samuels."
Samuels is well-known for innovative marketing techniques that put Maker's Mark on the map.
"He was sitting there shaking his head and saying he just loved it. ... I knew if Bill Samuels was excited, then I probably could make this thing work," Kuntz said. "Most of the distillers were saying, 'This is the craziest thing I ever heard. Why would anyone want to run 200 miles?' But I knew: Bourbon would be the hook."
Kuntz started making the circuit of runners' expos and big races. At each venue, he'd set up a booth for his "zany" overnight Bourbon Chase. And on his table would be bottles of bourbon.
"I couldn't open them, but they sure got attention," he said. "People would say, 'What are you selling? I'm interested.'"
The Chase's first year, fall of 2009, 125 teams of a dozen runners each showed up to run the relay race even though it rained buckets.
Distilleries were in shock as wet, sweaty, muddy runners poured in.
Then they started whipping out the credit cards.
"I think a lot of the distillers were like, what did we get ourselves into?" Kuntz said, "And then they hit the gift shops, and they were like, 'What did we get ourselves into? Ka-ching!"
Kuntz said his wife, Stephanie, who was running in the relay, called him from Maker's Mark. "She said, 'There's nothing left on the shelves.'"
"It was like locusts," remembered Gregory, the KDA president who had championed the relay to his skeptical board.
Now the distilleries cater to the Chase. This year's race ended Saturday with a finish-line tasting party in downtown Lexington. Maker's Mark did a special label; Woodford Reserve let runners pre-order Bourbon Chase bottles engraved with their names; Alltech's Town Branch Bourbon in Lexington had a special tie-dyed label for the race, which had a Jimi Hendrix theme.
"Those distilleries that have most embraced the race enjoy it the most and have profited the most," Kuntz said.
For instance, at Jim Beam, where the race starts, runners and their teammates mill about for hours waiting to go.
"They do very well there," Kuntz said.
Last year's participants spent an average of $50 or more at distilleries, he said, based on his surveys of runners.
More than 4,200 people entered to run this year, with an equal number turned away after the race sold out in minutes, Kuntz said. Which means the Bourbon Chase could easily generate more than $200,000 just in sales at the distilleries.
His demographics hit right in bourbon's sweet spot: They are about evenly split male to female, in their mid- to upper 40s, from out of state, with an average income of more than $100,000, and are highly educated.
They run in costumes, stay in hotels, buy gas and meals, rent hundreds of vans and decorate them for the race theme.
His favorite team name this year? "Instead of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young — Barley, Stills, Mash and Run," he said.
Their enthusiasm pays off in return visits to the Bourbon Trail and repeat customers back home.
"I've got people who run the race who say they never drank bourbon," Kuntz said. "'But I just had breakfast and the sun's coming up and I sampled Woodford Reserve, and I fell in love with bourbon. Now it's my drink.'"
About this series
This is the third in a four-part series, The Spirit of Kentucky, looking at the state's bourbon industry.
Through the second half of 2013, about once every other month, the Herald-Leader has been exploring a different facet of one of Kentucky's most well-known, important and fastest-growing industries.
June's first part focused on making bourbon; the second installment, in August, looked at marketing and selling the spirit. The last part, scheduled for December, will delve into the industry's future. Also look for occasional features in print and online exploring the drink.
Find all the coverage collected online at Kentucky.com/kybourbon.