Bourbon Industry

'Neat, The Story of Bourbon' a documentary about Kentucky's drink, to debut next year

Corey Maple, left, Gannon Diggs, and AJ Hochhalter. They're making a documentary on bourbon called NEAT, The Story of Bourbon.
Corey Maple, left, Gannon Diggs, and AJ Hochhalter. They're making a documentary on bourbon called NEAT, The Story of Bourbon. Herald-Leader

Sometimes the best ideas really do come while enjoying a glass of bourbon.

A few years ago, Lexington film score composer AJ Hochhalter was at the Justice Film Festival in Philadelphia, discussing his latest documentary over a glass of Kentucky's finest.

He found himself talking about the bourbon as much as his film. That's when the idea hit: why not make a documentary about bourbon?

He and his partners, Corey Maple, who is also his brother-in-law, Micah DeYoung and Gannon Diggs began shooting the feature-length documentary, called Neat: The Story of Bourbon in February 2014, in the middle of a snowstorm.

Did bourbon really need more explaining?

The film is not focusing as much on the backstory as previous historical documentaries have, Hochhalter said.

"We want to cast the vision forward," Hochhalter said. "Where is bourbon going; the business behind it; what has caused it to grow so much; and who are the characters."

The film focuses less on the particulars of bourbon — that it has to be at least 51 percent corn, for instance — and more on the grower who has been selling his corn to distilleries for years.

"You get to know a guy who cuts the trees for the barrels, the cooper who makes them," he said. "We're connecting with people's stories all the way through bourbon."

About 40 people, from tour guides to brand presidents and in between, will be interviewed.

Principal photography will culminate in October with the Breeders' Cup, the Thoroughbred racing championships that are coming to Keeneland for the first time. To capitalize on the world audience in town for the event, the Kentucky Distillers' Association has rented out half of The Livery, a venue on Main Street in which Hochhalter is a partner.

The KDA will set up bars featuring the nine major distilleries it represents and sell tickets to the Bourbon Backstretch. And Hochhalter's film crew will be there.

"We'll use that as the last hurrah of filming," he said.

The Kentucky Department of Travel and Tourism, the title sponsor, is helping to produce the film, which was the first documentary to qualify for tax incentives passed by the General Assembly. VisitLEX and Louisville Tourism are city host sponsors, as well.

The film, which has a budget of about $228,000, is scheduled to be released in mid-2016. Filmmakers are hoping it will get a distribution deal so the film will see wider release, Hochhalter said.

"The interest for bourbon is so wide, and not just in Kentucky," he said. "We'll release it in theaters in Lexington and Louisville, with parties, and we've had people from Chicago, New York, Los Angeles say they have places that want to screen it. We would love to have people in other places share it with their love for bourbon."

Hochhalter's interest in bourbon grew from a friend's bachelor's party at Maker's Mark about five years ago.

"That was the first time I'd ever seen what goes into bourbon," he said. Since then, he's tasted many bourbons. His favorite?

"I had Jefferson's 18-year-old Presidential Reserve. That tasted like butter, and that's my favorite," he said. But for everyday drinking he likes Buffalo Trace's Eagle Rare, the 10-year-old.

Eagle Rare figured prominently in the unfolding theft case in Franklin County involving stolen Pappy Van Winkle; barrels of Eagle Rare and Wild Turkey also were being spirited away to illicit buyers.

Hochhalter and his team got to interview Franklin County Sheriff Pat Melton as part of their film. They also interviewed Marianne Barnes, who left Brown-Forman as heir apparent to master distiller Chris Morris for the chance to restart the Old Taylor Distillery in Woodford County.

"We're going to try to do a longitudinal thing with Old Taylor, document it as it changes," Hochhalter said.