Bourbon Industry

Historic bourbon document unveiled in Louisville as prelude to five-day celebration

At the Frazier History Museum in Louisville on Friday, Rick Robinson, plant director at Wild Turkey and former chairman of the Kentucky Distillers Association, looked over the 1964 congressional resolution declaring bourbon "America's native spirit."
At the Frazier History Museum in Louisville on Friday, Rick Robinson, plant director at Wild Turkey and former chairman of the Kentucky Distillers Association, looked over the 1964 congressional resolution declaring bourbon "America's native spirit." Herald-Leader

LOUISVILLE — For the first time ever, the National Archives has allowed one of bourbon history's most sacred documents to visit the state that has benefitted the most.

In May 1964, Congress passed a resolution that designated "bourbon whiskey" a distinctive product of the United States.

This afforded bourbon protection against foreign interlopers that would try to pass off their whiskey as similar to that made in the United States — primarily in Kentucky.

The document was unveiled Friday at the Frazier History Museum as part of a new bourbon history exhibit that includes artifacts of Kentucky's distilling industry.

People around the world today refer to bourbon as "America's native spirit," said Joe Fraser, chairman of the Kentucky Distillers' Association board. "Few people understand that this status was conferred by the congressional resolution signed May 4, 1964."

That the document has come to Louisville is an indication of the deep interest in bourbon history from a tourism standpoint, said Fraser, vice president of operations at Heaven Hill Distilleries, which opened the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience last year.

"The world is fascinated by and enamored of bourbon, and that is a great thing for Louisville and for Kentucky," he said.

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer said Friday that the city has become a regional mecca for bourbon.

Fischer said he hopes to see a larger, more permanent museum of bourbon history in the city.

Madeleine Burnside, executive director of the Frazier Museum, said her staff had a lot of fun putting together the exhibit, which includes an Old Forester bottle from 1897, Frederick Stitzel's patent for barrel ricks, and a copper yeast jug from Four Roses.

The exhibit is a prelude to an unprecedented five-day celebration of Kentucky's bourbon industry.

The Kentucky Bourbon Affair begins Wednesday with a "premiere" at Hermitage Farm, a historic Thoroughbred breeding farm in Goshen, just outside Louisville. The elegant evening event has been billed as the world's largest bourbon tasting, with 120 Kentucky brands.

"The bourbon bar to end all bourbon bars" is how Eric Gregory, president of the Kentucky Distillers' Association, put it. "This is going to be one of the greatest weeks to be alive in Kentucky. Period."

Over the event's subsequent three days, each distillery will offer "experiences": chances to go way behind the scenes and get to know the master distillers — and drink bourbon, of course.

Gregory said the association asked all its members to come up with something special to offer their biggest deep-pocketed fans, a kind of "bourbon fantasy camp," with once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. Fifty "golden tickets," with first pick of the events, sold out at $1,350 each.

Despite serious ticket prices, many of the individual events also have sold out.

More groups wanted to be a part of the action, so auxiliary events have been added, and those have some room left:

■ At the "Craft to Cocktail" event at the Moonshine University on May 16, participants will sample craft spirits and then go next door to beverage developer Flavorman to create and bottle custom-flavored mixers.

■ At the Bourbon Women "Flavor Affair" on May 17, an all-female cast of whiskey experts will lead blind tastings.

■ At the Marriott Louisville East hotel, authors of several bourbon-related books will sign books and talk — what else? — bourbon, including historian Michael Veach, Fred Minnick, Tim Laird, Bernie Lubbers, Susan Reigler, Clay Risen and Molly Wellmann.

The party was meant to close on the night of May 17 with a black-tie "Golden Affair" at Louisville's historic Pendennis Club, where the cocktail called the old-fashioned was invented.

But an extra event has been added: a polo tournament and a send-off Sunday brunch on May 18 at Waterfront Park.

"It's grown organically," Gregory said. "Since January, when we announced this, we've been flooded with requests from restaurants, organizations such as Lexington Polo that wanted to get involved, and we're happy to accommodate them."

One unique event is open and free (although a ticket is required): At the Filson Historical Society on May 17, Veach, the historian, and Jack Rose Dining Saloon owner Bill Thomas will appraise attendees' dusty liquor bottles and spirits memorabilia. A $10 donation is suggested to the museum.

Veach said he already has been contacted by people with some interesting artifacts to identify. Thomas, an avid bourbon and memorabilia collector, will offer appraisals in the style of the popular antiques TV show American Pickers. Call it "American Liquors," if you prefer.

"One guy sent me some images of old advertising pieces from the turn of the 20th century, up through Prohibition," Veach said. They included pieces by Brown-Forman in Louisville; Old Taylor, the defunct Woodford County distillery that was bought this week with plans to revive it; and Old Joe Perkins, an Owensboro brand.

The bottles and bar decanters are great but, he said, "we're hoping for old files, old papers."

Maybe they'll find a gem that can join the congressional resolution in a museum.