If you’ve been to a Kentucky bourbon distillery, you’ve seen the tangible energy that exists when yeast meets mash, when distillate meets the new charred oak barrel, and when hundreds, sometimes thousands, of barrels meet the gentle spot they’ll rest for the next four, eight, 15-plus years.
That magic is what keeps a steady stream of tourists to Kentucky — nearly one million a year — booking hotels, eating at restaurants, drinking at bars and venturing to distilleries. It’s not surprising that bourbon also is booming around the world, as interest in brown spirits continues to rise.
“Neat,” a documentary filmed in Kentucky by Lexington filmmakers, set out to capture the essence of what makes bourbon so special by exploring the spirit’s history, definitions, characters, distillers and stories, and the film succeeds immensely.
“Neat” will be available starting Tuesday, Feb. 20, on streaming sites like iTunes, Amazon, GooglePlay and many more.
Castle & Key plays a prominent role in the film, as Barnes lets the viewer in on secrets about resurrecting the legendary former Old Taylor Distillery, why grain quality is so important to the bourbon she’s making, and many other facets of the whiskey-making process.
The film also features dozens of prominent bourbon industry folks, from master distillers like Jimmy Russell (Wild Turkey), Fred Noe (Jim Beam) and Chris Morris (Woodford Reserve) to bartenders, historians, ambassadors and distillery staff, including Buffalo Trace’s Freddie Johnson, a third-generation employee who leads lively tours, among many other roles.
Also making occasional appearances throughout is actor Steve Zahn, a self-proclaimed bourbon lover who injects comedy into the narrative — a great device the filmmakers used to seamlessly change topics.
Viewing “Neat” on the hallowed ground at Castle & Key was a chill-inducing experience — given that E.H. Taylor himself was a champion for the Bottle-in-Bond Act and constructed his lavish distillery in bourbon’s heyday — but obviously it is not required to appreciate the touching sentiments that come from the film.
Because Kentuckians are ambassadors of bourbon by default, whether they drink the spirit or not, “Neat” should be required viewing. I mean, how much more is there to say when traveling abroad about Col. Sanders’ 11 herbs and spices and the Kentucky Derby?
Insider caught up with filmmaker A.J. Hochhalter after the screening and learned that his team had been working on “Neat” for three years, starting in February 2015 — the same exact day a snowstorm hit Kentucky. Turns out, a little serendipity played a part in the crew’s misfortunes.
Every single interview they had planned was canceled, and the entire crew ended up stranded at Buffalo Trace Distillery.
“The distillery had shut down and sent everyone home. Well, everyone except Freddie Johnson,” says Hochhalter. “As luck would have it, this was the day we met Freddie and snagged an impromptu interview with him. That changed the course of the film.”
The crew included producers Gannon Diggs, Corey Maple and Micah DeYoung from Lexington and director David Altrogge and cinematographer Michael Hartnett, who own Vinegar Hill studios in Pittsburgh.
The challenge, says Hochhalter, was trying to narrow down which stories and topics to focus on. With the footage they captured, they could have made four different films.
“If anything, it was like drinking from a fire hydrant,” he says. “We were trying to focus in on what story we were telling, and each person we talked to would bring up another angle — giving us a plethora of options. The ‘story of bourbon’ is rich.”
Getting the distillers to talk about bourbon wasn’t the hard part, he adds, it was getting access to them that was sometimes difficult for the crew.
“As you can imagine, cold calling a distillery and asking them to allow a film crew to disrupt their daily operations is not an easy sell,” explains Hochhalter. “However, once we were able to sit down with the fine folks who make bourbon, we found it was extremely easy to get them talking about it. There is such passion in this industry, and that was fun to capture.”
A notable message in “Neat” is that bourbon takes time. It can’t be distilled today and bottled tomorrow. It essentially goes against the grain of today’s instant-access society. And that’s a good thing.
And while everyone has their favorites — Hochhalter likes to sip on Weller Special Reserve in the fall by the fire pit — it’s more about the memories than the make.
“Bourbon is all about fellowship,” he says. “It’s not about WHAT is in the bottle but WHO is around you when you are enjoying it.”
Of course, no one, including Hochhalter and his crew, can put their finger on what exactly is causing the world to reignite its passion for bourbon and whiskey, but there are some theories.
“I think people are returning to things that are real and genuine,” says Hochhalter. “The process of bourbon is defined by those qualities, and I believe the culture and people of Kentucky are, too.”
“Neat” is now available to stream on iTunes, Amazon, GooglePlay and others. Below is a slideshow of images we captured at Castle & Key after the screening. The distillery is offering limited tours of the grounds before it officially opens.