On a sultry August morning, about 100 people (elected officials, reporters, whiskey industry folk and basically almost no one who lived nearby) gathered in a refrigerated tent outside Shelbyville to watch the symbolic groundbreaking for Diageo’s new bourbon distillery.
The chill inside the tent was the kind that left women dreading not having a light sweater handy, and a few men peeved that they didn’t wear a sports coat.
Though set to begin at 10 a.m., the press conference started late. But since in the Bluegrass we have manners to mask our irritation, when told our own Gov. Steve Beshear was running behind, hung up at the Kentucky State Fair Country Ham Breakfast, the group remained dignified.
And when informed Larry Schwartz’s flight from Chicago was delayed by storms, we felt bad for the Diageo North America president. We’ve all been there, fretting and sweating on the tarmac while lighting splits the sky and halts air travel.
So everyone killed time talking nice in the chilled inside air, snapping pictures of the sprawling scale model of the future distillery, and eyeballing their watches.
Mercifully, the event began at 10:25—but only with a merciless parade to the podium of nearly anyone who played a role in convincing the world’s largest spirits company to spend $115 million to open a distillery here in two years.
There was lots of backslapping, handclapping, thank-youing, entrepreneurial husband-kicking, and saintly wife-praising by the various Diageo execs, Shelby County politicians and Tom Bulleit, creator of Bulleit Frontier Whiskey. Though his name is on the bourbon to be made here, he made the greatest effort of all to deflect attention from himself and onto others who are making this pricey booze business possible.
Bulleit, who beat cancer a couple years back, talked about how focusing on this project kept his mind straight while enduring the drudgery of chemotherapy. The sixth-generation Kentuckian, a lawyer-turned whiskey maker, was his easy-smiling self, especially when the name of the distillery was revealed: Bulleit Distilling Co.
Some in the audience were genuinely surprised the name Diageo wasn’t in the new badge, yet it wasn’t. The same orange and black, Halloween-candy wrapper color scheme of Bulleit will stay intact, and likely so for brand recognition. There’s no mistaking that label on those short-necked, high-shouldered bottles atop thousands of bars.
So here upon this weedy knoll, a farm long ago abandoned, Bulleit will oversee an operation that will begin small in 2016, but expand gradually to include 12 rickhouses where Bulleit Bourbon, Bulleit 10-year Bourbon and Bulleit Rye will rest and reduce.
According to the man himself, the distillery will be “the most environmentally responsible facility in the United States.”
Citing environmentalist and Kentucky writer Wendell Berry, Bulleit added, “’Treat your downstream neighbors the way you’d have your upstream neighbors treat you.’ That’s what we’re going to do here: be a most responsible citizen.”
Other than adding 30 jobs to the Shelbyville economy, no specifics were given as to the economic impact in terms of projected whiskey sales.
Mike DaRe, a Diageo public relations spokesman, said the distillery’s annual output should be about 1.8 million proof gallons of distillate that, after aging and evaporation, would yield 750,000 9-liter cases of whiskey.
That’s a lot of product, no matter how you look at it.
Given his turn to talk, Gov. Beshear trotted out several of his well-worn gigglers such as, “Ninety-five percent of the world’s bourbon is made in Kentucky, and the other 5 percent is counterfeit. Don’t pay any attention to it,” as well as the news that there now are “5 million barrels of bourbon aging in Kentucky. And with 4.3 million people here, that means there’s one for each of us, and the rest of the world gets our excess.”
Doubtless was his claim that in celebrating the growth of Kentucky’s bourbon industry, “I’ve attended so many ribbon cuttings, groundbreakings and announcements tied to the bourbon industry in the last seven years, sometimes I feel like the water that falls over the Cumberland Falls has started to turn into that brown-amber liquid we’re so proud of in the commonwealth.”
Beshear said Kentucky bourbon production represents $2 billion in revenue, more than double what it was 13 years ago. He also said the state’s distillers exported $383 million in spirits last year, “a full 21 percent of the whole U.S. total of distilled spirits.”
Again, that’s a lot of product. And domestic and international demand is driving it. Bulleit, in fact, just got back from touring potential Asian markets.
Just in time, when the front row of potential speakers had reached its end, Schwartz arrived to take the podium and talk about his lack of participation in the deal to build the distillery. Whether he was being truthful or poor mouthing, it was interesting to hear him say, “The best thing that I did for it was stay out of it.”
Far more remarkable was his eye-opening confession that, “If it was up to me, we’d probably not have Bulleit Rye.”
Thank goodness he didn’t get his way. It’s a delicious rye.
After concluding his favorably short remarks, Schwartz proposed a toast. Out came multiple black-shirted servers bearing containers of small clear plastic cups (glass tumblers for all the swells, of course) of what appeared to be a cocktail.
“Dang,” I thought, “I’d rather have some straight Bulleit.”
When a pair of reporters beside me sniffed their bubbling drinks, they immediately looked confused. One said, “There’s nothing in it,” as in no bourbon or rye.
One sip confirmed that the cups contained only straight ginger ale.
And then I remembered that Shelby County is moist, not wet. That law will have to change if the future Bulleit Distilling Co. visitors center is to become worth visiting.
The swells drank their soda and commenced the faux groundbreaking inside the tent. Armed with shovels, the group dug in sync into what amounted to a wooden raised bed of pre-broken faux-ground made from a loose blend of dirt and mulch.
Cameras flashed, photographers jockeyed for position, grips and grins ensued, and we all went home with a story to tell.
Namely that we went to a bourbon distillery party where no bourbon was served.