LOUISVILLE, Ky.—Kentucky’s bourbon barons are sitting down to tell the stories about themselves, their age-old craft and their products that are in global demand.
The collection of oral histories is a joint effort by the Kentucky Distillers’ Association and the University of Kentucky’s Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History.
“With 200 years of tradition and so many colorful characters and stories, it’s amazing that our industry has never captured the true collaborative spirit and camaraderie of Kentucky bourbon from the experts themselves,” distillers’ association President Eric Gregory said Tuesday.
The making of “Kentucky Bourbon Tales” comes as many of the industry’s giants are in the twilight of long careers.
The project’s first interviews were done late last month with the father-and-son team of Parker and Craig Beam. They are master distillers at Heaven Hill Distilleries Inc., the Bardstown-based maker of Evan Williams bourbon—the world’s No. 2-selling bourbon.
The Beam family traces its whiskey-making roots in Kentucky to 1795, when Jacob Beam set up his first still.
Parker Beam, whose career as a whiskey maker spans more than a half century, was diagnosed last year with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease. The neurodegenerative disease affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord.
The complete interviews with the Beams, covering about three hours, will soon be available online, said Nunn Center director Doug Boyd. The interviews were done at a Heaven Hill warehouse, with a long row of bourbon barrels in the background as the whiskey ages before bottling.
Other bourbon makers to be featured include Brown-Forman Corp., Diageo North America, Four Roses, Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark and Wild Turkey.
Boyd said the interviews will document “the stories of these pioneers who have really elevated the bourbon industry to a global standard.”
The interviews will be at each distillery, and a bourbon historian will ask the questions, he said.
Initial interviews will be done with master distillers and other key figures, Boyd said, but he hopes to eventually include other employees for the series.
The next round of interviews is scheduled later this month at Wild Turkey with longtime master distiller Jimmy Russell.
Bill Samuels Jr., who retired as president and CEO of Maker’s Mark in 2011, said the series can delve into the bourbon industry’s turnaround, driven by the creation of premium small batch and single barrel products that changed perceptions of the Kentucky whiskey. Those small-batch whiskeys also carry heftier prices.
“There’s never been better bourbon made,” he said. “That’s transformational. That’s the kind of stuff that ought to be captured.”
Samuels and his son, Rob, who now oversees Maker’s Mark, will sit down for interviews. Bill Samuels said the comments can offer insights into the products and the marketing that turned them into recognizable brands around the world.
“The word Kentucky bourbon to most people in the world is one word, it’s not two words,” he said. “And when you get to that point, you’ve got a franchise.”
Kentucky produces 95 percent of the world’s bourbon, according to the Kentucky Distillers’ Association.
Its bourbon production has risen more than 120 percent since 1999 to more than 1 million barrels in 2012, the group said. The 4.9 million barrels of aging bourbon in Kentucky outnumber the state’s 4.3 million people. The tax-assessed value of those barrels of maturing bourbon is $1.8 billion.
Bourbon also has spurred a big tourism industry. More than 2.5 million visitors have toured distilleries along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail in the past five years.
Word of the oral history collection comes a week after the death of Lincoln Henderson, who was master distiller at Brown-Forman for nearly 40 years and was credited with developing such brands as Woodford Reserve bourbon.
Elmer T. Lee, another longtime Kentucky bourbon maker, died earlier this year. Lee’s most notable contribution to the bourbon industry came in the 1980s, when he introduced Blanton’s, a single-barrel bourbon brand. The Nunn Center’s vast oral history archives include an interview Lee did in 2008 about the bourbon industry.
The Nunn Center has catalogues of oral histories chronicling the state’s horse and coal industries as well.
People interested in the lengthy interviews can pinpoint the information they’re seeking with the help of technology offered by the center.
The bourbon-related oral histories might end up being shown at visitors’ centers at the distilleries or in marketing campaigns, Gregory said.
“We want this project to be interactive and educational, not just video that sits on a shelf,” he said.