I decided some years ago that, if I were to write a memoir, it would be titled Bourbon on the Rocks; or, This Is Why I Drink. To be fair though, bourbon is never my drink of choice when I’m in a “this is why I drink” kind of mood—that’s what gin is for; bourbon is for when my heart is full. Since today is National Bourbon Day, this seems like the perfect opportunity to wax poetic—or, at least, wax however poetically or not—about my intense and enduring love of America’s native spirit.
There is a habit that, as I’ve lived in and traveled to different parts of the United States, that seems distinctly Kentuckian: identifying where you come from by county. Almost no one raised in rural Kentucky talks about what town they live in or near without first having established what county they’re from—I could tell other folks who live in Kentucky that I grew up in Magnolia and, if they’re from the same area or they spend a lot of time on U.S. Route 31E, that won’t mean diddlysquat. If I tell folks that I grew up in LaRue County, that means something. In the context of National Bourbon Day, invoking LaRue County tells folks that I grew up in a dry county. But it also tells folks I grew up next door to Marion county, the home of Maker’s Mark, and down the road from Bardstown, Kentucky—the bourbon capital of the world. And, yes, I have definitely clogged and line-danced in the shadow of the Jim Beam distillery.
Interestingly, though I had long since moved away from Kentucky by the time I started drinking—which was totally when I was of legal age to drink— and it would be years before I would drink bourbon with my feet planted in the Bluegrass State, it always tasted decidedly like Kentucky to me. There is something about the taste of bourbon that always brings me back to driving along 31E or the Bluegrass Parkway in the fall or splashing in the creek behind our church during the hot and humid days of vacation bible school. The smell of bourbon being poured reminds me of sassafras-tinged petrichor after a late spring rain, the earthiness of nearly-cured tobacco hanging in a barn. The bite carries the same hardness as a limestone cliff bursting out from behind autumn foliage. And, if it hits the back of my throat just right, I experience the same involuntary shudder that I always gave descending into Mammoth Cave.
Now, it is true that bourbon does not—technically—have to come from Kentucky. I suppose that Virginia also has a claim on bourbon, since Kentucky was still a part of Virginia when bourbon was first distilled. Really, as long as it is distilled in the United States and the mash it is distilled from is comprised of, at least, fifty-one percent corn, it can legally be called bourbon. For it to really be bourbon though, it must be aged in white oak barrels for at least two years and distilled using limestone-filtered spring water. And do you know where you can find limestone-filtered spring water? In Kentucky. Plus, y’all, can Kentucky just have this one? I mean, Kentucky’s not known for too terribly many things—the Derby, horses, coal, tobacco, fried chicken *eyeroll*, the color of grass; I don’t think it is too much to ask that bourbon be recognized as a Kentucky thing.
So, today, pour yourself a few fingers of the good stuff and celebrate this American original. And be sure to give a special shout out to Kentucky, its bourbon distilleries, and the farmers across the bluegrass who supply those distilleries with mash. I reckon they’ll appreciate the acknowledgment.