In 1919, the year before the Noble Experiment was enacted nationwide, Bourbon County, Kentucky, was home to 26 distilleries. After Prohibition ended, none of them reopened and bourbon distilled in the county hasn’t been available for purchase there since. However, this September, The Gentleman Distillery will produce and sell the first bottle of true Kentucky bourbon in over a century.
On the history side of things, Maggie Kimberl, an independent bourbon consultant, says that there were hundreds of distilleries, both large and small, in Kentucky during the 1900s. Prohibition closed down all but six of them, and those few were only licensed to produce medicinal alcohol.
"Once Prohibition ended, demand increased, but then World War II came right behind it, requiring distilleries to produce ethanol for the war effort. Then in the 1960s clear spirits such as vodka and gin became more popular than bourbon, creating yet another period of economic strife for distilleries," Kimberl explains.
"Bourbon gained popularity in foreign markets in the 1980s, keeping the doors open until the current bourbon boom took over around the mid 2000s. The bourbon industry in Kentucky has taken hit after hit and held strong," she says. "As a result, we're experiencing a renaissance which includes new distilleries opening up at breakneck speed."
Andrew Buchanan, co-owner of The Gentleman Distillery, is somewhat of an unlikely candidate when it comes to reintroducing the spirit to its namesake county. He has no background in alcohol production or distribution, nor was he particularly talented at high school or college chemistry. However, Buchanan saw Bourbon County's bourbon void as a problem. One that he set out to fix in 2014 with his business partner Curtis Mackley.
"After we made the decision to open, we set about actually learning how to make it. I read lots of books, any article I could find on the internet and started planning," Buchanan states. "Lots of numbers were crunched, applications filled out and meetings held."
Yet he and Mackley encountered hurdles beyond learning the craft and getting the financials ironed out. For example, the duo had originally planned to name their distillery "Bourbon County Distillery."
"Two days after we met with our planning and zoning officials, someone registered the name with the Secretary of State and claimed it was a coincidence," he says.
Buchanan adds, "After some posturing on his part and a few tense phone calls, we landed on a much better name, The Gentleman—harkening back to the years pre-Prohibition when gentlemen sipped bourbon and smoked pipes and cigars."
Located in downtown Paris, Kentucky—a small city within Bourbon County—The Gentleman Distillery started by making rum and vodka, a move that Buchanan says is not uncommon for smaller operations like his. In April, they launched four new products: whiskey, white whiskey, gin and apple pie rum; their bourbon, which is aging right now, will go on sale September 18.
Buchanan recognizes and embraces the obvious differences between his craft distillery and those of the large-scale, classic names like Four Roses, Turkey Hill or Woodford Reserve.
"In distilling, we have a lot of really great products made by the big guys. To say there is more craft in something my size is a bit unfair," Buchanan adds. "Take what [Master Distiller] Chris Morris does for Woodford Reserve—every bottle of Woodford tastes the same—so out of all the thousands of barrels they dump together, they get it to taste the same every time. There is certainly craft in that."
He continues, "At a distillery our size, we might be more intimately involved in every step, but in the end making a high quality product no matter the size requires skill and craft. What we can do that differs us from the big players is being nimble. Embracing the idea that barrel three will taste different than barrel five or 49."
In creating their spirits, smoothness and drinkability are key. Buchanan and Mackley strive to produce liquors that are just as good on the rocks as they are in cocktails. And though The Gentleman is still a baby, according to Buchanan, thus far their distillates have been warmly received and imbibers are especially eager to try the impending September release.
"Locals really see it as restoring part of the history of Bourbon County," he says. "We are bringing back something that has almost been forgotten. For the reception outside of our general area, it's been amazing. Bourbon from Bourbon County seems to really resonate with people. It just makes sense in [their] minds."
Eater Video: The world's most desirable whiskey