Kentucky Bourbon history “sucks,” according to one Tennessee state senator.
Speaking at the Tennessee Whiskey Trail launch party, Sen. Bill Ketron declared Tennessee whiskey history is “deeper” than Kentucky bourbon, whose history, Ketron said, is “barrels on a wagon and the whiskey changing color.” That’s a reference to how Kentucky bourbon was once transported.
At whiskey events, political grandstanding should be taken lightly. Former Kentucky governor Steve Beshear frequently said 95% of the world’s bourbon is made in Kentucky. “The other 5% is counterfeit,” he said, drawing laughs.
But Tennessee Distillers Guild members credited Ketron for giving them a voice in Nashville. In the past few years, Tennessee laws have softened for craft distillers. Ketron led these efforts, so he’s a little more passionate for his state’s whiskey than a fly-by-night politician looking to capitalize on a trend. “We have moonshine, music and NASCAR,” he said when I asked him to explain how Tennessee’s whiskey is “deeper.” He also mocked the Kentucky Bourbon Trail’s humble beginnings. “It started as a flyer in 1999,” Ketron recalled.
Ketron wasn’t the only one slinging bravado Kentucky’s way. Several Tennessee Distillers Guild members said the Tennessee Whiskey Trail will be “better” than the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. The Guild’s president and Old Forge Distillery manager Kris Tatum said it’s “time for Kentucky bourbon to move over and follow our lead.”
They have an app, a passport and are selling a 10-day tour, an effort to attract European tourists. But when the microphones were turned off, many touted Kentucky, suggesting the Kentucky Bourbon Trail inspired them. “Kentucky carried the flag when we couldn’t,” said Lee Kennedy, founder and distiller of Leiper’s Fork Distillery. “Kentucky distillers are also helping us. Nobody knows distilling better than Kentucky [in the U.S.].”
The first reaction from Kentucky fans was to laugh off Tennessee, but I wouldn’t take the Tennessee Whiskey Trail lightly. Nashville offers so many marketing advantages, and the organized Tennessee Distillers Guild will attempt to siphon bourbon tourists using barbecue, music, NASCAR, pro sports and its celebrities.
Of course, Kentucky’s been winning the tourism battle for a long time. There’s the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, Kentucky Bourbon Festival, Kentucky Bourbon Affair, Bourbon Classic, Bourbon & Beyond, the Kentucky Derby Museum’s Bourbon Legends Series, Forecastle’s Bourbon Lodge and more. I’d venture to say that Louisville Bourbon Society meetings draw more annual tourists than the Tennessee Whiskey Festival.
But that’s yesterday. This is today, and Tennessee sent a clear message to Kentucky: The Volunteer State is coming.