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Bourbon Whiskey

African American makers are shaking up Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail

I sip the amber liquid in my glass and wait for a “Kentucky hug”. In these parts, the hot, buttery sensation that spreads in your chest after a slug of bourbon has earned this affectionate nickname. It’s warmth and spice – the ultimate Bluegrass State welcome.

I’ve had more than a few Kentucky hugs this week. The Bourbon Trail wiggles whiskey-washed across the state, joining up distilleries and telling the story of the USA’s heritage drink. I’m following it from Louisville – whose Main Street was once known as the “Wall Street of Whiskey” – to artsy Covington, which kisses the border with Ohio.

This state is America’s undisputed bourbon capital: the tipple has been made in Kentucky since at least the 1700s and today more than 95 per cent of the world’s share is produced here. “America’s Native Spirit” runs in Kentucky’s blood and that blood runs deep.

But now a fresh crop of makers are shaking up the bourbon scene like a mint julep. Among them is Fresh Bourbon in Lexington, a city coated with murals and parcelled into a neat patchwork of horse farms. I prop up the bar in Fresh’s new tasting room. And when that Kentucky hug comes, it’s a gentle embrace.

“We’re the only bourbon in the industry that uses honey malt as a second primary grain,” Fresh Bourbon’s co-founder, Sean Edwards, tells me. “That’s why it has such a smooth finish.”

A winter night in Covington (Photo: Posnov/Getty Images)
A winter night in Covington (Photo: Posnov/Getty)

Husband-and-wife duo Sean and Tia Edwards began making bourbon in 2017 and they’re recognised by the State of Kentucky as the first African Americans to produce Kentucky bourbon since slavery. Their aim is to change the bourbon industry, one sleek bottle at a time.

“The bourbon industry has always targeted one kind of consumer,” Tia says. “We want Fresh to be accessible and approachable, so everybody can experience bourbon and enjoy what Kentucky has to offer.”

Fresh’s approach is fresh indeed, from the liquid in the bottle – which is geared towards first-time drinkers – to the tasting room. The latter is slick and jewel-studded, with white-washed brick and a glittering marble bar that reflects light from chandeliers – it’s a world away from the low-lit, dark-wood-panelled room you might expect, and that’s the point. They’re hoping to break ground on a 34,000-square-foot distillery imminently.

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Change is afoot along the rest of the trail too. Recently-relaxed liquor laws mean distilleries can now open satellite tasting rooms and sell cocktails. Neither was legal a decade ago. These new regulations mean that visitors are flowing as freely as the whiskey.

Yet bourbon is more than a drink. It’s a piece of the US’s cultural jigsaw, its liquid blueprint.
“Bourbon tells the story of America: lots of different races, genders and identities made it what it is today.” Mike Adams, co-founder and vice president of the Kentucky Black Bourbon Guild, points towards his Old Fashioned. “Whether you’re African American, Jewish, Irish – you probably have ancestral equity in that glass.”

We’re sitting in Lockbox, the swish New American restaurant attached to the city’s 21c Museum Hotel, grazing on pimento mac and cheese and creamed corn esquites.

“Until recently, the heritage of African Americans in distillation had essentially been forgotten and omitted from storytelling, primarily due to racism,” Adams adds. “The enslaved were never really credited for their contribution… but now more distilleries have been invested in telling the whole truth of this spirit’s founding and evolution.”

Bardstown Bourbon Company
Bardstown Bourbon Company

Bourbon companies once relied on the labour of enslaved people, whether that was working in cornfields or the distilleries. African Americans built the bourbon industry from the ground up.

I stop at Louisville’s Frazier Museum, the official start of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Here, visitors learn how to make Old Fashioneds in interactive cocktail classes and discover the nuts and bolts of bourbon through The Spirit of Kentucky Exhibit. Now, monthly “Black Americans in Bourbon” tours also shine a spotlight on the African American contribution to the industry, connecting visitors with a range of industry heavyweights.

I finish my time in Louisville down south in Shelby Park, where Trouble Bar is a neighbourhood beacon. It was opened in 2019 by Nicole Stipp and Kaitlyn Soligan-Owens, with Felicia Corbett, beverage director, or “master of potions, joining them at the helm. They wanted to create an inclusive and progressive space for bourbon exploration, and they nailed it.

Trouble is a homely, freewheeling kind of place, with slouchy leather seats and rainbow flags on bare-brick walls. It’s as much a community hub as a bourbon bar.

Bardstown Christmas parade
Bardstown Christmas parade

And, of course, the drinks menu is solid too. “It was extremely important to me that our flights represented every stage of whiskey discovery – from the beginner to the aficionado,” Stipp tells me. “I don’t want you to need a special codex to come into Trouble Bar”.

I opt for a whiskey sour, which is deliciously tart, and perch on a bench as the sun sets over the patio.
“Bourbon belongs to everyone from the recent immigrant to indigenous people and the folks descended from the enslaved people who built this country’s agricultural might,” Stipp adds. “We’re all part of bourbon’s story if we call this soil our home.”

Getting there
British Airways flies to Cincinnati/North Kentucky. Connecting flights are available to Lexington and Louisville.

Where to visit
Bardstown Bourbon Company This modern juggernaut has a New Southern restaurant, impressive glass architecture (a salute to the brand’s emphasis on transparency) and tours that allow you to “thieve” bourbon straight from the barrel.

Buffalo Trace Distillery, Frankfort A heritage brand, Buffalo Trace has a 200-year-plus history that’s explored on tours of the sprawling site. The classic Trace Tour includes a peek inside the barrel warehouse and tastings.

Evan Williams Bourbon Experience, Louisville You’ll be fully primed in bourbon production with the hi-tech displays at this immersive Whiskey Row venue that’s part-museum, part-distillery experience.

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