What else could speak so directly to our thirst for place but small-batch Kentucky bourbon? OK, so there are a couple things wrong with that statement. For one, bourbon is technically defined by production method, not place. And the term "small batch" doesn't quite impart the mammoth success of empires like Jim Beam and Heaven Hill (though it was Beam's Master Distiller Booker Noe who basically coined the "small batch" category in 1992). But the fact is, bourbon's been here all along—at least since the 1800s, give or take—even while we're just giddily rediscovering culinary heritage, local flavor, and regional authenticity.
"Bourbon seems to be on the upward trend right now, and it doesn't look like that will be changing anytime soon," says 2014 Kentucky-Tennessee Rising Star Mixologist Susie Hoyt, who's beverage director of not one but two of Louisville's craft cocktail spots. El Camino is leads the pack with its tiki program (for the record, bourbon and umbrellas go quite well together) while The Silver Dollar uses its 100-strong bourbon list, and Hoyt's classically rooted cocktail menu, to reintroduce the drinking public to their native spirit.
Even in Louisville, it's necessary. "I think a good amount of our guests may not know the difference between bourbon and other North American whiskeys, and that's okay," says Hoyt. "If they're interested, we'll let them know, and most importantly, the general trend is that people are excited about bourbon and want to drink higher quality spirits."
Rising Star Mixologist Susie Hoyt of The Silver Dollar – Louisville, KY
Port Light: Buffalo Trace Bourbon, Passion Fruit, Grenadine, and Lemon
Autumn Leaves: Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon, Ramazzotti Amaro, Antica Formula 1786, Angostura Bitters, Lime Juice, and Lemon Oil
That renewed spirits sophistication is likely both cause and effect of the city's recent "Bourbon Boom." According to the Kentucky Distiller's Association, Louisville hosts 40 percent of the state's bourbon industry. The study also noted a general increase in worldwide demand for bourbon—Jefferson County increased distilling employment by 10 percent in the last five years, while other manufacturing industries saw an equal loss in jobs. And then there more marquee signs of the bourbon boom: the enduring success of the Bourbon Trail, the surpassing of the 1 million mark for bourbon production in 2012 (for the first time since 1973), and, oh yes, the newly erected, Times Square-worthy Evan Williams Bourbon Experience on Whiskey Row, complete with digitally projected historic re-enactors, rocks glass fountain, and five-story high (empty) bourbon bottle.
Chicago-trained Hoyt is happy to be mixing in the heart of Bourbon country, though her bourbon proselytizing takes place on a smaller scale, no advanced ticketing required. "Bourbon is a beautiful, complex spirit," says Hoyt. "Honestly, every time I go to a distillery, I'm still in awe of how much goes into the production of bourbon, with the corn and other grains, special yeast, Kentucky limestone water, and then waiting for years while the barrel does its work."
The wait is well worth it for Hoyt, who counts bourbons like Wild Turkey 101 and Four Roses Single Barrel among her (current) favorites. Not that she limits herself, or has to, at The Silver Dollar. "Bourbon is my favorite spirit to make cocktails with," she says. "I like to use different bourbons, and different proofs, to elevate various flavors in cocktails." Showcasing some of that agility, at El Camino, Hoyt pairs Buffalo Trace with passion fruit and grenadine for the Port Light, a slightly tart, whiskey-forward cooler. Her Autumn Leaves, on the other hand, is an unfussy Manhattan variation, pairing Wild Turkey 101 with Ramazzotti, Carpano Antica Formula, Angostura, and lime. The 101 bourbon is among Wild Turkey's higher proof bourbons "with a pronounced spicy note," says Hoyt, "which [is] best for cocktails."
Chances are Hoyt's bourbon options are going to keep expanding—though not as quickly as she might like. Kentucky actually ranks eighth nationally in distilled spirits permits, with states like Oregon and New York ahead of it. In part, barrel taxing laws are to blame (Kentucky charges property tax on every barrel aging in a distillery), as, ironically, is the success of major brands—many of which are now owned internationally. But that doesn't mean smaller operations aren't coming to town; the Kentucky Distiller's Association is all ready to welcome Louisville Distilling Co. and Kentucky Peerless Distilling Co. "There is very high demand for low-production, high-quality bourbons," she says, "making it difficult for supply to keep up with demand across the board." A problem, but a good problem, for Kentucky.