Last week I was in Kentucky, just outside Louisville, heading towards Lebanon and the heart of Bourbon Country. If you’ve ever had a fine glass of whiskey, it probably came from the hills around here. The Bourbon Trail is a big draw if you’re into iconic American cultural history.
On my way, I passed a grisled biker on a massive Harley, bent over behind his bug-smeared windshield, hair and beard flailing in the wind, trying to light a cigarette at 70 mph. Lord, did it remind me of my younger days when several SEC schools decided it was better that I continue my education elsewhere and helped me find the exit to do just that. Not that such an image has anything to do with this story.
Listening to Siri’s voice guide me through my iPhone maps is a joyous thing. She has become one of my best friends as I roam around the country. On this particular day, I was on my way to see Steve and Paul Beam cook up some moonshine at Limestone Branch, their fairly new micro-distillery.
If you walk into a place for the first time and feel like you’ve known the people there forever, then you know how I felt as I walked in and met Steve and Paul and Jay, Paul’s son. They laughed and made me feel better than most members of my family when I visit. On second thought, considering my family, maybe that is not a compliment to Steve and Paul. Nevertheless.
“Let’s talk about J. W. Dant,” said Paul, pointing to a beautiful display of family distilling tradition that goes back over 200 years. Bottles and receipts and notes by both of their great-great grandfathers on recipes and ingredients and family lore filled the little hallway leading to the serious room where the real business takes place every day. And if you come for a visit, that’s the room you want to see.
“Grandpaw Dant began distilling whiskey in 1836,” said Paul. He gave a little history and told stories of early whiskey making in Kentucky as an art form. Paul knows his stuff.
“Just over in Nelson County,” he said, “our other great-great grandfather, Minor Case Beam was making Old Trump and T.J. Pottinger brands of sour mash and rye whiskeys from recipes passed down from his great grandfather Jacob Boehm, who came through the Cumberland Gap in 1788, changed his name to Beam and started selling whiskey in 1795.”
I was eyeing the door to the back where I could smell moonshine being made.
“Looks like you’re ready to get to it,” said Steve. I nodded.
Steve has the wry look of a man who has lived through more than he’s telling. You first notice his eyes; the squint of honesty and experience and a willingness to crank up a conversation and follow it like a hunting dog on a scent. If you are going to sip some corn whiskey, Steve is the guy you want to be sitting next to when it happens.
He took me back to a 150-gallon hand-hammered copper pot they use to make small batch moonshine and bourbon. As he explained the process, I watched as precious drops fell one-by-one into a shiny vat. Jay moved about checking this gauge and that pipe. Paul made sure things were running as I wasted their time.
“That right there is pure, beautiful 130-proof moonshine,” said Steve, motioning to a pristine vat.
A tiny taste confirmed his claim to being, indeed, fine.
“Those barrels over there will be bourbon, but that takes a few years,” said Paul. “We come from a long line of very authentic whiskey makers, but we’re a small-batch distiller. Our product is as hand crafted as it comes, as you can see.”
I could see. But I wanted to taste more. So they poured some shine fresh from the latest potfull into small glasses.
“Good stuff, huh?” said Steve. But Paul will take you through a whole tasting in a few minutes if you can hang on. So I did. Barely.
After examining everything from Apple Pie Cinnamon to Blackberry and Pumpkin Pie moonshine to Minor’s Revenge and their award-winning T.J. Pottinger’s moonshine Kentucky corn whiskey, I asked if there would ever be a MoonPie Moonshine. Squinty silence.
“Funny you should ask,” said Steve. “We’ve definitely talked with Tory Johnson at MoonPie. A lot of Southern history with these two families.” He just smiled. Paul smiled. Jay smiled. And then I was sworn to secrecy right there next to the beautiful copper pot making some of the finest small batch product in Kentucky.
We left and went just up the road to Maker’s Mark, where everyone knew Steve and Paul and Jay not just because of their famous family heritage, but also because of their deep knowledge and vast tradition of perfect American whiskey. And, quite honestly, because they are three of the nicest people you’ll ever meet, even if you don’t drink a drop. People around here know that.
We walked through the giant distillery and beautiful gift shop, a stark contrast to Steve and Paul’s small, one-on-one Limestone Branch Distillery sitting next to a perfect field of grain and a pristine pond.
“So one day I may get to sip a small-batch MoonPie Moonshine?” I asked, knowing already the answer would have to wait.
Steve just smiled and said, “Mike, let’s all go back to Limestone Branch and sit next to the pond and enjoy this beautiful Kentucky sunset and a few sips.”
When we got there, Paul grinned and walked back into check the latest shine with Jay. Cicadas moaned as the sky turned the color of bourbon above us and Steve laughed and I remember an evening with my father before he died as we sipped bourbon and talked about life.