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Spirits Articles

We’re Going to Bourbonland!
Fee, fi, faux fun.

Posted: March 7, 2014

By Terry Sullivan, Very Special to Tastings

“…a five story high Bourbon bottle,” the under-hyphenated press release read, and for a moment I thought it was an announcement of a new 750,000ml packaging innovation. Be a little hard to carry home, I thought, but it sure would save on trips to the liquor store.

Then I read that the bottle is on the front of a building in downtown Louisville and in a pouring attitude as “the neck of the bottle and a large glass in the lobby form a flowing ‘Bourbon fountain.’”

Now, I don’t like to complain, but…ok, maybe I do like to complain a little, but I get paid for it and there is, you’ll admit, plenty to complain about and more arriving every day. I call your attention to smoked-salmon-flavored vodka. (I’m waiting to review it until cream-cheese vermouth comes out.) I further call you attention to the faux-experience movement in America. 

The giant bottle and fountain are part of, the release said, Bourbon Row, an “immersive tourism experience.” What it didn’t say, as didn’t the mayor of Louisville and as neither did the gubner of Kentucky who joined in the announcement, is that you won’t be immersed in an actual experience but in an ersatz, conveniently located with plenty of parking, near-real genuine fake visit to a distillery. Yes, there’ll be a little micro-distilling going on, but basically it’s Six Flags over the Still House. The sad part is that there are, a short drive away, any number of actual distilleries who will welcome you and let you have the actual experience of seeing actual whiskey being made by live humans. But there’s that short drive, and you have to drive somewhere else to experience anything else, and all the bottles there are just regular bottles, hardly worth taking your picture in front of and emailing to your friends.

I’m not blaming the folks who make the hooch. They’re just giving the people what they want. (H.L. Mencken once said that democracy is the notion that people know what they want and they deserve to get it good and hard.)  The “Fourth Street Live” block in Louisville—the mother of Bourbon Row--is very successful, but it’s the theme-park version of bar-hopping, a covered-street fake “experience” complete with security guards in the middle of the closed street and a little un-removable-without-destroying-it-so-you-can’t-give-it-to-your-underage-cousin plastic bracelet. The bracelet also lets you leave and get back into a place no sensible person would want to go into in the first place. Forty-foot flashing lights and plastic glasses. No cars to walk in front. When I was introduced to the bar-hopping game it was on Rush Street in Chicago, where the street was open to cars, the sidewalks were full of people who knew the difference even after they’d had a couple, and the glassware was glass the way the gods intended. There were also one or two extra-legal pursuits and amusements available. On Fourth Street, bar-hopping now is all good, clean fun, which I think of as a contradiction in terms.

But maybe all this just means that Louisville is now big-time. I’ve always thought that no place was really a city unless it had places the locals wouldn’t be caught dead going anywhere near. No self-respecting New Yorker goes within six blocks of Times Square. Parisians give the Eiffel Tower an even wider berth than San Franciscans do Fisherman’s Wharf.  I’ve lived in Chicago all my life and I wouldn’t go to Navy Pier with your money. When the touristification of downtown Louisville is complete, I suspect that locals will visit Bourbon Row about as often as New Orleans residents go to Bourbon Street. Tourist draws should draw tourists and the locals should hang out in places nobody knows about. 

And someday nobody will have to leave town and drive around staggeringly beautiful rolling country, with that limestone that makes the water that makes the whiskey so good exposed on the roadside cuts. Nobody will be forced to find all those distinctive distilleries as different as can be, see the lonesome rick houses outlined on those hills, and stop for lunch in the small towns with 18th century houses and country ham smokers that will bore the pants off the kids. Someday you’ll be able to stay right there in downtown Louisville, put on your branded T-shirt and shorts, stroll down the street and take the kids on the Shoot the Old-Fashioned Rapids ride. Jump in the giant glass, grab the cherry stem and hang on while you plummet down a Whiskey River™ while dodging splashes of Angostura Bitters®. Have your picture taken with Pappy Van Winkle, Elijah Craig and Jim Beam their animatronic selves, getting a keepsake you’ll treasure for years while providing badly needed work for senior-citizen docents with authentic accents. Visit Churchill Downstown© at the end of Bourbon Row and take a turn pitching horseshoes at losing jockeys at the Giant Julep Dunk Tank. Finish up your day of fun by soaking in one of the four-person Hot Toddy Tubs® at any designated Heritage BourboHotel™ And before you leave, let the kids get a temporary tattoo of their favorite label on their neck to hold them until they can get the real thing in sophomore year. Email me a picture.

And if all this is making you thirsty for the actual liquid, please see the links below for recommendations from Tastings.com’s latest review of over 100 North American whiskies, from Bourbons to Moonshines (there’s even some Canadian whiskies you should explore too.)

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