My spring break with Big Liquor

Five days in whiskey country with America's distilled spirits lobby

CASCADE HOLLOW, Tenn. – It was on Day Five of a liquor-lobby bus tour that my hands first started shaking. This was frustrating, because I had trouble pouring my second shot of bourbon for breakfast.

A coach full of reporters was heading south from Nashville toward the George Dickel distillery on a journey through American whiskey country, and the early hour did nothing to deter the passing of a bottle of Woodford Reserve. For five days and six boozy nights, representatives from the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, a trade association that represents the liquor industry, had been herding 17 journalists from seven countries through Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. We visited distilleries, cooperages, and whiskey-still manufacturing plants in a quest to find the best glass of American whiskey and learn about the age-old distilling process. Our guide, DISCUS senior vice president Frank Coleman, told us every day to enjoy our brown spirits “in moderation.” Some of us ignored him, as on the bus, and as a result, spent our waking hours in a state of semi-intoxicated bliss.

Advocates for the $22 billion American spirits industry use trips like these to build rapport in Washington and promote American brands around the world through the reporting — and general goodwill — of journalists, particularly those who write for publications with foreign readers. It’s part and parcel of a larger strategy of building influence and relationships with members of the press who, for all their talk of distance and wanting to report aggressively on lobbyists, are often more than willing to set qualms aside when it comes to being plied with fine liquor by the industry’s big trade associations. Media institutions routinely partner with DISCUS and other alcohol-industry groups, such as the Beer Institute, for parties during major political events, including the presidential nominating conventions and inauguration week, or even simply for a spring evening's fun on a rooftop.

For young Washington journalists, a group that typically spends equal time chasing free booze and story leads, Coleman is something like the city’s Willy Wonka. An invitation to join him on the annual Whiskey Trail trip is a golden ticket for those at institutions where ethics rules permit going on such trips, promising a full week of top-shelf booze, along with introductions to the men and women who craft everything from artisanal spirits to iconic brands. (Yahoo News arranged to pay its own way.) DISCUS organizes similar tastings and distillery tours for members of the press in locations as disparate as Russia, Scotland, Germany and Mexico, schlepping local and international journalists on junkets that have become the stuff of legend.

The American government lends a hand, too: A grant from the Department of Agriculture covers the transportation costs for foreign reporters on the DISCUS-led tours of American whiskey country. DISCUS and local distilleries that sponsor tastings and meals along the way contribute to the package in hopes that a human touch will help open markets overseas and ease trade agreements.

Our journey began on an April Tuesday morning when we took our first sip of the trip: A clear, un-aged, 86-proof rye whiskey distilled by hand on George Washington’s Virginia plantation in mimicry of processes he oversaw starting in 1797. The Mount Vernon distillery closed its doors a few years after Washington’s death, but in 2006 a DISCUS grant revived it. Before leaving the site, we tasted barrel-aged rye. A sip of peach brandy shortly before noon rounded out the visit.

Next up: A flight to Louisville, Ky., where we gleefully hopped back off the wagon upon arriving at the historic Seelbach Hilton Hotel. It was an appropriate venue to kick off five libationary days on the road as a guest of one of America’s most beloved but controversial industries. The 109-year-old hotel was once a regular stopover for Al Capone when he was making moonshine pickups in eastern Kentucky during Prohibition. In 1918, F. Scott Fitzgerald was thrown out of the hotel after a night of booze-filled debauchery.

We were, in a word, inspired.

That night we gathered for a “bourbon dinner” in the Seelbach’s Prohibition-era speakeasy called the Rathskeller. Predinner drinks began with two rounds of Manhattans, handcrafted by Dale DeGroff, a renowned mixologist known as King Cocktail. I downed a third, fruity drink before we were seated for dinner.

The Rathskeller was a dark and cavernous room with vaulted ceilings and the air of a chilled cathedral crypt. Seated around a rectangular table adorned with bottles of Bulleit bourbon were journalists from China's People's Daily, Japan's Nikkei Asian Review, India's Hindustan Times, Australia's Sydney Morning Herald, Brazil's Valor Economico, and Britain's Daily Telegraph, as well as six Americans from BuzzFeed, The Daily Caller and the Washington Times.

DeGroff, a quick-witted Joe Pesci type with a brimming smile, a bolo tie and a thousand stories, sat in the center. We began at 8:30 with a glass of the straight stuff, followed by an Old Fashioned around 9.

By the time the salad arrived, some of us were already five drinks in. I took a deep breath and stared at my glass. The reporter from Japan next to me began to sway in her chair.

“These are all great drinks, but enjoy them moderately,” Coleman said from the head of the table. “It’s fine to take a few sips and move on to the next one without finishing.”

I briefly switched to water. But it wasn’t long before another round of bourbon arrived, and then a “Kentucky coffee,” which was, as you might guess, java mixed with bourbon.

After dinner, we ascended to the hotel bar for another round of Old Fashioneds and whiskeys, neat, just after midnight.

The next morning, our band of bleary-eyed reporters was back on the road early. We loaded the bus just after 8 to visit the Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark distilleries, and a factory where workers built the stills that perform the miracle of transforming water into whiskey.

It was a ritual we repeated for the rest of the week: Wake up early, climb onto the bus, drink whiskey, tour a factory, get back on the road, guzzle the night away. It felt like being on the presidential campaign trail again, but with less drinking.

On Wednesday, we joined Jim Beam’s rotund, jolly great-grandson Fred Noe at his home in Bardstown, Ky., for a “bourbon-que” in the backyard, complete with a full bar of the hard stuff, pork chops slathered with bourbon, and butter bean soup.

It was there that he taught us how to truly drink American whiskey.

“People ask me what’s the proper way to drink bourbon,” Noe said in his Southern drawl. “My answer is, any damn way you want to.”

Times weren’t always so rosy for America’s master distillers.

Liquor, or “distilled spirits,” as the industry prefers, has had a tumultuous history in the United States since the nation’s founding. In 1791, American whiskey distillers staged a three-year revolt known as the Whiskey Rebellion against George Washington’s fledgling national government when Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton proposed a tax on their small operations. By the end of the decade, Washington himself would begin commercial distilling of whiskey on his own land, a business that doubled the profits of his plantation.

Americans continued to distill legal whiskey until Prohibition was passed in 1920, ushering in a 13-year era of illicit moonshining and underground drinking dens. When the states repealed Prohibition in 1933, distillers had to rebuild their brands from the ground up, a difficult task in a nation still suffering through the Great Depression.

Since Prohibition, the federal government has mandated that all drinks called bourbon must be aged in new, charred white oak barrels. In 1964, Congress mandated that all bourbon must also be made with at least 51 percent corn, an obvious nod to local farmers. American bourbon as we know it today was born.

Still, the sale of American spirits, particularly whiskey and bourbon, languished for most of the 20th century. By the 1980s and '90s, companies making vodka and cognac were promoting “premium” brands, while bourbon and whiskey manufacturers had few new products to compete with the foreign spirits.

“Years ago when bourbon wasn’t doin’ so well, a lot of barrels got old as hell because you couldn’t sell it,” Noe told us. “A lot of times on some old bottles it might say the whiskey was five years old, but it mighta been eight or nine years old. Now we’re on the other side of that coin.”

Through DISCUS, distillers are working to build a worldwide following around distinctly American brands, such as "Kentucky Bourbon" and "Tennessee Sippin' Whiskey," by increasing the flow of these spirits to the international market. Building relationships with members of the foreign press is an important part of that strategy. While negotiations continue on massive trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, the organization is working closely with the U.S. spirits industry, U.S. negotiators and overseas partners to promote market access abroad and reduce tariffs on its members' products.

The Department of Agriculture provides a small subsidy to the distilled-spirits industry through the Market Access Program, which began as a way to build commercial export opportunities for American products. DISCUS has used the money—about $3 million since 1999—to introduce American distillers to distributors in Asia and Europe, in particular. The federal grant also pays for foreign journalists, such as the ones I traveled with, to visit distilleries in the United States. DISCUS found the foreign reporters through a State Department liaison office that handles the visas for foreign journalists in the U.S.

The liquor industry’s subsidy is a drop in the oak barrel compared with those of other industries that participate in the Agriculture Department program: While DISCUS secured $400,000 from MAP in 2014, the Wine Institute received $6.3 million to help with overseas sales. Meanwhile, Big Cotton got $15.4 million, Big Meat received $14 million and Big Wood locked down $8.9 million. Even Big Pet Food—through the Pet Food Institute— secured $1.3 million this year from the federal government to promote its products abroad.

At home, American liquor lobbyists have a lot of work to do before American laws conform to their vision. To this day, the laws governing distilled spirits are like a patchwork quilt stitched together out of quirky regional norms dictating when, how and where you can buy a drink. In Utah, for instance, bartenders are required to mix drinks behind a seven-foot barrier, because it is illegal to watch bartenders prepare your booze. In Virginia, bars were forbidden to advertise drink specials and happy-hour deals until 2014.

Hundreds of counties still ban the sale of alcohol, including Moore County, Tennessee, the home of the Jack Daniel’s distillery. For years in Kentucky, it was legal to sell alcohol in Christian County, but illegal in Bourbon County. (Today you can get a drink in both.) Nationwide, liquor distillers must sell their product to stores through licensed and heavily regulated distributors. Some states don’t allow shipping at all. Spirits are also hit hard by state and federal taxes, a fact almost all of the whiskey distillers made it a point to remind us.

It is only in the past decade that the American whiskey industry began to boom both at home and abroad, thanks in part to the rise of the craft cocktail movement and an aggressive push to market premium American spirits. In 2013, American bourbon and whiskey surpassed $1 billion in exports for the first time, according to DISCUS. Some states have recently loosened restrictions and lowered fees on whiskey distilling, a move that has brought thousands of newcomers into the market, and turned backwoods moonshiners into “craft distillers.”

The influx of new distillers has had a ripple effect on local economies. Five years ago, for example, Vendome Copper and Brass Works, a whiskey-still manufacturer in Louisville, would receive orders for only around a dozen craft stills annually. It plans to make 60 stills for new craft distilleries around the country this year.

As American whiskey becomes more popular, the industry has undertaken extensive public relations campaigns to promote moderation. (Those efforts were lampooned in the 2005 film “Thank You For Smoking,” which portrayed a liquor lobbyist as a hired gun from the fictitious but familiar sounding “Moderation Council” who was part of a lunch group of tobacco and firearms flacks known as “the Merchants of Death.”) The distilled-spirits industry comes under constant fire from health advocacy groups and organizations that emphasize the negative consequences of alcohol abuse and point out that each year about 88,000 Americans die from causes related to alcohol.

During our trip, journalists even received handouts about the importance of moderation from our DISCUS tour guides. But out on the Whiskey Trail with a bus full of boozehound reporters, the lobbyists knew their advice would not always be heeded. “I brought enough Advil to take care of a small army of children,” DISCUS spokeswoman Alexandra Sklansky informed us the morning of our second day on the tour. She passed us each a bottle of water and powdered vitamins to help us avoid hangovers, while reminding us, again, to “drink responsibly.”

And I can report that I did drink responsibly: I didn’t spill a single drop.