Finding Bourbon: Bourbonism is Real

Story by Kevin Gibson


About four years ago, I wrote a book called 100 Things to do in Louisville Before You Die.

As a long-time resident of the Louisville, Kentucky, area, not to mention a frequent writer about all things Louisville, I had my list of 100 pretty well sorted out before I even got started, from Kentucky Derby events to Muhammad Ali memories. But as I assembled my book, I noted that a lot of the content revolved around spirits – especially bourbon.

But that’s Louisville, right? I mean, Louisville’s mayor proclaimed Bourbonism as the city’s tourism staple as sort of the epicenter of bourbon. It’s Kentucky, for crying out loud. Tell anyone you’re from Kentucky and you’ll likely hear them say, “Oh, bourbon!”

(Although, to be fair, I was in Liverpool, England, about 10 years ago and told a local I was from Kentucky. He said, “Oh…fried chicken, right?” Sure, man. Sure.)

Anyway, after I submitted my manuscript to my publisher, my editor told me they were quite happy with the content. But there was one comment by a copy editor who reviewed the book who said there were simply too many references to bourbon.

This editor wrote, by way of the Comments function in Microsoft Word, “Reading this, it sounds to me like Louisville is just a bunch of drunks!”

I asked my publishing rep if that copy editor had ever been to Louisville. The answer was no.

Figured as much.

I did remove a couple of bourbon references from the book, but for the most part, I held my ground, insisting that Louisville’s culture really is that tied to bourbon. Bourbon is to Louisville as Anheuser-Busch is to St. Louis. Or something like that.

Well, the books were printed, and the time to market it had arrived. So it was that one day I found myself at the downtown Louisville Visitor Center, waiting to meet the director so I could pitch my book and a possible book-signing event.

As I walked in, I noticed a man and a woman getting off a bus together. They looked to be in their mid-60s, retirement age, wearing conservative, light clothing (it was early September) and grinning with wonder. They walked into the welcome center behind me, and I told them they could go ahead of me, as I was there for a meeting. They stepped up to the counter, where a clerk greeted them with, “Welcome to Louisville!”

To which the woman said in a distinctive accent, “Thank you. We’re from South Africa. It’s our first time here.”

The clerk said, “Oh! Well, how can I help you?”

And the woman said, “We want to taste bourbon.”

I had to restrain myself from pumping my fist into the air and shouting, “Yes! I win!”

But it’s true: People come to Kentucky for bourbon because it’s bourbon Mecca. It’s legendary liquid here. And bourbon is popular worldwide. This was an important exchange to witness, I knew, one that I took special note of that day as I began finding my way toward a more personal appreciation for bourbon. Sometimes you know something, or think you do, and then for such a situation to emphatically confirm it, not only solidifies what you knew but accentuates it in a personal way.

And as someone who enjoys being right as often as possible, it took all I could muster to not call my publisher to tell that story. Don’t mess with my bourbon.

Kevin Gibson
Official Contributor

Kevin Gibson is a free-lance writer who writes for numerous publications, including Thrillist and Alcohol Professor. He also is author of Louisville Beer, Secret Louisville, and several other books. In his three decades as a professional writer, he has won numerous awards but doesn’t know where most of them are now (they're probably in the basement). He lives in Louisville, Kentucky, with his dog, Atticus.