Neat: The Story of Bourbon

I remember seeing the trailer for this movie “Neat: The Story of Bourbon” and thinking to myself this could really be something special. And I was right.

5 years ago

I remember seeing the trailer for this movie “Neat: The Story of Bourbon” and thinking to myself this could really be something special. And I was right. I saw this the week that it came out and purchased it on iTunes right away. I knew that it would have a special place in my video collection and would be played countless times as I hosted cocktail parties and Bourbon tastings. As I started this blog, I reached out to the producers of this documentary and asked permission to use clips that I found on YouTube and was pleased and surprised when they emailed me back the same day granting me permission to use the clips as long as they are not taken out of context and that the clips are from the movie. So to be clear, all the attached clips are from the amazing documentary “Neat: The Story of Bourbon.” I had nothing to do with the making of this documentary. I’m just an avid fan of the content. I urge all of my followers to go out and buy this film. I am reviewing this to continue my goal of sharing the Gospel of Bourbon and for people to have a deeper and better understanding of this uniquely American Spirit.

In this first clip the film makers tell the ABC’s of Bourbon. You can look back at my first post on this blog where I recount those in more detail, but I love the story telling aspect of the filmmakers. To hear the basics coming from so many important and influential voices really sets the tone for the rest of the film.

In this second clip the filmmakers talk about the importance of the corn in the bourbon. I was fascinated to learn that ears of corn have even number of rows and that 45 acres of corn will produce about 250,000 bottles of bourbon.

I spent time growing up around my grandfathers farm in North Georgia and spent countless hours in the corn fields around the house. As I grew up and learned more about Bourbon and how crucial corn is to the final product, I think about my Grandfather, Hank, and how important he was to me and in many ways still is. I remember one summer morning when I was around 10 years old and I had a friend spending the week with me at the farm. Hank woke us up at the crack of dawn and told us that we had to pick 100 ears of corn that morning before we could have any breakfast. Danny and I got dressed and headed out to the field because when Hank said to do something, you did it. Even at that time of the day it was HOT in the fields. We gathered the corn in wooden bushel barrels and hauled them up to the porch for him to approve our work. He took one look at us and our crop and said “100 ears of corn…each.” Danny and I looked at each other and walked back to the field for another 100 ears. Hank died in 1984 at age 90 and there is not a day that goes by when I don’t think of him and the life lessons he taught me.

In this third clip the film makers explain the “Bottled in Bond” act of 1897 and the importance of that to the Bourbon industry. The “Bottled in Bond” act was the work of Colonel E.H. Taylor who had built his Distillery in 1887. The act gave the consumer, for the first time ever, an assurance that what was in the bottle was genuine and real. This was the first consumer act that did this. Not medicine, not a food product, but Bourbon was the first item to have that assurance to the US consumer.

In this fourth clip the film makers explain how the grain turns into Bourbon. The biggest takeaway for me was the explanation that the bourbons mash bill, the recipe to make that particular Bourbon. I understand more deeply that exact mash bills are most of the time not revealed.

In this fifth clip the Filmmakers went to the 2018 Bourbon Hall of Fame inductee, Freddie Johnson, of Buffalo Trace to explain the right way to drink bourbon. I believe this is a GREAT primer for the uninitiated and the enthusiast. Sometime as an enthusiast we need to be reminded that the right way to drink bourbon is how “you” like it. I remember going to a Bourbon tasting with Fred “Booker” Noe (Master Distiller for Jim Beam Brands) and someone asked him what did he think about someone mixing his daddies bourbon “Bookers” in a bourbon and Coke? Fred looked a long time at the person who had asked the question and replied, “I bet that was the best damn Bourbon and Coke they ever had.” The room erupted in laughter and I tell that story often when people ask me the same thing. Bourbon is meant to be drank the way you like it. For me it’s always neat.

In this sixth clip the filmmakers chronicle the downfall in popularity of Bourbon and the closing of lots of Bourbon distilleries in the Sixties. The Sixties started off with the Congressional Act in 1964 declaring that “Bourbon is a uniquely American Spirit” and all of the parameters that go into the definition for what makes Bourbon, Bourbon. But the sixties also brought about social and political changes to America. Drinking what your parents drank wasn’t cool. Vodka and Tequila were cool.

In this seventh clip the film makers talk about the “Beauty of the Barrel". The shape of a barrel is key only to the ability to move the product around the distillery and rick houses. A full barrel will weigh about 580 pounds. 50-70% of the taste of Bourbon and 100% of the color comes from the barrel. A barrel maker is called a Cooper. (I am not a barrel maker but my sons name is Cooper, coincidence…Nope!) The average barrel has between 30-33 staves in it. Some distilleries will source all the staves from a single American Oak tree and some from multiple trees. It is the magic that the wood and each distillery brings. The hot summers and cold winters allows the wood to open up and close again allowing the Bourbon to move back and fourth through the char layer. After emptying the barrel there is still somewhere between 5-10 gallons of bourbon still in the wood. That is why the secondary market for those barrels and the secondary products are so wonderful. Beer, Scotch, Tequila, Hot Sauce, Wine and many other products are made from that secondary barrel because of that process.

In the eighth clip the film makers talk about the rise of the Single Barrel and Small Batch Collections that helped to bring Bourbon back to the prominence that it is enjoying today. We can thank Elmer T. Lee for that. Elmer was the Master Distiller at Ancient Age (Now Buffalo Trace) in Frankfort, Kentucky and in 1984 introduced the very first Single Barrel Bourbon - Blanton’s - to the American market. This was unique because up to that point all bourbon was bottled after combining hundreds of barrels together to create a consistent taste profile. But here was Elmer that allowed us to sample the Bourbon from a single barrel. In 1986 Heaven Hill introduced Elijah Craig Small Batch. A couple of years later, Booker Noe at Jim Beam, introduced the Small Batch Collection which included Bookers (the first uncut, unfiltered, barrel proof on the market), Bakers (7 years old and 107 proof), Knob Creek (9 years old and 100 proof) and Basil Hayden (80 proof with no age statement but a heavy dose of rye). This was also a time that not only did Bourbon become back into popularity but Bourbon cocktails were making a comeback as well. We started seeing Master Distillers in restaurants, bars and retail stores selling and marketing their Bourbon. Names like Jimmy Russell (Wild Turkey) Booker and Fred Noe (Jim Beam Brands), Parker and Craig Beam (Heaven Hill) and the Samuels Family (Makers Mark) started becoming names and personalities in the bourbon markets.

In this ninth clip the film makers talk about how great Bourbon is made only through patience. “You can’t buy time”, Bourbon can’t be rushed and that it is never changing. I think this is one of the things that makes Bourbon special. Every Bourbon that I get to try is unique and similar but different. The heat of the summers the cold of the winters, how the Bourbon interacts with its own and unique barrel tells the story that is played out on your tongue.

This final clip is why I LOVE this film. How I look at my collection and in fact how I look at every opportunity that I have to share my passion for Bourbon is really summed up in this final clip. Freddie Johnson tells the story of when Julian Van Winkle Jr. gave him a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle 20 year old. That night, after pouring his dad and his brother a glass, Freddie went to put the cork back in the bottle and his dad stopped him. What his dad said afterward gave me chills. His dad said, “Never save Bourbon when sharing with friends and family.” “There will always be more bourbon. We are the fragile part of this equation.” Freddie went on to say, “It’s not about the whiskey, it’s about the lives you touch and the people you meet and the whiskey is a by-product of a good relationship.”

Regardless of if you are new to Bourbon or a seasoned hunter of fine Bourbon, there is something in this for you. I came away with a greater appreciation for this “Uniquely American Spirit,” the people who make it and all that it takes to make my time with friends and family even more special. If you rent it you will regret not owning it and if you own it share it and your bourbon and bourbon cocktails with friends and family and make new memories.

Brian Certain

Published 5 years ago