Saturday, March 19, 2016

The Smell of Prosperity

Bardstown, Kentucky; Bourbon Capital of the Known Universe.
Many years ago I was in Bardstown and the Barton Distillery had the dry house going, which is what produces that yeasty aroma you can smell all over town. It's a very pungent odor. I asked an old timer on the street if it bothered people. "Nope," he replied. "That's the smell of prosperity."

Kentucky benefits generally from its distilleries and other businesses related to bourbon whiskey, but the counties where distilleries are located benefit the most. Property tax revenue is the most obvious benefit, but bourbon generates taxes and jobs in many other ways too, from trucking to tourism.

At the moment, quite a few new distilleries are recently opened or being built. Most of them are in Kentucky and most of those are in the same communities that already have them, most prominently Nelson County, where Bardstown is the county seat.

Jefferson County (Louisville) has distilleries and is getting more, but it has many other businesses too, so bourbon doesn't make as big a dent. Adjacent to Nelson is Marion County, which has Maker's Mark and Limestone Branch, and may get more. In Boyle County (Danville), Ferm Solutions has a growing business selling yeast to distilleries They also have their own distillery, Wilderness Trail, that is growing too. Franklin, Fayette, Bullitt, Anderson, and Daviess Counties all benefit from the bourbon boom.

Not everyone appreciates the benefits bourbon brings, however. Prompted by a zealous attorney, many people who live near distilleries are trying to profit from the harmless whiskey fungus (Baudoinia compniacensis), a familiar nuisance in whiskey country (Scotland has it too). They're suing some of the distilleries. Considering all that the industry is already doing to pay for their schools, libraries, and other services you might expect them to be a little more grateful and a little less greedy.

The politicians in Frankfort have done a few good things to encourage the industry's growth but they could do a lot more. Kentuckians who buy their state's product pay some of the highest liquor taxes in the country. Kentucky could learn a lot from California if it wants to get the maximum benefit from its locally-made hooch and the culture that surrounds it.

Finally, there is the fact that Kentucky as a whole remains extremely conservative. Kentucky bourbon may not even be sold in 39 of Kentucky's 120 counties and sales are severely restricted in another 49. (Those may not be the latest numbers.) It's not a coincidence that most of the distilleries are in communities with very large Catholic populations. Bourbon and everything about it is frowned upon where the protestant evangelicals rule.

The counties that already have distillery businesses are getting more because they are more likely to have experienced workers available but also because they are generally more welcoming, with tangible business development enticements as well as bourbon-friendly citizens.

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