Living life between the barrel staves in Bourbon Country

The Right Moment

I had really hoped that this would be the year. Along with every other University of Kentucky basketball fan, the feeling for the last six months was “We’re back”. But even more so than the much desired eighth championship banner, I wanted the Wildcats to clinch the title for a much more selfish reason. I had a bottle of bourbon I wanted to drink.

Maker’s Mark collectible bourbon bottles now seem to roll out on a monthly basis, many times for reasons I only partially understand. I’m still scratching my head over the commemorative University of Tennessee bottle, not quite comprehending how Kentucky bourbon fits into the whole orange scheme of things. A friend once sent me a picture of his UT bottle, I deleted his email without reading it – the thought of the image was just too painful. So while the bottles are a much more common place occurence now, there was a time when they were new, special and even more rare than they are today. I’m not sure when exactly it all started, but around 1993 Maker’s Mark Distillery in Loretto, KY – just outside of Bardstown – discovered some blue wax sitting around the bottling line. Maker’s of course is known the world around for its distinctive red wax seal over the neck. It is one of the great iconic symbols in marketing. I can’t tell you the last time I actually saw the Maker’s Mark name in any of their print advertising. They don’t need to mention the brand, just show the bottle’s neck and you know which product it is. It’s a PR director’s dream.

So, once upon a time, the distillery thought it would be fun to make use of the blue wax and put out a limited run of bottles clad in Wildcat Blue. To their surprise, I believe, the bottles sold out immediately, became an instant collector’s item, and began to be bartered and sold for exorbitant sums of money. After the UK men’s basketball team won the NCAA championship in 1996, Maker’s Mark released a commemorative edition bottle, the first of what would be become an ever more frequent tradition.

Since that time dozens upon dozens of collectible bottles have been released. The Triple Crown series featured Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed, and also started a tradition of bottle signings at Keeneland Racecourse each spring. Then there was the infamous year the distillery ran short of bourbon (due to their spring fed water supply running low) and in place of the regular bottle, instead issued an empty bottle with the label sealed inside. Many people don’t understand the appeal of buying bourbon you never plan on drinking. I fell the same way about many wine connoisseurs who boast of their cellars and their values, which tells me they are in it for something else other than the wine. Why purchase a bottle unless you plan to drink it? I stopped buying most of them some years ago – the whole thing had just lost its appeal. I’m not a collector per se, but I still pick up those which hold a special significance to me.

Back in 1996 before it became a cottage industry, I secured several bottles of the denim label edition meant to emulate the UK’s team’s uniform during that dominant championship year. Several have been sold over the years and now only two remain in my collection. One, I made known years ago, would be opened the next time Kentucky won the title. Truthfully I don’t think any of us expected to still be waiting 12 years after the last one (the equally impressive if not quite so dominant 1998 team). Like many I thought that maybe this would be the year, but alas, it wasn’t meant to be. The only good news was at least we didn’t lose to the University of Tennessee. I have some Jack Daniels drinking friends who would never let me live that down.

Bourbon, unlike fine wine, does not improve or change perceptibly with the passage of time. The bourbon in these distinctive bottles is no different than when it went in over 14 years ago, nor is it any different from the spirit being bottled today. So why open such a bottle in the first place if $30 dollars and a short trip to the nearest liquor store could bring about the same end result? The ceremony, for one reason. The night this bottle, or its twin, is finally opened will be filled with revelry, pomp and circumstance – and probably a lot more bourbon. It will signify, among other things, that the title drought is over. As we empty the bottle its contents will wash away our thirst, emotionally and competitively.  The world will then be able to safely return to its normal course of business. Until then the bottles and their kin will continue to reside in their various places of safety (you don’t really think I would keep them all together, do you?), waiting for the day when one stands tall and gives us its spirit – and spirits – for the good of all.

Maybe next year.

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One response

  1. You should come take the free Maker’s Mark Distillery and Kentucky Cooperage (bourbon barrel-making factory) tours. MM is located just outside downtown Lebanon, Ky. and the cooperage is right on Main Street, along with The Oak Barrel restaurant – a great Bourbon Country experience! You can enter the Heart of Kentucky Bourbon & Barrels Getaway giveaway at http://www.VisitLebanonKy.com. The drawing is April 2. No purchase necessary.

    March 29, 2010 at 6:11 pm

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