For Kentuckians, bourbon is more than a drink. The amber-hued spirit echoes the grit and tenacity of the people of the Commonwealth, the prized industry outlasting wars, Prohibition, the doomed clear spirit years, and economic ebbs and flows.
As you might expect, the history behind the term bourbon is murky. The word first appeared in newspaper advertisements in the 1820s. Some historians believe the moniker was inspired by Kentucky’s Bourbon County — itself named after the French royal family who aided the colonies during the Revolutionary War. Old Bourbon County (which is made up of 34 modern counties) originally occupied a large swath of central Kentucky, and local distillers branded its name as the county of origin on whiskey barrels transported around the country. Another theory is that the name derived from Bourbon Street in New Orleans, where the drink was popular in the French Quarter saloons as a substitute for cognac.
Bourbon can technically be made anywhere in the world, but there’s a reason 95 percent of the world’s supply is produced in the Bluegrass State. The local limestone-filtered water, fertile soil for corn, and weather conditions for charred oak containers are integral, but as a $9 billion signature industry, bourbon generates more than 22,500 jobs with an annual payroll topping $1.23 billion — strengthening businesses, farm families, and local economies. In Kentucky, bourbon is significantly more than a passion or pastime — it’s a way of life. I spoke with Wibbels via Zoom about whiskey women, the Commonwealth, and bourbon basics.
BECKY GREEN: Why do you think cocktails get a bad rap among bourbon enthusiasts?
HEATHER WIBBELS: The whiskey geeks love to drink it neat, and they love it so much they want to focus on what it is by itself, but most people desire an easy entry, and cocktails are an easy entry into bourbon.
The whiskey community needs to be much more approachable, not just to people new to whiskey but to people who aren’t into whiskey. And if you can show up at someone’s house, and they’re bourbon drinkers, and you know they’re at least going to have a bourbon cocktail that you can sip on, it’s going to be a much more enjoyable experience for you. And then your host will be much happier because you'll be sipping whiskey, even if you’re drinking it in a cocktail.
When you talk to the master distillers and the people making whiskey, they don’t care how you drink it. You can put it in Coke, put it in a cocktail, drink it neat. They just want you to enjoy it. And the whole idea around whiskey is sharing it, and you can share it with more people if you know how to put it in a good cocktail.
What motivated you to go from “dabbling” in cocktails to being an award-winning mixologist?
It all started with Bourbon Women. When I joined Bourbon Women, there was an annual Not Your Pink Drink contest that started about eight years ago. I won it the first year I entered, and then I won two years after that. And then the leadership was like, “Hey Heather, could you not enter this year? Let someone else win. Will you help us judge instead?” “Sure. I’ll help.” It was a passion project that became a side hustle that is now a career.
Tell me about Bourbon Women.
It’s an organization for women who are passionate about bourbon and bourbon culture. We are nationwide at this point with up to 14 chapters. There are pockets of women who love bourbon all over the country, and we facilitate bourbon education and bourbon culture gatherings because if you grow up here (in Kentucky), you understand it. But if you don’t grow up in Kentucky, I don’t think you have a great understanding of the hospitality, camaraderie, and culture behind bourbon. Knowing that I had at least 100 bourbon cocktail recipes, Peggy Noe Stevens and Susan Reigler approached me in the fall of 2020 to create a book celebrating 10 years of bourbon education and cocktails by Bourbon Women.
As a fellow Kentuckian, I can appreciate that bourbon history is part of education and tradition practically at infancy. What is it about bourbon and bourbon culture that creates an outpouring of enthusiasts across the globe? And what do you think is driving the booming growth of the whiskey industry?
I think bourbon is having its moment. We went through some dark times during the ascension of vodka and clear spirits, and the bourbon industry was decimated, for lack of a better term. It sounds silly, but when TV shows like Mad Men and Justified rose to popularity, the cultural references brought bourbon into visibility on a national and global level. And for us in Kentucky, it’s been fun to see bourbon celebrated everywhere.
It’s also something that I think people in Kentucky are protective of because they want everyone to understand that bourbon isn’t just about the whiskey. It’s about fellowship and sharing an experience because bourbon is better when you’re sharing it with a friend. You can have a terrible bourbon in your hand, but if you’re having a great time, it’s not going to matter one bit.
The past couple of years have seen exponential growth in the bourbon industry. Why do you think it has taken the bourbon industry so long to recognize women as a potential market?
It’s much higher than it used to be, but now 30 to 40 percent of whiskey sales are by women. For a long time, the profile of women wasn’t celebrated in whiskey, and it was an old boys club. And to a certain extent, it’s still recovering from that image. It’s something that the whiskey industry acknowledges as an issue and they’re addressing it.
I think it took so long because women’s level of purchasing power had to be recognized. The spirits industry had to start acknowledging the women who were in the industry and have always been at the helm, managing accounting or the brand or on the bottling line behind the scenes. And women may not have been at the forefront or represented, but now there’s a much better understanding that you have to show the people who make a product to acquire an interest in it. You have to see yourself in an industry to really enjoy it. And the whiskey and bourbon industry is doing that now.
Groups like Bourbon Women are a great way for an organization to connect the spirits industry with a group of highly enthusiastic, passionate people who want to learn about your product, ask geeky questions, and share information about your product. I mean, that’s what’s fun about Bourbon Women is when we get together, we may be talking about special spirits we’ve tasted, easy cocktails to make, but we’re also talking about the coolest bottle that no one else knows about that you can find on every shelf.
I felt like I was back in my high school chemistry lab with the recipe instructions on manipulating flavors and creating texture in cocktails. What surprised you the most during the process of experimenting with and developing 140-plus recipes?
I am still fascinated by how changing one element in a cocktail can completely transform it. Even if you change between different wheated bourbons. So let’s say I’m making a cocktail, and I’m going to try Larceny, which is wheated, and Maker’s Mark, which is also wheated, and a wheated Wilderness Trail. I’m experimenting with those three different bourbons, and I might have three completely different tasting cocktails. And what’s interesting is when I check those flavors with other drinkers, different people will prefer different spirits based on their palette.
Or I’ll make the same cocktail and just change the bitters. These teeny, small, incremental changes will make a big difference in the flavor and in how it’s expressed with the understanding that it’s all personal. When I’m mixing at home or when I’m teaching people about cocktails, teaching them how to evaluate cocktails for their preference is important. But having said that, my refrigerator looks like a lab experiment because there are all kinds of tiny bottles everywhere.
It sounds like being a whiskey drinker is a lifelong journey because you can tinker with those incremental changes with different flavors, syrups, or garnishes, and you can engage in endless iterations and discover something new with every drink.
Absolutely. It’s never-ending, and every day, new spirits or flavor combinations are coming out. Hibiscus is hot right now, so everybody’s experimenting with it. There’s so much you can do with infusions and ingredients. You could have a team of 100 people working on recipes, and they would never exhaust this in 100 years.
Is there a particular recipe that’s tested the limits of your creativity?
Oh man, I feel like that happens every time I collaborate with a brand because I want to create something special for them that celebrates their spirit. The cocktails that I tweak the most are the Manhattan and the old fashioned. Because such a large percent of the cocktail is the spirit, you can delve into the flavors and aromas, not just the main ones but underlying ones, and pair those with flavors and aromas and textures when you’re building a cocktail together. They’re the most challenging but the most flexible. The ones that I find the easiest to manipulate are the ones that make a bourbon or a whiskey shine.
Do you have a concoction you recommend for a bourbon newbie as opposed to serious whiskey drinkers?
It would depend on the kind of cocktail that person prefers. If this is a person who prefers fruity, sweet cocktails, I recommend one of the sours. The sours make whiskey cocktails approachable and taste a little bit like a vodka sour, daiquiri, or a margarita. It’s approachable in a familiar way, but the drinker will still be able to taste that it doesn’t necessarily have rum or tequila in it. Using a flavor that’s familiar with the sour is a good entry.
For people who prefer champagne drinks, I’d make them a bourbon mimosa. You still have a lot of the mimosa, the champagne flavor in there with a little bit of fresh juice. And then you add a touch of bourbon, and you’ve just made the bourbon perceivable in the drink. You haven’t overwhelmed the other flavors by adding the bourbon.
But for someone who enjoys spirit-forward cocktails, a boulevardier is a great place to start or a Manhattan because someone who loves gin martini, somebody who loves a Negroni, I would start with something that’s a close analogue to what they already enjoy.
Incredible. It’s 10:30 a.m., and I’m already thirsty.
My whole job is making people thirsty. My work here is done.
Becky Giles Green is a writer, arts advocate, and bourbon enthusiast living in the Pennyroyal Region of Kentucky.