Hunting for Bourbon and ghosts in Kentucky

Olive Pometsey

Olive Pometsey on travelling 4,000 miles to try one of the rarest whiskies in the world

06 November 2018 08:30

‘My name is Patti Star and I am a genu-wine, certified ghost hunter.’ It’s All Hallows’ Eve Eve and five of us are huddled on the steps of Lexington Public Library, hanging (kind of) on Star’s every word. The library is the first stop on our impulsive ghost tour of the sleepy Kentucky town, and Patti is talking us through the intricacies of her state-of-the-art equipment: a Dictaphone and flashing device that detects some sort of plasm in the atmosphere and therefore, ghosts. We also get whistle stop palm readings; a quick brush of my hand and then, ‘oh my God, your aura is amazing! Wow! I’m so excited’ – I don’t want to brag, but she did tell me that I had the best aura in the group.

It was a bit of a funny situation, nestled within another, perhaps funnier, situation – the kind that invites nervous laughter. Lexington, Kentucky is not a place I thought I would ever visit. It’s not really a place I ever even thought of, until I was invited to go on this whisky tasting trip. Am I qualified to review whisky? Well, I like an Old Fashioned and a few years ago I went through a period of always ordering a JD and coke on nights out, so…yes?

The Last Drop Distillers is the brain child of drinks industry legends, James Espey and the late Tom Jago. Responsible for creating the spirit that gave me my first hangover, Malibu, and the Christmas classic, Baileys, reluctant to retire after decades of working together, the duo founded their new venture ten years ago, with the mission of tracking down the rarest and most exquisite liquors in the world. The company is now helmed by their daughters, Rebecca Jago and Beanie Espey. Like Patti, they’re on the hunt for spirits, just not the same kind that our ‘Ghost Host’ claimed are haunting Lexington.

‘We knew that there are lots of little parcels of spirits all over the world that are not commercial,’ James tells me, as we sit across from each other in the ‘Reconciliation Room’, upstairs in the house that E.H. Taylor – the founder of the O.F.C. Distillery, a cornerstone of the Buffalo Trace Distillery that I’ve been touring all day – lived in. The sweet, yeasty smell of Bourbon hangs in the air, altering slightly depending on which area of the distillery we’re in: eye-wateringly alcoholic in the filtering room, gently comforting in the less industrial areas – like the gift shop, where visitors can buy everything from Bourbon scented candles, to Bourbon flavoured pancake mix. It’s a lot to take in. A few hours prior to being informed of my magnificent aura, I’m feeling jetlagged and out of place, 4,000 miles from home. The two other journalists on this trip are both men, who are older than me and clearly know quite a bit about whisky – which is good, because we’re here to try Last Drop Distillers’ latest scoop, a £3,500 bottle of 1982 Bourbon. I, on the other hand, am perhaps a little out of my depth.

Trying the 1982 Bourbon in Buffalo Trace Distillery's ‘Tasting Room’

‘We wanted to be the world’s most exclusive spirits brand. Anyone can buy a Bentley or a Mercedes if they can afford it, because they’re constantly in production, but we are like Bugattis and old cars like that. You find them, you can’t make them. They don’t exist anymore.’ James is a natural salesman, and this is the ultimate Dragon’s Den pitch. ‘You may be rich, you may be famous, but you’re very lucky if you find the last drop,’ he continues, flashing a smile that punctuates the end of every sentence. I fall into the third ‘very lucky’ category, having tasted the 1982 bourbon earlier that day, in Buffalo Trace’s appropriately named ‘Tasting Room’. It was nice, very nice. Oddly creamy, with notes of chocolate and fruit lingering in the background. It doesn’t burn your throat and I can therefore confidently say it is the best whisky that I have ever tried.

‘Very lucky’ is something of an understatement. Sourced from the Buffalo Trace Distillery – which is owned by Sazerac, who acquired Last Drop In 2016 – there are only 44 bottles of this stuff in the world. Some of the brand’s other great finds include their eleventh release, James’s favourite, a twinned set of tawny ports, produced in 1870 and 1970, and their next drop, a Cognac recovered from a barn in France after being hidden from the Germans in 1925, only to be discovered when the owners of the property decided to knock down the wall it was sealed within amidst renovations. Their price tags may be steep, but you’re paying for a piece of history – the excavation of actual, real life hidden treasure.

‘My dad drank a glass of whisky at 6 o’ clock every single night of his adult life and it was one of the great pleasures of his day,’ Managing Director Rebecca Jago tells me. Tom Jago passed away aged 93 just a few weeks ago, and the brand’s ethos of honouring history and enjoying life feels all the more poignant in his death’s wake. ‘Spirits are to be drunk, they’re not to be kept in a display cabinet. I absolutely know that this is expensive, but it’s not £50,000 a bottle, so if you’re in the right financial position, then it should definitely be kept for a special occasion, but not for forever. You don’t want to die not having drunk it, do you? Let’s celebrate, let’s drink it with friends or family for a special birthday, and enjoy the memories it brings.’

Casks of Bourbon in ‘Warehouse P’

But what happens when the memories that are worth remembering run out? Obviously, there are only so many exceptional rare spirits to be found – that’s what makes them, well, rare. Initially reluctant to work with Last Drop for this very reason, Mark Brown, the CEO of Sazerac, identified this problem early on, and has already hatched a plan to solve it, brewing new memories in a vault at Buffalo Trace Distillery named ‘Warehouse P’. Cutting edge and temperature controlled, the plan is to experiment with the aging process of potential Last Drop candidates – spirits that have exceptional potential – in this space, to hopefully provide a steady flow of releases for years to come. It’s a risky strategy, for there is no exact science to producing brilliant spirits, but that’s part of the fun. ‘If you could control everything, there would be no magical spirits, there wouldn’t be the forgotten casks,’ explains Rebecca. ‘It’s scary, but that’s what makes it so fantastic – the fact that we don’t understand it all. We understand a lot, but there is still that mysterious extra thing that makes that one cask the one you definitely want.’

Back on the ghost hunt, Patti Star is showing us a photo of a supposed spectral cat. ‘You know, over the years, I’ve learnt more about life from the dead than I have from the living.’ The ‘cat’ is clearly just a smudge on the window it looks to be peering out of, but her words stick with me. Dating back to 1792, our tour of Buffalo Trace Distillery earlier that day had been a walk through history. We were told everything from how the army commandeered the distillery during World War I to make gunpowder and rubber, to its survival tactics during prohibition (a simple ‘for medicinal purposes’ note on the Bourbon’s packaging did the trick), and were shown ‘bourbon Pompeii’ – the recently uncovered foundations of a forgotten fermenting room from the 1800s – while being told of the ghosts that are said to haunt it. In a state as young as Kentucky, the past seems to linger on here just that little bit longer.

‘I’ll be dead by the time those casks are bottled up.’ Referring to the experiments ageing in Warehouse P, James Espey makes this point a few times throughout our trip. In a similar vein, Mark Brown shows us fancy casks of whisky and says, ‘now, think of what you were doing in 1993’, before looking at me and jokingly correcting himself, ‘wait, don’t think of what you were doing.’ A good job, because I hadn’t been born. But if I’ve learnt anything from this trip, it’s that liquor brands like the Last Drop Distillers aren’t created for the instant gratification of the living. The Jago and Espey families’ treasure hunt is about keeping the spirit of the past alive, while preserving pockets of the present for future generations to remember them by. They’re in it for the long game.

After 48 hours in Kentucky, I’m back at Louisville airport, on the first stage of my twelve-hour journey back to London. The weather is miserable; incessant rain. Unlucky for those easily spooked by turbulence. But my borderline millennial mind can’t help but feel a little ‘hashtag blessed’. I’m not rich, I’m not famous, but I’ve tried the last drop. Next, I just need to get my hands on a Bugatti.