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How rare Bourbon aided tornado-torn Kentucky

When devastating tornadoes hit Kentucky, the state’s Bourbon producers gathered their most coveted bottles and barrels to raise money to help the community.

Members of the Bourbon community present a check to the governor of Kentucky
The Kentucky Bourbon Benefit organisers presented a check for US$3.4m to governor Andy Beshear

*This feature was originally published in the February 2022 issue of The Spirits Business magazine.

On the night of 10 December 2021, devastating storms hit the southern and central US. The damage was particularly concentrated in western and central Kentucky, where a massive tornado ripped through more than 200 miles – the longest tornado track on record in the state’s history. 

“This will be, I believe, the deadliest tornado system to ever run through Kentucky,” governor Andy Beshear said in a statement on 11 December. The storm resulted in 77 deaths and destroyed homes and businesses. On 12 December, US president Joe Biden officially declared a ‘major disaster’ in the state, allowing the residents of eight Kentucky counties to apply for federal funding to assist in their recovery. Beshear also established the Team Western Kentucky Relief Fund to help those affected. 

Kentucky’s distillers make 95% of the world’s Bourbon, with most production taking place in the ‘amber triangle’ of Lexington, Bardstown and Louisville. This was “a couple hours away from where the tornadoes hit”, noted Eric Gregory, president of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association (KDA). “We were really lucky. [The tornadoes] almost kind of went out of their way to avoid distilleries,” he said. 

In most cases, damage to the whiskey‐making facilities was minimal, but the storm’s effects on the lives of distillery workers and their families were significant. Mark Brown is the president and chief executive of Sazerac Company, which owns Buffalo Trace Distillery, and has operations in Frankfort, Bardstown, Louisville and Owensboro, Kentucky. He said the business was “very fortunate not to sustain any measurable impact”. However, the producer “had a handful of team members with relatives that lost approximately US$100,000 worth of property and possessions”. Brown said Sazerac Company is “in the process of assessing how we may be of help”. 

The wreckage of Carr’s Steakhouse in Mayfield, Kentucky, after the storm

There were also, as Gregory put it, “a couple of near misses”. On 11 December Tom Bard, co‐founder of The Bard Distillery in hard‐hit Muhlenberg County, posted a video on YouTube detailing how the neighbouring city of Bremen was “essentially destroyed”. In the immediate aftermath, Tom and his wife and co‐founder Kim assisted in search and rescue, which “became search and recovery” as the extent of the damage became clearer. 

Coming together

In the wake of the storms, Kentucky’s Bourbon producers prioritised helping their wider communities. Gregory began organising a charity auction in the early hours of 11 December, making calls to the KDA’s member companies to ask for barrel and bottle donations. “Not one of them turned me down,” he said. The trade group partnered with non‐profit The Bourbon Crusaders and whiskey expert Fred Minnick, and as a team they managed to put together the Kentucky Bourbon Benefit in a matter of days – “a Herculean feat”, said Gregory. 

The auction ran online from 16 December to 21 December, with a live‐streamed finale. It attracted 5,158 bidders for 429 lots, with proceeds going to the Team Western Kentucky Relief Fund. 

Bourbon Crusaders founder RJ Sargent said the response to the auction was “tremendous, far beyond our wildest hopes” thanks to the ‘rarities’ on offer. The most expensive lot was a 19‐year‐old barrel of Willett, which sold for US$401,001; the Bardstown distillery then donated another barrel and the second‐place bidder matched this price, raising a total of US$802,002. Four Roses Distillery provided a private barrel selection aged 17 to 24 years, which sold for US$278,000; another barrel was matched by the second‐place bidder, and with its other rare bottle donations, Four Roses brought in US$569,920. Another Willett donation, an eight‐year‐old barrel, sold for US$143,000, which was matched once again. 

Other highlights included a barrel experience of cask strength Angel’s Envy, which went under the hammer for US$130,000, a US$77,000 Elijah Craig barrel, a US$45,000 Wild Turkey private barrel and a US$43,000 New Riff private barrel. Meanwhile, a bidder paid US$44,000 for a hand‐engraved decanter of 23‐year‐old whiskey Old Rip Van Winkle, and an exclusive tour and tasting experience at Castle & Key Distillery went for US$44,000. 

Perhaps the most unlikely offer in the auction was the Mayfield Collection, 14 bottles that were recovered from the rubble of Mayfield restaurant Carr’s Steakhouse, which was destroyed in the storm. The owner of Carr’s donated them to the cause, and the brands included in the collection agreed to match the hammer price for each bottle. Half the money was set aside to aid the restaurant’s 29 employees, many of whom lost their homes in the tornadoes. 

Carr’s Steakhouse, before the storm

The Kentucky Bourbon Benefit contributed US$3.4 million to the governor’s recovery fund. “We had no idea we would ever raise that much,” said Gregory. “It was just the generosity of the distillers and the donors, and a lot of compassion from the bidders as well. You can’t just find 19‐year‐old Willett or 24‐year‐old Four Roses on a shelf, so those bottles are worth every penny. But you know, I truly believe in the best in people, and that I think they knew it was going to a great cause that’s so needed in Western Kentucky.” 

Many producers took action outside the auction, as well. Bacardi‐owned Angel’s Envy, Beam Suntory, Brown‐Forman, Diageo, Four Roses, Heaven Hill, Michter’s, Rabbit Hole and Wild Turkey donated more than US$1m directly to the state’s fund; Beam Suntory provided an additional US$500,000 for the Red Cross. 

Sazerac gave US$100,000 to the governor’s fund and held its own auction, with proceeds donated to the Red Cross. Owensboro’s Green River Distilling Co gathered food and other necessities and delivered them to affected areas, while Copperworks Distilling Co in Seattle, Washington, created a limited edition whiskey, with US$40 from every bottle sold donated to the Team Western Kentucky fund. 

“Our industry prides itself on helping our fellow Kentuckians,” said Gregory. “You can’t let your neighbours and friends and family suffer – especially in December, two weeks before Christmas. This was the least we could do.”

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