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Discovering Bourbon in Kentucky: What Else Are We Missing Out on?

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I tend to think of bourbon as one of the last bastions of the old boys' club. I mean, I've had my share. Although I'm a writer now, I went to law school in Virginia for a few years after undergraduate school. Back then, I ordered whatever the boys were ordering. What they were ordering, without exception, was bourbon.

So many things that were once "gentlemen only" propositions have now become equal stomping grounds. But there are still a few things left that women seem strangely left out of. Bourbon seems like one of them. The thing is, I think it might be self-selection in this case that's causing the divide, because from the looks of things during a recent visit to Kentucky, as long as you're drinking, you're welcome.

I went to Louisville, Kentucky to attend the Bourbon Review's Bourbon Classic, an inaugural event that hopes to become an annual one. But before I hit the actual affair, I hit the Bourbon Trail. Yes, there really is such a thing. Seven distilleries that welcome visitors to tour and taste. I didn't exactly do the official route. Instead, I hit Four Roses, Town Branch, Buffalo Trace, Maker's Mark, Heaven Hill and Jim Beam. (The only difference being that Buffalo Trace is not part of the official tour and Wild Turkey and Town Branch are.)

No one called me "little lady" or questioned my interest in bourbon or my ability to drink it. But I quickly realized how little I actually did know about bourbon once I hit the distillery floors. There are a few primary rules, I discovered, when it comes to bourbon:

  • It must be produced in the U.S..
  • It must be crafted of at least 51% corn.
  • It must be distilled at less than 160 proof.
  • It must not have any additives. (Other than distilled water as required to lower proof.)
  • It must be aged in new, charred, white oak barrels.
  • It must be aged for a minimum of two years (if it is to be referred to as "straight" bourbon.)
Also news to me was the fact that 95% of all bourbon produced is crafted in Kentucky because of its famed water. (The limestone shelf beneath the surface zaps out all of the iron in the water. Iron and bourbon do not mix.) Each distillery has its own mash bill, or recipe, and its own ways of tweaking the process.

The good news is, you don't have to worry about much more than those simple rules it seems. As Chuck Cowdery, renowned whiskey guru and the author of Bourbon, Straight: The Uncut and Unfiltered Story of American Whiskey (2004) told me, "Everything you need to know is in the bottle."

When I went to the actual Classic, there was a preponderance of men. But the women I met were just as taken with the stuff as the men were. There were women representing the distilleries, not as eye candy, but as experts, right alongside the men. And women, like Jennifer Cole from Southern Living and Jane Connor, an ambassador for Maker's Mark, were there speaking on and moderating panel discussions.

I met one young, African-American woman who was there on a research mission. She lives in Washington, DC and wants to become a master distiller. And with places like Moonshine University at the Distilled Spirits Epicenter in Louisville, that might not be as crazy as it may seem.

The Bourbon Classic was two nights and one day of tastings and educational sessions and celebrating, really. I tend to get excited about something when I'm around other people who are excited, and that was precisely the effect that the Classic had on me. Bourbon is all about subtleties and I found myself truly intrigued. But more than that, it left me wondering what other male-branded food or drink or activities I have opted out of.

Don't get me wrong, there are still plenty of jobs, activities and so forth where women are grossly discriminated against. But what about the stuff that the majority of women just haven't tried out yet because it hasn't occurred to us that we might like it just as much as the old boys do?

And, yes, of course, I know there are women who partake in lots of "traditionally male" pursuits. But I'm talking about a wider representation of all kinds of women from all kinds of backgrounds taking part.

One thing I do know for sure is that you can definitely expect to find me at the Bourbon Classic again next year. As to where else you might find me, I don't know yet. I'm starting to wonder what else I've been missing out on. Golf? Football? Cigars? We'll see.

The thing is, this is about so much more than what we drink or how we work or play. This is ultimately about visibility. If we continue to be invisible in some places, the assumption becomes that we should be. But once we are present everywhere, it will be impossible to ignore that we, as women, belong everywhere.

All I know is that from here forward, I'm going to be seeking out the things that I've shied away from consciously or otherwise simple because it never really dawned on me that I might like those things. Not sure I'll ever be a big fan of the UFC or video games. But from here on out, I'm going to let my personality -- and not my gender -- be my guide.