Pouring bourbon, drinking bourbon and diva stomping around town, being overbearingly proud of my womanhood, have been pastimes of mine since I was legally able to do so (really, I’ve been diva stomping since birth — see also Google images for Beyonce — that’s how I came out of my mother’s womb). So, naturally, when I got the opportunity to see a theatrical production celebrating the women in bourbon’s history, intertwining feminist ideals within the roots of our great state’s sour mashed heritage, I jumped at the chance to partake. “Bourbon Babes of the Bluegrass,” an Eve Theatre production written by Susan McNeese Lynch, anchored my whiskey-soaked Friday evening. My friend, Madeleine, and I made a night of it, starting with pre-bourbon bourbons at Loop 22.
I arrived at Loop 22 before Madeleine, who unfortunately fell victim to Friday evening rush hour traffic, which left me with enough time for a pre-bourbon-with-friend bourbon. What? That’s a thing. Greeted by an adorably bearded bartender, I requested his suggestion for a bourbon cocktail, and without hesitation, he presented me with the Jefferson Jackass (Johnny Drum 101, St. Germaine, bitters, ginger beer, mint). Personally, I think St. Germaine is delicious in everything right down to cereal, so I savored this concoction whilst perusing the drink menu for more gems, which included several more mouth-watering options and even the option to buy the kitchen staff a shot ($12). Include an option like that amongst your libations and you’ve warmed an icy barkeep’s heart, y’all. Thankfully, before I burst into tears at the bar thinking about how precious and far between it is to see a restaurant owner want to take care of their staff like that (why, yes, of course I consider booze a source of gratitude and love), Madeleine arrived. We ordered two Old Forester’s neat, and I pulled myself together.
We arrived at the Bard’s Town just in time for the pre-show bourbon tasting, hosted by Susan Reigler, President of the Bourbon Women’s Association. “Will you be doing the bourbon tasting?” asked the cashbox attendant outside the theater door. Yes, yes I will, honey child. Yes. I. Will.
Feasting my eyes on the sampling array we’d been escorted to at the bar, I felt like Rose in Titanic must have felt when she finally saw Jack Dawson standing at the bottom of that grand stairwell before their first class dinner: “DAMN, you babies look sexy in a tux I thought to myself.” And, by tux, I mean miniature snifters filled with generous splashes of amber liquid, caramel and vanilla notes permeating from their necks. We enjoyed samplings of Old Forester 1870, Four Roses Small Batch, and W.L. Weller Special Reserve and hunkered down to watch “Bourbon Babes.”
This show about ass-kicking ladies and historical libations did not disappoint. “Bourbon Babes of the Bluegrass” depicts the stories of seven women who played monumental roles in the development and sustenance of our dear spirit, such as Marjorie Samuels, who created the iconic Maker’s Mark red wax dipped seal, forever changing the way bourbon is marketed and recognized. Evolving naturally from personal stories about bootlegging, prohibition tribulations and families with countless generations in the industry anchored by their matriarch to silly songs and even drink recipes which they referred to as “mixers,” the show had the audience intrigued and even downright belly laughing.
When Maggie Bailey, the “Queen of the Mountain Bootleggers,” told her story with regard to how she was “accused of acting more like a man than a woman” because she was a successful and tenacious business woman, I found myself getting misty with Bluegrass feminist pride. Granted, I was pretty intoxicated at this point, both by the small batch I was enjoying far too much and the noxious fumes of the recipe for the proper and traditional Old Fashioned the ladies were detailing for us. Still, though, it’s worth shedding light on the fact that just like countless women who’ve played a huge role in any masculine-driven industry, the brave broads of bourbon aren’t widely known, much less celebrated, and damn it, they should be!
When asked why she felt as though it was important to celebrate the women of bourbon’s history, playwright and Eve Theatre company member Susan McNeese Lynch told me that she had an epiphany at the Kentucky Derby last year, when she “looked around and saw ads for bourbon, and realized that they weren’t marketing towards women with a focus on women,” and that is probably because most people don’t know that women made up the blood, sweat and oak-charred tears of this spirit’s birth. “The industry is catching up,” she said, “but if you want to make history, it’s just like Catherine Spears Frye — who wrote down the first ever recipe for sour mash fermentation technique still used in bourbon distilling today — said: “You have to write it down.”
Bourbon Babes of the Bluegrass will appear again at the Bourbon Women Flavor Affair on June 4 at the Governor’s Mansion, and additional public and private events.