Bernie: Bottled in bond

As children, we all had dreamy, lofty aspirations for our futures that didn’t seem at all out of reach at the time. From being firefighters to President of the United States, it all seemed possible in our sweet, naïve, idiotic little minds. For me, I went through a rotation of fantasizing of my future as both Katie Couric and a dolphin trainer. Clearly, the 10-year-old version of me would kick my own ass. Nowadays, though, I believe parents should find more creative, interesting career goals to instill in their children. Parents of young’uns, I present to you the coolest job in the world, held currently by Bernie Lubbers: Global Whiskey Ambassador at Heaven Hill Distilleries. Because, undoubtedly, in the great state of Kentucky, our loftiest career goals should lie within the bourbon industry. You got that, kids?

Bernie Lubbers obtained quite the catapult into the realm of whiskey, oddly enough, through his 20-year career as a comedian. As the story goes, Bernie’s father drank a quart of whiskey every day. During his stand-up routine, Bernie would tell stories of his father and, in turn, ask his audience to grab a bourbon from the bar (Jim Beam, to be exact) and toast to his father. What a fine way to generate bourbon sales — and some industry types saw the opportunity. Bernie began getting approached for promotions of specific brands. His charismatic ability to tell stories, captivate an audience and educate in the process were all characteristics married and muddled together into the perfect cocktail of brand ambassador extraordinaire. 

Bernie Lubbers travels the country and teaches people about bourbon whiskey and the Heaven Hill brand, most recently to 1,000 of the nation’s most talented bartenders at Camp Runamok here in Kentucky. When I sat down for bourbons with Bernie at the Proof bar inside 21c, a proud member of the Urban Bourbon Trail, we sipped on the delectable Henry McKenna 10-year, a Heaven Hill Distilleries product, of course. The Henry McKenna is fairly moderately priced, so I inquired about his choice. “People are always stepping on bricks of gold to grab the gold dust,” said Bernie. “Always grab gold dust, but don’t forget the nuggets.” Bernie went on to compare a bourbon bottle to a Boy Scout uniform: The words on bourbon bottles can be seen as badges that these bourbons have earned through the distilling and aging process. “People want authenticity,” he said.

Bernie talked about what to look for when perusing the aisles in the liquor store and said great quality bourbon can be found on the bottom shelf — if you know what to look for. “As a consumer, labels are most important,” he said. First, you want to see “distilled and bottled by” as opposed to “produced by.” This means that this particular distillery didn’t buy their bourbon from mass production somewhere, bottle and slap a label on it. They made it themselves in Lawrenceburg, Frankfort, Bardstown or what have you. Other badges include “whiskey” and “bourbon whiskey,” “straight,” “Kentucky,” of course, “small batch,” “single barrel” and an age statement, such as “aged 12 years.” However, Bernie said, “The Eagle Scout of all badges is ‘bottled in bond,’” as he lifted the sleeve on his shirt to reveal an intricate tattoo of a bourbon barrel and those very words. 

“Bottled in bond” is a legal criterion that American Whiskey must meet in order to be labeled as such, including being distilled in one distillation season, by one distiller, at one distillery. Bottled in bond whiskeys are also notably higher in proof. “You can get about 17 bottled in bond whiskeys in Kentucky, and 10 of them are from Heaven Hill,” said Lubbers, who claims he has about 25 bottled in bond whiskeys at his home bar. 

Lubbers exudes a unique confidence when it comes to bourbon that quantity and quality can coexist. He referenced the great dive bars throughout our fair city, “Bourbon tourism is thriving with great bourbon selections at new and trendy spots like 8UP, Meta,” he said, “but look at the bourbon behind the bar at The Back Door,” an iconic Louisville spot where you can get a stout pour of the same exquisite bourbon for half the price. Sure, sipping a 21-year Elijah Craig from the rooftop at 8UP encircled by fire pits is tantalizing — “gold dust” if you will. But sitting bellied up at The Back Door, amongst a myriad of bourbon drink orders and the bartenders that have stayed true since day one, may just be the golden nuggets that built bourbon’s resurgence in the first place.