The history of Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey
Did you know that there are very specific elements that qualify a whiskey as a “Bourbon”? Yes, a Kentucky Bourbon must be made from at least 51% corn mash, distilled at no higher than 160 proof, and it can’t begin to be stored in the barrel until it has cooled to no higher than 120º. Fascinating, yes, but hardly compelling viewing. For an avid fan of the Bourbon style of whiskey, including this reviewer, Eric Byford’s new documentary, Straight Up: Kentucky Bourbon is a meticulously detailed archive of the development of this tasty beverage and its entire American history. Holding plenty of information, the film contains little spirit for any but the most avid fans.
Straight Up is a series of interviews given by the modern keepers of this amber liquid that is crafted to tell the chronological story of this very particular gentlemen’s beverage. Maker’s Mark, Jim Beam, Four Roses, and more are all represented. The spokesman from Woodford Reserve (a personal favorite), begins the doc by recalling an interaction that he had with an Irish woman. Known for their whiskey, the Irish woman wondered why Americans weren’t as proud of their whiskey. “It’s a long story,” he replies. Pity that instead of getting a story we get a history lesson.
“…the origins of whiskey and the influence it has had on wars, politics, and United States policy.”
We begin the doc by getting to the origins of whiskey and the influence it has had on wars, politics, and United States policy. We learn the history of mash, distilling, and why this practice had ever come into play to start. We learn about its trade up and down the Ohio and Kentucky Rivers and the perils that early entrepreneurs faced including early Native Americans, wild animals, the elements, and more dangers. That’s not even to mention how the Civil War, Prohibition aka The Noble Experiment, Speak Easies, The ’50s, and then the dark ’70s and ’80s when Bourbon was considered an old person’s drink. Still, up to this point, we are only getting the oral history recalled by the keepers of the craft.
It is only toward the end of the film that the documentary begins to take on a far more personal feel where we explore the modern Bourbon Whiskey makers. It is here we learn of their hurdles, but more importantly, of their relationship with one another. A warm, familial glow begins to permeate Straight Up: Kentucky Bourbon that was missing up to this point. The storytellers stop talking to the camera, and we watch them interacting with one another and warmly regarding each other as family. Here is where the soul of the film comes alive, and we see what a typical, arguably frivolous, love for a particular sauce does to unite people.
I can say that I learned a lot from Straight Up: Kentucky Bourbon but rarely engaged outside of my own personal love of Bourbon itself. There is a great story here that is grazed in favor of fastidious facts. Byford’s doc comes from a genuine place of admiration and respect, love even, but as entertainment goes, this is a little dry.
Straight Up: Kentucky Bourbon (2018) Directed by Eric Byford. Starring Wes Henderson.
6 out of 10 stars