Heaven Hill uses bluegrass to take whiskey lovers on a journey through bourbon history

By John Trump

The International Bluegrass Music Association annual get together in Raleigh provides an almost surreal immersion in music and history.

Dozens of acts take to several stages for about a week each October. This year’s lineup featured Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, Hot Rize and the Steep Canyon Rangers featuring Steve Martin, among many others.

Beer makes the music festival even better. Add in the allure of a whiskey tasting — and accompany that tasting with a guitar, mandolin and a fiddle — and that festival becomes utterly hypnotic.

“A history of bourbon through bluegrass,” Berne Lubbers, Heaven Hill brand ambassador, called it.

Several dozen people packed a room at the Raleigh Convention Center on the Saturday during IBMA to taste whiskey and bourbon as Lubbers and Hickory Vaught sang, played and told some good stories and some fantastic tales.

“The biggest little distillery in the world,” Lubbers called Heaven Hill, which barreled its first batch of bourbon in 1935 and produces some 400,000 barrels each year, closing in on a total of 8 million barrels. It also markets the world’s second-best selling bourbon in Evan Williams. Jim Beam is No. 1.

So much for small. Still, Heaven Hill of Bardstown, Kentucky, offers some fine tasting whiskey.

Lubbers introduced Georgia Moon, a white corn whiskey, to “Good Ole Mountain Dew,” an iconic ode to moonshine and a song made famous by the likes of Grandpa Jones and the Stanley Brothers.

Lubbers tipped some Larceny with “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” another bluegrass standard played by many artists, including Elvis and Bill Monroe. Larceny is smooth and sweet, a characteristic that comes from the high-wheat mash bill.

According to lore, the Larceny website says, John E. Fitzgerald was a bonded treasury agent who had a particularly discerning palate for fine bourbon and used his warehouse keys to seize the best barrels.

Fitzgerald’s key is prominent on bottles of Larceny, which clocks in around 92 proof.

Lubbers talked about Elijah Craig, a Baptist preacher who some have hailed as the inventor of bourbon, though that’s a story of myth and legend that’s been mostly disproven. Still, Elijah Craig Small Batch, which no longer carries the 12-year age statement — it’s bottled at eight to 12 years — is rich and complex and finishes long and, even at 94 proof, a bit sweet. To that came “The Party’s Over,” which former Cowboys’ quarterback turned Monday Night Football analyst used to signal the inevitable end of that night’s game.

The group savored a taste of warm, spicy 100-proof Evan Williams Bottled in Bond, which, at $16 a bottle, is truly a special value.

The band, including Justin Walden playing a mean fiddle, finished with “Deep River Blues,” by the great Doc Watson, as well as a catchy tune that includes lyrics naming 23 brands of bourbon.

“Whiskey helped build this country,” Lubbers said.

We can all drink to that. Now crank up that volume.