Between the garden and the gun

I went looking for a new Kentucky of the mind, to see if old myths could be rewritten

By Erin Keane

Editor in Chief

Published November 23, 2017 5:30PM (EST)


Under the alarm-red glow of the Death Clock, I cradle a bone in my right hand and angle the flared joint end to my lips. When the shot of Russell’s Reserve bourbon rushes down the diaphysis and into my mouth, I catch it all, no spills. I am triumphant.

The bone shaft has been scraped of its marrow but fatty residue remains, adding a buttery layer to the bourbon’s vanilla, honey and oak. With a bone in my hand and the warmth spreading up to my cheeks, I feel a little like Daniel Boone around the campfire, even with this bit of modern technology in the background: “My Predicted Lifetime,” the LED-lit countdown that Austrian artist Werner Reiterer has programmed to predict how many seconds, minutes, hours and days are left in the life of the owner of the restaurant in which I have just shot my first “bourbon luge.”

We all take turns daring the Death Clock with bourbon and bone, while Jimmy Russell, the elder master distiller of Wild Turkey and Bourbon Hall-of-Famer, looks on with an indulgent grin. Aside from Russell and his son, Wild Turkey’s other master distiller Eddie Russell, I am the only local in our group, and I thought I had seen it all when it comes to how Kentuckians will serve bourbon. I've had Pappy Van Winkle in a Jell-O shot. Drinking from a scraped-out shank is a step beyond. It’s traveling into the primeval woods time, unraveling the ties of civilization time. Also, I stopped eating meat 12 years ago. So this is me, practicing being someone I’m not, which is to say someone at home in Kentucky, where I’ve lived for decades, uneasily and with one eye always on the road out of town. Tonight is just the warm-up, though. Tomorrow I’m going to shoot a gun.

* * *

“To take a tour of an American whiskey distillery is to be immersed in apocryphal horseshit,” San Francisco-based craft spirit authority Thad Vogler writes in his new book, “By the Smoke and the Smell: My Search for the Rare and the Sublime on the Spirits Trail.” Vogler’s prose is lovely and his passion is inspiring, and it crushes me that he’s not a fan of bourbon, which he brushes off as “sweet oak juice.”

Vogler is drawn to the agrarian roots of a drink and so the commodity-grain backbone of bourbon is of little interest to him. I get it. There’s precious little to love about a field of subsidized corn. There aren't many things about Kentucky I am not conflicted about, but bourbon is one — in fact, I consider it a grave insult that we allow whiskey made outside of the Commonwealth to carry the bourbon name. For me, the appeal is in all of the details — the romance of the limestone water, the jealously guarded strains of yeast, the gleaming beauty of a copper Vendome still, the specific number of months each distillery demands its new white oak barrel staves be seasoned outside before the cooperage pounds them into barrels and sends them through the fire, and how that affects the specific taste of a level-4 charred white oak as the liquor seeps in and out of the wood, gradually over the course of years — years! — taking on the flavors of caramel and toffee and vanilla and all that what-not in an aging process that has no viable shortcuts. You won’t convince me that transforming something basic into a rich and complex delight isn’t just a little bit magical. You don’t need to go find a rare guitar to write a kick-ass song.

For many bourbon drinkers, the “apocryphal horseshit” served alongside the drink is part of the appeal. Maybe it's part of accepting that history is a malleable and exploitable thing. Bourbon is one thing most Kentuckians, even those in the dry counties, can agree on. We make this, and it is good. Once, in his second term, Barack Obama even threatened to sit down and drink bourbon with his sworn enemy, Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell. Of course, the stories are also used to move product in a crowded and ever-demanding market. A jaded drinker might think the industry reached a low point of storybook pandering when a bourbon that brags of being “finished at sea” hit the shelves, but I suspect we’re not far away from the unveiling of, let's call it Old Man River, a bourbon aged on open-air flatboats drifting up and down the Ohio along Evan Williams himself’s trading route and retailing for $200 a bottle, if you’re lucky enough to find one.

So I’m going shooting with a group from Wild Turkey before we visit the distillery because the bourbon’s legend goes a little something like this: Once upon a time in Kentucky, a worker at Anderson County Distillery, as it was known then, thought he could make an even better bourbon than the celebrated distillery already did. He tinkered with his own high-rye recipe in secret, "under the Kentucky moonlight," until in 1940, he hit on aged-eight-years perfection. He wrangled himself and his secret stash onto a turkey hunt party attended by his bosses and other bigwigs, and they all took one sip of what we now know as Wild Turkey and fell in love and that’s the “rare breed” story, more or less. The name of that enterprising distillery worker, alas, “has been lost to us.” Well, nobody wants to go drinking with a fact checker.

What bourbon knows is that the right story can give a thing extra value — every “Antiques Roadshow” viewer knows this. Vogler isn’t wrong about our proclivity for loose truth — it is as much a staple of the industry, and the region, as limestone water — but he does undervalue its potential power. You say apocrypha, even horseshit; I say myth.

* * *

A Kentucky legend has it that W. Axl Rose, born hours away up windblown I-65 in Lafayette, Indiana, wrote the Guns N' Roses party anthem “Paradise City” as an ode to Louisville. All textual evidence points against this being true, and in the direction instead of maybe, say, Los Angeles, that city of gorgeous weather and women where Rose sought his fame and found his fortune. But it doesn’t surprise me that a close reader would conclude the line “where the grass is green and the girls are pretty” could only be describing the kick-drum thumping a heart naturally feels upon crossing the Ohio from Indiana and taking that first breath of Kentucky’s wild, spore-ridden river valley air.

The grass here isn’t actually blue, so who’s to say?

Guns N' Roses closed their recent Louisville concert with “Paradise City” but did not address any rumored local ties. Security lines were long to get into the KFC Yum! Center, and a sign posted on the arena’s doors stated the artists had stipulated this to be a firearm-free event. During “Live and Let Die,” gunshot sound effects rang out during the chorus, accompanied by video of shooting guns, as if there exists still an unbreachable line between fantasy and reality when it comes to guns in America, as if we are all very sure of where that line is and that we would never cross it.

This one time at a Rolling Stones concert in Bogotá, I discovered a beat too late that the bit in “Dead Flowers” about “making bets on Kentucky Derby Day” is not a universal shout-along line. Oh, this is something only we do, I realized when I got the side-eye from the guy next to me. Every place thinks it’s the center of the universe. Oh won’t you please take me home?

* * *

There's harmless horseshit, like Louisville being the “Paradise City,” like the sepia gloss put on Kentucky's bourbon stories to make you feel more like the person you want to be when you drink it, and there are myths that manage to overshadow, even alter, reality. Like that thing you always heard about the word “Kentucky” meaning “dark and bloody ground”? Turns out that’s some horseshit, too.

In his elegiac new book, “On Homesickness: A Plea (In Place),” Kentucky-born writer Jesse Donaldson grapples with the push and pull of his native land, a contradictory and complicated "Kentucky of the mind," as he puts it, while he prepares himself for fatherhood. Donaldson opens his book with the settlers in Jefferson County, where I live. “Rumor spread that the Indian word from which their new home took its name meant “dark and bloody ground” but it did not.”

According to research by archeologist A. Gwynn Henderson, the myth of “dark and bloody ground” allowed white settlers to take control of the land that became Kentucky guilt-free, ostensibly because it was contested territory among Native American tribes and therefore belonged to no one.

Here was a paradise of a kind, ripe for the taking:

Yet even before Kentucky became a state in 1792, this idea had taken on an all-encompassing meaning: All of Kentucky was never the permanent home for any indigenous groups. It had been merely a “happy hunting ground” or the scene of prehistoric battles.

Not only was the myth convenient in the seizing of land, it baked into the state's origin story a certain romanticized capacity for violence. And yet:

There is no single etymology for the name “Kentucky” (Kentucke, Cantucky). One of the first recorded uses of the name is in a deposition describing the capture of a group of colonial traders by Indians allied to the French on Jan. 26, 1753, at a place they called “Kentucky.” They described the location of this “Kentucky” as being south of the Allegheny River about 150 miles from the lower Shawnee Town, which sat at the confluence of the Scioto and Ohio rivers.

Various authors offer a number of other opinions concerning the word’s origin: an Iroquois word (Kentake) meaning “meadow land”; a Wyandot word (Ken-tah-the) meaning “the land of tomorrow”; an Algonquian term (kin-athiki) referring to a river bottom; a Shawnee word meaning “head of a river.”

“What we can conjure is often preferable to what we can hold,” Donaldson writes. “The truth of a place can sting.” To say nothing of the excavation it can take to uncover the truth of a place to begin with.

* * *

I grew up in a gun-owning family, but I’ve never fired one before this day, so I’m steered toward the shooting range version of the bunny slope for my remedial shooting instruction. It’s a gorgeous fall day, the sun sharp and the sky blue, and the leaves have started to turn orange. It’s the kind of day I hope can help me find some faith in the meadow land. We’re on a farm that has a name, Seldom Scene, and there’s an English Lab called Belle lolling nearby and a gourmet picnic spread under a white tent and by god, life is beautiful. In tone, this event is about as far from the Knob Creek Machine Gun Shoot, a local twice-annual shoot ’em up that is exactly what it claims to be, as a gun party could be. This feels civilized, safe even. I feel like a fraud, but a genteel fraud.

I don’t know when my parents bought their first gun, but I remember when it felt like everyone I knew back home in our small town got serious about them. In January of 1994, soon after the whole state had been grounded by an epic blizzard, a group of local teens shot another boy as he left his job at the Golden Corral, where my family had eaten so many affordable buffet dinners, and stole his car. Later they stole another car, and shot another boy, who survived. The first boy did not. The crimes echoed scenes in the movie “Menace II Society,” which the boys who were later arrested said they had watched many times. The pop culture tie-in made the national news, turning a small town's tragedy into an MTV News spectacle. Suddenly, it appeared, to me at least, that people were talking about guns a lot. Our town had not been a dangerous town but maybe now it was, seemed to be the sentiment. The boys who were shot were white. The boys who did the shooting were black. It is impossible to tell a story like this in America without that detail. That detail shapes the way way a story is allowed, even encouraged, to grow bigger than its facts, to become myth.

Later that year I went away to college, and my mother asked me, as we were rounding up all the stuff a freshman needs for dorm living, if I needed a gun of my own. We lived in a boring neighborhood on the edge of the county but mom had honed her survival instincts and skills on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the ’70s. She was serious. “You’ll be in the city,” she said of my Catholic social justice-teaching liberal arts college located in an expensive, well-established residential neighborhood. I was flabbergasted. “That sounds unnecessary and also dangerous,” I scoffed.

When Mom would visit, I would remind her that she couldn’t bring her own gun, which she packed with her on the drive up on the rural highway between home and school, into my dorm. Not my rules. At rehearsals for our student production of “Steel Magnolias,” I took to playing with the theater department’s fake handgun, heavy as the real thing and used as a comic prop in the play, turning its glossy weight over and over, back and forth between my hands.

* * *

I’m good at following directions, so I can lean my weight forward to minimize the recoil and nestle the butt of the shotgun into the soft hollow between my shoulder and collarbone to stabilize it. I have no natural aim, though, and our guide loses patience with me very fast. I am unfazed. I get a couple of lucky shots off and I can’t believe how excited I am, proud of myself, even, to hit the clay pigeon and see it shatter in midair. It feels like the first time I parallel parked.

The feeling fades fast. Shots continue to pierce the rural silence for the next half-hour as everyone takes a turn. After the adrenaline clears, I realize I had been afraid that this would flip a switch inside of me, that I might like the way the barrel became an extension of my hand, and want to do it again. That's why I'm here, isn't it? To feel the connection between this old-fashioned heritage sport, this gentleman's pursuit, and the indiscriminate high-gloss semi-automatics on sale at every Walmart, to understand how one myth of what is intrinsic to a place wins over another. But I can't imagine doing it again, much less pointing a gun at a bird, a buck, a paper target shaped like a person, with a head and a heart and areas of the body that are worth more points than others.

There is no comparison between shooting at a clay pigeon and a human being. I know that. But I can't help but remember this:

A year before the massacre at Columbine High School, a freshman opened fire on a group of his schoolmates who met before classes to pray together at the high school across town from my house, killing three and injuring five. This atrocity devastated the community. School had not been a dangerous place but maybe now it was. Kids were made to carry see-through backpacks.

He stole the guns he used from his neighbor. (He had, earlier in the semester, taken a gun from his own parents and brought it to school, too.) Why didn’t they lock up their guns? My parents and other responsible gun owners asked, the idea being that a gun isn’t dangerous until it’s in a dangerous hand. Our floorboards groaned from the weight of the gun safe until we had to jack it up from underneath. If there was much of a community discussion over the guns themselves, the plain ubiquity of them, I missed it. They were, are, simply a fact, all around us like starlings in trees, like ragweed.

In the 20 years since the Heath High School shooting, the U.S. has suffered through so many similar slaughters that it now takes a truly staggering number of fatalities to make local tragedy into national news, to shock the country into paying attention. Now schools practice lockdown drills that they hope will save children's lives. The myth that has won in Kentucky, where the last Democratic gubernatorial candidate received an "A" rating from the NRA, is the one about the Good Guy with a Gun who will save us from the Armed Madman, the myth that we'll always know which hands are dangerous, and that our gamble on good guys will pay off.

What nobody tells you about shooting a shotgun is how after, all day, it feels like you’ve been punched.

* * *

All of the meat on this trip, which I'm not used to, makes me a little sick but the bourbon soothes my stomach — some granny tales are true. I have no desire to shoot ever again, but I would like a pair of tall leather boots and one of those vests with all the pockets. I remain upside-down in my feelings about my home from Donaldson, who writes, “I am trapped somewhere on a bridge between the Kentucky of my mind (an idealized past) and the Kentucky I no longer know (some troubled present).”

But a glass of Wild Turkey, neat, and a fire and telling stories about this time and that, that is a Kentucky I can know and love. One of our party asks Eddie Russell how his father Jimmy, who has worked here since 1954 and worked his way up to master distiller and industry icon, ended up in the bourbon business to begin with. Eddie swirls his drink. “Do you want Jimmy’s story, or do you want the truth?” Can one even exist without the other? Eddie has worked with Kentucky bourbon his whole life, so I think he knows this. He gives us both.

By Erin Keane

Erin Keane is Salon's Editor in Chief. Her memoir in essays, "Runaway: Notes on the Myths That Made Me," will be published in September 2022.

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