With the mantle of America’s Spirit comes not only support and loyalty, but a certain amount of historical responsibility. Bourbon has been entwined with the history and making of the United States for almost as far back as the Constitutional Convention, but perhaps never so much as when Henry Clay, Kentucky’s “Great Compromiser,” represented the Bluegrass State in Washington.
Clay served as Speaker of the House and Secretary of State, argued landmark cases before the Supreme Court, and gained his greatest fame in the Senate, where he successfully brokered a compromise between the northern and southern states that held off the Civil War for over ten years. Clay’s secret weapon may have been the barrels of bourbon he had specially shipped to the Willard Hotel. Clay brought opponents to agreements that met in the middle with skillful application of brilliant arguments and delicious Kentucky bourbon, “the spirit of compromise.”
In that tradition, the Kentucky Distillers Association (KDA) worked with Kentucky’s senior senator, Mitch McConnell, the new Senate majority leader, to bring a new spirit of compromise to the Willard Hotel. On Monday, February 2, the new barrel was filled with bourbons mingled from Kentucky distillers (lightly; Virginia’s liquor laws prohibited more than four liters in one container to cross state lines!) at Clay’s Ashland estate, with the cooperation of the Henry Clay Center for Statesmanship. The barrel, with a number of bourbon’s top folks, made its way (across Virginia’s state lines) to Washington for a ceremony on Tuesday the 3rd.
The room was filled with folks like Al Young (Four Roses), Bill Samuels Jr. (Maker’s Mark), Denny Potter (Heaven Hill), Jerry Summers (Beam Suntory), Tom Bulleit (Bulleit), Joe Magliocco (Michters), Pearse Lyons (Town Hall/Lexington), and Jimmy Russell (Wild Turkey), with Eric Gregory representing the KDA. After some fine bourbons (and a little business being discussed, inevitably), the guests of honor took the stage.
We heard from one of the Henry Clay Center interns—who had the courage to remind Senator McConnell of the Congress’s low approval ratings, to which the senator responded that Congress richly deserved them—and then Gregory presented the senator with a crystal decanter in commemoration of the event. (He had very carefully filled it from a bottle of the Spirit of Unity bourbon that was created by Parker and Craig Beam last year to raise money for ALS research; there was “a little left over,” he said. We watched closely, and not a drop was spilled.)
Senator McConnell noted that the Willard was about halfway between the Capitol building and the White House, an appropriate spot for talking about compromise, and gave tribute to “two of Kentucky’s greatest contributions to America: bourbon, and Henry Clay.” He reminded the crowd that today’s problems pale in comparison to those the country faced because of “America’s original sin: slavery.” He quoted Clay as appropriate to today as to his own time: “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be fixed by what’s right with America.”
He then did speak briefly about bourbon, and about the expansion that’s taking place, and how it’s reaching more people, around the world. “It really is wonderful to see what’s happened in this industry,” he concluded, “which is employing so many people, and helping us all reach a lot more compromises.”
It really was wonderful to see bourbon on this national stage. The powerful came to dip their cups: Senate Majority Leader McConnell, almost the entire Kentucky Congressional delegation, and Speaker of the House John Boehner dropped in at the end as well. Bourbon wields a powerful influence: as an industry, as an historical icon, and indeed, as a “lubricant to the wheels of government,” as Clay used to say. The barrel, by the way, will stay at the Willard, and it is to be hoped that from there it will spread a spirit of compromise up and down Pennsylvania Avenue.