Andrew Buchanan keeps a special bottle of whiskey in the tasting room at Hartfield & Co., the craft distillery he founded in downtown Paris, Kentucky, in 2014. The pint-sized bottle bears a handwritten label and its contents aren’t for sale. It isn’t even completely full, and Buchanan admits that the liquid inside isn’t the best. But, as the first grain-based spirit he ever distilled, it represents a significant accomplishment. “That’s all of the alcohol that I got out of a 25-gallon batch. That’s not the best yield in the world, but it’s still exciting, because it worked,” Buchanan says.
That batch is also significant as the first whiskey legally produced in Bourbon County, of which Paris is the county seat, since 1919, the year before federal Prohibition went into effect. Named after the French Royal House of Bourbon, Bourbon County was originally a part of Virginia and covered a much larger swath of what is today central Kentucky. Its borders shrunk significantly in 1792 when Kentucky became a state, but the broader area was still known as Old Bourbon County. Dozens of distilleries in the area shipped barrels downriver to New Orleans and other ports labeled with the “Old Bourbon County” moniker. Over time, that fine corn-based, barrel-aged Kentucky whiskey became known simply as bourbon and, as demand grew, prominent Bourbon County distillers likewise expanded their operations. There were twenty-six distilleries operating in Bourbon County in 1919, and then there were none.
“If you drive around town, you still see the names of these people,” says Buchanan, a Bourbon County native. “Jacob Spears is a big one.” The house where Spears and his family once lived is still occupied, Buchanan says, and features a side window with an old cash box underneath where people could drive up in horse and buggy and buy bourbon. “It’s almost like movie characters, but these people really existed and it’s all still right here,” he says.
Buchanan has personal ties to Kentucky’s bourbon history, as well. Shortly after founding his distillery under a different name, he discovered that the Hartfield side of his family operated a commercial distillery in the mid-1800s. Buchanan embraced the connection and rebranded as Hartfield & Co., which remains the first and only distillery to open in Bourbon County since Prohibition. Buchanan taught himself how to distill—mainly by reading books and through podcasts and videos, he says—and arrived at a recipe and method he feels more closely resembles the softer, grain-forward flavor of early bourbon. In addition to corn and rye, he includes a higher percentage of malted barley than most, which “starts to add flavors like smoke and tobacco notes to our bourbon,” he says.
Buchanan also brings the whiskey off of the still at a relatively low proof, which helps to retain more of the grains’ flavor, he says. Hartfield & Co.’s main bourbon is aged at the distillery in 6.3-gallon barrels for 8 to 10 months and blended to taste before bottling, which can result in variation from one batch to the next.
“If people come here to taste Buffalo Trace or Maker’s Mark, they’ve driven an hour too far,” Buchanan says. “What we’re trying to say is something totally different. We’re trying to put a new idea out into the world of what bourbon could be; or what it tasted like a long time ago.”