Kentucky by Heart: ‘Talk Bourbon to Me’ takes something old and gives it a fresh spin

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By Steve Flairty
KyForward columnist

Lexington author Beth Underwood has shown that she’s capable of turning up her writing intensity to a high level; she can turn it down and soften the tone, too, especially after she takes a little time to cool down.

Where her previous book was hard-hitting and full of the pathos of war, her newest, Talk Bourbon to Me: A Whiskey Lover’s Guide to Kentucky’s Favorite, is light and lively, easy on the nerves. “I love this book. It was just so much fun,” she said recently. “A little positivity goes a long way.”

Beth always made it her focus to do quality work, both as a newspaper reporter and later, as a researcher and writer on staff for the Kentucky Basketball Museum in the ‘90s. But with her first book, Gravity, published in 2015, she pushed the limits to get it right. The inside story of a group of small-town Tennessee Army Guardsman deployed in an extremely hostile part of war-torn Iraq in 2004 took her over eight years to complete. She spent hundreds of hours interviewing the principal characters on phone and sometimes in person.

Beth Underwood (Photo Provided)

Beth Underwood (Photo Provided)

“Holy cow, that was a trying time,” she said. “Mentally, I didn’t know if I could pull it off, honestly…or that anybody would care about their story. It drained me a lot.”

She found an audience that certainly did care about their story, absolutely. Besides the people of Livingston, in Overton County, who greatly appreciated the tribute to their hometown heroes, the book drew critical praise and won the Silver Medal in the 2016 Military Writers Society of America awards in the creative non-fiction category.

“Writing it was cathartic and caused me to grow. I picked one of the hardest things (to write about)…a huge test,” she noted.

The experience moved her towards taking about eight months to re-energize and to consider what her writing future would look like.
Starting only a few months ago, Talk Bourbon to Me was birthed from the discovery of an old book she found interesting stashed away online at http://www.gutenberg.org/. The site includes over 50,000 e-books digitalized that are categorized as being in the public domain.

Bourbon cover

Called The Practical Distiller, by Samual McHarry, the book was first published over 200 years ago, and it told in amazing detail about the process of distilling whiskey.

McHarry’s work snatched Beth’s fascination immediately. Though the narrative of the early 1800s book was, she stated, “a hard read…dry,” she considered the fact that while living in Kentucky, where bourbon whiskey is iconic, she actually knew little about the subject and hadn’t so much as visited a distillery or anything resembling The Bourbon Trail, so popular today. That soon changed.

Now totally interested in the bourbon industry, Beth began her quest to find more information—and create her own book with McHarry’s as a background to make it work. She visited local distilleries around central Kentucky and interviewed whoever would talk to her about the topic.

She took or gathered pictures, found pithy statements, did some tasting, and read all she could. She summarized her overriding sense she perceived about the essence of the business: “It’s always about the people.”

Steve Flairty grew up feeling good about Kentucky. He recalls childhood trips orchestrated by his father, with the take-off points in Campbell County. The people and places he encountered then help define his passion about the state. “Kentucky by Heart” shares part and parcel of his joy. A little history, much contemporary life, intriguing places, personal experiences, special people, book reviews, quotes and even a little humor will, hopefully, help readers connect with their own “inner Kentucky.”

And to think for a moment, the physician’s daughter who grew up in Cynthiana was latching on to a real truth.

“Out of that one bottle of bourbon,” Beth noted, “you’re touching so many lives.”

Jobs, culture and craftsmanship, along with what Beth portrays as producing in their work “a sense of excellence,” are all people-driven aspects. She came across all those elements in abundance.

So, what does the cute-looking, well-researched little handbook on bourbon have in its 153 pages? Well, to start, there is the text of the aforementioned The Practical Distiller that runs through it. A serious distiller, or one desiring to explore the craft, or a person who wants to take a look at the language and knowledge base of the period…or perhaps, simply, unfettered curiosity, may motivate the reader to dive in with their whole spirit(s).

But if it gets to be a little dry, a cursory look will be fine. The real fun is the stuff going on all around this blast from the past. Talkin’ bourbon can be a real mood enhancer!

There’s a wealth of black and white pictures that draw one visibly into the local bourbon scene, such as a mash fermenter at Buffalo Trace Distillery, Frankfort, a couple of old whiskey decanters offered by Beth’s father, or a posed shot of Jimmy Russell, who is called “the longest-tenured master distiller in the global spirits industry.”

There are bourbon-related recipes, humorous sayings (“Bourbon…because no good story ever started with someone eating a salad” is one of my favorites), historical information and factoids, along with a highly useful listing of Kentucky’s Bourbon Tours.

She may continue to follow the pattern she used on this project as she looks ahead in her writing career.

“It’s an interesting formula…to take something old and give it a new spin,” she said.

Talk Bourbon to Me is available at the following locations:

-The Kentucky Artisan Center, Berea
-Something Fun, 153 Patchen Drive, Suite 55, Lexington
-Marketplace on Main, Versailles
-online at talkbourbon.com or Amazon.com.

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Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of six books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and five in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. His new book, “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #4,” has recently been released and is available for purchase here. Flairty is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, as well as a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Read his past columns for excerpts from all his books. him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or friend him on Facebook. (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

To read more of Steve Flairty’s Kentucky by Heart columns, click here.

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One Comment

  1. Beth says:

    Thank you for such a nice story, Steve!

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