A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

‘Kentucky Knows Bourbon’ and local artisan knows, creates from state’s bourbon barrels


Tony Davis fashions an Ale 8 bottle opener onto a barrel stave in his studio. (Photo by Molly Crain)

Tony Davis fashions an Ale 8 bottle opener onto a barrel stave in his studio. (Photo by Molly Crain)

 
By Molly Crain
KyForward correspondent
 
Tony Davis has played with bourbon barrels since childhood when he used them to build clubhouses in his downtown Lexington backyard.
 
Years later, he’s turned his childhood passion into a profit-making business at his Studio 300 in the old James Pepper Distillery on Manchester Street where he spends his days happily covered in soot to bring bourbon barrels “back to life by handcrafting them into functional pieces.”
 
Among the products he makes and markets under the catchphrase “Kentucky Knows Bourbon” are decorative bourbon barrel plaques, cutting boards, rotating plates resembling Lazy Susans, studio easels and even Ale-8 bottle openers mounted on staves, or the barrel’s curved planks.
 
“I’m telling the story of Kentucky and the icons of Kentucky in a different way,” said Davis, “and it’s not through a bottle, it’s through a barrel.”
 
Davis didn’t always foresee making bourbon barrel artwork. It actually took many years of service in the Marine Corps, a trip to California wine country and a few home visits for the idea to fully set in.
 
“When I was in the Marine Corps in California, I wasn’t there long because I toured 18 countries,” said Davis. “But when I was there, when we came back from these countries all the time, some of the wine barrel artisans were making (cutting boards) from barrels.”
 
Davis added that when he would come home from military leave in the ’90s the distilleries weren’t what they are now.
 
“What’s changed is one, the Bourbon Trail in Kentucky. That has, in my opinion, changed, I guess, the evolution of bourbon. Travel and tourism, if you will,” said Davis.
 
In 1999 when he was honorably discharged from the Marine Corps, Davis realized Kentucky’s Bourbon brands weren’t taking advantage of repurposing their barrels as the California vineyards had. So, Davis took the idea and ran with it.
 
At first, he was only allowed to purchase a couple barrels a week from Buffalo Trace for experimentation. Today, that number has turned into the thousands.
 
Now trusted to market all of Buffalo Trace’s bourbon brands like Elmer T. Lee and Blanton’s Single Barrel with his artistry, Davis is humbled and honored to have such successful companies approve his work.
 

This tabletop made from a barrelhead has Elmer T. Lee's face and signature burned into it. (Photo by Molly Crain)

This tabletop made from a barrelhead has Elmer T. Lee’s face and signature burned into it. (Photo by Molly Crain)

“Elmer T. Lee created Blanton’s bourbon in 1984,” said Davis as he held up a handmade cutting board memorializing the history. “So for me to be authorized to work with some of these brands is honestly unheard of. Little ole’ measly Tony Davis working with these million dollar labels? They don’t let just people do this.”
 
Liquor Barn, the Kentucky party retailer, has been most helpful in showcasing Davis’ “Kentucky Knows Bourbon” brand.
 
Inspired by the World Equestrian Games, Davis said the catchphrase came to him while he was parked outside Rupp Arena and staring at the countdown clock to the games.
 
“When I looked at that, I knew what the time-clock ticker was. But I thought, what can I do for Kentucky that we’ve already got but put a twist on it,” said Davis. “And I sat there, I don’t know about how long, dreaming about this.”
 
Not until Davis passed underneath the stoplight at Broadway and Vine did he think of the concept “Kentucky Knows,” which inspired him to draw sketches of what he could craft in his backyard barn.
 
Three weeks later, Davis had made his first “Kentucky Knows” piece, which he has registered as his trademark. It is a “face” fashioned from a barrel stave to symbolize the state’s identification with bourbon and horses. He uses a corncob ‘nose’ to represent the corn in bourbon and as a play on the homonym “nose” and “knows.” He uses Elmer T. Lee’s Blanton’s bottle toppers which depict a jockey astride a Kentucky Derby mount for eyes. The long mouth and chin are made from sample size bottles of our state’s most iconic Bourbons.
 
Davis, who says he wants consumers to find fun in his brand, tells a story about a knocking coming from inside one of the barrels on which he was working. He says as he cut into the stave, the barrel head popped off and out came a “knows” – the Kentucky Knows, which became the corncob ‘nose’ of his trademark.
 
Davis uses that story about his artwork “to keep things exciting … because you don’t want a brand that is serious and not fun.”
 

   Davis markets his work from this truck with his trademark painted to the left of his brand name. (Photo by Molly Crain)

Davis markets his work from this truck with his trademark painted to the left of his brand name. (Photo by Molly Crain)

Before WEG began, Davis considered renting a “$10-20,000 booth” to market his passion, but realized it wasn’t worth the risk. At the time, Davis was still working from his home, “taking box springs off my beds and putting these (cutting boards) down and allowing (them) to dry because it was cold outside in the winter and they needed to be inside.”
 
Even though Davis doesn’t want people to take his brand completely seriously and without a bit of fun, he readily admits the journey to a successful brand and business has been pretty serious and not always fun. He’s made many sacrifices in terms of money, time and relationships.
 
“Not everybody has what it takes. They really don’t. Because if they did, everyone would be doing it,” said Davis. “And most people what they’ll do is they’ll always stay in their garage. They’ll always stay in that backyard barn. And a lot of being successful comes from taking risks.”
 

Everyday Davis puts in hours of hard handiwork, roasting in the dead heat of summer or freezing in the chill of winter in the hopes that he’ll leave behind a legacy of passion.
 
See below for a video of Davis working:
 

 
At his warehouse, Davis showcases all the articles that have been written about Kentucky Knows Bourbon on barrel easels in the hopes that one day they’ll be donated to the Kentucky Historical Society.
 
“With any dream in where you’re trying to be heard without speaking it takes, even if you have money … your brand still has to have that time to grow,” said Davis. “People still have to recognize the brand and not recognize it by looking at it but by experiencing it. And if they can’t experience your brand, it’s going to die.”
 
Luckily, Davis has started to receive recognition for his work. Earlier this year, Alltech’s president and founder Pearse Lyons even dropped by Studio 300 for a surprise visit to compliment Davis on his craftsmanship.
 
“Success is measured in more than just one way,” said Davis. “This is just being able to take an idea and bring it off the ground.”
 
Molly Crain is a recent graduate of Transylvania University and former intern for KyForward.


Related Posts

Leave a Comment