LOUISVILLE, Ky. — A nondescript cross stands in Louisville’s bucolic Cave Hill Cemetery, shaded by a tree and masked by the tens of thousands of graves that surround it. It reads, “Julian Proctor Van Winkle,” better known as Pappy, the namesake of the most coveted bourbon in the world.
His tomb is among a dozen stops on the new bourbon history tour at the city’s preeminent graveyard, led by Michael Veach, a bourbon historian with the Filson Historical Society.
The tour weaves through the stars of bourbon lore: George Garvin Brown, the founder of Brown-Forman and inventor of Old Forester Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whisky, is buried there. Nearby lies his business partner, George Forman. The founders of the storied Stitzel-Weller distillery in Shively rest there too, along with the proprietors of the Glenmore Distillery Company in Owensboro.
Paul Jones, a Georgia native who moved to Kentucky in 1866 and founded Four Roses bourbon, is entombed in an antebellum mausoleum.
Sunday’s tour, the first of its kind, is a combination of folk lore and fact. Legend has it that Jones fell in love with a beautiful Southern belle and wrote her a letter: he asked her to marry him, and said if she agreed, she should wear a corsage of four roses to an upcoming ball. He waited anxiously until she arrived, wearing roses.
But Veach cautioned the dozen on the hayride tour that such myths are a powerful marketing tool, but typically only that. It’s more likely that Jones named his bourbon after the Rose distillery in his native Georgia.
The idea for the tour was sparked by the region’s recent effort to capitalize on its whiskey history, amid a nationwide frenzy over bourbon.
Veach, with J. Michael Higgs, the coordinator of the Cave Hill Heritage Foundation, scoured burial records for bourbon legends hidden among the cemetery’s 136,000 graves. They counted 14, but Veach is sure there’s more.
“I’m willing to be that if we spent another 20 hours looking, we could probably find another 10 or 12,” Veach said. He suspects they’ll add more stop before the next tour, scheduled for 1 p.m. Sept. 14.
The tour happened by the Atherton family plots, not among the scheduled stops on the tour. But Veach gave an impromptu presentation about John McDougal Atherton’s contributions to both whiskey and the city of Louisville. The namesake of Atherton High School started distilling in his native Larue County, amassed a vast bourbon empire and moved it to Main Street in Louisville in the 1880s. He was a politician and philanthropist, with a particular affinity for public education. But he was a vocal opponent to prohibition, and the teetotalers protested when the high school was named in his honor in 1921, one year into the nationwide prohibition on alcohol manufacturing.
Prohibition was a common theme, in that it all but destroyed Kentucky’s legal whiskey trade. Only a handful of distilleries survived the 13-year ban on alcohol production that crippled, according to Veach, not only the distillers but also bottlers, farmers, shippers and advertisers.
“It’s all intertwined,” said Celeste Ballard, a nurse and history buff, who took the tour though she doesn’t even drink. “The history of bourbon is the history of Kentucky. I’m proud of my city, and I want to learn as much about it as I can.”
A dozen devoted bourbon or history aficionados climbed onto the hayride Sunday afternoon for the 2½hour tour, scribbling notes along the way.
“I was hoping to do shots at the end,” said Bill Roberts. “But I’ll just have to bring my own next time.”