There are many documentaries that have been made about Bourbon in the last 30 years. These films can be considered a source of oral history, and a couple of them were made just for that purpose with their content composed of the oral histories filmed by the University of Kentucky’s Nunn Center for Oral History. How valuable are they for documenting the history of the distilling industry? They are very valuable in many ways with some more valuable than others.

When I was in college, there were some professors who stated that oral history was not worth the paper it was written on. They gave no credence to oral history documentation. Other professors thought that it could be very valuable, but when possible, it needed to be backed up by written sources. The advice I always considered the best for using oral history came from a professor who said consider oral statements as if they were used in a court of law. If they are firsthand statements they are very valuable, but the further away they get from that such as what a grandfather saw or did, the less reliable they can be.  

You should also consider the nature of the question being answered and the context in which the statements are being made. Distillery employees may be re-stating the marketing department’s version of the past. You should also consider the speaker’s relationship with the subject being discussed. A woman working on the bottling line is a great person to discuss the bottling process, but not necessarily the subject of yeast production. Then there are the filmmakers themselves and what they are trying to do with the film. They can edit interviews in a way that promotes the filmmaker’s point of view.

Chuck Cowdery’s Documentary, Made and Bottled In Kentucky

I have been part of many of the documentaries that were made in the last 20 years. However, one of the best as a source of oral history, was made by Chuck Cowdery the year I first became involved in the distilling industry. When I was hired part-time by United Distillers in 1991, Cowdery was filming his documentary “Made and Bottled in Kentucky”. This was the first hour-long documentary about the industry to be made and it includes interviews with people such as Booker Noe, Ova Haney, Elmer T. Lee and Al Young, people who have passed away and in some cases, were never filmed in other documentaries. The film is worth watching for this fact alone, but it was also filmed while Bourbon sales were still in decline and the industry was at its smallest. It is the only documentary made from that period of time. All other documentaries were made after Bourbon began its resurgence. 

The source of the film is another important factor to consider. Chuck Cowdery had connections to the industry, but he did not work for or was sponsored by the distilleries when he made his film. There have been other films made by independent filmmakers such as “Bourbontucky”, “Straight Up: Kentucky Bourbon”, and “Neat”. They are all films worth watching and have some very interesting segments of oral history. Then there are the films made from the oral history projects at the University of Kentucky’s Nunn Center for Oral History. 

In 2011, Buffalo Trace decided that they wanted to get the oral histories recorded for many of their employees. They had seen many of the industry’s leaders such as Booker Noe and Ova Haney pass away, taking with them a lot of heritage and knowledge of the industry. They did not want to lose that history from their own people. They approached the Nunn Center at the University of Kentucky and funded the oral history project. There had been a similar project in the 1970s at the University Of Louisville, who recorded many of the people in the industry on cassette tapes, but in the 21st century, the recording was done using computer technology and full imaging of the interview. “The Quest for the Perfect Bourbon” was a film made by Joanna Hay from these filmed interviews from the Nunn Center. 

A few years later, the KDA (Kentucky Distillers Association) saw the wisdom in what Buffalo Trace had done and funded an oral history project with the Nunn Center that would include people from their member distilleries. They sponsored a film made from these interviews titled “Bourbon Tales: Distilling the Family Business”, also made by Joanna Hay. Both films are very good sources of oral history but they should be viewed with the knowledge that they were both paid for by the distilleries. 

There are other documentaries about the whiskey industry that have been made and I am sure there will be more made in the future. They should all be considered not only entertainment but also sources of oral history. Just as long as you consider what has been said in these documentaries in the context of who was paying for the documentary, what was the film’s purpose for being made and how did that affect the editing process of the statements shown, and the speaker’s relationship to the subject discussed, then they can be important sources of knowledge.

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