By Duncan McHenry
As a bartender working in her hometown of Wichita, University of Kansas junior Rachael Dowding fell in love with her favorite drink — American bourbon whiskey — from the bottom up.
She started by sampling her bar’s bottom-shelf whiskeys, from “the well” in bar terminology, and soon moved up to premium, top-shelf whiskeys. Maker’s Mark quickly became her favorite, and, since then, she has even traveled to the company’s Kentucky distillery and dipped her own bottle in their signature dripping red wax.
For her, the rich flavor of a good bourbon whiskey like Maker’s Mark is the draw. She started off drinking bourbon with Dr. Pepper, but now prefers it with water.
“Maker’s Mark is a small-batch distillery,” Dowding said. “They told us on our tour that the creator of their recipe baked bread to figure out what kind of grains he wanted to use to make it, and whatever made the best-tasting bread is what he used to make his bourbon. If it’s something you can drink with water, you really can appreciate it.”
Dowding is not alone in her love for the dark, amber-colored, flavorful drink distilled from a mixture of corn and other grains such as barley, malt and rye. According to Euromonitor International, whiskey sales in the U.S. have climbed by 40 percent in the last five years alone. And, based on February numbers from the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S., people also love bourbon overseas as American distillers exported $1 billion in whiskey in 2013 compared to $376 million in 2002.
Along with this so-called “bourbon boom,” as it has been labeled in the media, has come an influx of smaller, craft distilleries — much like what happened in the craft beer industry over the last couple of decades.
Dark Horse Distillery is one such small-time company that was founded in Lenexa in 2010 by siblings Damian, Eric, Mary and Patrick Garcia. The four divide the labor needed to run the business evenly among themselves, with Damian serving as director of sales and marketing, Patrick as master distiller, Mary as head of their event space and Eric handling distribution and legalities. Another major player in Dark Horse’s operation is its copper still, which is affectionately named “Chester Copperpot.”
As Damian discussed Dark Horse’s signature Reserve Bourbon — made with a unique mash of 80 percent corn and 20 percent rye, when U.S. law only mandates a mix of at least 51 percent corn to warrant classification as bourbon — he said several things likely play into the drink’s booming sales. People’s overall affinity for more locally made products and more transparency in production, he said, also helps explain the success of small-batch distilleries like Dark Horse.
“The craft movement is within beer, wine, cocktails and it’s within food, of course,” he said. “You see a lot of people that are starting to gravitate toward that small-batch, handcrafted product. We do some different things that some of the big guys aren’t doing. A lot of consumers are looking for stuff that’s local.”
And as bourbon — and all types of whiskey — has traditionally been thought of as more of a put-some-hair-on-your-chest type of “man’s” drink, it seems logical that its growing popularity has brought a wider range of buyers. Damian said he would attribute this, in part, to a resurgence of creative cocktails in the bar and restaurant scene.
“The traditional cocktails of your Manhattans to the whiskey sours have really been making a comeback for years now,” he said. “[The cocktail movement] is now starting to gain traction even more. People are starting to do what they want with cocktails. They want to have something that’s delicious, and, in a good whiskey cocktail, the whiskey shines through especially nicely.”
Dowding said she has noticed some of her more adventurous girl friends trying bourbon instead of their usual mixed drinks made with clear alcohols like vodka and gin. She attributed many women’s usual affinity for clear drinks to the mentality of “not wanting to look like an old man” more so than from a desire to cut back on calories or from flavor preferences. In fact, according to drinksmixer.com, Maker’s Mark and plain Smirnoff Vodka have the same number of calories and carbohydrates per one-ounce serving — 69 and zero grams.
While Damian added that it has been an “uphill battle” for Dark Horse in the competitive craft beverage industry, he’s confident moving forward with the company. Dark Horse has recently won numerous awards, including a bronze medal for its Reserve Bourbon at the prestigious 2014 World Whiskies Awards in Europe.
Relaxing on her porch swing with a book on a sunny March afternoon after a day of classes, Dowding mixed her favorite Maker’s and water. Although bourbon can be a bit pricey for a college student, she said, it’s her go-to when she’s in the mood for “something distinguished.”
“I drink Maker’s and water,” she said. “It’s just what I like.”
Edited by Hannah Swank
Photos courtesy of Dark Horse Distillery