Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History
Kentucky flaunts its whiskey as much as its racehorses, which is a little awkward since whiskey sales are outlawed in dozens of the state's dry counties. That, however, is not the case in Nelson County, home of Bardstown and the Museum of Whiskey History. This part of Kentucky is known for the tasty water that flows underneath it, and for 250 years its citizens have taken that water, dumped their crops into it, and cooked it into whiskey.
If beer is the drink of the working man, then whiskey styles itself the beverage of mavericks and millionaires. It's mostly merchandising, as the highest-priced bourbon is only a few production steps away from rotgut distilled with an oil drum and a car radiator. It's a contrast that makes for a good museum, with exhibits that celebrate both U.S. Presidents and toothless moonshiners.
The Whiskey Museum's namesake is the obscure Oscar Getz, a liquor executive from Chicago. He bought an old Bardstown distillery during World War II and by 1957 he was the liquor industry's Man of the Year -- as well as the curator of his own private whiskey museum. "Eventually his wife said, 'I don't want all this old stuff in my house any more,'" said Mary Ellyn Hamilton, curator of the Museum of Whiskey History. Oscar paid Bardstown to fix up an abandoned, 200-year-old Catholic seminary to house his museum -- and then he died; the museum opened a year later in 1984. The Getz family wanted everyone to see what Oscar had collected, so the Museum of Whiskey History has always been free.
"We've had all the ghost hunters in here," said Mary Ellen. "They said this whole building is haunted, but you'd think the Catholic brothers would be smashing the bottles. It hasn't happened." The old Georgian building, stately and Southern with its rich carpets and elegant molding, is perfect for the pretensions of whiskey. A bronze head of Oscar Getz sits on a marble pedestal at the end of one wing, forever keeping an eye on his collection.
One item that ennobles not only the museum but whiskey in general is what is believed to be George Washington's still. According to an accompanying sign, the ancient contraption was seized by revenuers in 1939 from descendants of Washington's slaves -- apparently the still was still in use. The same sign notes that while he was President, Washington made the equivalent of $125,000 a year by selling whiskey that he cooked at Mount Vernon.
A copy of Kentucky-born Abraham Lincoln's liquor license (from his youth as a shopkeeper) is also given display space, along with a quote from one of Lincoln's speeches conveying his dim view of Prohibition. The exhibit is highlighted with a miniature model of Lincoln in his general store, which, a sign points out, was quickly turned into a tavern by the savvy Abe.
Whiskey's darkest days are viewed through the museum's collection of temperance and National Prohibition memorabilia. There's a whiskey flask cracked in one of Carry Nation's saloon raids, and a battery of 1920s "for medicinal use" whiskey bottles dispensed by doctors for everything from indigestion to typhoid. On the illegal side, a small diorama of a Kentucky moonshine still is manned by a mustachioed, overalls-clad bootlegger who looks like one of Nintendo's Mario Bros.
For a beverage that tries so hard to be dignified, whiskey is also the king of novelty bottles. The earliest example is a log-cabin-shaped flask from E.G. Booz (from whom "booze" gets its name) and the designs only grow more extreme from there: bottles shaped like pretzels and hammers, pork sausages and mermaids, hillbillies Hatfield and McCoy, and King Tut's head. The Jim Beam distillery alone sold whiskey in over 1,700 different bottle designs, said Mary Ellen. "Some of them were nice, but some were just awful."
Attempts by the whiskey industry to incorporate other beverages, such as Four Roses coffee and Jack Daniels cola in a can, are freakish enough to be exhibited behind glass. "That was done to attract young women," said Mary Ellen of the whiskey-cola-can combination. It was also, she said, a waste of good whiskey. "In these parts it was almost a sin. Maybe even a mortal sin."
Nearly a thousand different bottles of hooch are displayed in the Museum of Whiskey History, and Mary Ellen assured us that the brown liquid inside all of them -- with the exception of one or two rarities -- is real whiskey. It offers a temptation to visitors that can never be satisfied. We were told that even if a Kentucky Bluegrass millionaire walked in and offered $10,000 for a sip of vintage Coon Hollow or Old Fiddle, he would be refused. The museum, said Mary Ellyn, doesn't have a liquor license.