Neat: The Story of Bourbon
Available digitally on February 20 is Neat: The Story of Bourbon, a documentary about America’s native spirit. (No, not attitude, the liquor.) I recommend having a cocktail in hand while watching, because you’ll want one, particularly when they start mixing up recipes. “Neat” is a liquor served plain, with no mixers, at room temperature, but it also describes this nifty, wide-ranging film.
When starting, I had no idea how they were going to fill an hour and sixteen minutes, but the variety of people and places shown is fascinating. There’s the first female master distiller since Prohibition; a third-generation employee of a distiller; a guy with a speakeasy in his basement; bourbon archaeologists (who seek historic distilleries); and owners and makers. The movie is directed, co-written, and narrated by David Altrogge and produced and co-written by AJ Hochhalter.
The opening is too reverent and grandiose for my taste, with paeans to the land, the soil, the barrel, the heritage, but there are some nice glamour shots of pours, and once you get past the first few minutes, the movie settles down and there’s great information about how bourbon is made.
Legally, bourbon has to be American, but it doesn’t have to be made in Kentucky (although it did not surprise me that various Kentucky promotional groups are credited as tourism partners in the credits). The whiskey is aged in a charred oak barrel with at least 51% corn (plus rye and barley), and no flavor or color additives allowed.
Historically, they distilled corn whisky to preserve the surplus crop. (I also found out that the mint julep began as a breakfast drink for frontiersmen, which will inspire my next brunch.) Steve Zahn pops up every so often to tell us, amusingly, conflicting legends of bourbon’s invention or other bits of history. As the film continues, we see how, over the years, bourbon makers had to fight counterfeits and survive Prohibition and then waning popularity (being seen as “your dad’s drink”), until finally becoming trendy. Now, it’s once again popular, which is tricky because it takes years to get to market, which makes forecasting more important.
Although the studio provided me a digital review copy, I’m trying to figure out how to gift one to my family, since I’d love to share this with my dad and brother. It’s that kind of film, and in that way, it’s similar to a good bottle. Here’s the trailer.