Who would have thought that one of the most carefully crafted Dance Steps on Hunger would be found at a couple of bourbon distilleries in Kentucky? Not me, but this pleasant surprise sent me back for more.
Dancing with Bourbon-1:
Interpretive Design for the Visitors’ Hunger
Perhaps the most ignored of the 15 Dance Steps in Interpretive Design is Hunger. Most places I have visited focus on the Head (meaningful information), the Heart (memorable experiences), and maybe a bit on the Hands (tangible skills and items to take home), but not so much on the Hunger (flavorful remembrances in the stomach). I will come back to the Head, Heart, and Hands Dance Steps in later posts, but for now Part 1 and Part 2 of “Dancing with Bourbon” will focus on how two sites incorporate the Hunger Dance Step, and the sense of taste, into the visitors’ experience. Hopefully this will generate some ideas for mission driven experiences you can incorporate into your visitors’ stomachs that help uncover the essences of your site. (Van Matre has more to say about Hunger on pages 169-171 of Interpretive Design and The Dance of Experience)
A Bit of Background
Both distilleries I visited, Woodford Reserve and James E. Pepper, are listed on the USA National Registry of Historic Sites and Places, and, of course, there is a deep cultural connection to bourbon in Kentucky.
My first visit to the Woodford Reserve Distillery in Woodford County, Kentucky was in the summer of 2017. I was so impressed with the attention to detail during the Hunger Dance Step that I went back in 2018 for a second visit to make sure it wasn’t a fluke…and it was no fluke.
A Taste of Woodford Reserve
Let’s face it, if you go to a distillery, a brewery or other food interpretive presentation, you want to taste the product and Woodford Reserve (WR) did not disappoint. As a matter of fact, the tour provided several opportunities to experience the flavorful aspects of the bourbon making process. Yes, I gained meaningful knowledge about making bourbon, felt welcomed and cared for, and even gained some tangible “skills” to share with others, but if it hadn’t been for the attention to detail at the Hunger Dance Step, I would not have returned for a second visit.
Located in a beautiful rural setting surrounded by rolling green fields, grazing thoroughbreds, a meandering Glenn’s Creek, and a visitor center with the feel of “My Old Kentucky Home” (more on the center in a different post), Woodford Reserve epitomizes the Bluegrass State.
On the Tour
As our tour entered the 1838 limestone building, you could smell the fermentation awaiting us on the second floor.
After a brief description of the 5-Step Process from “grain to glass” for making bourbon, we ascended stairs to find three large cypress wood fermentation vats loudly foaming as yeast and bacteria were eating away at the sugars and carbohydrates in the corn, barley and rye mixture.
And there, in front of one of the vats, was a white oak whiskey barrel with a jar full of the fermentation liquid (sour mash) with small wooden tasting spoons. Our tour guide encouraged us to take a spoon try the mash…taste #1.
Next, we headed to a room with three large copper distillers. After a brief explanation of that process we passed around a glass with the clear liquid distillate (think moonshine, white lightening, hooch) to smell or even use another small spoon to taste…taste #2.
Finally, after visiting the whiskey barrel warehouse and the bottling area, we returned to our shuttle bus and headed to the air-conditioned tasting room in the visitors’ center for one final splash of properly aged bourbon.
Into the Tasting Room
Everything about the room we entered said “tasting” -- the horseshoe arrangement of the tables, two rock glasses each with a “finger” of bourbon in front of cushioned bar stools, wooden ice buckets and glass pitchers of cold water distributed around the tables, an enclosed blazing fire, and a plethora of other special touches…
+ Two glasses with bourbon sitting on wooden staves from white oak barrels used to age the bourbon.
+ A piece of bourbon candy topped with a pecan sitting on a WR napkin.
+ A bourbon flavor wheel at each stool placed in a slot at the edge of the wooden tables behind the bourbon glasses.
Our guide suggested some sensory appreciations before we imbibed. We held each glass of bourbon up to the light and examined the color, we smelled the contents, and finally, after a brief explanation of the flavors we might experience, (and a warning that the first taste would be spicy with a strong finish) we took our first sip of Woodford Reserve…taste #3. However, before taking that second sip, we were encouraged to take a bite of chocolate or even add ice if desired…taste #4. With the second sip we were instructed to note the various grains – the sweetness of corn, the spicy flavors of rye, and the hints of caramel/maple from barley. This time the finish would be smooth…taste #5.
After a brief silence for “sipping,” a buzz of communication between strangers and friends filled the room – oohs and ahs, taste comparisons, “How’d you like it”, “Pass the water, please”. This encouraged a different kind of Hunger– our desire for social interaction, to express ourselves, to compare our experiences. Next our attention turned to the second tasting glass with the Woodford Reserve Double Oaked. After a brief introduction to the tasting wheel and some new flavors we might experience, taste #6 took place. Engrossed in the tasting, I kept reminding myself this was not Napa Valley but a Kentucky distillery near my hometown.
Too soon the tasting was over. Our guide stood at the door to the main visitors’ center (set up like a living room with comfortable chairs and couches, a gift shop and small café), thanked each of us individually, and handed out feedback cards. A second staff member entered the room and began to set up for the next tasting as several folks remained at the table talking about the experience. The tasting was relaxing, fun, and no one rushed us out of the room.
I watched as about half the folks headed to the gift shop to make a purchase that afforded even more opportunities to take home a taste of Woodford Reserve – 4 different kinds of spirits made on site; bourbon candies from Mt. Sterling, KY; bourbon barrel cherries, simple syrup, and five different bitters from a company in Louisville, KY. There was none of the typical “junk” food you find in so many preservation, collection and historic site gift shops and cafes. And the non-edible goods all reflected the focus of the site and the product (a topic for another post as well).
For real food the Glenn’s Creek Café (Glenn’s Creek runs through the property) offers soups, sandwiches and salads that capture the essence of WR and offers comfortable indoor and outdoor seating with a view. There is chili with Kentucky beef, bourbon infused barbeque sauces and dressings, and Bourbon Honey ice cream produced locally.
Why am I spending so much time focusing on the Hunger Dance Step? There are several reasons. First, Hunger, along with the sensory taste experiences, helps reinforce meaningful information, memorable experiences, and tangible skills at Woodford Reserve. Being able to swallow the essence of this place provides me with a more holistic view of the bourbon making process from “grain to glass.” Lastly, the attention to detail on the Hunger Dance Steps encourages me to recommend the site to others, and even entices me to consider one more visit.
Hunger needs to be an integral part of interpretive design and the visitor experience. A site doesn’t need a special tasting room or millions of corporate dollars to “lubricate social interactions…with food and drink” that connect to the mission and essences of the site. The key resource needed is time and willingness – time for a staff to set a criterion for what it offers to satisfy the visitor’s hunger and a willingness to develop carefully crafted Hunger and taste experiences that connect to the site’s mission. To provide just sell any old food without careful thought for the visitors to take away in their bellies is the easy way out.
In Part 2 of “Dancing with Bourbon” we head to the James E. Pepper Distillery in Lexington, KY to look at a different approach to Hunger and the taste experience…stay tuned.