Kentucky’s famous export is alluring, even to deer.
STORY BY JIM HANNAFORD
Long associated with bluegrass music and champion racehorses, Kentucky has an even bigger claim to fame as the undisputed Bourbon Capital of the World. It’s also the place that George Cummins calls home. He is from Lawrenceburg, a quaint town whose green rolling hills form the literal epicenter of what’s become a multibillion-dollar global industry.
“Ninety-eight percent of the world’s bourbon is made within an hour of where I live,” says Cummins. The Wild Turkey and Four Roses distilleries are right there in town, and Jim Beam, Woodford Reserve, and Buffalo Trace are just a 20-minute drive away along what’s called the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
As a result of these liquor-making operations that are central to life in central Kentucky, Cummins is carving his own niche as a successful entrepreneur. So far, his success has come not from the bourbon whiskey itself but from what’s left over after production. The distilleries regularly have tons of fermented grain to discard, and enterprising farmers have used it for decades to feed their livestock. It turns out that deer have a taste for it, too—not for the whiskey itself but for the so-called mash that’s a byproduct of the distillation process.
After years of guiding hunters onto deer at his Salt River Outfitters, Cummins has a growing range of products aimed at hunters. Buck Bourbon 110 Proof is a protein-heavy sweet feed that’s made from the used grains from distilleries. “Most attractants on the market aren’t really that great for the deer,” Cummins says. “We’ve created something that deer love and that’s really good for them. It has protein, minerals, carbs, and fat—everything they need.”
He says it took about three years to come up with the winning formula. Naturally, he’s a bit protective about what exactly goes into it besides the dried grains, but he does shoot down a common misconception: “Everybody thinks we put molasses in it, but we don’t.”
And, to be clear, it doesn’t share all of the qualities that make his homeland’s spirits so enchanting. “There’s no bourbon smell to it or bourbon flavor,” he says, and deer won’t stagger off if they’ve had too much. “There’s no alcohol in it at all, but it does have an intoxicating aroma that brings them in from a long ways off.”
WHAT MAKES IT BOURBON?
All bourbon is whiskey, as they like to say in Kentucky, but not all whiskey is bourbon. There’s a basic formula that has been followed since it was first made in colonial America in the late 1700s.
The shortlist of ingredients includes yeast and some grains such as barley, rye, or wheat. But it’s mostly corn—at least 51 percent by regulation—and that’s where the sweetness comes from. The coveted smoky and spicy characteristics are the result of aging in white oak barrels that have been freshly charred—not reused, in other words. How long the whiskey stays in those barrels before being bottled also influences its aroma and color.
Another defining factor for bourbon is the liquid that goes into it. The water in that part of the country is naturally filtered through limestone, a process that adds calcium while removing iron. Also, for it to be called true Kentucky bourbon there is no artificial flavoring or coloring.
SIGHTS ON SUCCESS
Cummins’ idea for a better deer feed was personal at first. He wanted to attract desirable bucks to his 9,000 acres of hunting grounds. “For me, deer were a natural resource,” he says. “I made my living by selling these deer hunts, so I wanted them to be as healthy as possible and to replenish as quickly as possible.”
The early images from his trail cameras didn’t lie. The mixture that came to be called Buck Bourbon was an instant hit, and friends and fellow hunters wanted some for themselves. Realizing he had stumbled on to something good, Cummins decided to market it locally. It took off beyond any scope he’d imagined after he got a phone call from someone offering to help set up a meeting with a buyer for Tractor Supply in Brentwood, Tennessee. The rep loved the product and its name and logo but hated the shiny black coffee pouch it came in. Cummins did some careful research and created new packaging he hoped would stand out from all the other attractants on the shelves. “I went back to Tractor Supply, and when I set that down on his desk the buyer looked at me immediately and smiled from ear to ear and said, ‘You’ve hit a home run.’”
Going into this deer season, his Buck Bourbon products are in nearly 4,000 stores in the United States, including nearly 1,800 Tractor Supply outlets, around 2,000 WalMarts, and all 40 Buc-ee’s locations.
He expanded his Buck Bourbon line to include more products to enhance the lifestyle he and so many others enjoy. These include coffee, seasonings and marinades, and cigars, but how else to celebrate a successful day outdoors than by capping it off with a taste of that special elixir? After all, where he comes from, enjoying a glass (or more) of bourbon is a cherished, almost ceremonial, part of the overall experience.
NEXT UP: BBD BOURBON
So he’s creating his own bourbon, and it will be for people to drink, not deer. Growing up in the heart of Bourbon Country, he’s sampled most of the world’s best over the years, and he’s settled on a particular style. “I like bourbon with a strong, smoky oak flavor,” he says. Instead of targeting high-end aficionados, he wants it to appeal to like-minded folks such as the ones who visit his hunting lodge season after season. “We’re going to call it BBD Bourbon because, abbreviated, that is ‘big buck down.’ That’s what all the hunters say when they kill a deer—that’s the first thing they text their buddy—BBD.”
As his own bourbon-based business builds, it’s not lost on Cummins that he’s found a satisfying livelihood in his own backyard, and it’s one that many outsiders would envy. He considers himself blessed and wonders aloud whether he’s had some guidance from above.
“I think it’s a picture-perfect example of how the American Dream should work,” he says. “It’s just having the guts to go after it, put it all out there, and swing for the fence and actually connect. I don’t know how to explain it, but I feel like doors have opened for me that shouldn’t have.”