By Richard Thomas
I’m rather partial to alternative country music, having been a fan of Uncle Tupelo dating to their first LP, released back when LP meant something technical because it was on vinyl. A decade of living mostly abroad left me tuned out of the scene, so in checking out who would be playing tonight’s 225th Kentucky Anniversary Dinner being thrown by Garden & Gun, I was pleased and charmed to have found The Watson Twins. Upon learning they were from Louisville and bourbon lovers, talking whiskey with them became a must-do.
RT: I know y’all grew up in Louisville. Seeing as how I’ve found that sometimes even fellow Kentuckians only got into bourbon after the boom got going, was a taste for whiskey something you found Our Old Kentucky Home and took with you to L.A., or did it come to you later?
Chandra: Growing up in Louisville, our family had a Kentucky Derby party every year. Our grandfather loved the ponies and worked in horse racing for a number of years, so we spent time at Churchill Downs fairly often. Although our “Derby Party” wasn’t all hats and fancy dress, we always had homemade mint juleps. My mom would pull the sweet mint from the yard making homemade syrup and hand crushing the ice. Even as a young kid we were able to “taste” the juleps and it wasn’t long before we were allowed to have our own! That traditional Derby party followed us to L.A., where we hosted an annual event at our house, lots of homemade syrup and a Southern Style Potluck. Bets and Bourbon, it was fun to introduce our West Coast friends to our Kentucky Event!
Leigh: I’m not sure I actually remember my first experience or taste of bourbon, it has always just felt like part of the fabric of where we come from, part of our lives. We always joke with friends that having a little bourbon in your milk bottle as a baby is just part of your childhood when you grow up in the Bluegrass state.
RT: What is it about bourbon that drew you in?
Chandra: It’s subtle sweetness initially and then later grew to love it when we were on the road performing. It’s a great tour libation, perfect after the show and we always say one “nip” before singing never hurts!
Leigh: There is a definite nostalgia and romance that comes with bourbon. It’s part of our current bar culture, but also has such a great history. Old style cocktails like juleps, sours, manhattans or just plain “on the rocks” in the right glass can take you back in time or set a mood.
RT: Your style is often labeled either indie-folk or alternative country. In your experience, is bourbon already pretty well cemented in those circles or do you find yourself playing casual, de facto ambassador sometimes?
Chandra: In the last 5-10 years folks have gone crazy for bourbons and whiskey. Old school cocktail joints have opened across the country, so I find I’m often the person learning from these new cocktail enthusiasts, which is great!
Leigh: I think it’s a spirit that is having it’s moment in the sun! All of the excitement about whiskeys and bourbon give appreciators like us the opportunity to try new makers and experience some of the older years that are coming to the surface to be consumed. Our genre is definitely one that is strongly affiliated with sipping bourbon on front porches, but on the road there can always be someone who might need a bit of schooling.
RT: In doing my homework, I discovered what I thought was a simple and sensible attitude towards things like touring and living, expenses and the like. How does that translate into your liquor store choices? What do you have on the shelf at home right now?
Chandra: My “go to” is Bulleit Bourbon, but also enjoy Woodford, Jim Beam and Makers Mark.
Leigh: In my younger years Jim Beam was our go to, few years later Makers Mark, and today Bulleit. My husband is a big fan of small batch and we have a few choices at the moment: High West Campfire Whiskey, Buffalo Trace, Old Scout, Wild Turkey 101 and Bulleit Bourbon or Rye are always a constant. I recently tried Eagle Rare and loved it, that would be a welcomed addition to the family!!
RT: You’re musicians. You tour. You like whiskey. If I ask about your favorite watering holes, do any good whiskey bars come to mind?
Chandra: On tour many years ago a friend of ours took us to a speakeasy called Angel’s Share in New York City. To get to the bar you have to go through a Japanese Restaurant and enter through an unmarked door… once inside the vibe was incredible and the cocktails even better. It was a very memorable night!
Leigh: Proof on Main at the 21C hotel in Louisville. Their selection of whiskey and rye’s will bring a tear to your bourbon loving eyes!! Not to mention the modern art gallery connected to the bar/restaurant and hotel, it’s pretty much the perfect way to expand your mind and palate in one place.
RT: There is a bit of romance that surrounds whiskey and writers, musicians and certain creative types. Are there times when you are working on a song and find a little bourbon lubricates the process?
Chandra: Ha! Well a “little” never hurts…
Leigh: Yes, and there is truth to the saying “too much of a good thing!”
RT: Since the occasion of our chat is a show for Kentucky’s 225th Anniversary, do you have any thoughts on bourbon and Kentucky’s heritage? It’s a bizarre place after all: the country’s #1 whiskey state, but also packed full of dry counties!
Chandra: My grandmother’s side of the family came from the “hills” of Kentucky, so we often heard talk of homemade moonshine and wine. That being said with the strong history of “shine” in Kentucky the transition to more legitimate whiskeys and bourbons makes perfect sense. There’s also a bit of a renegade spirit in Kentucky and I think these libations just fit the personality of the state… smooth rolling hills with a wild side.
Leigh: Agreed. I think the “dry counties” encouraged the small batch culture which has helped Kentucky become #1 and keeps it thriving today. Maybe it’s what makes Kentucky so unique and prolific when it comes to bourbon? And a further thought about it… maybe you can’t have one without the other?