Uncork a bottle of bourbon with a group of Southerners, and chances are the stories will start flowing. For AJ Hochhalter, a Kentuckian and the producer of the recently released film NEAT: The Story of Bourbon, it was exactly some of those late-night conversations that led him to want to delve deeper into America’s native spirit. “When we started this project, I thought it was fun to sit around a fire and drink bourbon,” Hochhalter says, “but I didn’t know a lot about it.” The more he learned, though, the more he became fascinated not just by the spirit itself but by the culture and people surrounding it.
While the film runs down some bourbon basics, like what differentiates it from other whiskeys and theories about its origins, Hochhalter and director David Altrogge keep the spotlight on an intriguing cast of characters. From Freddie Johnson, a third-generation Buffalo Trace tour guide, to Marianne Barnes, Kentucky’s first female master distiller since Prohibition, to Nicolas Laracuente, an archaeologist who studies distillery ruins to uncover bourbon history, it’s a fitting tribute to how far bourbon has come and the pride and passion it continues to inspire in Kentucky and beyond. “The movie took a long time to make, and it kept evolving the more we got into it,” Hochhalter says. “We wanted to connect to the human side of bourbon.”