Forty years ago, local alcohol drinkers were not feeling the love on Valentine’s Day.

The February 14, 1980, edition of the Commonwealth Journal featured the headline, “Opposition organizes as petitions circulate to legalize booze sales.” 

The description of the forces mounting against those who would have Pulaski County go “wet” — that is, allow the legal sale of alcoholic beverages — sounded ominous, like a scout surveying the numbers of a massive army headed toward an undermanned camp.

“Heading the opposition to the ‘wet’ effort is the Pulaski County Association of Missionary Baptists, representing more than 4,000 members, and the Nazarene churches in the county, with approximately 1,500 members.”

A.A. Farris, pastor of the Somerset Church of the Nazarene, rained fire and brimstone upon the potables’ prospects, saying, “In my 35 years as a minister of the Gospel, I have seen the ravages of alcohol. I have seen what whisky, wine, and beer can do. It has caused more divorces, broken homes, hungry children ... than anything I know.”

Supposedly, the “wet” side had its support. Mike Steele, a spokesperson for the group promoting that outcome, said that he’d been hearing more pro-alcohol comments than those against by a six-to-one ratio. However, the final numbers did not reflect that figure. The 1980 option election in Pulaski County saw 20,000 individuals going to the polls; 14,660 voted against alcohol sales, more than double the tally of those in favor. 

Here in heavily Baptist, anti-booze Pulaski, it seemed like the day might never come when Prohibition would finally end.

But as a new century dawned, certain Pulaski communities seemed ready to let alcohol soak in.

Flash-forward to 2020. The Baptist church — different flocks scattered from one end of the county to the other — is still one of the most dominant cultural factors in the community. Take for instance, January’s celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, an affair routinely attended by mayors, magistrates, judges — anyone who’s anyone in this area. It is not held at a community center, a gymnasium, or an outdoor pavilion. It is held in the sanctuary of First Baptist Church, as much a downtown landmark as the Fountain Square.

And yet, little more than a block away is Jarfly Brewing Co. One of Pulaski’s most regularly-packed nightspots, craft beer flows freely here — and is legally sold to thirsty customers. And in January, seemingly half the town turned out at City Hall, excited to meet the entrepreneurs working to bring a new distillery to Somerset and put this community on the famed “Bourbon Trail.”

What happened? How did the Bible Belt loosen enough to accommodate the potential for a beer belly? 

Perhaps the answer is to be found within the beverage world itself. Just as a fine wine or heady bourbon improves with time, so too does public opinion on the subject of alcohol.

POPPING THE CORK

As was the case at the end of the 1980 vote, the county itself is still “dry.” Turning the whole of a county that is still overwhelmingly Baptist and Republican, the demographics traditionally most opposed to alcohol sales in this part of the country, hasn’t yet ceased to feel like a daunting challenge. 

But focusing on a small selection of voters? That was easier.

Somerset tried a “wet”/”dry” vote in 2001. Out of 3,279 votes cast, the “nay” votes were still over 600 more than those in favor. But “wet” victories started turning up in even smaller races. In 2003, an election was held in the Catron precinct to see if the voters there would allow wine to be sold at the Sinking Valley Winery in the Plato community. The results of that election showed a vote of 120-76 in favor of the selling of bottled wine. Other wineries would follow; the Mark precinct approved Cedar Creek Vineyards to sell its products in 2007, on a second option vote attempt three years after the unsuccessful first. These were agribusinesses in remote parts of the county, however, hardly the same thing as bars or liquor stores, the traditional boogeymen of the temperance-minded.

The City of Burnside made perhaps the biggest waves, however. “The only town on Lake Cumberland” had a proud and prosperous history, but despite its tourism appeal, had been relatively sleepy for decades, with little economic development. Perhaps eager for a spark, voters there said no to going “moist” and selling alcohol only by the drink in restaurants in a 2001 vote — but only by a razor-thin eight-vote margin. In 2004, the “moist” side succeeded by a count of 219-172.

The Burnside landscape changed quickly — literally, as resort Lee’s Ford Marina on the far west side of the county controversially worked with Burnside to annex along Lake Cumberland shoreline and absorb the resort and its restaurant, for the purpose of drink sales. The pro-moist outcome withstood a challenge in the form of another vote in 2007, but support for alcohol was even stronger this time, and in 2013, the city voted to allow package sales in stores as well.

That was one year after the most significant splash was made, however. Somerset, the county hub and center of economic activity, held an option election in 2012. Businessman Dave Weddle, who organized a group called Progress Somerset, pushed for the petition. Overwhelming sentiment by observers was that the community had changed — but how much, it was hard to tell.

Anti-alcohol voices were still vocal, writing letters to the newspaper and taking to the radio airwaves to plead against a “wet” Somerset.

Among them was David Carr, owner of King of Kings Radio, who retired from the pastorate in 2013. He actively opposed alcohol starting with 1980’s countywide vote. He pointed to the efforts of Eldred Taylor, then-pastor of Somerset’s First Baptist Church.

“He stood against alcohol very strongly,” Carr said recently. “I remember those days and the rallies.”

The tide seemed to turn with the involvement of the Kentucky General Assembly voting to allow farmers to grow grapes as a way to diversify amidst the collapse of the federal tobacco quota system. Those branching out into vineyards also wanted to sell the resulting wine.

“I was concerned about addiction,” Carr said of his own involvement. “Alcohol is very addictive.…

“Alcohol is a drug. Kentucky is at the bottom of the list in the nation for drug abuse, very alarming.”

By 2012 pro-alcohol voices seemed more empowered, largely driven by a new crop of young professionals in the city. The old joke was that Pulaskians would publicly state that they opposed alcohol, then drive to another town to drink; voicing support for it would have been social suicide in their church community. But now, supporters were freely telling the Commonwealth Journal that they saw economic benefits to going “wet.” And that’s exactly what happened — by a count of 2,176 “yes” votes to 1,464 against. Members of the local church community opposed to alcohol stood outside the county clerk’s office that night and prayed, but Somerset welcomed legal alcohol sales within its borders nonetheless. 

It felt like that might not have been as possible had Burnside not led the way, however. Despite only having several hundred people in population, Burnside attracted new businesses and tax revenue from alcohol sales, allowing improvements to the town’s police department and the formation of a tourism board to promote the lakeside community. More importantly, the world didn’t end — Burnside continued to be a pleasant little town, without drunks on every corner and deathtrap roadways, as was the perceived concern by many.

Chuck Fourman was a Burnside City Councilor when Burnside went “moist” and later oversaw the development of the city’s new status as mayor — a time when it was the only place in the county to go and have a drink with one’s meal.

“I think they view it differently now,” he said of overall opinions about alcohol in the community. “Safety first on the road, I understand that. But I can’t really see (that it’s a problem).”

He didn’t see it that way in office either, even though in his time on the city council, he shared a table with other councilors who were adamantly opposed to alcohol, and dismayed by the election results. 

“It was pretty obvious that the biggest thing (in opposition to alcohol) were religious views,” he said. “That got easier over time. People saw new developments over time, new restaurants. Rather than drive to Richmond or Lexington, that’s what the thought was. Now you see the same people in restaurants who said they’d never step foot in them.”

Fourman recalled working against the resisting forces as being “pretty hard at times,” and noted that “there are some people who won’t even admit the tax benefits, but it was right there from the get-go.”

Still, Carr doesn’t believe Burnside has benefitted economically as much as Somerset has from alcohol sales.

“There has been increased revenue,” he said. “There’s been an increase of restaurants and even some businesses. Factories have moved in.”

A DANGEROUS DRINK?

By 2001, anti-alcohol forces placed wrecked cars in the rights-of-way with signs that read ... “This happened as the result of a drunken driver.”

The Commonwealth Journal took a call from an incensed parent who saw his son’s damaged car on the roadway. “My son’s wreck had nothing to do with alcohol!”

The message was clear: Those who opposed alcohol were concerned Pulaski County roadways would be danger zones as the result of impaired motorists.

But has the presence of alcohol made for more hazardous roadways?

In terms of alcohol-related arrests for driving under the influence, it seems the numbers have actually improved since Somerset went “wet.”

According to information provided by the Somerset Police Department, in 2009, officers made 337 DUI arrests. That number fell somewhat over the next three years — 283, 223, and finally 187 in 2012, the year Somerset approved alcohol sales. There was a jump in 2013 to 254, but then the tally begin to drop steadily again, year by year, until reaching the low point of 122 DUI arrests in 2018 (last year saw a minor spike, up to 145).

“By the statistics for our agency, DUIs have reduced since we went wet,” said Somerset Police Chief William Hunt. “Hopefully that’s due to more responsible drinking and consumption.”

Hunt observed that over time, it would become more frequent that when he’d pull over a vehicle for a traffic violation, passengers in the car would have alcohol on their breath but the driver would not.

“It did seem that designated drivers began to appear more than in years past,” he said.

DUI arrests have always been a factor for local police however. As many locals say, Somerset was the traditionally wettest “dry” county in the land, between moonshiners and runs to communities that did sell liquor, like Richmond. 

Hunt noted that not having to go out of town to drink any more could be a factor in reduced DUI numbers. “Individuals in the community are not having to drive out of the county and back to their residence (after drinking).”

One might look at the jump from 2012 to 2013 in DUI numbers, and deduct that the community had gone a little bit crazy with its new beer-buying freedom at first before settling in. But even in that case, alcohol may not be to blame.

The Commonwealth Journal spoke with former Somerset Police Captain Shannon Smith in 2013, just to see how the community had adjusted one year into the “wet” Somerset experiment. Smith tracked the period as follows: From September 1, 2011 to Sept. 1, 2012, SPD made 172 arrests for impaired driving. For the same period of time 2012 to 2013 — the period during which alcohol has been legal in Somerset — police made 249 such arrests. Smith noted that in that time, the city had annexed 50 new miles of roadway, effectively tripling the amount of area patrol vehicles had to cover and increasing the potential for making DUI arrests through sheer geography. Also, in the spring of 2013, SPD restructured its TAP (traffic alcohol program), making it easier for officers to work overtime for DUI enforcement.

“That lead to an increase — not necessarily an increase in arrests, but an increase in the number of officers out there looking for impaired drivers,” said Smith.

One year in, what was Smith’s ultimate take on the impact of alcohol?

“We can’t say that the (DUI) increase we have seen is totally related to alcohol,” said Smith. “Overall, (being ‘wet’) has not complicated law enforcement for Somerset Police.”

Clearly, the carnage on the roadways predicted by alcohol opponents did not come to pass — and with that, another reason for the public to be wary of alcohol faded away.

Even Carr had high praise for how local law enforcement — particularly SPD and the Pulaski County Sheriff’s Office — has dealt with any problems caused by alcohol sales.

SOMERSET FINDS BOURBON NEAT

The Somerset City Council chambers were packed. As soon as the doors open, people poured in, like amber spirits flowing from the mouth of a bottle into a lowball glass. What few seats were set out disappeared in an instant; standing room only for any but the first to arrive.

Everyone wanted to hear the big announcement. The excitement was electric throughout the room. The Who’s Who of Pulaski County were present for the historic occasion.

Horse Soldier Bourbon was here.

Somerset — once “dry” even in the 21st century — will be getting a bourbon distillery with as unique a tale as any in the industry. The company’s owners are members of the first U.S. Army Special Forces unit to enter Afghanistan following the infamous 9/11 attacks. The small teams of Green Berets, mounted on horseback, rode into northern Afghanistan. These men became known as “The Horse Soldiers” — thus the name of their brand of bourbon.

Once home, they created American Freedom Distillery, pursuing their own version of the American dream by creating something they loved: a fine bourbon product.

“Bourbon is kind of that little victory, right?” Horse Soldier’s Scott Neil told the Commonwealth Journal. “You kind of have a good little sip at night with friends and family, maybe over a fire. You kind of get to study what Mother Nature has given you. We say in the bourbon industry, you can’t cheat Mother Nature and you can’t rush Father Time. What you have in that bottle has taken years upon years of hard work and Mother Nature.”

Meanwhile, in Somerset, it took years upon years to get to the point where a distillery could be a reality — and for someone to take office who vocally wanted one here. Somerset Mayor Alan Keck came into office in 2018, after convincingly beating three-term mayor Eddie Girdler. The 34-year-old Keck’s vision for Somerset had been vibrant — more town festivals, more business opportunities — but one thing in particular he’d had his eye on was a bourbon distillery.

Thanks to Lake Cumberland, Somerset is a tourism town. In the summer, business is booming; in the winter, not so much.

Michelle Allen, executive director of the Somerset-Pulaski County Convention & Visitors Bureau, has experience promoting dry communities through her previous work at TOUR Southern & Eastern Kentucky.

“I will tell you that it was very hard to do,” Allen said, in part because without alcohol tax revenue, such counties often don’t have the funds to market themselves.

Before Burnside and Somerset going wet, lake visitors — some four million each year — brought their own alcohol in without a second thought. There’s no question that having alcohol available locally has boosted tourism in the down months.

“People that travel that are coming from bigger cities to conventions here in Somerset…they want some of the same things that they have at home,” Allen said. “They want to be able to have the nice food, the craft beer and things to be able to do on their off time.”

Through the weekly Smith Travel Accommodations Report, Allen has seen increased tourism not only throughout the year but throughout the week, as opposed to just weekends.

“A lot of those rates are sometimes good on Wednesdays because our of our convention sales,” she said. “I don’t have the facts and figures from before [2012], but I know just by our economic impact numbers that it has to do a lot with the alcohol sales we have here in Somerset.”

That economic impact translated to $119 million for Pulaski County in 2018, according to Allen.

Looking at the tourism big picture for Kentucky, one sees the “Bourbon Trail” stand out. Spirit connoisseurs travel all over central Kentucky, a journey that takes days, visiting bourbon distilleries in the beverage’s cultural epicenter, tasting product and learning about the craft. In 2018, the Bourbon Trail was good for 1.4 million tourist visits and $9 billion in revenue.

Keck wanted in on that. With the help of new economic development agency SPEDA, an energized replacement of the former Somerset-Pulaski development foundation, he got his wish — Horse Soldier Bourbon will be made in Somerset, a $50 million project that will add 56 new jobs when completed.

Part of that is because the people behind Horse Soldier felt right comfortable in Somerset, like part of a family. Welcome, not shunned.

“It feels like we’re coming home,” said Neil. “Everybody’s been so open and gracious. The town’s been very inviting. (It was) wonderful for us just to see how many members of the community came out and wanted to shake our hands and get to know us.”

The prospect of joining the Bourbon Trail has local tourism officials looking beyond regional conventions and summer weekends with the “Ohio Navy.”

“It’s amazing that they’ve chosen us,” Allen said of Horse Soldier Bourbon. “Folks are going to be coming from all over the world.”

“I DON’T THINK IT’S A SINFUL BUSINESS”

In striving to bring a distillery to Somerset, Keck could have faced an overwhelming surge of resistance. Turns out, that was the Pulaski of the past. Things have changed — the turnout to welcome Horse Soldier Bourbon in January proved as much.

“I think some of it is societal, in a broader sense, in that people are more comfortable with social drinking (and) with responsible drinking,” said Keck. “That’s something that I’m pretty adamant about too, is that we’re not pushing alcohol on people by any means. ... I think the attitude has changed. I think people are little bit more open to it than they used to be.”

Keck himself walks a fine line. He describes himself as a “pro-liberty person” — a philosophy that says that people have the right to make their own choices about how they spend their money and what they consume. However, Keck (who serves in a non-partisan office) is also vocally Christian and politically conservative, tying him to the side of the community that has traditionally opposed alcohol, and he attends and serves at First Baptist Church in Somerset.

“I’m sensitive to those who don’t drink at all; many in my family choose not to drink at all,” he said. “... I don’t speak for the Baptist Church. I can speak from my own perspective. My interpretation of the Bible is that drunkenness is a sin, and I don’t encourage people to consume it at that level. ... Alcohol is something that should be done carefully, it should be used in moderation. But when that’s the case, then I don’t think it’s a sinful business, if you will.”

It’s definitely been good business for Somerset. Based on available numbers from the City of Somerset, from June of 2018 through May of 2019, alcohol sales in Somerset totaled more than $15,241,000. That meant almost $672,000 in regulatory fee revenue for the City of Somerset. Locally-owned businesses like Jarfly Brewing Co. and Tap on Main have thrived. Restaurants that formerly wouldn’t come to town due to the inability to serve alcohol, like Chili’s and Texas Roadhouse, have opened up shop, and along with them even businesses that have had their eyes opened to the economic potential of Somerset, like Chick-fil-A and Popeye’s. 

“There are economic activities that have flourished as a result of (alcohol),” said Keck. “... We’ve seen the development of a higher-caliber restaurant. Nightlife has improved. There’s a couple different places downtown to enjoy company and community over a beverage, and now I think you’re going to see tremendous job creation and economic development in the form of a distillery. That could turn into new hotels, new restaurants, or perhaps just making the ones we already have busier.”

Forty years ago, a distillery in Somerset would have been unheard of, a fever dream. Now, Keck reported that pushback against it from the community was minimal.

“I’ve been honestly a little surprised,” he said. “It seems like everybody is just really excited and welcoming. I’m sure there are those who are not happy about it, but by and large, and I’m talking 90-plus percent, the feedback has been nothing short of amazing.”

BREWING A DIFFERENT SOMERSET

Any given weekend, take a drive past Jarfly Brewing Co., a stone’s throw from the courthouse on West Mt. Vernon Street. Look through the windows. It’ll be hopping.

It’s a hub for live music, with bands looking to appear at the summer’s Master Musicians Festival appearing there first. An art gallery of sorts, with local talent hanging their creations on the walls. A community watering hole, where seemingly everybody knows your name. And this past summer, it even pushed boundaries by hosting Somerset’s first drag show as part of the Chill Out and Proud festival.

The microbrewery has become one of the most important businesses in town since opening and has gained a reputation around the state for producing a superior craft beer; co-owner Daniel Stroud was even named to the Kentucky Guild of Brewers board. Jarfly first started pouring drinks in the summer of 2016, and Stroud and fellow owner Del Stephens had more than just ales in mind.

“As a mission and a vision when Jarfly opened, our chief goal beyond just making alcoholic beverage was changing the public’s idea of what can and can’t be,” said Stroud. “Before, the idea was that something like (this business) could never happen, it would never been supported. We noticed drinking establishments were catering to a generic form of drinking and over-drinking, as well as propagating the idea that there’s something wrong with it. You’d see that in the dark-tinted windows, the idea of people not being seen in public, which continued the idea that there was something wrong with it.

“We confronted that head-on by being really transparent and nothing to hide,” he continued. “It’s a place where you could come and get an alcoholic beverage, or not get an alcoholic beverage. We’re really about community and people sharing a good time with each other. Obviously, a drink can help in terms of social lubrication, but it’s not based solely on the consumption of alcohol.”

Approaching the four-year mark of Jarfly’s existence, Stroud — a long-haired, free-spoken artistic soul, and far cry from the button-down businessman that once ruled the commercial roost in “dry” Somerset — says that he’s seen a lot of “maturing” in Somerset from the time when he and Stephens first followed through on their dreams of having a progressive craft brew joint in their hometown. 

“I saw the opportunity for it to move that way, but Jarfly is very much experimental,” said Stroud. “I was as curious to see how our town would accept it as anyone else.”

KEEPER OF THE FLOCK

First Baptist Church in Somerset has long been the power player as far as local Baptist churches go. Many of the titans of local industry and government have attended services there over the years, including Somerset’s current mayor.

In the past, it was not unusual to hear strong opposition to alcohol from the body of that church. Today, however, many of the local movers-and-shakers who attend there are advancing in a community that’s grown and developed in recent years because of going “wet.”

Dr. French Harmon came to First Baptist Church from Ashland, Ky., another community that waited until late in the 20th century to allow alcohol sales. In 1980, the same year Pulaski’s last countywide “wet” vote failed, Ashland approved drink and package sales in two city precincts only, while, like Pulaski, the rest of the county remained “dry.” Harmon was a teenager at the time.

Harmon came to pastor his Somerset flock having seen both communities take similar paths of change 32 years apart. His conviction, however, remains more traditional.

“We believe very strongly that drunkenness is a sin, and that is a position I have personally,” he said. “That is what I speak from the pulpit. That is what I believe the Bible says.”

In a Somerset religious community that suddenly has reason to have mixed feelings about alcohol, it appears the topic is discussed less frequently than it might have been in the past when there was a greater consensus.

“I haven’t really seen a lot of conversations in my personal sphere about that topic,” said Harmon, asked if attitudes in the church had appeared to change regarding alcohol.

For Carr, it seems that churches don’t have the same influence as in 1980. And their roles are changing too.

“Many churches accept it [alcohol] and they are not disturbed by it,” he said. “That’s why they go to these restaurants…these spirits don’t affect them like it used to. Churches used to be strongly against alcohol.”

It’s not just changing times, the retired pastor added, but a new interpretation of scripture. “I think they interpret scripture to satisfy the acceptance of it. You know when you’re around something long enough, you learn to accept it in many cases.”

It’s a complicated issue, balancing economics against the wages of sin, and Harmon noted, “I’m not a politician.” He is, however, a minister — “I have to deal with the other side of it.”

That means ministering to people who have battled addiction and alcoholism and counseling such individuals in recovery groups — in other words, confronting the dark side of drinking. 

“There are a lot of people who are hurting,” he said. 

“Regardless of the revenue and growth, the family has suffered the most because of addiction,” Carr added. “Addiction is an enemy.”

LONGING FOR A SIMPLER TIME

Bro. Carr acknowledges that attitudes are changing, along with the community itself. He no longer sees Somerset as the “family-oriented town” it once was — at the center of a like-minded county.

“It was friendly; it was country; it was warm; it was inviting and a good place to raise your kids,” he said. “We didn’t have to worry about drunkenness and stuff like that then as much as we do now.”

Where the addictive nature of alcohol first sparked Carr’s opposition, its ready accessibility continues to stoke his concerns. He has observed a steady progression from vineyards to beer, then package sales, and harder liquor.

“It’s accessible about anywhere,” Carr said, calling alcohol a prey on our youth as well as seniors, “grocery stores, service stations, even pharmacies. I objected to that and felt like it was very harmful to the family.…

“I think the interest in alcohol at the beginning was revenue. I think Somerset wanted to graduate beyond the family-oriented type of community to more city-like. It’s seemingly headed that way.”

With the increased revenue, he continued, has come increased traffic, accidents and arrests. Though he’s not sure it can be attributed to alcohol, Carr also noted more diversity in the area.

Of his feelings on an evolving Somerset, he said, “You always appreciate growth but you don’t appreciate vice. When you have an increased population, then you have more vice — especially when alcohol is mixed with it.”

If sales weren’t enough, now the community appears all in with production and the planned bourbon distillery.

“There just seems to be no settling point…,” he said. “Now to go beyond the liquid drug of alcohol, they’re going to marijuana. [Kentucky is] starting with medical marijuana and if they follow the other states, it will lead to recreational marijuana.”

WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN FOR PULASKI COUNTY?

Like Mayor Keck, Pulaski County Judge-Executive Steve Kelley is unapologetically Christian.

“As a county leader, I cannot separate my beliefs from my office,” Kelley said. “But I will always try to lead to the best of my ability, being respectful of others’ beliefs and loving everyone regardless of their beliefs.”

Efforts to walk that fine line haven’t always been successful. In Kelley’s first year in office (2015), efforts to annex Pulaski County Park into Burnside so that alcohol could be sold at a planned musical concert there proved so unpopular with the park’s neighbors that the plans were ultimately scrapped altogether.

“While there is a high level of trial and error in many ideas we put forth, and while many programs require active government participation and leadership,” he said, “I have learned that the divisive nature of alcohol consumption and sales definitely requires leadership and consensus of the voters, and not elected officials.”

Judge Kelley isn’t convinced that alcohol sales is responsible for the economic boon the county has seen in the last five years, which has translated into infrastructure investments, stronger property values, tax revenues, and population growth.

But it hasn’t hurt either.

Still, he doesn’t think the county will be following Burnside or Somerset’s suit anytime soon.

“While I am asked regularly about a county-wide election, the process requires great organization and determination,” Judge Kelley said, “and I don’t sense the urgency that the ‘wet forces’ demonstrated leading up to the elections that legalized alcohol sales in Burnside and Somerset. For that reason, I do not believe we will see a county-wide vote in the foreseeable future.” 

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