By definition, Bourbon is an American made Whiskey, distilled from corn and aged in Oak barrels, whose name is derived from the French Bourbon dynasty. (Early French distillers in pre-revolutionary American colonies may have been the first to age whiskey in Oak for French immigrants in New Orleans who missed their Brandy.) The age-old connection between Bourbon and France continues into the twenty-first century thanks to the singular journey, and family history, of the Kentucky expat in France, Ashley Donahey.
Ever since she was a student in Aix-en-Provence, Donahey says she’s “schemed” to get back. She now lives in Aix, where she runs her company, Two Worlds Whiskey, a Bourbon born in Kentucky and blended specially for the French palate. It is the culmination of two of her greatest passions – Bourbon Whiskey, and France. She traces her love of all things French to when she started taking French in the sixth grade. She was encouraged by her grandfather who regaled the family with stories of his time in France, where he spent many months after landing there on D-Day. Donahey discovered a cascading number of family connections to both France and Bourbon. “My fifth Great-Grandfather, who fought (on the side of Washington and Lafayette) was in the whiskey business, with a tavern and five stills on his farm, which he bought from (Abe’s uncle) Mordecai Lincoln,” she notes.
On her way to getting her Masters in French Literature (U. of Michigan), followed by a Masters in European studies (Georgetown School of Foreign Service), Ashley managed to spend three semesters living in France. After her studies she landed a plum job with the State department, based in Washington, D.C. (in a building designed by French architect Pierre Charles l’Enfant). But her passion for France and Bourbon kept growing. There is a poetic logic to her transition from diplomacy to distilling. “Bourbon, like diplomacy, brings people together,” Donahey remarks.
In 2017, she followed her passion, handed in her resignation, and moved to Paris. Once there, as a sales rep for the famous Maison du Whisky, she traveled the country meeting bartenders and retailers, living the dream. But it was about to get even better. Tasting Whiskeys with French professionals and enthusiasts, she figured out why they weren’t warming up to Kentucky Bourbons. The “knock-you-over” big flavor profiles that American drinkers prefer just didn’t suit French palates. “I was discovering that the Whiskey profiles among American and French mirrored their respective preferences in wines. When the French were telling me what they were looking for in a whiskey I was hearing words like, “refined,” “elegant,” and “delicate,” Donahey points out. “And unlike most American bourbon enthusiasts, the French appreciated more floral notes, creamy mouth-feel, and a long and well-structured finish,” she observes.
Ashley decided to get an MBA at the prestigious French INSEEC Business School, where she wrote her Masters’ Business Plan on how to improve the image of Bourbon in France. The “aha” moment came in January 2019 when she decided to put the Plan into action for her own business. With her two Kentucky based partners, she worked tirelessly on creating a custom blend suited to the French palate. After a year and a half, including a Pandemic interruption, the first shipment of Two Worlds Whiskey arrived in France, and has met with overwhelmingly positive response.
You can hear the heart-felt awe in her voice when Donahey speaks about the Marquis de Lafayette, the French icon who risked everything to come to America to fight alongside Washington, and to be part of the great democratic experiment. It is in honor of Lafayette, known as the “hero of two worlds” that the brand is named. The bourbon’s very first edition, La Victoire, bears the name of his ship.
While the first edition was made and finished in Kentucky, the second edition will mark an exciting new chapter, with bourbon made in the US but finished in Aix-en-Provence, France. For the third edition, the American distillate will actually be aged in French oak, in France. Since legally whiskey has to be made in the US to be called “bourbon”, Two Worlds will be introducing a whole category. A French-American “bourbon” based product. The best of both worlds, in a glass.