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Finely distilled history: New walking tour highlights Paducah's bourbon-tinged past

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Finely distilled history: New walking tour highlights Paducah's bourbon-tinged past

Richard and Emily Parker (left) lead their “Forgotten Spirits” walking tour through downtown Paducah earlier in July. The husband-and-wife duo started Atomic City Tours in May and they now lead bimonthly tours to shed light on the city’s history with the bourbon industry.

While Paducah may not be the first city people think of when it comes to bourbon, there’s plenty of Kentucky’s signature spirit mixed into its history.

A new walking tour, Atomic City Tours’ ”Forgotten Spirits: Paducah’s Contribution to Bourbon” — led by the husband-and-wife duo of regional historian Richard Parker and thespian Emily Parker — takes participants through the city’s downtown area to tell the story of industry in the town.

The genesis of Atomic City Tours lies in Richard’s writing. While working on a new book — specifically a chapter on Isaac Wolfe Bernheim — he came across a wealth of information detailing Paducah’s history and how the city was mixed up in the bourbon industry.

“As I was doing the research on (Bernheim’s) life all these places kept popping up so I got curious to see where they were at and I started to look into that using the city directories and the Sanborn maps and that’s how I started to figure out where all of these places were that he mentioned in his autobiography,” Richard said. “One day I got Emily to come down and walk it with me and she said, ‘Wow. This would make a great tour.’ ”

Tourgoers will learn about the bourbon basics and the roots of the industry as it stands today in addition to Paducah’s connections to its history, particularly through Bernheim — who founded what would go on to become I.W. Harper in the city — and the people he influenced.

“Bernheim’s the star of our show. He has connections to all of the other people that we talk about on our tour,” Richard said. “There are still four bourbons that you can purchase today that are still in production and that all have ties to Paducah.”

Richard has assembled the historical content of the tour wholesale through his own research and interviews. Several visuals on tour are being displayed for the public for the first time as they have come out of family collections.

“This is really Richard’s brainchild. He’s the historian and so I cover the first couple of stops, where we talk about sort of generic bourbon knowledge, and then we get into the weeds of history and I let him take over,” Emily said. “People that come on the tour will be getting information right from the source, from a local historian.”

The Parkers are currently giving a tour every other Friday through September at 7 p.m. Tickets, which are sold online via Eventbrite, are $10. The remaining tours will take place this Friday (Jul. 23), Aug. 13, Aug. 27, Sept. 10 and Sept. 24. More information and links are available through Atomic City Tours’ Facebook page.

The couple hopes to continue giving the tour next spring and summer and, eventually, to program more tours of the city on different topics.

The mile-long trek starts and ends at Barrel and Bond, the city’s signature bourbon establishment. Its owner — Brian Shemwell, who also founded the Paducah Bourbon Society — admires the Parkers’ project and has even put together a sampler flight of bourbons discussed on the tour.

“With the bourbon society and through casual conversation, I’ve always tried to generate as much excitement as I could when discussing Paducah’s role throughout the bourbon world’s rich history,” Shemwell told The Sun. “Before interstate highways and automobiles, every barrel from central Kentucky that headed west beyond the Mississippi and south to New Orleans passed right by our riverfront at the foot of Broadway.

“I’ve never been the guy to dive into the details and actually put the work in to uncover all that we had to share. Richard has done that and he’s done it in such a way that completely captures every part of your imagination.”

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