When Ashley Donahey began thinking about a future producing her own bourbon whiskey, she was still gainfully employed at the State Department as an adviser to the U.S. ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues. Two Worlds Whiskey, the brand she launched this month, was still years away, but in some respects its creation was an inevitability. The former diplomat’s passion for bourbon stemmed from her Kentucky upbringing in a family whose heritage is at once intimately tied to the American Revolution and to the early days of whiskey distilling.
In 1777, the Marquis de Lafayette set sail for America to assist the American rebels in their fight for liberty. Donahey’s fifth great grandfather, William Downard, was among the rebels in Pennsylvania who went on to become victorious, thanks in part to France and the commitment of Lafayette. After moving to Kentucky after the war, Downard began distilling whiskey just as two French brothers, Jean and Louis Tarascon, had begun making a novel style of whiskey, one aged in charred oak barrels following the centuries-old tradition of aging cognac. A swift sensation among the French cognac aficionados living farther down the Ohio River in New Orleans, the new style earned the name bourbon whiskey as a nod to the French House of Bourbon—or so the legend holds.
While it might be considered the ultimate homegrown American spirit,
bourbon’s origins are inextricably connected to France. Similarly, so were
Donahey’s family ties. During World War II, her grandfather fought along the
Normandy coast all the way to Cherbourg, where he remained until liberation. As
traumatic as wartime was, he looked back on his time living in France with
Growing up with such family memories was significant in leading Donahey down an academic and professional path—first studying French linguistics, then working in global diplomacy and business—that would permanently anchor her to France.
As for her hometown spirit, that affection stayed with Donahey throughout her career in Washington and became the foundation of a germinating idea. With even greater urgency following the radical shift in the U.S. administration in 2017, the idea became the catalyst for a total career change.
That’s when she left behind a steady six-figure salary, moved to France (the No. 1 consumer of whiskey per capita), and enrolled in INSEEC business school to acquire the skills to launch a brand of her own. By 2018, Donahey was working as a brand ambassador for La Maison du Whiskey in Paris, traveling across France running tastings for bartenders, shop owners, and whiskey lovers. That’s when the startling realization hit: The French are well versed in whiskeys from Japan, Scotland, and Ireland, but they are virtually unaware of their country’s historic contributions to the creation and popularization of American whiskey.
“If they had any experience with bourbon, it was with entry-level mass market brands,” Donahey explains. “But they certainly didn’t know about the French ties nor did they have access to the best bottles.”
Donahey knew then that her brand would seek to reinforce the historic alliance between the U.S. and its first ally, France, and offer flavor profiles tailored to the sophisticated French palate.
Named for Lafayette, the “hero of two worlds,” Two Worlds Whiskey will produce several ranges, crafted with the help of The Spirits Group, a woman-run distilling consultancy in Louisville. La Victoire, the kickoff range launched with a preorder crowdfunding campaign, is a small-batch bourbon made from barrels of straight bourbon whiskey distilled and aged in the United States and bottled in Cognac. L’Alliance, the second range, also named for one of the three ships Lafayette sailed to reach America, will be distilled and aged in the U.S. but finished in France through secondary maturation in French wine or spirits casks.
But it’s the third range, L’Hermione, that Donahey says makes her project completely novel. “It involves importing American whiskey distillate and doing the primary maturation in France, in French oak barrels, made by French coopers, in the South of France where the climate is similar to that of Kentucky,” she explains. “When it happens, it will be the very first French-American whiskey.”
That last range, the most ambitious arm of the project, will require
building an aging cellar in Provence and, as a result, bringing on outside
investors (thus far, the operation has been self-financed). For now, Donahey,
who is based in Paris, is working on selling the first 2,107 bottles of the
first batch—in a pandemic.
“Within 72 hours, I went from hosting a sold-out launch party at a prestigious venue in Paris, with guests flying in as far as Kentucky and Kenya, to hosting an impromptu Facebook Live in my living room,” Donahey says. “But I am grateful that I was still able to launch digitally and allow my supporters to reserve their bottles from the safety of their homes. I think everyone needs something to look forward to right now.”
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