This Something New post for December is a bit late, but it’s a long one so I needed the extra time 🙂 Husband is a big fan of bourbon. HUGE fan of bourbon. He loves it so much, in fact, I planned his 30th birthday around it. For three days we drove around Kentucky touring six fantastic distilleries, learning (and buying) a lot along the way.
We started with a flight to Chicago to pick up Husband’s brother, who just so happens to be in charge of the whiskey program at a well-known bar downtown and had set up the tours for us. We drove down to Louisville, KY, which we made our home-base for all the tours. To start off our stay in Kentucky we called a cab (and what a cab it was, too, but that’s a story for another day) and headed to El Camino, a tiki bar & restaurant on Bardstown Road. I’ve had plenty of “tiki” cocktails, but never at a bar completely dedicated to the style, and let me tell you: worth it. I started off with a drink called the Saturn, and after that I don’t remember much, except everything I consumed was amazing and delicious.
The next day we got up early (and very quietly… tiki drinks are not to be trifled with, my friends) and started off our distillery tours with Four Roses. I won’t tell you how many wrong turns we took to get there, but I will say it wasn’t my fault.
When we finally arrived we walked in to the most beautifully decorated “gift shop” I have ever seen in my life. It was just before Christmas so the whole place (huge, by the way) was tastefully decorated and it felt so warm, inviting and homey. I didn’t want to take the tour! I just wanted to sit there and enjoy the atmosphere.
After we checked in at the desk we noticed something very odd. A couple of guys were walking out with moving-dollies stacked as high as they could go with cases of bourbon. The phones were ringing off the hook, and had been all morning, apparently, and all for a particular small batch of bourbon. Turns out, Four Roses had produced, unbeknownst to them (or at least any of the phone-frenzied gift shop employees and tour guides), an exceptionally beautiful batch and we had walked in just at the right moment. Brother-in-law snagged the last bottle without even tasting it. How could he resist?
After the frenzy died down a bit, our tour began. My knowledge of bourbon-making is not nearly as developed as Husband’s and Brother-In-Law’s, so I was in for a crash course and our tour guide did a great job. For those of you who don’t know anything about how to make bourbon, here is a quick run-down:
- The mashbill. Every distillery has a particular grain mixture, called the mashbill, that they use. Most of the time it includes barley, rye and sometimes wheat, but it must, in order to be considered a Kentucky straight bourbon, be no less than 51% corn. Each of these grains is cooked at different temperatures/times to bring out the desired qualities of that particular distillery.
- Yeast is then added to the cooked mashbill. Here too, each distillery has their own strain of yeast, which is proprietary and kept secret, and much lore surrounds the history of each distiller’s yeast.
- Once the yeast has done it’s thing you get what’s called distiller’s beer. It smells like beer, and even tastes like beer, albeit flat beer with chunky, goopy grains it it. This is what finally goes on to be distilled.
- Distillation. Most distilleries use column stills, which are, you guessed it, hollow columns. The distiller’s beer is poured into the still somewhere around the middle, and flows down through plates inserted in the column. At the bottom it’s heated until it produces steam (good ol’ H20 and alcohol vapor), which rises through domed holes in each plate. At the top of the still it’s routed into the doubler. The doubler is a copper pot that basically acts as a flavor enhancer and makes the whiskey taste better. After the vapor has spent enough time in the doubler, it’s condensed into what we all know as White Dog, typically 120 proof.
- The white dog is then put into barrels and aged according to what the distillery is hoping to accomplish with that batch. Barrels used for bourbon must be first use—that is, nothing else has been put in them—oak barrels. The first year or two the distillate (white dog) will pull out the sweeter flavors of the oak. After the sweetness is gone, the distillate will begin pulling out the more bitter, smokey, natural oak flavors.
- When the Master Distiller is happy with the results in the barrel, it’s often times cut with water to reach a certain ABV content, then it’s bottled and sold.
We got the same spiel at each distillery so I had this process memorized after the first couple of tours, but I first heard it at Four Roses, which I will never forget. I will also never forget the unplanned fire drill that we got to participate in! After the tour, as we were at the desk making our purchases, a steam whistle blew and the employee at the desk dropped everything, pulled out a cheat-sheet and counted the whistles. “Uh… um, ok, come with me. Quickly, ” she told us in a very measured tone. We followed her down the hall, out into the parking lot, and down the driveway nearly to the road. We waited. Blessedly, someone came to let us know it was a fire drill and nothing had gone wrong, but no one standing down by the road had been told of a drill. They were all quite shaken, but no harm no foul, and now we have a great story to tell!
Next up, lunch. We headed back into Lawrenceburg where we stopped to ask a local for their recommendation. They sent us to Hunter’s Grill where we had fried gator bites and frog legs. The gator bites were a big hit, but I was the only one who could get past the alarmingly high amount of veins left embedded in the meat. It all tasted like chicken anyway.
Holy HUGE operation, Batman! This place is massive, at least compared to Four Roses. They even have in-house mechanics and a fully-loaded workshop on site with every kind of tool and machine you could ever think of. I can’t even remember how many rickhouses (where the barrels are stored during aging) they have, and they keep building more. Each one has a different “personality” and imparts different qualities to the bourbon aging inside it. They are so large, in fact, that a barrel on the ground-level of the north east corner will end up completely different than one on the top floor of the south west corner. I guess I can’t say this is unique to Buffalo Trace; every distillery has several rickhouses and many of them are just as massive, but this was my first introduction to the sheer scale of the bourbon industry in Kentucky, so I will always associate this particular attribute with Buffalo Trace.
For both tours—Buffalo Trace and Four Roses—we were the only ones, which was really nice. It meant we could hear what the tour guide had to say (a lot of bourbon-making is quite noisy) and we got a more in-depth tour than we probably would have otherwise. We learned lots of fun facts like during Prohibition the authorities seeking out illegal distilleries knew they were getting close when they noticed the trees changing color. The process puts off a chemical that is non-toxic but turns tree bark black. Our tour guide also took us on the roof of one of the buildings to give us a spectacular view of the entire grounds. Simply breathtaking.
After our time at Buffalo Trace we headed back to Louisville and wrapped up the evening with a stop at The Silver Dollar on Frankfort Avenue. We continued our fried-food-fest and had truly delicious fried pickles, okra, catfish and other things; that day we counted a total of 10 fried things we had eaten that day, and could not think of anything un-fried. And, as at El Camino the night before, there was no shortage of cocktails consumed. I can personally recommend the Norteño Collins.
The next morning (once again very gingerly) we got up and headed off for a full day of bourbon. Our first stop was Maker’s Mark. By far they were the distillery that really had the tourist thing down pat. After the previous days’ tours which had been just the three of us and the tour guide, it was a little disappointing at first to find we were in a group of about 20 here. But the tour was pretty good, and only a little cheesy (we started things off in a house that had talking pictures on the walls…) but ended fantastically. We had been able to do some tasting at both Buffalo Trace and Four Roses, but it was more like, “here, taste what we do, you’ll like it.” At Maker’s Mark, though, we all had five samples in front of us on a handy little card that labeled each one, and our tour guide took us through each sample, teaching us the proper way to taste a bourbon, and what flavors we should be getting. She then explained the history of each sample.
This is the part where I learned I much prefer scotch to bourbon. They included one sample that had been “over aged”; that is, it spent more time in a barrel than they would prefer. Maker’s Mark is more committed to consistency than anyone else (which can be good or bad, depending on which way you look at it) and they only have a few lines, as opposed to Buffalo Trace which has too many for me to remember. If they open a barrel and it doesn’t taste exactly like their “standard” they don’t sell it. This over aged bourbon was one of those unacceptable barrels (they keep making it for the tours, though, just to prove a point). Maker’s is all about sweet and smooth. They don’t age their bourbon very long and they use wheat in their mashbill to mellow out the bite. As I mentioned earlier, though, the longer the bourbon sits in the barrel the less sweet it can become. And that’s where this sample of over aged bourbon comes in to play. One of my chief complaints about bourbon is that it’s so sweet it makes my teeth hurt (I’ve always been sensitive to sweet things and can’t even handle frosting), and Maker’s Mark is no exception. It’s soooooo sweet it makes my face pucker up. But the over aged bourbon was just the perfect balance of sweet and oaky flavors… and they won’t sell it. Bummer for me.
Oh, but I forgot about the very end of the tour! The Dale Chihuly blown-glass art installation makes up the whole ceiling of one of their rick houses. It’s called Spirit of the Maker and is a collection of 1,300 glass pieces arranged to resemble bourbon pouring out of a bottle of Maker’s Mark. It is stunning and definitely left a lasting impression.
Next up, in close contention with Buffalo Trace for Husband’s favorite distillery of all time, was Heaven Hill. We didn’t get to tour the distillery or rick houses—we didn’t have a prior appointment like the others and the individual that does those tours wasn’t available that day—but we did get to sample the different brands that Heaven Hill puts out, which was quite the experience. Most of the samples we tried (and I can’t even remember them all at this point) were ones Husband and I hadn’t had before so it definitely wasn’t time wasted.
Husband had gone there with a mission, though. Heaven Hill had discontinued his all-time favorite “every-day” bourbon, the Gold label bottled-in-bond—cheap enough to keep on hand and use in cocktails, but good enough to drink neat as well. He went to the distillery in the hope that he could find a couple bottles, but to no avail. They didn’t have any left. That didn’t stop Husband from buying altogether too many other bottles (it was at this point in the trip that we realized we were not going to be able to fit all the bourbon we had purchased, and were yet still to purchase, in our luggage).
We ended the bourbon part of the day with a tour of Willet, just across the road (literally) from Heaven Hill. Up until now, Willet had purchased distillate from another distillery and simply did the barreling themselves. They recently completed construction, though, on their own set-up and put out their first 100% Willet-made bourbon. The facility is new and very nice, but quite small (they were the smallest distillery we visited, in fact). This made the whole experience a lot more “down-home” than the other distilleries and the two people who were there could afford to be less business, less cookie-cutter-touristy, and more friendly. It didn’t hurt that they have two cats roaming the distillery, and I was missing my little kitten quite a lot that day.
Willet is one of the few distilleries that uses a pot still instead of a column still. Here is where I’m pretty sure I know what I’m talking about, but not 100%. I’m no expert, but I think the reason for the pot still is that it takes up less space and it’s made of copper, so there’s no need for a doubler. It doesn’t allow for continuous distillation, though, which means they have to worry about removing the heads & tails. Distillation happens in stages and the first bit of distillate that is produced is called the heads. It contains deadly methanol and can kill you. Next comes the heart, which is the desirable distillate containing the best tasting (and safest) liquid, or white dog. The last bit that is produced is called the tails, is lower proof, and bad tasting. Every time you start and stop the still, you end up with heads and tails that need to be removed, which is why most distillers use column stills. They allow for continuous distillation and only have to be started and stopped for cleaning or maintenance. Pot stills, however, can only hold so much and therefore require the distiller to have mastered the art of finding when to “cut” away the heads and tails.
After leaving Willet we went for dinner at a place I can only describe as surprisingly amazing. It’s called Hammerhead’s and they have the most amazing everything. I’m telling you, if you want good food, go to Louisville KY. By no means is it healthy food; I don’t think anyone in Kentucky knows what a salad is, unless of course it’s deep fried, but it is good food. If you go there, get anything that involves the beef brisket.
The next day we headed to Wild Turkey and this was to be the last distillery we toured. The process of making bourbon is the same no matter where you go, and the standards are always the same, so the part of each tour that goes over the process is quite repetitive. Each distillery, however, had their own special flare—Four Roses was small and had interesting history, Buffalo Trace was enormous, Willet was down-home and friendly, and Wild Turkey had great story-telling.
Our tour guide was the grandson of the Master Distiller but was very friendly and approachable. He, of course, knew what he was talking about very well, and answered everyone’s questions with perfect clarity, but he also was wearing a sweatshirt instead of a button-down shirt, or polo, and he told the BEST stories. He kept us well entertained with stories of Wild Turkey during Prohibition, of his grandfather, of the locals, and of the distillery itself.
I have to put in a word of review here. So far I have been careful not to give my opinions on which bourbons were best, and that’s because it’s hard for me to distinguish between them. In a blind taste I’d probably tell you they were all the same, tasting of brown sugar, vanilla, and citrus. I might be able to tell you if one is sweeter than the other, or if it’s a higher proof (although that is not always easy to tell, either), but mostly it all tastes crazy-sweet to me. But I will say that one of my favorites (other than the over-aged Maker’s Mark bourbon that they don’t sell) is the Russell’s Reserve from Wild Turkey. It’s nice and smooth, and for me, it was right on the threshold of being too sweet, but doesn’t cross over. If your sweet tooth has some wonky wiring like mine does, try this bourbon and see what you think.