I now make the yearly pilgrimage to the Kentucky Bourbon Festival. I start out by flying into Nashville, Tennessee to make the road trip with my best friend, Dan. I've known him for 30 years (insert old jokes here). He works at Country Music Television (insert country music jokes here). I can't stand country music (insert... Oh, carry on). To prime my liver, however, we went to honky tonks in downtown Nashville. You can tell by the photo that I am not a country music fan. But, we had a great time, nonetheless.
We started out the vacation sampling Dan's best bottle of bourbon, and at the time, his only bottle: Willett Single Barrel Bourbon. It was delicious. I have three of their bourbons in my cabinet: Willett Pot Still Reserve, Rowan's Creek, and Noah's Mill. All very tasty. I've created a bourbon drinker in Dan. He's building his collection.
Jim Beam - September 14, 2012
First stop on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail: Jim Beam. If you look carefully in a select few photos throughout this tour, you'll see a repeating character, usually off to the side or hiding behind something and peaking out. Most often, he will have a finger up his nose. Classy is what we're about, you know.
On the Jim Beam tour, there are these great, "Photo Spots:"
Once you've seen one Photo Spot, though, you've seen them all.
Statue of Booker Noe, grandson of Jim Beam with the addition of a knucklehead, as my grandfather would say:
Dan and I decided to wander the property at Jim Beam. I think we missed the last tour. We'll hit this one next year for a proper tour. But, if you do just wander, you can get a good fill of bourbon history. You can walk through "Warehouse D" on your own. It's really cool. The smell of a real live bourbon storage rack house is unforgettable.
Here is an interior shot of Warehouse D:
Heaven Hill - September 14, 2012
Heaven Hill Distilleries makes a number of popular spirits that you've likely had or heard of, like Hypnotiq, Christian Brothers VS Brandy and Admiral Nelson's Spiced Rum. But we stopped by this particular distillery for the bourbon, of course. HH makes Elijah Craig, Evan Williams and a new one that I hadn't heard of or tasted until this trip: Larceny, a wheated bourbon that was a tad strong neat, but was incredible with a tiny bit of branch water. In fact, during the tasting, they had us sample a little of the bourbon neat (some people winced). Then we added just a few drops of water to the bourbon and sampled it again. It was an amazing transformation of flavors. Where the flavors popped on your tongue also changed and suddenly a harsher bourbon was sweet and VERY palatable.
The tour of Heaven Hill was the first time I'd learned of the requirement for taller warehouses to have cross bracing in them to shore them up in case of tornados or earthquakes or giant Japanese sea lizards. I know from engineering basics and from flying parachutes with cross bracing that the triangular bracing is as strong as it gets. Since the tax man is so interested in the safety of the vast amounts of liquid gold in them thar warehouses, it's no wonder he wants the distilleries to brace the building. The HH tour guides will tell you why that is when you visit. ;)
I usually have Elijah Craig 18 Year Single Barrel and Elijah Craig 12 Year Small Batch in my cabinet and I like them both. I almost walked out of the gift store with the Elijah Craig 20 Year Single Barrel, but then I saw the $400 price tag (as I recall the number, anyway) on this Evan Williams 23 Year...
Needless to say, there is no way on this earth that my wife would let me drop four hundos on a bottle of bourbon. It's nice to dream, though.
Four Roses - September 15, 2012
Sadly, I can't find a photo of the outside of the distillery at Four Roses. It's beautiful and very familiar to, since I live in the southwest of the United States. The Four Roses building is done in a Spanish mission style architecture. Kinda common where I live. Nice to see in the middle of Kentucky. But, the interior is just as beautiful, especially to a bourbon enthusiast.
Condensers and stills and beers and wines, oh my...
The tail boxes are always cool to watch: So much pure white dog running out of the pipes. Amazing!
And a tail box like I've never seen before: CLEAR...
Wild Turkey - September 15, 2012
We were in a bit of a hurry at this point in the day, but I can't remember why. Could have been the barrel stacking races or we were hungry or something. Doesn't much matter. We were in bourbon heaven and we were going to be back again in 2013, so rushing one of the tours wasn't that big of a deal. Although, now I'm really looking forward to meeting some of the Wild Turkey folks in 2013.
As I write this article, I'm supping Wild Turkey Rare Breed (barrel strength). It's 108.2° proof, but is smoother than that sounds. It's absolutely delicious. One thing I used to be snobby about was mixing anything into better bourbons. However, like I mentioned above, at Heaven Hill I learned that adding a few drops or a splash of branch water to a shot of bourbon can really open up the flavor. You really have to try it for yourself. It's quite amazing. I like Rare Breed neat, no water added. But I wouldn't recommend against adding a tiny bit of water to take the edge off and twist the flavors a bit if the flavor is a little strong for your taste. It's great, either way.
Now, sadly, we didn't take the tour at Wild Turkey because we missed it by a little bit, but they were kind enough to bring us to the back tasting room and allowed us to sample their yummy bourbon wares in a kinda private little tasting session. It was awesome. I'd never had any of the Wild Turkey bourbons up to that point. I went right for the Rare Breed, of course and bought some immediately when I got home.
Also, the tasting room has a turkey.
Woodford Reserve - September 15, 2012
I know I say I love this bourbon and that bourbon and I say that a lot. Really, I've only met a couple of bourbons that I would consider, "eh." I just love the flavor of bourbon in general so much that I think I like them all. But, Woodford Reserve is most definitely one of my favorites. Even better is its brother, Woodford Reserver Double Oaked. Fantastic bourbon aside, you have to see the distillery! It is absolutely gorgeous.
The buildings are built with über-thick walls of limestone and wreak of history. Well, it helps that their distillery site is a national historic landmark, I suppose.
The warehouses on the property may not be as tall as competitor warehouses, but it would take a tremendous force to knock them down.
Everything at Woodford was so clean and neat. The pathways from one tour stop to the next was pretty open and the tour guides were very knowledgeable. Their three big copper stills were impressive to stand next to.
It was a vVery nifty area around the stills complemented by brass-trimmed tail boxes:
It's always weird to think that the new barrels you see waiting to be filled are going to disappear into a warehouse somewhere for years and years. Here are brand new American white oak barrels waiting to be filled with Woodford Reserver "new make:"
Once those barrels are filled, they rolled on tracks to the warehouses...
The barrels stacked up and the bourbon maturing...
For some reason, it seems I took way more photos at Woodford Reserve than I did anywhere else. I have a couple of years of photos from Maker's Mark, so maybe I thought I needed to fill out my collection for Woordford in 2012. Who knows?
Maker's Mark - September 16, 2012
First off, let me note here that I am a Maker's Mark Ambassador, so there is a barrel in one of the rack houses with my name on it (mine and 19 other people). I've toured Maker's Mark twice, so far. I have Maker's Mark, Maker's 46 and Maker's White in my cabinet. This has always been my go-to bourbon because it's accessible just about everywhere. Is it my absolute favorite, hard to say with so many wonderful bourbons out there. Its flavor profile isn't as strong as I like, but it's still VERY delicious and I proudly serve it up at parties. It is a fine bourbon and I highly recommend it for sipping and for mixing. Maker's 46 is one step better, in my opinion. The flavors added by the additional staves used in the maturation give it more of the flavor profile I prefer. Maker's White (the Maker's right before it goes into a barrel) (or moonshine) is also quite tasty, but it's certainly an acquired taste. I used 2 liters of it to age myself in a Bluegrass Barrel (that post is coming shortly).
Maker's Mark, like Woodford Reserve, is a beautiful property. The grounds are kept up very, very nicely. This was the first official bourbon distillery I'd ever seen and I signed up for the Ambassador program right away for fun. The tour is fantastic. The grounds, though, make you feel like you're walking around on a movie set, I swear.
The tour, like most others, is incredibly informative and everyone is so friendly. I'm always amazed that we can walk right up to the fermenting mash. It smells amazing and watching the yeast farts is mesmerizing.
The ornamentation and finish on some of the equipement is incredible. The copper is polished to a mirror-like finish.
The hilarious thing about the outside of the buildings is the detail in the shutters. You can see the shape cut out of each of them is the silhouette of the famous Maker's Mark bottle.
Somewhere in the Maker's Mark warehouses I have a barrel like this one with my name on it. Hopefully it doesn't have this large a hole in it.
Even the bottling line shares the architecture style of the buildings:
Becoming an Amabassador is free. Go to the Maker's Mark website and sign up. You get your name on a barrel with 19 other people and it will mature and you will wait. When your bourbon is ready, you can travel to Loretto and dip your bottles (see video of me dipping my own) and enjoy the fruits of your patience. I can't wait!
In summary, I'd totally do the Bourbon Trail AGAIN with friends. Many times. It's fun. I got a t-shirt. There are samples and there are samples. The countryside is gorgeous and the weather, knock on wood, has always been spectacular. All of the distilleries, even the ones not officially on the tour, are worth touring more than once. I swear I pick up more and more history and statistics when I hit each distillery. I've also been to the Jack Daniel's distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee and it's equally as fascinating, even though JD is a Tennessee whiskey, not a bourbon. As a matter of fact, the JD tour is what got my taste buds yearning for corn whiskey when they puffed the mellowing tower lid in my face. If you visit them, you'll get what I mean here.