Monday, May 19, 2014

May Kentucky Bourbon Trail Visits

To complete the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, Mary and I took a day of vacation to head to some of the distilleries in the Lexington/Frankfort area. We left home at 6 am and headed West on I-64 toward our first stop in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky.

We have been to the Four Roses Distillery several times before and we really like their bourbons. The regular Four Roses Yellow Label is a very good bourbon and an excellent value. The last time we did a tour at Four Roses, we were very disappointed. Apparently, one of the tour guides didn't come in and another distillery employee was reluctantly conscripted to take our group on a tour. Throughout the tour he made it very clear that he didn't normally guide and didn't enjoy taking groups through the distillery. All in all, we didn't have the most pleasant experience on our tour. Because we like Four Roses Bourbon and we knew that one bad guide shouldn't shape our opinions of the distillery, we decided to take the tour again today.

Since we arrived at the Four Roses Distillery a little before their opening at 9 am, we walked around the grounds and enjoyed the beautiful cool spring morning. While waiting outside the visitor center, we met some nice couples from Maryland and Virginia. They were planning to spend several days in the area visiting distilleries and doing some shopping.

We were able to get in the first tour which departed the visitor center at 9 am. In addition to the Maryland and Virginia couples, there was a group of people from a local winery who were studying the success of the Bourbon Trail and evaluating whether some of the marketing could be applied to the wine industry. 

Before starting the tour, we watched a short video that described the bourbon industry in central Kentucky and the 10 mashbill/yeast strain combinations made at Four Roses. The tour group built to over 20 people by the time we left the visitor center.

The young man guiding our group had a headset microphone and a speaker on a sling but he appeared to have trouble using the technology. He didn't get the speaker to work until about midway through the tour so we had difficulty hearing much of the information. The guide took us through the areas where grains are received then ground and cooked into a mash that converts the starches in the grain into fermentable sugars. From there, we went to the huge fermenters where the cooked grain, water and yeast are allowed to ferment converting the sugars into alcohol. The smell in this room was great with the aroma of working yeast, cooked grain and wafting carbon dioxide. Some of the older mash tuns were constructed of wood while others were new stainless steel tanks. These giant tubs have a capacity of over 16,000 gallons of fermenting mash. We were surprised to learn that one inch of mash in the fermenter has over 95 gallons of mash.

The Four Roses column stills were beautiful copper structures that extract the ethanol or white dog from the relatively low alcohol concentration of the fermented mash or “low beer” coming from the fermenters after several days of fermentation by the specified yeast strains. The white dog flows through a try box in a gushing stream.

The guide told us that after aging in new white oak casks, the bourbon is bottled at the Cox's Creek facility near Bardstown, Kentucky. We made a note to be certain to visit this location on our next trip to Bardstown. It was interesting the Four Roses uses single story rickhouses to age their casked bourbon. They contend that this gives uniformity to the aging process since it is well documented that bourbon ages differently in different levels of the rickhouses. Having only one level eliminates that variable. We made our way to the tasting room as our tour neared conclusion. The guide had to refer to notes on his phone as he described each of the Four Roses selections he had available. 

Although we were hoping to sample some of the Four Roses bourbons that are only available in Japan, we were able to compare the Four Roses Yellow Label, Four Roses Small Batch and Four Roses Single Barrel. Because we tend to prefer bourbon with less rye in the mashbill, we liked the yellow label best among the group. The added rye spiciness of the other Four Roses bourbons would be great for mixing but I would likely buy a less pricey bourbon if I were going to mix it.

We made a quick walk around the gift shop as we were leaving then made our way to the car. Although this tour at Four Roses was better than our 2011 visit, this is still the least informative distillery tour that we have taken. The Mediterranean architecture of the distillery is beautiful, the process is interesting and the bourbon is good. Unlike some distillery tours, Four Roses takes visitors through many production areas of the distillery where there is informative signage in multiple languages. However, we believe that the guide's training and personality makes the difference in an acceptable tour and one that is truly memorable.

The trip from Four Roses to Wild Turkey was a short drive through a pretty part of Kentucky. When Sarah and I visited the Wild Turkey distillery in 2002, the bourbon boom had not started and the distillery took few tours and didn't have a major visitor center. In fact, because Sarah was so young, they staff there was reluctant to allow her to tour and wouldn't give her a souvenir shot glass. When we were there the last time in 2011, the visitor center was small but well organized. The tour was very good through the high capacity fermenting and distilling operations. It is apparent that Wild Turkey is well positioned to take advantage in the resurgence in the popularity of bourbon.

When we arrived this year, we first noticed that the old visitor center appeared to have been leveled and a winding road took us to a beautiful new visitor center that is modern in appearance yet maintains the look of an old rickhouse. As we entered the visitor center, an industry group was departing in the Wild Turkey tour bus being guided by Eddie Russell. Since we had taken the tour at Wild Turkey at least two times in the past few years, we opted to not take the tour on this visit. Rather, we wanted to see the new visitor center. There was a nice display of posters and artifacts describing the history of the Wild Turkey Distillery and the making of their bourbon. We didn't stay long at the Wild Turkey visitor center before leaving to make the drive to Woodford Reserve. As we were leaving the visitor center and walking to the parking lot, we saw several people from our Four Roses tour walking toward the Wild Turkey visitor center.

The drive on winding country roads from Wild Turkey in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky to Woodford Reserve in Versailles, Kentucky was absolutely gorgeous. The weather couldn't have been better and the horse farms along the way were beautiful. Like many of the Kentucky distilleries, the buildings are beautiful at Labrot and Graham Woodford Reserve Distillery. Unlike other distilleries we have visited, many of Woodford's rickhouse are constructed of local Kentucky limestone. These rickhouses give unique aging conditions for the barrels of Woodford Reserve.
The interior of the Woodford Reserve visitor center has been completely remodeled since our last visit three years ago. The tasting room, reception area and gift shop are all very attractive, very open and bathed in natural light. The front porch at the visitor center is a great place to sit and enjoy the day, perhaps with a snack from the snack bar inside. We saw a number of people from our 9 am Four Roses tour who were preparing from the Woodford Reserve tour.

We had done the tour at Woodford Reserve several times recently so we didn't feel a need to take the same tour again today. We would like to come back and take the “Corn to Cork” tour which is a more in-depth look at processes at Woodford Reserve. However, this tour requires reservations and is only available on Tuesdays and Thursdays so we decided to take this tour another time. We got our lunch of roast beef on rye sandwiches from the cooler and ate as we left the parking area at Woodford.

We drove from Woodford Reserve to Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky. This is our favorite distillery tour by far. In addition, Buffalo Trace makes our favorite bourbon, Eagle Rare. Although we have taken the tour at Buffalo Trace several times in the past two years, it just never gets old so we decided to take the tour again. Our guide, Jimmy, was very well informed about the history of the Buffalo Trace Distillery, the process of making bourbon and the types of bourbon produced by Buffalo Trace as well as other major distillers. Perhaps the best thing about our guide was that he had a ton of charm and a generous dose of humor. He patiently answered questions and educated the group about making Buffalo Trace bourbons and other spirits like Wheatley Vodka.
Jimmy started in the visitor center with a little history of distilleries in Kentucky and how each survived (or failed to survive) restrictions of thirteen dry years during prohibition. We took a short walk around the grounds then saw a short video of the area's history and the making of bourbon. From there we entered a rickhouse where barrels of some of the experimental bourbons are being aged.

We learned that Buffalo Trace uses different mashbills in their bourbons. Mashbill #1 is a balanced blend of grains that is lower in rye (about 10%) than other mashbills. This formulation is used in Eagle Rare (our favorite), Old Charter, George T. Stagg, Col. E. H. Taylor, Buffalo Trace and Benchmark bourbons. Mashbill #2 has more rye and is used to make Ancient Age, Elmer T. Lee, Rock Hill Farms, Hancock's Reserve and Blanton's Reserve. The wheated mashbill from Buffalo Trace goes into the W. L. Weller and Van Winkle bourbons. Buffalo Trace also makes Sazarac and Thomas Handy rye whiskeys.

On our way to the bottling room where Blanton's Reserve, Eagle Rare and Van Winkle bourbons are hand bottled we passed barrels of newly casked bourbon rolling from the filling cistern to the rickhouse elevators on specially designed tracks. The tracks are laid out with a gentle slope so the heavy filled barrels of bourbon move from filling to the rickhouse mostly by gravity.

In the filling room, barrels of each bourbon are emptied into stainless steel tanks, passed through a filter to remove any particulates from the barrels and tested for alcohol concentration. Some bourbons are adjusted to a standard proof with only filtered water being added. Other bourbons like Blanton's Reserve are bottled at barrel strength with the proof of the bourbon being hand written on each label.

Watching the Buffalo Trace employees in the bottling area it is evident that they are proud to have a role in making fine bourbon available to bourbon lovers. Although the bottling, corking and labeling are all done by hand, the rate of production is amazing. These people are consummate professionals.

We ended up at the tasting room where we sampled Buffalo Trace bourbon and Wheatley Vodka as well the white dog that is aged to make Buffalo Trace Bourbon. Although we are not generally vodka drinkers, the Wheatley Vodka was interesting. The Buffalo Trace master distiller, Harlen Wheatley, makes this vodka from wheat grain that has been distilled 159 times for incredible purity. We finished with a shot of Buffalo Trace Bourbon Cream and a bourbon ball candy, both of which were very good.

As always, our guide was excellent and the tour of Buffalo Trace Distillery was very pleasant. Although we have taken a number of tours there, we always leave anxious to come back. We promised to make our next visit one of the Hardhat Tours that visits areas of the distillery that are not normally seen on the regular tours. We walked around the gift shop but since we have a generous supply of Eagle Rare and Buffalo Trace Bourbon Cream on hand at home, we made no purchases but started back toward Lexington, Kentucky.

We had no problem finding Town Branch Distillery in Lexington. I had been to this newer distillery last year with my future son-in-law, Ian but Mary had never visited here. The owner of Alltech, Pearce Lyons, had the distillery reception area and gift shop designed to resemble an Irish street scene. The wooden displays at Town Branch were so finely lacquered that they appeared to be made of plastic. We paid the $7 fee and started the tour. Only two other people were on the tour with us, two friends from the Lawrenceburg area.

We started in the area where the beers are made, many of which are stored in used bourbon barrels prior to putting in bottles or kegs. The first tasting room was for the wide selections of beer, ale and cider made at Town Branch. Neither of us is especially fond of beer, some of the choices were very pleasant. IPAs (India Pale Ale) are generally too bitter or hoppy for us but I liked the Kolsch, a beer variety from the Cologne area of Germany. Mary liked the Kentucky Peach Barrel Wheat best. The tasting area also had a stout, porter, ale and barrel aged beers. Their best selling product is Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale. When we checked prices at local discount package stores like Liquor Barn, we saw that this beer sells for over $2 per bottle in a four pack.

From the beer tasting area, we walked into the room with the two beautiful large copper pot stills. We were met by master distiller, Mark Coffman, who shared interesting information about making the spirits produced by Alltech. It is obvious that Mark is very hands-on and takes a lot of pride in maintaining the highest quality of products at Town Branch. Like the rest of the facility, the room with the stills is very attractive. The stills are the room's focal points with the condensers coming together at the copper try box. The walls are covered with local limestone and displays are placed in the room to educate and inform visitors about the bourbon making process. Fermentation takes place in large wooden tanks filling the room with the sweet smells of grain and fermentation. Town Branch stores their aging bourbon in rickhouses owned by Four Roses but the spirits are returned to Town Branch for hand bottling.

At the tasting area, we sampled Town Branch Bourbon and Pearce Lyon's Reserve malt whiskey. We were very familiar with Town Branch Bourbon having just finished a bottle that was a gift from my friend, Dennis Adkins. The bourbon is in a beautiful square bottle that is just too nice to dispose of once the bourbon is gone. Although not our favorite bourbon, Town Branch is very drinkable and is attractively priced at most stores. The Pearce Lyon's Reserve is a malt whiskey that is somewhat like the Irish whiskeys of Dr. Lyon's home country. In some ways, the Pearce Lyon's Reserve is like a single malt Scotch whiskey but lacks the smoky peat nose and taste. Our last sample for the day was the most interesting, Bluegrass Sundown, which is a concentrated coffee infused with bourbon and sugar. Bluegrass Sundown is mixed with hot water and heavy cream is floated on top for a very pleasant after dinner cordial. We cruised the gift shop and reception area before leaving the Town Branch Distillery.

Our visit to Town Branch was the final stop in Kentucky Bourbon Trail so we attempted to submit our completed passports as evidence of our visits and redeem our Kentucky Bourbon Trail T-shirts. However, after walking around much of downtown Lexington looking for an office for the Kentucky Distillers’ Association without success, we decided to give up and mail our passports to the mail drop address given in the passports.

We met Emily and Ian at their apartment and decided that we were in the mood for Mexican food. Each of us have had good meals at the nearby Mi Pequena Hacienda so we made our decision to go there. Ian had a burrito, Mary had roasted pork and vegetables, Emily and I had mole poblano. The mole there is some of the best I have ever had. It was dark and rich but with no burnt flavor or off tastes. It wasn't red or sweet like many mole recipes but was thick and savory with hints of coffee and cocoa complementing but not hiding the flavor of toasted sesame. We all enjoyed our meals.

We dropped Emily and Ian off at their place then drove home. By the time we got home then returned the rental car to Enterprise, it was after 10 pm and we went to bed straightaway. It was a very long but quite good day. We always enjoy our visits to the distilleries of Kentucky and this trip was among the best. We had perfect weather, none of the locations was especially crowded and we had planned our route to sequence our visits in the most efficient way. We are already looking forward to returning to several distilleries, especially to the Hardhat Tour at Buffalo Trace.

We visited each of the eight distilleries on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail in April and May of this year. In addition, we visited seven of the nine craft distilleries Craft Tour leaving only Old Pogue in Maysville and the newly opened New Riff adjacent to The Party Source in Newport, Kentucky. Since both of these on the route to Cincinnati, we plan to visit these two distilleries soon.

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Thursday, May 15, 2014

Kentucky Bourbon Affair - Stitzel-Weller Distillery

My birthday gift from my wife and daughters was a great one this year. They gave me a day at the Stitzel-Weller Distillery with a friend. This was part of tours and events included in the Kentucky Bourbon Affair which is a promotional for the bourbon industry. When I received the gift it didn't take a minute to know who I would ask to join me. My old college pal, Greg, has been a friend since we met over 40 years ago. I knew that he enjoyed good bourbon as much as me and would enjoy a walk through at the historic distillery.
By standards of Kentucky bourbon distilleries, the Stitzler-Weller

Distillery is relatively new, opening on Derby Day in 1935. The Stitzel-Weller Distillery was owned and operated by Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle and W. L. Weller where many iconic bourbons including W.L. Weller, Old Fitzgerald, Rebel Yell, and Cabin Still were made. After repeated downsizing, the distillery closed in 1991 moving many of the distillery employees to the Bernheim Distillery. The distillery is now owned by Diageo who also owns Captain Morgan, Johnny Walker and Crown Royal to name a few. At the present time, Bulleit Bourbon Frontier Whiskey, Bulleit 10 Year Bourbon and Bulleit Rye Whiskey are aged at the Stitzel-Weller Distillery. Mike Veach has an excellent historical timeline of the distillery on BourbonEnthusiast.
Greg and I left after work on Wednesday and drove down I-64 to Shivley, Kentucky, near Louisville, where we stayed at the Day's Inn near the airport. We were very pleased that our room was clean and quiet. It was also very large and had two king sized beds. As we turned in for the evening, we sipped some excellent W. L. Weller Antique 107 Bourbon which was very appropriate for the distillery we were planning to visit the next day.
We woke early on Thursday, anxious for our visit to the distillery.
When we arrived early at the gate to Stitzel-Weller, we were met by a friendly guard who chatted with us and directed us to where we should park. We walked around the grounds some, took a few snapshots and enjoyed the cool spring day. As 9 am approached, we were met by Brittany Allison, who is Bourbon Ambassador with the Kentucky Distiller's Association who gave us a lot of information about the Stitzel-Weller facility and products. Our group was composed of a really nice bunch of people who love bourbon and bourbon history. There was a couple from Saskatoon,
Saskatchewan, three friends from Dallas, Texas, a couple from Memphis, a lady from Maine, a couple from Northern Kentucky, a lady from San Francisco and others. We also met Molly Wellmann who is the largest retail seller of Bulleit Whiskeys. Molly owns three bars in the Cincinnati area; Japp's, Neon, Old Kentucky Bourbon Bar and a new punch bar, Myrtle's Punch House. We also learned that Andy Cororan in our group has quite a connection to the distillery. His father and grandfather were both master distillers at the Stitzel-Weller Distillery. The others in the group made the visit very interesting.

We were met by the owner of Bulleit Bourbon, Tom Bulleit.
We found him to be very pleasant and engaging. We enjoyed an
excellent breakfast of eggs, bacon, potatoes and fruit. We moved to the custom bar trailer where we were treated to a punch made from a mix of Bulleit whiskey, juices, liqueurs and bitters. It was quite good.

Tom Bulleit and the guides took us to the cistern room where barrels were filled prior to aging in the rickhouses. We walked past the old steam engine that powered many of the processes at the distillery and along the rickhouses. We circled around to the visitor center where Tom Bulleit has his office in the same room where Pappy Van Winkle once had his office. The new visitor center was very nicely decorated with many interpretive displays and information on the history of the Stitzel-Weller Distillery. 

We finished the day in the tasting room with Tom giving us his impressions of Bulleit Bourbon, Bulleit 10 Year Bourbon and Bulleit Rye. Each of these was very good and everyone had their own preferences. Although I generally do not like rye whiskey, I found the Bulleit Rye very pleasant which is surprising since it has 95% rye in the mashbill. The rye had a very complex flavor that really developed after a couple of drops of water was added to the glass.

As we left the visitor center and prepared to drive home, Tom gave each of us an embossed Bulleit rocks glass and an engraved Bulleit mint julep cup. Both will be excellent reminders of the good time we had on this trip. We also learned that our small group was the first group of visitors other than employees and industry representatives to tour the Stitzel-Weller distillery since it has been reopened.
We got back on I-64 and drove east toward home, stopping at Maria's Cocina for a tamale lunch. I arrived back home around 5 pm after dropping Greg off.

We both had a fantastic time on the trip and enjoyed the visit as well as each other's company. I knew that Greg would share my affection for good bourbon and the history of the old distillery. We hope to come back to the area with our wives once the visitor center and distillery are open for public tours.

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