Thursday, March 12, 2015

Buffalo Trace Hardhat Tour

After a winter of snow and cold wind followed by heavy rain resulting in local flooding, we were anxious to take advantage of a beautiful day and take an outing with friends.
We picked up our longtime friends, Greg & Janina Michael for a tour of a couple of our favorite Kentucky Bourbon distilleries.  The drive to Frankfort, Kentucky was very pleasant and gave us a chance to catch up with our companions arriving at Buffalo Trace Distillery a little after 10 am.  Our Hardhat Tour didn’t start until 10:30 so we walked around the visitor center and gift shop in the midst of a major construction project.  Like most distilleries, the current boom in the Bourbon industry has created a flood of visitors to distilleries.  Bourbon makers have expanded and improved the visitor centers and tours to accommodate the growing number of foreign and domestic tourists.  We learned that the gift shop will now expand to include most of the first floor of the visitor center while displays and tastings will move to the building’s second floor.
Although we have taken the standard tour of Buffalo Trace on many occasions over the years, we had never been on a hardhat tour.  Our knowledgeable guide, Shelly, a 30+ year employee of Buffalo Trace, took us through the distillery from where the corn, malted barley and rye enter, through hammer mill areas, to mash cookers, coolers, fermenters, yeast tanks, stills, rickhouses and even bottling operations.  I didn’t know that Buffalo Trace doesn’t combine their grains until after cooking.  Milled corn is cooked at the highest temperature and for the longest time, rye is cooked for a shorter time and at a lower temperature.  Since germination processes have begun converting the barley’s starches into sugars in the malting process, very little cooking is required prior to fermentation.   
Some of the best things about a distillery tour are the smells.  I love the scent of the grains being crushed in the hammer mill. The sweet smell of corn mingled with the spicy rye aroma is very pleasant.  Moving to the fermentation areas, the acrid smell of sour mash, fermenting corn and the intoxicating layer of carbon dioxide is a smell that is quite unique and not unpleasant.  My personal favorite scents of the day are in the old dimly lit rickhouses. Oak barrels, cold Kentucky air, aging Bourbon leaking between oak staves and old wood from the decades old post and beam buildings give a unique and pleasant smell.  The final aroma of the day was in the bottling area.  We were in the area where the premium single barrel Blanton’s Reserve is hand bottled and labeled.  The smell of the outstanding barrel proof Bourbon made us anxious to enjoy a sip of Buffalo Trace products in the tasting room.  We had sips of Buffalo Trace, Eagle Rare, Wheatley Vodka and White Dog.  We followed with a sip of Bourbon Cream and a Rebecca Ruth Bourbon Chocolate.
Unlike some distillery tours we have taken, the group on the Buffalo Trace Hardhat Tour was small.  In addition, nearly everyone but us was in the spirits industry.  One member of the group was the national sales director for Blanton’s Reserve.  He had two of Europe’s leading Blanton’s distributors where there from France.  Once gentleman was with Everclear and a couple of other Buffalo Trace employees were on the tour.  It was great to interact with so many people with so much knowledge of Bourbon and spirits.  We bought a few gifts at the gift shop and left the distillery at 12:30.
Emily recommended a restaurant in Frankfort called Gibby’s for lunch.  The sandwiches we each had were very good and the prices were quite reasonable.  We were able to park right in front of the restaurant and were able to get a table easily.  After we finished our lunch, we drove the short distance to Lawrenceburg to tour the Wild Turkey Distillery
We got to the distillery a little after 1:30 and signed up for a 2 pm tour and enjoyed the warm sunny day while we waited on our tour shuttle to arrive.  Our guide at Wild Turkey was interesting and well informed.  We saw the Bourbon making process from milling grain through barrel aging in Wild Turkey’s many rickhouses.  We were unable to see the mechanized bottling operations but were able to see all other aspects of making the wide variety of Bourbon made there.  
The highlight of the trip was a visit by Master Distiller, Eddie Russell.  He took time from his busy schedule to meet with us and give us an insider’s view of how premium Bourbon is made.
After our tour, we arrived back at the newly built visitor center for a tasting.  Sips of most of Wild Turkey’s products were available including Wild Turkey 101, Wild Turkey 81, Rare Breed Barrel Proof, Russell’s Reserve 10 Year Old Small Batch, Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel, Kentucky Spirit, Wild Turkey Rye, Russell’s Reserve Rye, American Honey and American Honey Sting.  We enjoyed our sips and conversation before taking the short drive to Four Roses Distillery.
We arrived at Four Roses a few minutes too late to take the day’s final tour.  We really like the visitor center and distillery tour at Four Roses but have been unable to get a knowledgeable guide on any of our previous tours.  We like Four Roses Bourbon and enjoy the beautiful distillery and wish that we would get a guide at some point that can communicate adequately about the variety of Four Roses Bourbons.  Although we couldn’t take a tour, we were able to purchase ($5) tickets for a tasting that included Four Roses Yellow Label, Four Roses Small Batch and Four Roses Single Barrel.  Our tasting fee included the souvenir rocks glass.  We walked around the newly remodeled visitor center then left for Lexington to do some shopping and for dinner.
We arrived at the Liquor Barn off Man O’ War around 5 pm to shop for some of our favorite Bourbons and to chat with the Liquor Barn Bourbon concierge to get additional recommendations.  We tasted a featured Irish Whiskey but neither of us was impressed.  We picked up some Ole Smokey Moonshine and were browsing the Bourbon selections, noticing that they were out of stock of our favorites, Eagle Rare and Johnny Drum Private Stock.  The concierge recommended a bottle of Buck’s Bourbon, an eight year old Bourbon from Kentucky that has a low rye mashbill and a balanced flavor.  She also recommended the New Make Bourbon White Dog from New Riff Distillery in Newport, Kentucky.  This clear spirit is supposed to have the delicate flavor of fresh corn that I really enjoy in an unaged whiskey.  We purchased a bottle of each of these as well as a premixed mojito for Mary that she really enjoys.  Greg got a bottle of his favorite, 1972 from Barton and we made our way to Ramsey’s for dinner which is in a nearby strip mall.
We got a table quickly and had a short wait for Emily to join us after she got off work.  We all enjoyed our meals and especially the dinner conversation.  The food at Ramsey’s is always excellent.  Janina had a vegetable plate, Greg had a huge buffalo chicken salad, I had the Kentucky hot brown sandwich and Mary & Emily had the country steak and gravy.  Emily especially enjoys the corn oysters from Ramsey’s.

After saying our goodbyes, we drove back to Cabell County on I-64 enjoying our chat and planning to get together again soon.

View Larger Map