Friday, June 20, 2008

On the Kentucky Bourbon Trail

This is long overdue but procrastination is kinda my middle name. I will warn you that this is a long post that took a shitload of time to put together, again, mainly because procrastination is kinda my middle name. Im also a tad wordy and tend to relate every detail possible but hey, at least the few who read this will be gettin their money's worth. Enjoy...

Around my 21st birthday, my Dad gave me a salute with a glass of bourbon. At the time it tasted like gasoline and I was not a fan. I was used to sucking down beers not sipping liquor. As time went on, however, I began to get more into new liquors. I remember sitting at an airport bar waiting for a flight that was delayed and deciding to order a Maker's Mark and Coke so I could get a nice buzz and nap on the flight. I liked it right away. The Coke subdued that gasoline taste and added to the sweetness of the bourbon. As time went on, I switched from bourbon & Coke to bourbon & ginger ale. One day, I decided that I wanted to begin trying new bourbons and Dad had kept Basil Hayden at the house on my last visit home. He told me that was a bourbon to be consumed on the rocks only, so naturally I ditched the soda I had been mixing with other bourbons like Maker's Mark. This is when my love for all things bourbon began.

This year, I gave my dad a killer Christmas present. I booked some business in Louisville on a Friday and had him fly out to meet me that night. That was the start of the Bourbon Trail for us. In the next 2 days we were going to be visiting various bourbon distilleries and learning the secrets of their sweet nectar.

I had booked a hotel in downtown Louisville, walking distance from area attractions like Stevie Ray's Blues Bar and Fourth Street Live, a pedestrian street with shops, bars, and restaurants much like Lincoln Road on Miami Beach just with bigger buildings. After settling in and planning the next day's itinerary, we headed down to Fourth Street Live to check out the Maker's Mark bar. After all, this was a bourbon trip so we needed to make sure we drank as much as possible!

The Maker's Mark bar was stocked with around 70 different types of bourbon all lined behind the bar in alphabetical order waiting to be served up by Chris and Melissa. Both took good care of us and we decided to stick around for dinner so we could eat and watch the Celtics/Pistons playoff game. I sampled 5 bourbons, Dad had 3. Rock Hill was my favorite that night. The food was ok, mine was overcooked but Chris sympathized and passed me a free round so it was all good. Celtics came back in the 4th to finish off the Pistons and we got nice and buzzed before heading to the hotel to crash. Saturday was going to be an early start, late ending day.

We started the day early and arrived at the Jim Beam distillery around 9:15am. They are known for their namesake bourbon but have gained much more notoriety from their small batch collection - Knob Creek, Basil Hayden, Booker's, and Baker's. Basil Hayden is my favorite everyday bourbon, Dad's too. Its incredibly smooth with a nice flavor and for that reason I always recommend it to scotch drinkers who want to give bourbon a try. The tour at Jim Beam was kinda lame because it was self-guided. You got to see a movie about the Beam family history and then you could walk around the grounds before finishing off at the Beam House for some tasting. Not much learning, mostly browsing. I did think the Beam family history was pretty cool though. When we finally made our way around to the Beam House it was about 10am. The house was decorated with pictures and memorabilia from the Beam family business. There was one room that housed what is believed to be (and in my opinion has to be) the worlds smallest distiller. It can still produce 4 gallons of "high wine", the clear liquid that is poured into charred white oak barrels and aged, eventually bottled as bourbon. Other things like Beam's long pipe and an old piece of paper that held Beam's computations from when he tried to figure out what it would cost him to get going after Prohibition was lifted adorned the walls. Pretty cool. We then went for the tasting and we were in luck. The 2 bourbons available that day were Booker's and Basil Hayden. Basil at 10:15am, neat (no ice), after a full night of drinking, wasnt too bad but it did give me a little "HELLO!" moment. Booker's, on the other hand, was rough. At 124.6 proof, it was like drinking fire, especially since I'd only had an english muffin all day. But hey, I was awake now!

We hit the road and began the drive to the next stop on our Bourbon Trail - Buffalo Trace. This was the one I was most looking forward to because they produce some of my favorite brands and the most highly rated brand in the world known as Pappy Van Winkle's 23yr. Pulling into the parking lot, we get hit by the aroma of aging bourbon wafting through our car windows, also known as the "angel's share". That was awesome. We enter the store and find we have 40 minutes until the next tour. I was excited to see a whole basket full of corks from Blanton's bottles being sold. Each cork features a horse and rider figurine on top and each of those bears a letter of the name "Blanton's" at the horse's back foot. If you take all of them and spell out "Blanton's", the figurines resemble a horse race from standing position to full stride and ending with the rider raising his hand in victory. The "S" piece was rumored to be the hardest to get so I was fired up when I found the only one in the bowl. I also got the "T" and "O" to complete my collection (See below).

Here are some other highlights from the shop:

Barreling process

Buffalo Trace Milestones (6,000,000+ barrels!!!)

List of Distilleries throughout history

The Roll of Honor - all the award winning spirits made at Buffalo Trace (Impressive!)

The tour started at 1pm and we headed on over to the Free House to watch a quick movie about the history of Buffalo Trace. Turns out, the "Buffalo Trace" was what they called the paths that buffalo created as they walked through the fields of yesteryear, paths followed by our American forefathers on their expedition West. After the video and a good amount of Q&A with our guide, we headed on over to Warehouse C to check out the racks of aging barrels.

Warehouse C is where the smell of the "angel's share" was coming from when we arrived. Wooden ricks about 11 stories high with barrels upon barrels of aging bourbon lie inside, hibernating through each Kentucky season. Buffalo Trace has actually found a way to control the climate inside during the various seasons to maximize efficiency. Bourbon must be aged a minimum of 2 years to be considered Straight Bourbon though most are aged for 6-8 years. Dad and I really liked this pic I snapped next, looking out from the dead center of the warehouse.

From the warehouse we headed on over to the Albert Blanton Bottling Hall. Large batch bourbons, like Buffalo Trace's namesake brand, are a blend of 100+ different barrels aged in the warehouse. See, barrels will age differently in different sections of the warehouse, with the ones on top usually aging at a higher proof than those down below. Small batch bourbons are a blend of a much lesser amount of barrels, a select few from the heart of the warehouse. Let's not forget single barrel as well which is poured from a single barrel in the warehouse...imagine that! (Interesting fact: Booker Noe, master distiller @ Jim Beam, believes that the best barrels are located in the middle of the warehouse. Hence, "Booker's" brand bourbon is a small batch bourbon poured from barrels selected from the heart of the warehouse. It is the only bourbon in existence to be poured, unfiltered, from the barrel to the bottle) Inside the bottling hall they had a case with all of the small batch bourbons inside that were bottled at Buffalo Trace...

After a tasting of Buffalo Trace bourbon and Eagle Rare (a personal favorite of mine and a great value at about $30) the tour came to an end. Dad and I sat and talked bourbon with the tour guide and got some of her recommendations on new brands to try. She enjoyed our conversation/enthusiasm so much that she offered to sneak away for a few and give us a private tour of the fermentation process. Awesome. We headed back to the fermentation tanks via golf cart and then got a nice tour of the insides and the process.

The fermentation tanks

This bubbling is a natural reaction between the corn, rye, malted barley, Kentucky limestone water, and a little yeast that can last up to 5 days.

From there its off to the Beer Stills (the fermented product looks a lot like beer) where the product is distilled to a clear alcohol liquid. This is called "white dog" at Buffalo Trace. Jim Beam calls it "high wine". Here are the beer stills followed by a pic of the "white dog" tap. I loved the tasting glass next to the tap. The "white dog" is what is poured into the charred oak barrels to age, eventually becoming bourbon.

Oh and just for kicks they decided, since they were so good at distilling, to give vodka a try.

We took a walk around the grounds before heading on to the next stop. Here is Thunder. The plaque reads, "carved from a fallen 300 year old sycamore tree to commemorate the majesty of migrating buffalo in a wilderness past. Created by sculptor Stan Schu, June 1999"

Our final stop for the day was Woodford Reserve, just down a ways from Buffalo Trace. The ride there was pretty cool. Miles up miles of horse farms with horses EVERYWHERE. Its no wonder Woodford Reserve creates a special bottle for the Derby each year.

Eventually we arrived at Woodford Reserve. This distillery was different to me in that it had this "high society" type vibe. Maybe Im just saying that because of the Derby connection, I dunno. Pretty cool location though.

We spent so much time at Buffalo Trace that we didnt get to Woodford Reserve in time to catch the last tour. So, we walked around the museum exhibit and read up on the history of the place and the process they employ to make their bourbon. We also got a tasting and Dad got busted going back for seconds which was pretty funny.

On our way out, we met a nice couple from Utah who I recognized from our Buffalo Trace tour. They had seen a few different distilleries the day before and we decided we would have to make a return trip next year to hit up the rest of the Bourbon Trail. The husband also talked about how he has to drive to Cali to get his bourbon thanks to the laws in Utah.

We headed back to Louisville for the night and checked out Proof on Main, a spot recommend by Sara over at All Purpose Dark. We didnt have a reservation and didnt feel like waiting for over an hour so we decided to have a few bourbons at the bar and then go dominate a nice hearty steak over at Morton's across the street. I did get this shot of the outside of the 21C museum-hotel where Proof on Main was located.

A few more bourbons at the Maker's Mark bar and it was off to bed. We were flying home the next afternoon and planned to hit up the Louisville Slugger Factory before heading to the airport. You know, for a relatively quiet city, there really is a lot to see in Louisville and the surrounding area. Thats one of the things I really enjoyed about this trip outside of getting to spend time with Dad. There is so much history and so many sights and cool stuff to be seen inside the borders of our own country that most people never would think about. Sure, it may not be as glamorous as Paris or Athens but the sense of adventure is still there.


sara said...

Superb post! I wish we had visited Buffalo Trace and Woodford Reserve, we definitely did not get the full distillery experience at Jim Beam. I love the bit about your dad getting busted for going back for seconds! Luckily, we had a pregnant gal (though it wasn't obvious) in our party so we yoinked her snifter for extra sips.

Blind Mind said...

Yeah, Buffalo Trace is the "must see" tour in my opinion. I have yet to go to Maker's Mark and Ive heard that is good. Guy I spoke to said Buffalo Trace was better from a learning standpoint. Im looking forward to going back and seeing the Maker's distillery and also doing dinner @ Proof on Main.

Nancy said...

You should come back and try the recently launched Urban Bourbon Trail (You've already visited two of the eight locations...)

Blind Mind said...

I imagine "Bourbon Bar" is another location? Link me w/ more info please!