Bourbon Lessons

I don’t know how to express this and have it come out right, so I will just write it:  I love whisk(e)y.  I spell it that way because when the Scots, Japanese, and Canadians produce the ambrosia, we spell it whisky.  When the Americans and Irish produce it, we spell it whiskey.  (Some folks claim that the spellings are interchangeable.  Those people are wrong.)  Scotch, bourbon, and rye are all types of whisk(e)y.  If you don’t mind a standardized test analogy, whisk(e)y:Scotch::automobile:sedan.

In any event, I finally got off my duff and visited Louisville, KY, the bourbon center of the U.S., between Christmas and New Year’s.  I persuaded a couple of friends from law school (Kris and John), whom I don’t get to see frequently enough since I moved away from DC, to meet me there.  I can’t speak for them, but I had a fantastic weekend, and if you decide to go, I want you to do the same.  So here are some things you should know about bourbon and about the distilleries we visited.

1.  Bourbon means something specific.  According to the law, for a whiskey to be labeled a bourbon, it must meet all five of the following requirements:  (1) it must be produced in the U.S.; (2) the mash bill (i.e., the mix of grains used to create the distillate) must be at least 51% corn; (3) it must be aged in new, charred barrels made of oak; (4) the distillate must be no more than 125 proof when it goes into the barrel for aging; and (5) it must be bottled at 80 proof or more.  There are more rules about what constitutes a straight bourbon whiskey, which has to do with how long the bourbon ages in the barrel.

2.  Don’t rent a limo.  We got one for the day that we visited Heaven Hill, Willett, and Maker’s Mark because none of us wanted to risk any sort of dangerous driving.  We didn’t taste enough bourbon to make a dent in sobriety for any of us, and Kris and I are both lightweights.  Partly, this is because the distilleries are so far apart (more on that below).  Mostly, it’s because the distilleries don’t pour a lot of bourbon for you to taste (specifically to avoid any drunk driving).  When I go back, I won’t go to the trouble or incur the expense of a limo.

3.  Stay in downtown Louisville.  There are hotels and charming B&Bs closer to the distilleries.  The issue for an urban foodie with dietary restrictions like me is the lack of food options.  In the rural counties surrounding Louisville, where most of the distilleries are located, you will find fast food, larger chains, and southern cooking (sometimes all three in a single restaurant).  Louisville is a perfect, central location that offers interesting, non-chain restaurants with delicious food and cocktails, whiskey-based and otherwise.  (We loved Down One Bourbon Bar and Hillbilly Tea.)

4.  Choose your tours carefully.  Most of the people who were on the tours with us didn’t know much about bourbon beyond its color.  This made me a favorite with the guides because of how excited I was to be there and how many of their products I had tried.  The newbies worked my nerves.  If you don’t care for whisk(e)y or bourbon, distillery tours are not the appropriate place to make that known, and if you must make it known, once is enough.  I also don’t like people, so take that into account.

5.  Most of the distilleries are not close together.  It’s not like Napa or Sonoma or the Willamette Valley or any other wine region I’ve ever visited.  There are a few exceptions (which I’ve noted below), but most of the distilleries are pretty far apart – like anywhere from 45-90 minutes on the freeway far apart.  I didn’t do enough research before going – things turned out great for us, but I might have planned differently if I knew then what I know now.

6.  Don’t expect to taste or buy special bottles.  Kentucky law requires the distilleries to sell and send their products to their distributors, who then sell and send back bottles to the distillery.  They are not holding back special bottles for the people in the know, and if they did, I doubt that the guides would have access to it.  Most of the guides are people who have retired from their former careers and don’t want to watch soap operas all day.  Don’t get me wrong – they are knowledgeable and enthusiastic about their bourbons.  I’m just pretty sure they don’t have access to rare bottles, because believe me, I was at my most charming in the hope of being wrong.

7.  Heaven Hill.  Heaven Hill is the largest family-owned and -operated bourbon producer left.  They bottle under a number of different labels, including a few of my favorites:  Elijah Craig, Evan Williams, and Rittenhouse 100.  Heaven Hill has done a lovely job with the displays in the Heritage Center.  You’ll learn the history of bourbon and a couple of the legends that surround how it evolved.  I love liquor lore.  We got more thorough information here about the rickhouses (i.e., the warehouses where they keep the barrels for aging) than we did anywhere else.  They’ve also cut open a used barrel for sniffing, and now I know what heaven smells like. Heaven Hill ages and bottles bourbon in Bardstown; milling, fermentation, and distillation happen elsewhere.

8.  Willett.  Willett is literally across the street from Heaven Hill (don’t walk it – no sidewalks, curvy country freeway, etc.).  Not only is it easy to visit both in a single morning, but I found the contrast between a giant like Heaven Hill and a small, artisanal producer like Willett fascinating.  I enjoyed the tour (we saw the mill, the fermenting tanks, the stills, and the barrels), and we met a very friendly dog (Cooper, who I think is a beagle) from one of Willett’s neighbors.  I expected to love it there, but I didn’t because of the tour guide.  She openly sneered at the big distilleries.  I understand highlighting what makes you different and spinning that as an advantage, but I think that the bourbon industry is large enough that there’s no need to disparage your competitors.  Also, she referred to LBJ as “Lyndon Bird Johnson,” and then she claimed to be a native Texan who referred to herself three minutes later as being born and growing up in St. Louis.  Pandering sucks, and I don’t like it.

9.  Maker’s Mark.  Maker’s Mark was the most commercial of the tours, which we expected.  It was also the most crowded, which we also expected.  The only reason I would recommend visiting the Maker’s Mark facility is that they let you taste the distiller’s beer (i.e., the mixture of milled grain, water, and yeast) as it’s fermenting.  If you go, you can pay for the privilege of dipping a bottle into Maker’s Mark’s signature red wax.  We considered it, because the tour guide told us that in order to work in the distillery, you have to be able to dip at least 25 bottles per minute.  TWENTY FIVE BOTTLES PER MINUTE.  We decided against it because we were hungry and cold.  Maker’s Mark is way the heck out there, about another 20-25 minutes from Heaven Hill and Willett.

10.  Evan Williams Bourbon Experience.  As you might have guessed, the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience is owned by Heaven Hill and located in downtown Louisville.  We spent Saturday at Heaven Hill, Willett, and Maker’s Mark and then went ziplining underground at the Louisville Megacavern on Sunday morning (I had my doubts about ziplining because I am lazy and uncoordinated, but I highly recommend this).  Liquor laws in the south being what they are, the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience was our best bet to taste bourbon on a Sunday afternoon.  I wasn’t sure if it would be worth it to go, given that Kris and I had gone to Heaven Hill the day before.  We decided to buy tickets anyway because John couldn’t take the tour at Heaven Hill.  I think it’s worth it.  You get an Evan Williams-specific history, and there’s more information about the impact of Prohibition on the industry (liquor lore!).  Incidentally, Kris, John, and I met in law school in Texas, and we ate a late lunch at and loved the Mexican restaurant next door.  Be ready for enormous portions and delicious margaritas.

11.  Buffalo Trace.  I finally did a little research on Google Maps and figured out that I had time to visit one more distillery before heading home on Monday morning.  Most of the locals we talked to enthusiastically endorsed Buffalo Trace.  A friend recommended Four Roses, which has won a number of awards from the whiskey cognoscenti.  The deciding vote came from a bartender friend of mine in California, who texted paragraphs on why I should visit Buffalo Trace over Four Roses, mostly having to do with Buffalo Trace’s history, and the labels it bottles under:  Van Winkle, Eagle Rare, Buffalo Trace, Colonel E.H. Taylor, Thomas Handy, and Sazerac, among others.  I loved the Buffalo Trace tour the most of all the tours I took, and I liked their grounds the best, too.  We didn’t get to visit the fermenting tanks, but the whole property smells like fermenting mash, so I wasn’t disappointed.  This one is definitely on my list for a second, longer visit.

12.  Four Roses.  I did a little bit more Google Maps research in the parking lot at Buffalo Trace and discovered that Four Roses is less than 30 minutes away, and it was on my way back to my sister’s place in Memphis, so I ended up going to both.  Four Roses has separate distilling and warehousing/bottling facilities, so you don’t get to sniff the bourbon aging in barrels, which is my favorite part of any whiskey-related tour.  I find Four Roses to be kind of clinical and overly scientific in its approach to bourbon.  I prefer it when the producer treats bourbon as more of an art, but science gives you consistency, and art does not.  Four Roses distillation takes place in a large, commercial facility, and the tour was huge.  You can drive the 45 minutes to the warehousing/bottling facilities (which are between Jim Beam, which we did not visit, and Heaven Hill, if you drive from downtown Louisville) and tour those, where they will also sell you a used Four Roses bourbon barrel for $94.  I was tempted, but I needed to hit the road.  Four Roses has the best gift shop of the places we visited.

It was a great weekend, and I’ll definitely be going back to take the longer, more involved tours a couple of the distilleries offer.  Please keep your fingers crossed that I do not also end up with a used bourbon barrel.  I seriously don’t have any place to put it.

The tasting at Heaven Hill in Bardstown, KY.

The tasting at Heaven Hill in Bardstown, KY.

Fermenting mash at Willett.

Distiller’s beer fermenting at Willett.

Old-fashioned fermenting tub at Maker's Mark.

Old-fashioned fermenting tub at Maker’s Mark.

Freshly bottled and tagged Eagle Rare (sorry for the resolution -- not allowed to get very close)

Freshly bottled and tagged Eagle Rare (sorry for the resolution — not allowed to get very close)

Buffalo Trace moves its barrels on tracks.  Clever, and cool to see.

Buffalo Trace moves its barrels on tracks. Clever, and cool to see.

Beer still in the very modern facilities at Four Roses.

Beer still in the very modern facilities at Four Roses.

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