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Friday, June 28, 2013

June 28, 2013 – “The Bourbon Trail”

We did it; The Bourbon Trail! Now we await our trophy which will proclaim victory; a free(?) T-shirt. When we visited the first distillery, Makers Mark, we acquired a passport. To be victorious, you must visit all seven of the distilleries on the “Trail”, and get your passport stamped at each one. After completion, you mail the passports to the Kentucky Distillers Association, and wait for 4 – 6 weeks to receive the shirts. To complete the “Trail” we spent $34 each for admission fees, while all are not free, Wild Turkey and Four Roses are. (As usual, click on any image to enlarge.)

First on our list was Makers Mark in Loretto, KY. The winding narrow road traverses through the rolling hills through some dense forests that are completely shaded even on the sunniest of days. Once you arrive, you can proudly proclaim you are in Hillbilly Heaven.

The process for making all bourbons is basically the same, but each distillery alters or tweaks some of the steps or processes to make each unique. All bourbons are whiskeys, but not all whiskeys are bourbons. Congress enacted legislation in 1964 outlining what criteria are needed for a whiskey to be labeled Bourbon.

In order to be labeled bourbon, the whiskey must be made in the US and contain in its recipe at least 51% corn. It must be distilled to less than 160 proof (80% alcohol) from fermented grain mash, and matured in new charred white oak barrels at no more than 120 proof. Nothing further can be added, except water, and must be bottled at 80 proof or higher. Maker’s Mark introduced a new bourbon recently, Makers 46, which is actually the char level of the barrel, and added internal staves of a different char level, to add depth and dimension to the finished product.

Maker’s is a relatively small distillery, and has remained with the same family for eight generations. The tour was very informative, considering this was our first distillery, and culminated with a sampling of their products. By law, they cannot serve over one ounce in total of all the samples; about ¼ ounce per sample.

Next, we decided on Jim Beam. What a difference, as Beam is the largest bourbon distillery in the US. By comparison, Maker’s Mark bottles 3,000 cases per day, and hand dips each bottle in wax, while Jim Beam’s automated line is running 30,000 cases per day!

I, for one, was surprised by the number of brands under the Jim Beam umbrella; not being a bourbon connoisseur. By comparison, Maker’s Mark has two products, and pictured below are but a sampling of Jim Beam’s offerings.

The entire bourbon making process at Beam is automated, and monitored by 2 – 4 employees in the control room. Each step is carefully scrutinized, and samplings are taken often from each step to ensure quality control.

And so we did, sample that is. Here at Jim Beam, they give each guest a debit card with a two sample balance on it. You have the opportunity to sample any two of their products you choose at automated kiosks; very high tech. Again, less than ½ ounce per sample.

Shortly after prohibition ended in 1934, Heaven Hill Distilleries was founded by a group of Bardstown area investors and the five Shapira brothers. The company had 12 employees at the time of its founding. Today, the company is the largest independent, family owned and operated producer and marketer of distilled spirits in the country. According to industry analysts, Heaven Hill is now the seventh largest spirits supplier in the US, and second largest holder of aging Bourbon whiskey in the world with an inventory in excess of 900,000 barrels. (Each barrel holds 53 gallons); that’s almost 17 million gallons of bourbon!

CC and I were somewhat disappointed with this tour. Their distillery is 40 miles away in Louisville, and the bottling plant here was not part of the tour. They do have a nice museum/heritage center, so the only actual thing we were able to tour was one of the many rick houses where the bourbon is aged. For the $5 tour cost each, not a great value for your money, IMHO.

The sampling room was very new and modern, and our guide let us sample two of the four choices available. As CC and I were sniffing, sipping, swirling, and tasting, I was interested in the design aspect of the tasting room and my thoughts wandered to my past career. As my eyes moved from one design feature to the next, I was for a moment perplexed as to why the Star of David would be incorporated into the ceiling’s design at its highest point, and then it hit me; the reason, not the bourbon. I’ll be the first to admit I’m not always the sharpest knife in the drawer, so you are probably one step ahead of me. 

The oldest and smallest distillery in Kentucky traces its origins to 1797 when Elijah Pepper began distilling in Woodford County. This National Landmark crafts Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select, the Official Bourbon of the Kentucky Derby, along with their new expression Double Oaked. The only distiller to utilize copper pot stills and triple distillation process used to handcraft Bourbon today.

All whiskeys, including Bourbon, begin with the grinding or crushing of grains and malted barley. If it’s bourbon, it MUST be a minimum of 51% corn, and usually rye to add flavor. This mash is cooked for 3 -4 hours to break down the starches in the grains. The mash is slowly cooled to around 120 degrees and the malted barley is added. The barley contains an enzyme that converts the starches into sugars. This sour mash is transferred to the fermenting tubs, and the yeast is added. The fermentation process converts the sugars into alcohol and as a byproduct of that process, carbon dioxide is released. The sour mash is allowed to ferment for 3 – 4 days. Sound like making beer? It should as they are almost identical. Each distillery has as another flavor enhancer, the option of using a variety of materials for their fermenters; some use stainless steel. Woodford Reserve uses cypress, and they claim it adds another layer of flavor to their bourbon(s).

After fermentation, the mixture is filtered, and transferred to large holding tanks waiting to be distilled. Again, each distillery uses a different style of “still”, but they all accomplish the same thing. The mixture is heated and as the steam (alcohol) rises it is condensed and collected. This condensed product is now referred to as “low wine” at around 120 proof. The low wine is run through a “doubler” still and the product is now referred to as “high wine” somewhere around 150 – 160 proof. The high wine is now ready to be placed in barrels for the aging process. However, Woodford Reserve is the only distillery we toured that uses a triple distillations process. So the high wine is distilled one final time before barreling. Just another example of what makes them different from the rest, and one they feel can justify a higher cost to the consumer for their product(s).

Woodford Reserve is small, by comparison, and uses different chars on their barrels, depending on the product to be aged. Below are four different barrels that are used. The char level is increased moving from left to right. They obviously would not divulge which barrel is used on what bourbon. Another marketing ploy, or does it actually change the flavor profile?

We were allowed to sample three different bourbons (their choices). CC and I both liked the Distillers Select, but honestly my taste buds are not sensitive enough to taste much of a difference. We could both identify which sample had the greatest percentage of alcohol, but as far as taste difference; not so much. Maybe that is why neither of us are fanatical about the beverage. IMHO, everything they claim sets them apart from the other bourbon distilleries, is just that; claims. Overall the tour was great, and the distillery is one of the only ones constructed from limestone. The $7 tour cost was relatively cheap entertainment for the hour and a half tour.

Founded in 2011, Town BranchDistillery is owned and founded by Dr. Pearse Lyons, an Irishman. He came to this country and founded Alltech, a company that specializes in the production of industrial yeasts. A natural offspring, Alltech Brewery followed, and in 2011 came the distillery.

This is by far the smallest distillery on the Bourbon Trail, and we had to ask ourselves why this one would be included, while Buffalo Trace is excluded. I’m sure it has to be the yeast connection, as while Town Branch is new, and the only distillery in Lexington, the tour at $7 each is IMHO, the worst value on the Trail. It is so small, that the fermenter and copper stills are located in the same room.

The two cypress fermenters at Town Branch, by contrast to Wild Turkey’s 26, look like they have barely been used in their two years of production.

Wild Turkey is a brand of Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey distilled and bottled by the Austin Nichols division of Campari Group. The distillery is located near Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, and the tour is complimentary.

The onsite grain elevators are constantly being re-filled. The large one on the right is corn, and it contains enough corn for one day of production. The smaller one for rye, and hold about five day’s worth of production.

Wild Turkey offers nine different bourbons, and three different whiskeys.

The 30,000 gallon fermenters are stainless steel, and for cooling the mash, they draw water from the Kentucky River, which flows through the cooling coils inside the fermenter. Interestingly enough, the reason this tank is empty, as is all their fermenters this time of year, they cease production when the water levels in the river drop, and the temperatures increase. Production will begin again in the fall, when water levels rise and temperatures fall. This is a normal practice for all of the distilleries we visited.

The new, year old distillery, is the most modern, high tech one on the Trail. Almost every aspect in the process is mechanically computer controlled. Humans are used to steam clean the fermenters between batches, and perform routine maintenance on the equipment.

Every step in the bourbon making process is taste tested. On the left are samples of low wine, high wine, and “White Dog” (moonshine). On the right are samples of bourbons being considered for bottling, provided they match a specific flavor and color profile.

On our way to the sampling room, CC pauses by a mega-barrel of this distilleries namesake.

Just down the road from Wild Turkey, we make our way to our final stop on the Bourbon Trail; the Four RosesDistillery, and for the first time will tour two distilleries in just one day, and this tour is also complimentary. YaHooo! This distillery has a unique style of architecture, one usually not associated with bourbon; southwestern adobe complete with clay tile roofs.

Four Roses was at one time, the “Premier” bourbon of choice. It was sold to Seagram’s, who over the process of ownership managed to take it from number one, to one many bourbon drinkers referred to as “swill”. Now, under new ownership it is slowly building its way back to the top, and in 2012 was named “Bourbon of the Year”; old school in every aspect of production, right down to the cypress fermenters.

This is a good visual representation of the distillation process, which occurs in the still, aptly located inside the stillhouse.

Most commercial stills are two to five stories tall, and the one at Four Roses is no exception. Here, an exterior picture of the “Stillhouse”; all five stories.

Well folks, that completes our requirements for The Bourbon Trail. We are only about 15 miles from the Buffalo Trace Distillery, and will more than likely take that one in as well, since we are so close, AND, it is complimentary as well. Double YaHoo!! Thanks for taking time to stop by, and see what a couple of fulltimers do on a day to day basis. It is not for those that are faint of heart, but we do live a blessed life. Until next time, take care and stay well…………………

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