The Hoppy Okapi

Occasional posts about hiking and other stuff

A Bourbon Tour of Kentucky: Day 3 November 28, 2010

Filed under: vacation — Amanda @ 18:24
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Barrels aging at Heaven Hill

After a delicious breakfast in the courtyard of the Jailer’s Inn, we headed out to see the final two bourbon distilleries of our trip – Heaven Hill and Maker’s Mark.

Barrel Warehouses at Heaven Hill

Heaven Hill had a very impressive, recently built, visitors’ center just south of Bardstown. We arrived a few minutes before they were officially open, and had time to browse their History of Heaven Hill bourbon exhibits before taking our tour.

Chuck poses at Heaven Hill

There were three or so distilleries that were purchased and continued post-prohibition by the family that owns Heaven Hill. They also own or distribute quite a few other labels – we learned that Christian Brothers brandy, distilled from California grapes, is actually aged in used bourbon barrels and bottled in Kentucky.

Our guide at Heaven Hill was a good storyteller, with anecdotes about the work in the barrel warehouses (and how the workers would sample the whiskey when no one was looking), and told us about drink recipes for some of the Heaven Hill products – he was particularly fond of Pama pomegranate liquor.

Deep inside the Heaven Hill barrel warehouse

The white dog for Heaven Hill is actually distilled in Louisville, so we only toured the barrel warehouses there, but we got to go into the very center of the barrel warehouse instead of just staying near the perimeter. We also got to see the barrel elevator and learn about various cooperage tools. The grounds of Heaven Hill were well-manicured, with a family sculpted out of bourbon barrels and a butterfly garden in full bloom.

The Barrel Family

The tasting room was super-slick – there is a giant bourbon barrel shaped room in the middle of the gift shop, and the tasting was inside at a circular bar.

Top-secret barrel shaped tasting bar

We had samples of two bourbons – Elijah Craig 18-year-old bourbon and Evan Williams single barrel bourbon; the glasses were placed on special lighted pedestals so we could see the color of the bourbon more clearly. Before tasting the bourbons, we did a scent experiment – each person had two scent canisters and we had to guess what the scents were; we then analyzed the scent of the bourbons, and added a few drops of water to observe how that changed the aroma.

Barrel Aging at Heaven Hill

Saturday lunch was barbecue, at a little place outside of Bardstown that I found in a Nelson County visitors guide that I picked up at Heaven Hill. There was no official address, just directions to go two miles past the junction of two roads. It was definitely a very local place, with a meat smoker in the parking lot, checkered plastic tablecloths, and laminated plastic menus.

Tasty barbeque lunch

The ad claimed that they were famous for pork, so I ordered a rib tip dinner, and Chuck had a pulled pork sandwich. With “unsweet” tea and sides of cole slaw and baked beans, I had quite a good plate of food – the rib tips were darkly smoked and very tender – the bits of bone on them were so soft that they had almost turned to gelatin!

Former distillery of Heaven Hill

After lunch we headed south again toward Maker’s Mark, passing the remains of the burnt-down former Heaven Hill distillery on the way. Maker’s Mark was the busiest of all the distilleries we visited, and had a well built-out tourist infrastructure to go with it – it’s basically the Disneyland of bourbon distilleries.

On the grounds at Maker's Mark

There was the Toll Gate Cafe at the beginning of the property (formerly a real toll booth!), and portraits hanging on the walls of the visitors’ center came alive and started talking as we walked through the room; there were 30-40 people leaving on tours every ten minutes. All of the buildings were black wood with red trim, adding to the Disneyland impression with well manicured grounds and immaculate upkeep.

At Maker's Mark

It was a pretty comprehensive tour – we saw the fermenting tanks – 12 feet high and 12 feet in diameter, a few older wooden tanks and some newer stainless steel ones – as well and the stills. I was impressed by how close we were to all of the equipment controls – I could have reached out to press buttons and pull levers!

Chuck uses a distillation tank as a mirror

Fermenting Tank at Maker's Mark

We also visited the barrel warehouse, where we learned that Maker’s Mark is the only distillery that still rotates barrels, moving them from top to bottom throughout their aging period to ensure uniform aging characteristics through all of the barrels. We also saw the bottling line, where the signature wax-dipping of the bottles happens.

Wax-dipping Christmas ornaments at Maker's Mark

While we visited, a few workers were dipping wax-topped Christmas ornaments. The tour ended through a back wall of the barrel warehouse into the gift shop, where we tasted Maker’s Mark and Maker’s 46, which is classic Maker’s Mark aged with extra toasted French Oak staves. Maker’s 46 had a nice smooth flavor, but can’t be officially called bourbon because of the non-standard aging process.

Bourbon samples!

After our tour of Maker’s mark we headed back to Bardstown for the evening, where we dined at Kreso’s Restaurant, indulged in ice cream at Banana Moon, and stayed at the Red Rose Inn, another B&B two blocks down from the Jailer’s Inn. This was our final day of bourbon touring, and we felt well-educated in the ways of bourbon by the end!

Relaxing at the Red Rose Inn in Bardstown


A Bourbon Tour of Kentucky: Day 2 October 16, 2010

Filed under: vacation — Amanda @ 10:01
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Wild Turkey Distillery


On Bourbon Tour 2010: Day 2, we traveled from Lexington to Bardstown. Our first stop of the day was Wild Turkey, a bonus distillery we added to the itinerary after squeezing in two tours on Thursday.


Me with the Wild Turkey sign


We arrived around 11am, and a sign on the door said the next scheduled tour was at 12:30, but there were enough visitors that an extra tour was added to the schedule, and we only had to wait for about 15 minutes.


Care for a Turkey Ride while you wait?


Where Buffalo Trace celebrated its colonial-era roots, Wild Turkey was an homage to the industrial revolution – giant metal buildings loom above the road as you approach the turnoff to the distillery, and its easy to imaging the grounds as they were in the late 1800s.


Our first view of Wild Turkey


Wild Turkey was on summer shutdown, but the tour was still thorough. We followed giant yellow turkey tracks through the grounds to see the giant steel fermenters and tall red grain silo.


Following the turkey tracks...


We also got a great look at the column still used in the first of two distillations.


Column Still


The barrel warehouses at Wild Turkey were light-colored metal, and there were a lot of them – Wild Turkey appeared to be a much higher-volume distillery than the others we’d  visited thus far. I asked if each barrel was tasted before bottling, as our tour guide at Woodford Reserve said happened there, and was told that at Wild Turkey they just sample one barrel from each rick to determine whether its ready for production.


Barrel Warehouse at Wild Turkey



Wild Turkey Barrel Stamp


We got to sample two bourbons each at Wild Turkey, so between the two of us we sampled Rare Breed (the barrel-proof version of Wild Turkey), Russel’s Reserve 10-year aged bourbon, and Kentucky Spirit, a single-barrel bourbon.


Tasting bar at Wild Turkey


Even though we’d originally planned to skip it, we were glad to have stopped at Wild Turkey since it was so different from the other tours we took.

We stopped for lunch in Lawrenceburg, a fairly small town in central KY, and happened to park right in front of Heavens to Betsy, a small bakery / lunch counter serving yummy sandwiches, quiches, cookies and cake. The tomato pie and double chocolate cake were especially good!


Heavens To Betsy, a great lunch spot in Lawrenceburg



Chuck especially loved the chocolate cake!


Distillery #4 was Four Roses, a brand which had been available on oversees for about 40 years until just a few years ago, and one which I wasn’t familiar with before we visited.


Vistor Center at Four Roses


Their bottle design for the higher-end bourbons is very elegant, with the four-rose emblem molded into the glass. Four Roses was also on summer shutdown, but they gave a good tour that really emphasized they technology behind their distilling process.


Model of the distilling process


We learned that they have 10 different base bourbons that they blend to make their products – five grain bills * 2 strains of yeast – and all 10 bourbons go into their yellow-label product. This was very different from the other distilleries we visited – Woodford Reserve had only one recipe, Buffalo Trace had two, and Wild Turkey used one for their five bourbon labels and one for their two rye liquors.


The (not-so) secret formulas!


We also learned about the testing that Four Roses performs on the corn that is brought to the distillery, including the 15-second microwave test for corn, which they use to check the aroma. We even got to peek inside the receiving lab to see the where the corn-testing magic happens.


Grain Receiving area



Inside the grain lab



Inside the grain lab


Their video was also very tech-oriented, showing us the inner workings of a column still and the production-line software they use to control the fermenting and distillation. It was quite a contrast to the other tours, which emphasized the human aspect of the bourbon production and the artisanal skills of their master distillers.


Inside the column still



Four Roses: a box for sampling the distillate



A view of the grounds at Four Roses


The Four Roses tour was also the only one without a barrel warehouse visit, as those were all off-site. They did emphasize how their warehouses were the only single-story ones – six ricks high – so that the heat level was more consistent throughout and the bourbon therefore ages more consistently as well.


Me on the bourbon-barrel swing at Four Roses



Chuck on the barrel-swing


At Four Roses we got to taste their single-barrel bourbon as well as a 10- or 12-year aged bourbon.


Four Roses Barrel Stamp


After we left Four Roses we drove to Bardstown, which was smaller and less pedestrian/tourist-rich than I had imagined. In California there would have been art galleries, cafes, antique stores and gift shops on every block, but Bardstown only had a few points of interest.


Jailer's Inn, Bardstown


We stayed at the Jailer’s Inn, the old county jail (operational for about 200 years, until the 1980’s) turned into a Bed & Breakfast. We stayed in the “Library Room”, which was nicely appointed with a sitting area and comfy (if somewhat creaky) bed.

The old town cemetery and schoolhouse were also just behind the inn, so we wandered around looking at remnants of historic Bardstown for a while.


The old town cemetery



Grave of a Pennsylvanian who fought in the Revolutionary War



Sometimes the grave-marker math is not so good...



A very small school house


For dinner, we went to The Old Talbott Tavern, conveniently located right next door to the B&B. The tavern was a fun place to enjoy some Kentucky specialties – we tried Burgoo, Kentucky’s signature stew, and Hot Brown, an open-faced sandwich with turkey, ham, cheese, bacon, and tomato.


Fountain near the Bardstown city hall



A Bourbon Tour of Kentucky: Day 1 September 25, 2010

Filed under: vacation — Amanda @ 20:17
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Welcome to Bourbon Country!

Fresh off the overnight flight from San Diego to Lexington through Atlanta, we arrived in the land of horses and bourbon. Statues of horses greeted us as we exited the airport, and we were drove past rolling hills, thoroughbred ranches and racetracks on our way to touring the bourbon distilleries. Our first stop was breakfast at Doughdaddy’s Doughnuts, the local go-to doughnut shop. I had a cream-filled, caramel-iced long john, which was kind of like a breakfast made of candy corn.

How to stay awake after the redeye? Coffee and doughnuts!

Buffalo Trace, north of Frankfort was the first distillery we visited on the trip. Our initial impression was of brick buildings, a well-kept garden, and the on-site playground – the seem very invested in keeping the history of the distillery alive.

Buffalo Trace Distillery

Unlike some of the other distilleries, Buffalo Trace is in production throughout the summer, and workers were buzzing around on ATVs. We walked around the garden and historical buildings while waiting for the tour, with the help of a self-guided tour sheet from the visitors center.

Gardens at Buffalo Trace

Chuck examines Thunder, the buffalo who used to be a tree.

Our tour guide told us stories about the history of Bourbon and the settling of Kentucky, when plots of land were offered to settlers of the frontier in exchange for an acre’s worth of corn, and the settlers found that distilling corn into whiskey was a convenient way to get the required amount back to Virginia.

Brick barrel warehouse at Buffalo Trace

We got our first musty-oaky-bourbon scented peek into a barrel warehouse on the tour as well. We learned how the flavor of the bourbon depends on the hot-cold cycles of the Kentucky seasons drawing the liquid in and out of the charred barrels, and that the position of the barrels in the warehouse affects the heat fluctuations the barrel experiences and therefore the final flavor of the bourbon.

Inside the barrel warehouse at Buffalo Trace

We also got to watch the hand-bottling process for the Blanton’s Single Barrel Bourbon, and earned a trip to the tasting room!

Labels for Blanton's Single-Barrel Bourbon

We got to try White Dog, the liquor that goes into the barrels and comes out years later as bourbon, as well as Buffalo Trace bourbon and one of their higher-proof reserve bourbons. Our first bourbon tour was a success!

Tasting Buffalo Trace Bourbon

Chuck with Buffalo Trace Bourbon

After Buffalo Trace, we had lunch at White Castle, the famed mid-west chain of steamed mini-burgers and cult-like devotion (if the Food Network is to be believed).

White Castle

We weren’t terribly impressed with the food, but now we at least know what we’re missing. The cheeseburger had a certain mushy-steamy appeal, but the “chicken ring” sandwich really didn’t. The sweet tea was pleasingly strong and sweet though.

Burgers in Boxes

Following lunch, we visited our second distillery of the day – Woodford Reserve!

Woodford Reserve

The distillery is owned by a multi-national conglomerate, and the slick visitors center seemed to reflect the corporate ownership, but the rest of the operation seemed small-scale and true to its hand-crafted roots.

Fermenting Mash

We got to see barrels on their rolling tracks, bubbling tanks of fermenting mash, and the set of copper stills used in their triple-distillation process.

Copper Still at Woodford Reserve

The barrel ends are marked with stylized versions of the triple stills, probably my favorite barrel stamp of the ones we saw on tour.

Woodford Reserve Barrel stamp

In the bottling room, we got to watch the bungs being drilled and barrels emptied into the bottling tank, and see the bottling production line in action.

Emptying the bourbon barrel

Filling the bottles

Cork Elevator!

There was also a very cute orange and white cat prowling around as we toured the warehouses and bottling room.

The distillery cat!

Woodford Reserve bourbon and chocolate tasting

We spent the night in Lexington, with dinner at the Horse and Barrel pub, where we sampled a few more bourbons as well as the local beer, Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale, and I had a delicious (and giant!) prime rib sandwich.

Impressive selection of bourbons at the Horse and Barrel

Single-barrel bourbon sampler

We stayed at the Lyndon House Bed and Breakfast, where we had a spacious suite in which to sleep off our travel-induced weariness, followed by a delicious breakfast the next morning.

Lyndon House



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