The Bourbon trail….Jerry has talked about checking out some distilleries for years and we had a few days before we need to be at the Entegra factory (final warranty check up for the bus) so here we are. You could easily spend a couple weeks visiting all the distilleries but we decided to limit it to two days.
“All Bourbon is whiskey but not all whiskey is bourbon”. What makes bourbon bourbon? The three components that make whiskey bourbon are: at least 51% corn is used; it must be aged in a virgin charred white oak barrel; no additives for color, flavor or anything else. It also has to be made in the U.S., although over 95% of it is made in Kentucky. There are more bourbon barrels in Kentucky than people! Why Kentucky? Apparently the natural limestone in the area filters out many of the impurities in the water that can affect taste. Corn also grows really, really well here. The early farmers use to ship whole grain, but quickly realized it was much more efficient to ship bourbon (and it tastes better also 😊)
Makers Mark the first and largest volume distillery we visited. Beautiful grounds, huge operation, and large tour groups. The key things here are they use only wheat as their other grain (not rye or barley as many others use).
MM manually moves each barrel through the different floors during the aging process so they are all exposed to different temperature conditions. While very labor intensive, it results in more consistency in their Bourbon. The tasting was interesting. We were walked into a large room. In front of each chair sat 4 glasses….starting with the clear “white dog” just as it came out of the still before it goes in the barrel. Interesting, but not something we’d buy! The second was the regular, fully matured Makers Mark, the third was Makers 46 which has some additional charred oak staves added to the barrel, and the last was “Cask Strength”, just as it came out of the barrel, unfiltered and full strength. The cask strength was our favorite, so we bought a bottle of that one.
Willett was our second visit. A complete opposite of Maker’s Mark. Small, family owned distillery, a bit rough with a very interesting history. While there were 26 people on the tour of MM, there were 5 on this tour. Differences were they use rye, wheat and barley as additional grains to the corn and they do not rotate barrels. They do not move the barrels from different areas in the aging buildings, and where the barrel is located can result in dramatic differences. They also have several different labels they bottle under. Depending on where the barrel was aged, the length of the aging, and obviously the flavor profile, it determines if it is the “standard” (still a very good bourbon), or a higher end bourbon. Tasting started with their Pot Still Reserve which was great, then the guide brought about 12 more bottles, explained the differences and flavor and said we could pick one (!!) to taste. Some very, very good bourbons!
Two tours in the day were enough for us….not from drinking, but the driving and taste buds getting worn out. Contrary to what many believe, tasting can be hard work! Seriously, each taste is less than a thimble…really just enough to smell and coat your tongue.
We were going to take the next day off, but it was cool, overcast and a bit drizzly, so we decided to visit a couple of distilleries closer to Lexington. First up was Buffalo Trace.
Buffalo Trace is another family owned distillery which is unusual, but this one was huge! Interesting tidbit about the name….apparently there use to be a very large Buffalo population in the area and the large “trails” they left behind while migrating are called “traces”. Buffalo Trace was built along one of the traces, hence the name.
Another great tour. Centuries old buildings still in use today and many listed on the national list of historic buildings. This distillery has the reputation of making some of the best bourbons in the country. Some of which are so rare, you need to pay $300 to enter a lottery where, if you “win”, you can purchase a bottle for another $300+.
Needless to say, the high end bourbons were not available for tasting, or even for purchase on site. We did like their bourbon though, so we did buy a bottle.
Last up for the week was Four Roses. Like Maker’s Mark, this one is owned today by a huge Japanese conglomerate. History of this one was also interesting. They went from family owned to being owned by a Canadian conglomerate. During 70s and 80s, the Japanese found interest in Bourbons while the US was switching over to drinking clear liquor (partially brought on by James Bond). So, they started shipping most of the bourbon to Japan. So what to do in the US? The company had the brilliant idea to start selling rot gut stuff under the Four Roses name. Luckily, the Canadian company decided to get out of the bourbon business and sold to Sapporo company. Quality quickly picked up and today Four Roses now makes some very, very nice bourbons. Unlike most places which use one proprietary yeast, this one has 10 different ones. The regular Four Roses bourbon uses all 10, and while decent, we weren’t impressed enough to buy it. The individual yeast bottling though were amazing. Each bottle has the yeast “recipe” on it which matches to the flavor profile…from spicy and bold to flowery to herbal and more.
We were lucky enough to taste two different versions and what a difference!! Very cool. We had to buy a bottle of the flowery version and scored with a bottle signed by the Master Distiller.
Very fun tours, but our liquor budget is blown for about the next two years 😊. Plus side we have some great bourbons, so if you enjoy bourbon and see us, ask about trying some!
We made one final stop in the area. Back in 1986 I bought my first bouvier “Toby” from Pat Last. Pat also had a passion for horses and in the mid 1990’s moved to Versailles KY with her American Saddle Bred horses and set up a lovely horse farm. In 2008 Pat went missing and property from her farm was also missing. Long story short, after searching for several months Pat’s body was found dumped in a ravine a few miles from her farm. One of her hired hands had the missing stuff and it’s presumed he murdered Pat although there was never enough evidence to charge him. RIP Pat.