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On the Trail of Bourbon

America's own original spirit shows off its rich heritage and craftsmanship in a lore-filled tour across the Blue Grass State
Jack Bettridge
From the Print Edition:
Emeril Lagasse, Sept/Oct 2005

Whiskey men are rolling casks up to straddle a stainless steel trough sunk flush with the floor. With mallets, they neatly pop the bungs that plug the barrels. Amber liquor burbles out of the holes and through a sieve that filters charred barrel wood as the whiskey begins its circuitous route to the bottle.

These men, members of Heaven Hill's World Championship Bourbon Barrel Relay team, will defend the title in a few days. The plant, which dates to 1934, has been recently retooled to full modernity with computers, up-to-the-minute instrumentation and a sterling safety rating to boot. The whiskey, when in cartons, will join North America's largest collection of spirits under one roof in a cavernous finished-goods warehouse that is currently brimming in anticipation of holiday demand. The world's second largest holding of Bourbon surrounds the building in 40 warehouses.

So the Heaven Hill folks have much to brag about their prodigious whiskey production this September day at the beginning of the Kentucky Bourbon Festival. Instead, what they are crowing about is a building that makes no alcohol: the new Bourbon Heritage Center. The visitors' center offers a sophisticated presentation on the art and history of Bourbon making with films, interactive exhibits, a visit to an aging house and even a tasting. It's also at the forefront of a trend: the industry's growing accessibility to the public.

Makers of Bourbon, America's original spirit, are learning what winemakers and Scotch distillers have long known: tours and tastings create lifelong customers. An official Bourbon Trail now traverses Kentucky, where most of the spirit is made, with seven stops representing all but one major producer. Growing numbers of visitors are traveling this route through rolling hills, horse farms and frontier history that holds charms even for those who aren't whiskey enthusiasts.

To be fair, some distilleries have long welcomed guests, but the experiences are ever improving. For one thing, it wasn't until 2000 that Kentucky law changed to allow thirsty visitors a taste of liquor on premise. Now most distilleries pour free samples and all sell their products alongside branded merchandise at their gift shops.

That most Bourbon distillers operate within the small area that provides Kentucky's pure water and sweltering summer heat makes the category easy to negotiate compared with far-flung Scottish still houses. That Bourbon is also highly defined by U.S. regulations makes the production process easy to understand, and fans of particular liquors will quickly learn the variables that create the nuances they have grown to love. Nevertheless, each tour is unique.

The experience is an immersion into the charming, if confusing, culture and history of Kentucky. It's a world of rustic characters who create an elegant quaff by a process that is by turns part science and folk recipe, some of which should be seasoned with a grain of salt. Nominally competitors, Bourbon makers are often friends, sometimes even blood related. While their parent companies market fiercely, they concentrate on making great whiskey. During the annual Bourbon Festival in Bardstown, they become spirits idols to gathered fans, but don't lose their common touch.

The festival, and much of the Bourbon Trail, centers on Bardstown. The tidy village, its hominess and friendly people paint the picture that reportedly inspired Stephen Foster to compose the state anthem, "My Old Kentucky Home." Daniel Boone, Abraham Lincoln and Jesse James walked the region. Bardstown is the Bourbon capital not only for its proximity to four makers, but also the Oscar Getz Museum of Bourbon History located downtown near the Lawn at Spalding Hall where many of the Bourbon Festival events—barrel rolling included—take place. Its trove of artifacts date to the pioneer days and make a good first reference.

Heaven Hill sponsors a trolley from downtown with a brief tour of Bardstown on the short trip to its visitors center. Harry Shapira, who with his cousin, Max Shapira, is a principal in the largest independent family-owned Bourbon company (you'll find that every stop on the Bourbon Trail has its own superlative), directed the project. It has a sophisticated design meant to communicate the basics of Bourbon on a substantive level: prominent materials are limestone (a huge shelf of which filters much of Kentucky's water), copper (the material of choice for stills) and oak (the barrel wood responsible for most of the whiskey's flavor).

A large panel tells of Elijah Craig, the legendary eighteenth-century Baptist minister and still man credited with stumbling upon an essential Bourbon process. The story goes that he mistakenly charred the inside of a barrel, then used it anyway. The toasted staves sped and improved whiskey maturation and a new whiskey was born. Some question the legend, but predictably not Heaven Hill, which has a brand named for Elijah Craig. Polite visitors shouldn't either as they soon stand to sample some of that rich Bourbon themselves in a nosing and tasting room that is in the shape of a huge barrel. Whatever you believe, learn the importance of charring. It is now part of the legal definition of Bourbon that it be aged in new charred-oak barrels for a minimum of two years, four if the age isn't stated on the bottle. Char is the source of Bourbon's toasty, vanilla and caramel notes as well as its deep color, as only water—no flavor or coloring—can be added to the spirit. Used barrels are sold to lend flavor to Scotch, Irish and Canadian whiskies as well as rum.

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