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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

(continued from page 3)

While the Beams have stamped this site, they no longer own it. The family business failed during Prohibition. After repeal, investors bankrolled Jim Beam, then 70 years old, to rebuild the distillery, which he did in a mere 120 days. Although the company eventually became part of Fortune Brands (see F. Paul Pacult's excellent American Still Life for a family history), Beams continued to run it. The present master distiller, Jerry Dalton (who also authored a book on Taoism—go figure), is the first non-Beam to hold that position.

Head east on the Blue Grass Parkway and you find the Four Roses Distillery in Lawrenceburg. If any Bourbon plant appears out of place in Kentucky, this is it. The Spanish-mission-style stucco building from 1910 offers not only architectural curiosity and, of course, the roses, but a chance to purchase a Bourbon that has been generally unavailable here since the 1950s. Former owner Seagram's made the decision to concentrate on blended whiskey sales domestically and export its straight whiskey to Europe and Asia. Four Roses now belongs to Kirin of Japan, where the brand is hugely popular. Kirin is determined to pursue more U.S. sales, which pleases master distiller Jimmy Rutledge, whose labors sell in a market he rarely sees.

Much is made of Four Roses's use of different mash bills and yeast codes to maintain consistency. Corn imparts sweetness and makes Bourbon America's own invention, as distillers discovered it here. But high rye content is key to the Four Roses light and spicy profile. In Bourbon, the main function of malted barley, the only grain in single-malt Scotch, is to jump-start fermentation, as yeast readily feeds on it. Each distiller has its own guarded yeast culture. Four Roses has many. When Rutledge gives tours, he likes to show how grain quality is protected as well. Truckloads of grains are immediately analyzed by nose for impurities after being briefly nuked in a microwave to accentuate aromas. Grains that pass are dumped into a hopper. Those that don't are used in other grain-neutral spirits in other distilleries.

Four Roses ages its whiskey in one-story warehouses to avoid the temperature variations that other distillers prize. The tall rick houses that stand nearby the distillery belong to Wild Turkey. To see Four Roses aging, you have to travel to its Cox's Creek facility near the Jim Beam Outpost.

Four Roses also distills Bulleit Bourbon Frontier Whiskey, a product of the world's largest spirits concern, Diageo, which briefly owned the distillery. It's the brainchild of Tom Bulleit, a Kentucky lawyer who says he resurrected the whiskey from a 175-year-old also-rye-rich recipe (29 percent) passed down from his great-great grandfather. The product was first made by what is now the Buffalo Trace Distillery. Seagram's bought Bulleit. Diageo bought Four Roses and retained the Bulleit brand when it sold the distillery. Now Diageo is putting its serious marketing muscle behind the brand, which, with Tom Bulleit stumping it across the country, will be available in all 50 states by the end of the year.

It is not unusual for a whiskey brand to be made by a distiller that doesn't own it. That was the case with Wild Turkey when it was first created more than 60 years ago. Its production was contracted by Austin Nichols, a wholesale grocer that also packaged coffees and teas. The Bourbon was such a hit that Austin Nichols eventually bought the distillery—and dropped the groceries. Today, that is where all Wild Turkey, and only Wild Turkey, is distilled.

Originally the Ripy Brothers and then Boulevard Distillery, it is today called by the name on the bottle. Austin Nichols is now part of the French company Pernod Ricard. The key to Turkey's greatness, however, is its master distiller, the renowned Jimmy Russell, who started there in 1954, years before either company owned it.

Despite the distillery's location atop a gorge overlooking the Kentucky River and a name that conjures images of tromps through the woods, the place looks the most like a Bourbon factory of any of the distilleries that can be visited. But anyone who is lucky enough to walk through with Russell as tour director—and he occasionally wears that hat—will get an immediate impression of the tradition, artisanship and lore that goes into the making of Wild Turkey.

Grain flavor comes through in Bourbon because the law restricts distillation to 80 percent (160 proof) alcohol—though in practice, it's much lower. A column still used in Bourbon distillation essentially steams alcohol off the fermented beer. The higher the steam is captured from the column before condensing, the greater the alcohol content and the purer the spirit. Vodka's characteristic flavorlessness comes through high-proof distillation. Russell distills at particularly low levels (around 120 proof, or 60 percent alcohol) because "the higher you distill, you're cooking the flavor out."

While Russell makes low-proof distillate, his signature proof of 101 (he also makes weaker and stronger versions of Wild Turkey) is quite a bit higher than the 80-proof legal minimum. This is achieved by diluting the spirit with less water before bottling. The result is more flavor, which is why most premium Bourbons are bottled at higher than minimum proof, many around 90. Wild Turkey's Rare Breed comes in at 108.2 proof. Beam's Booker's Bourbon (121 to 127 proof) is bottled at the proof that it had in the barrel.

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