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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 4)

On this day, the stills have been dismantled and are in the process of being replaced. Russell says that copper stills typically last 15 years and then need to be replaced. "We're building it back exactly the way it was."

Summer visitors can expect to find distillation discontinued at many distilleries for anywhere from two to six weeks, as heat and shortage of water combine to make it the perfect season for maintenance. Stills are also occasionally diverted throughout the year for rye whiskey production at Heaven Hill, Buffalo Trace, Jim Beam and Wild Turkey. Those intent on seeing their favorite Bourbon distilled should call ahead before visiting.

Aging, however, never stops at any distillery, and the experience of walking into a rick house and smelling the sweet nectar is always worth the trip. Like at Maker's Mark, the barrels in these tin-clad aging facilities at Wild Turkey are moved periodically. The casks are also toasted on the inside with the thickest char available. Russell stops and points out where a window is slightly closed while one is left open, and then indicates where a row of barrels hasn't been stacked as high as another. It is all about air circulation. "We've figured out over the years that that's the way the whiskey ages best."

Russell's experiential explanation betrays his on-the-job-training. His father worked in distilling and the Ripys groomed Jimmy to be the third master distiller of Wild Turkey, and the importance of knowledge gained through experience is not lost on him. He allows that he uses all the latest scientific techniques at Wild Turkey, but hastens to add that instruments only show peaks and valleys. For final decisions, it comes down to tasting.

That's especially true when Bourbon is extra-aged as in the 10-year-old Russell's Reserve, a whiskey that honors both Russell and his son Eddie, who's worked alongside him for 20 years. Only certain barrels are worthy of such longevity. Despite the popular conception that the more age the better, in charred barrels in blistering rick houses there are limits, and its Russell's job to know and respect them.

The next stop on the Bourbon Trail, in Frankfort, is a place that combines some of the aesthetics of a jewel-box operation like Maker's Mark's with high production. Buffalo Trace is built on 110 wooded and landscaped acres, with 110 structures constructed in an eclectic array of styles, as the facility has been a work in progress that spans many eras. The oldest structure is Warehouse A, built in 1881, but distilling has been happening here since 1812. It's not the oldest, but it is the longest continuously run distillery in Kentucky. That's because during Prohibition, it won a license to continue making whiskey for "medicinal purposes."

While the distillery has longevity, its name does not. The place has been variously called the O.F.C. (Old Fire Copper), George T. Stagg, Albert B. Blanton, Leestown and Ancient Age distilleries. It was dubbed Buffalo Trace in 1999 when it became wholly owned by Sazerac of New Orleans. The name recalls a nearby migration path once used by bison.

Harlen Wheatley has recently been named the master distiller after 10 years as understudy to Gary Gayheart, but Elmer T. Lee, the master distiller emeritus, still casts a powerful shadow here. Now 86, Lee joined the distillery in 1949 and became manager in 1968, a year before Wheatley was born. In 1984, he made whiskey history with the creation of the first single-barrel Bourbon, named Blanton's after the longtime president of the distillery who taught Lee. Col. Albert Blanton's statue stands on the grounds. Lee's name is now on the bottle of his own single-barrel as well as on the distillery's log-cabin clubhouse, which can be rented for parties and business meetings. Lee is on the premises most Mondays, when he tastes barrels for his own whiskey and signs commemorative bottles.

Buffalo Trace has two different tours. The shorter one is fully wheelchair-accessible, but does not visit the still house or fermenters, which are the largest (12 tanks at 53,000 gallons each) in the industry. The "hard-hat tour" is longer and squeezes visitors into tighter spaces. It runs only from October through April when the stills run. Working to shore up the experience during the rest of the year, the company has added the George T. Stagg gallery, which displays a treasure of vintage photographs detailing the history of the site, as well as a barrel-making exhibit.

Both tours visit the warehouses, which are heated in the winter—not for the comfort of visitors, but to hasten whiskey maturation by adding months to the process. (Some whiskey men feel a cooling winter allows the whiskey that has expanded into the barrel's staves in the summer to cycle the flavor into the barrel when it contracts.) Because they are heated, all but one of the rick houses are made of brick or brick and stone. The exception is Warehouse H, which is heated and made of tin-clad wood. This is where Blanton's and Elmer T. Lee's single-barrels are aged.

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