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
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.
While you'll learn how Bourbon is distilled from the heritage center, you won't see it happen. The distillery that was here was destroyed in a furious fire in 1996. Heaven Hill turned to other area distilleries to continue production, then bought the Bernheim Distillery in 1998 from Diageo, a large conglomerate that was divesting its major Bourbon interests. Today, master distiller Parker Beam, a grandnephew of Jim Beam, and his son Craig distill in Louisville, but age most of the Heaven Hill whiskey near Bardstown. Of its 47 rick houses, 40 are in Nelson County sheathed in tin, the rest are in Louisville made of brick.
If corn were a construction material, it would have been an apt element with which to build the center as well. Bourbon's grain content must be at least 51 percent corn (in practice it's usually much more). The rest of the recipe, or mash bill, is typically rye with a small amount of barley. Heaven Hill also makes Old Fitzgerald, a Bourbon with mellowing wheat substituted for spicy rye. The recipe originated with the noted distiller Julian "Pappy" Van Winkle Sr. and came with the Bernheim purchase. The Van Winkle name, however, is on whiskey made at Buffalo Trace in partnership with grandson Julian III.
Now Heaven Hill is releasing Bernheim Original Kentucky State Wheat Whiskey, a straight whiskey (i.e., the same strict aging regimen as Bourbon) made with 51 percent wheat, 39 percent corn and 10 percent barley. Someone's probably done it before, but not commercially in at least 30 years. The taste is quite smooth and sweet, but with only 18,000 bottles for sale (fewer even than Heaven Hill's ultrapremium Evan Williams vintage Bourbon), it may be hard to find.
Not that hard to find is Maker's Mark's Star Hill Farm distillery 20 miles away in Loretto. The meandering country drive is well marked with signs pointing the way to this national historical landmark. As well as spearheading the trend in superpremium Bourbon, Maker's can also take credit for setting the bar in quality distillery tour experiences. Fifty-one years ago, when Bill Samuels Sr. founded the company following a decade's hiatus from the industry, he meant to return to the methods and quality standards of handcrafted Bourbon. He started by finding an old-time distillery and lovingly restoring it. Today, Kentucky's oldest distillery, first licensed in 1803, is a showcase replete with an antique fire engine and an old-fashioned quart house that provided drive-up (by buggy) service, filling jugs in the days before branded spirits.
Maker's Mark may seem all about tradition, but the next thing Samuels did was to burn his family recipe, literally, and create a new mash bill, replacing rye with, yes, wheat, Mr. Samuels being quite tight with Pappy after all.
Samuels' son Bill Jr. and David Pickerell, vice president of production, ceremoniously burned the old recipe again in celebrating the company's 50th anniversary last year. By that time, superpremium Bourbon, the idea of which garnered derision a half century ago, was the greatest growth area in the category.
Because Maker's Mark sells all that it can make, Pickerell, an engineering consultant, late of Heaven Hill, was charged with
doubling production to 250 barrels a day. It was a move the company had resisted for years, and he was told to expand without changing the character or ethic of the place. "My job is easy," he says. "Just don't screw up what we already have."
Return visitors to Star Hill Farm will notice little difference. Many of the changes are invisible upgrades to infrastructure: improved roads, water lines, electric lines and sewage. A second set of stills mirror the first. Stainless-steel fermenting vats serve alongside the originals made of cypress, which are nearly impossible to come by now and more difficult to maintain. In the vats, the high-proof beer swirls and bubbles just as before. A major change is that sticking your finger in for a lick of suds used to be the only way to get a taste on the tour. Now Maker's is sold in the gift shop.
While the temperature doesn't vary much across the Bourbon region, a specific warehouse creates many microclimates, from the cool lower levels to the sweltering top stories. One labor-intensive practice at Maker's is barrel rotation. Pickerell explains it with an analogy to baking a pumpkin pie: "You start it at 425 degrees for 15 minutes and then you turn it down to 350 for 45 minutes." Similarly, newly filled barrels go to a hot part of the warehouse for some three years, in a process called phase extraction. They go to cooler climes to mellow for another two or three years. Many distilleries with larger production don't rotate barrels, but overcome taste differences when they mingle them before bottling. Some areas of the warehouses are known to create better whiskeys and those are utilized for superpremium bottlings. Maker's takes the position that all its production is the good stuff, as it makes only one brand.
By way of proving his point, Pickerell offers some superaged Maker's Mark to a few visitors in a tasting room off his office (not a part of the standard Maker's tour). It's 12 years old and past its prime, woody and bitter. The point is that the company feels it makes the Bourbon as best it can, and extra aging won't make a better product. Of course, the philosophy leaves no room to add lines as other brands so often do.
The tour includes a visit to the modest bottling line where ladies hand-dip the package into hot red wax. In the gift shop, visitors wearing heavy gloves can dip their own 375-ml souvenir bottle of Bourbon in a wax caldron, a task that is harder than it would seem.
The world's best-selling Bourbon is something of an icon of the frontier spirit, and for its guest facilities it chose a name—the Jim Beam American Outpost—that conjures that image.
It's not on the frontier anymore, but, in Clermont, it is on the northern periphery of the Bardstown Bourbon solar system. The Outpost offers not a tour, but a series of educational exhibits about Bourbon. The logical first stop is the theater where a short film covers production and the colorful Beam family. The narrator is Booker Noe, a grandson of Jim Beam who died in February 2004 just as much a legend as his famous ancestor.
Noe became an outsized Bourbon ambassador when he created and promoted the ultrapremium Booker's Bourbon. A good ol' boy raconteur with a sly sense of humor, he traveled the world explaining how the marketing guys had asked him if he could create a quality Bourbon to rival the burgeoning single-malt Scotches. He told them that it already existed. The whiskey that he and his close friends drank was taken from select barrels and enjoyed uncut and unfiltered at a scorching proof. From that first brand grew Beam's Small Batch Bourbon Collection that also includes Knob Creek, Baker's and Basil Hayden's.
Booker never much kept to the marketing script. Inevitably he'd tell an explosive cooking story, a fishing yarn or a family chestnut that poked fun at Jim Beam—whatever came to mind. The cookout he hosted each year at his house always turned into a hootenanny, with the great man playing the jug. It's still one of the prized invitations of the Bourbon festival, with his son, Fred, hosting in his place.
Fred, developing his own humorous style, has stepped in nicely for his father. He chose a commemorative bottling of Booker's and recently sealed the 10 millionth barrel of Jim Beam. He also helped create the touring Great Whiskey Debate, a mock argument between himself and a kilt-wearing representative of The Dalmore single-malt Scotch, which Jim Beam Brands imports. The combatants tout their own quaff, while good-naturedly teasing the other's.
At the Outpost, it's a curious mixture of industry, Kentucky countryside and Southern hospitality. You're surrounded by the world's largest collection of Bourbon, yet you examine vestiges of frontier whiskey making. The 1779 Bailey's copper pot still, the oldest in the United States, underscores the humble beginnings of Bourbon and the Beam family, with its seven generations of distillers. The Hartmann Cooperage, which operated from 1875 to 1925, has been transplanted here. The T. Jeremiah House, a former family dwelling, displays antiques and a working tabletop distillery, the smallest in the world, as well as offering a tasting.
The closest you'll get to the modern Beam operation is a peek into Warehouse D, a tin building blackened by possibly tipsy fungi that thrive in the moist atmosphere of distillation, and a whiff of its maple candy aroma.
Booker always said he looked to the "center cut," or middle floors, of the rick houses for the best Bourbon. At the barbecue that afternoon, Fred Noe reveals that his father also liked houses that faced north and south because the configuration is good for airflow. Two were recently opened at Beam's Boston, Kentucky, distillery, which is now named for Booker. Fred hosts the affair, which is tinged with a bit of sadness as it's the first time his father isn't the ringmaster. But Fred assures there will be continuity, saying, "My job is not to change a damn thing."
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.
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.
The most unusual aging house, however, is Warehouse V. It holds but one barrel, the last barrel of the twentieth century made at the distillery, which had replaced the five millionth to be made here since Prohibition. It waits in the tiny shack to be replaced by the six millionth, expected sometime in 2006.
The main bottling plant at Buffalo Trace is a point of pride as a modern marvel able to package a vast amount of spirit in little time, but the company recently reopened the bottling hall where Blanton's Single Barrel was originally packaged. It is used in the "Buy the Barrel" program in which customers may select with the help of Lee an entire barrel to be bottled for their own use. The Buffalo Trace Internet site has Web cams that allow such lucky consumers to watch from home as their selection is being bottled.
The tour includes a taste of Buffalo Trace Bourbon and the chance to buy that spirit as well as Eagle Rare 10-year-old Bourbon. They were chosen because they are not available in all locations. Expect to pay at least full price for Bourbon bought at a distillery. Unlike factory-warehouse outlets that cut out the middleman, the stores at distilleries are governed by a three-tier retailing system that forces them to buy their product from the local distributor.
Drive seven miles southeast, passing acre after acre of white-fenced horse farms, and you come to the Woodford Reserve Distillery, a spirit maker that owns its own race horse. The calcium in the limestone water is not only good for Bourbon, but promotes strong bones in the racehorses of the Blue Grass State.
The distillery (until recently called Labrot & Graham) is a loving restoration project. Brown-Forman, the parent company (which also runs tours at Jack Daniel's in Tennessee), shuttered it years ago, but brought it back in 1996. Much may be learned about Bourbon here.
The site is especially important because James Crow, of Old Crow fame, labored here as the scientist-distiller who instituted many of the methods that define Bourbon. He recognized the importance of barrel charring and made it standard practice. He also used the sour mash process by which a portion of the spent mash from fermentation is used in the next cycle for taste consistency. Virtually every Bourbon as well as Tennessee whiskey is now made that way.
Woodford makes much of this history. It offers three tours, and while all teach the lore of this place, one, the Woodford Reserve Distillery: A National Landmark tour, is devoted to it. The Discovery tour offers more of an overview of the Bourbon process. The Corn to Cork tour is longer and very intensive on technical process. Each tour costs $5 and offers a tasting at the end.
While Crow wrought so many standard practices in Bourbon making, this site features something you'll see no place else in Kentucky: three copper pot stills standing side-by-side in the stone distillery building.
All other Bourbon makers use a combination of two types of stills. The first is a column, or patent, still, which is a highly efficient piece of equipment that can run continuously as long as beer is added. Its distillate is purer and matures more quickly than that of pot stills. The second still is either a doubler or a thumper, each of which looks very much like a pot still and is used to further refine the raw distillate.
Part of Brown-Forman's dream for this restoration was to create Bourbon purely in pot stills, just as single-malt whisky is made in Scotland. That posed a problem, however. Brown-Forman wanted to issue a whiskey when Labrot & Graham reopened to recognize the restoration. It couldn't simply use the distillate from the pot stills as it hadn't aged yet. The company chose to bottle a product called Woodford Reserve made in its Early Times Distillery (now called Brown-Forman) in Louisville. "Honey barrels" meant for its Old Forester were selected for the bottling. The term refers to the best barrels in a rick house, but it was particularly apt in this case as Woodford has a pronounced honey sweetness compared with spicy Old Forester.
Woodford was an immediate success, which had a downside as it wasn't clear what the pot stills here would create. Fans questioned what would become of their favorite quaff when that whiskey came of age and replaced the original Woodford Reserve. The answer may never be known. Instead of completely substituting pot-still whiskey for column-still whiskey, the company has progressively wedded barrels from the Woodford Distillery into its recipe, which also uses water from the spring at that distillery to cut the whiskey's proof to 90.4. Brown-Forman has never kept secret the origin of Woodford even as it evolved, and recently master distiller Chris Morris has said that it is doubtful that Woodford will become 100 percent a product of the Versailles distillery. Ironically, Old Forester has also been somewhat elevated in the process, in that Morris now creates one or two vintage bottlings of that product each year, selected from barrels filled on specific days about a decade earlier and called Birthday Bourbons.
Meanwhile, back near Bardstown, Greg Davis of Barton Brands, at 34 the youngest Bourbon master distiller, is bounding up the stairs to the top floor of Warehouse Z, pushing cobwebs out of his way. This is the source of a tasty elixir now known as Ridgemont Reserve 1792, a superpremium entry from this company known for lower shelf brands. Davis explains why such an exhausting ascent is necessary to source the barrels for Barton's preeminent Bourbon, and the reason has the familiar ring of "location, location, location."
The theory is a little different. It's the upper floor, not the middle, and the warehouse faces east and west, not north and south. Nevertheless, atop a hill, this spot has excellent air circulation, which creates an aromatic heaven, redolent with roasted caramel and vanilla. It's not all placement. Davis gives a little lecture on the importance of the medium-heavy char used in the barrels, and this special visit is over. (Sadly, Barton Brands offers no public tours, which is ironic because the Oscar Getz Museum, named for the Barton founder, used to be here.)
It is time for Davis to head to the Bourbon Hall of Fame induction ceremony, which, as the maker of the official-toasting Bourbon of the festival, he will kick off. One by one the lions of whiskey—Jimmy Russell, Elmer T. Lee, Parker Beam, Jerry Dalton, Davis's mentor Jimmy Rutledge—arrive to honor, among others, Ed O'Daniel, the head of the Kentucky Distillers' Association, who has done so much to develop the Bourbon Trail.
All is right in the Bourbon World.
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