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Kentucky's Finest: Bourbon

Small-Batch and Single-Barrel Bourbons Revive the Good Old Days of Whiskey
Mark Vaughan
From the Print Edition:
Winston Churchill, Autumn 93

(continued from page 3)

Most distilleries prefer to build their warehouses on hilltops, so they are fully exposed to seasonal changes. With their massive size and stark lines, they can dominate the landscape for miles. "Folks around here say the whiskey is going to prison when we put it up to age," says Russell, standing before one of Wild Turkey's 23 Bourbon warehouses.

Single-barrel and small-batch Bourbons are aged for at least six years, some for as long as 12. Few spend longer than that in the barrel, because the oak will eventually overpower all other flavors. Heaven Hill in Bardstown does bottle a very rare edition Evan Williams 23-Year-Old, the entire production of which is sold in Japan. (No, you can't even get a taste, let alone a bottle, in the United States, mostly because quantities are extremely limited, and the Japanese are willing to spend close to $200 per bottle.)

"Buildings age whiskey in different ways," says Noe, "depending on their size, whether or not they've got side aisles [alternating air currents throughout the building], how tall they are, and what not. And the liquor will age differently in different parts of a warehouse. On the very top, it's hot and dry; on the very bottom, it's cool and damp. That's why you get better aging and the best whiskey in the center. It's not exposed to those extremes."

Traditionally, distilleries rotated barrels during aging, so that each spent a given time at the various temperature and humidity levels in the warehouse. But the practice has been largely abandoned due to the cost of maintaining the unused space needed for movement and the amount of labor involved. Only two, Maker's Mark and Wild Turkey, still rotate all their barrels, allowing for a more even aging process.

"All our new whiskey enters at the top and then is rotated down, depending on how it's aging and how the whiskey in the rest of the warehouse is aging," explains Samuels. "It represents a big cost, but it's the only way we can figure to get the quality we want out of all our product."

If there is one thing that seems to characterize all Bourbon makers, it is dedication to their craft. It takes decades to learn the fine art of distilling, and as a result, master distillers are a rare breed, men who have patiently learned their trade through long apprenticeships. Gayheart, for example, worked for more than 20 years under Ancient Age's master distiller emeritus Elmer T. Lee, who in turn learned the craft from his predecessor, Colonel Albert B. Blanton, who managed the distillery from 1912 to 1952. At Heaven Hill, master distiller Parker Beam took over from his father, Earl Beam, whose brother, Carl Beam, was master distiller at Jim Beam distillery for many years. Parker Beam is now training his son, Craig Beam, to take over at Heaven Hill.

"It's really kind of an exclusive club," says Russell. "We're all friends down here in the production end of things. Despite the fact that strictly speaking we're in competition, we've all got a lot of respect for each other. Our roots run deep in Kentucky."

So deep, in fact, that many Bourbon makers can trace their heritage to when Daniel Boone led the first party of settlers over the Appalachians into the Ohio River Valley. "In those days," says Samuels, a history buff who revels in the telling of Bourbon lore, "distilling was an adjunct to farming. Whiskey was a heck of lot easier to transport to market than corn, wheat, or rye. Every farmer had a still, and a barrel of whiskey was a kind of currency that could be traded for goods, livestock, or even land."

Samuels traces his own roots to Scottish emigrants who came to the New World via Ireland in 1712 and headed to Kentucky by way of Derry, Pennsylvania. His great, great, great, great-grandfather, Robert Samuels Jr., served as a captain under George Washington during the Revolution, and on furloughs home would supervise whiskey-making for the troops. It was Robert Samuels who first moved to Kentucky, and his grandson, T.W. Samuels, who began large-scale commercial distilling in 1842.

"That was when a lot of the farmer-distillers around here got the idea that they had it backwards, that the tail, farming, shouldn't be wagging the dog, whiskey-making," says Samuels. "After 1842, distilling became the driving force behind agriculture in this area, not the other way around."

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