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Bourbon Hospitality

A Whiskey Pilgrim Finds a Kentucky Home in the Capital of Bourbon
Jack Bettridge
From the Print Edition:
Susan Lucci, Sep/Oct 99

(continued from page 2)

At the Four Roses distillery, a seemingly misplaced plant built in a stucco Spanish style, a contingency of Japanese has gathered for the occasion, wearing green warmup jackets with four red roses emblazoned on the back. The history of the Four Roses name in the United States reaches back to 1888, but was interrupted in the 1960s when the owner, Seagram, took it off the domestic market. Still made at thisdistillery, which also makes Bulleit boubon, the brand has recently been reintroduced in Kentucky and Indiana.

The guests sit down to a bourbon symposium delivered by master distiller Jim Rutledge, master distiller emeritus Ova Haney, and Pete Gunterman, Seagram's director of training. Gunterman handles the history portion with some histrionics. Closing his eyes and holding out one hand, he intones: "I have this vision of an Arab crossing the desert and maybe he had some figs. The figs were bruised and fermented along the way and fig wine was invented."

The lecture fast-forwards through the invention of distillation to the colonization of the New World, where rum was the drink of choice, because molasses was readily available in the colonies and didn't have to be converted into sugar--as grain does--to be fermented. When the Scots and Irish emigrated to America, they brought their knowledge of distilling as well as crude stills. Heading west for open land, they poured into Pennsylvania and made whiskey from the rye they grew. After the American Revolution, the new government imposed taxes on distillers, fomenting the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794. George Washington saw the dissent as a challenge to federal authority and quickly put down the rebellion (he is rumored to have put down some whiskey as well). Some distillers pushed westward to the no man's land now known as Kentucky, but then part of Virginia. There, native corn was easy to grow but hard to sell, as it had to be hauled to distant markets. Fermented and distilled, however, corn became a portable potable that was even used as money. "No one set out to make a bourbon whiskey. It just evolved," Gunterman underscores.

Part of that evolution, legend has it, came when an eighteenth-century Baptist minister by the name of Elijah Craig accidentally charred the inside of a barrel, but used it to store whiskey anyway. The whiskey leached into the charcoal lining and took on new flavors; when Craig tapped it he was pleasantly surprised. Later, according to the story, whiskey was shipped downriver in barrels labeled "Bourbon County." Aged by the trip, it took on a particular character that became known as "bourbon whiskey" and was highly prized. Kentuckians like to point out the irony that Bourbon County is now dry and whiskey is no longer legally made there, but the entity that is now Bourbon County is much smaller than the original domain, which covered much of the state.

The serendipity of the birth of bourbon is now mandated by federal law: it must be made in America of a grain mash that is at least 51 percent corn, and aged in new, charred oak barrels for at least two years. In practice, most mashbills, or grain recipes, contain about 75 percent corn (rye or wheat, and barley malt make up the other grains), and most bourbons are aged at least four years. Because the barrels are charred and never reused for bourbon (many are sold to Scotch makers) and because the Kentucky summer is sweltering, the whiskey ages far more rapidly there than in chilly Scotland. Many feel that bourbon does not profit from much more aging than six or seven years, although some distillers are experimenting with superannuated whiskeys like the 15-year-old Jefferson Reserve, 18-year-old Elijah Craig and 23-year-old Pappy Van Winkle.

Each distiller has a mashbill that includes about 10 percent malted barley to promote its conversion into grain sugars. Yeast microbes are added to break down the sugars into carbon dioxide and alcohol, and a beer is produced. The next step is distillation: simply put, heating the beer to a temperature higher than the boiling point of alcohol, but lower than that of water, and then cooling the alcohol-rich steam in a condenser. Bourbon is distilled twice, usually in a continuous still and then a pot still, before being aged in a barrel before bottling.

Rutledge, introduced as "plant manager, master distiller, or god," then leads a small group through a plant tour, starting where trucks roll in to dump loads of corn. Selecting grain is paramount, as distillers believe "garbage in, garbage out." With a probe he takes a sample of grain, puts it into a shot glass and nukes it in a microwave. This allows him to smell impurities in the corn. Four Roses formerly used a conventional oven, but that took hours, he says. This corn is fine, he observes, but a load that came in the day before had a funky barnyard odor. It was rejected and used for neutral spirits production at another Seagram's plant.

While showing off the beer that bubbles and ferments in huge cypress wood vats in another building, Rutledge explains that part of the Four Roses philosophy is using two different mashbills as well as five to six yeast codes. That way he can tweak the taste in the final blending process. "We do it by design," he says of the method that creates a signature light-bodied spirit. "You will never hear me say our bourbon is better than their bourbon. They're all different. It's a matter of personal taste."

In a computerized control room, the mild-mannered Rutledge points out how every aspect of production can be monitored on screen, and records are kept for every gallon made. Agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms are empowered to spot-check distilleries to confirm that they operate within the range of their statement of process. "If it's off we could be shut down," Rutledge informs the group, then corrects himself. "Not could be. Would be."

The tour doesn't include a look at the aging facilities. The multi-story rickhouses next door are used by Wild Turkey. Instead, Four Roses uses single-story facilities some 50 miles away, in keeping with the theory that single-story warehouses deliver more uniform aging with fewer temperature fluctuations.

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