A Whiskey Pilgrim Finds a Kentucky Home in the Capital of Bourbon
From the Print Edition:
Susan Lucci, Sep/Oct 99
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After dinner, Noe introduces his favorite musicians, the Wally Helton Band, who predictably play in the style of the hills. Booker joins the musicians, blowing on a whiskey jug in accompaniment. Homemade rhythm instruments are handed out and before long the evening has progressed into a full-blown hootenanny with even the Yankee and the reserved journalists from England joining in the fun. Before the evening ends, word arrives from the Maker's Mark camp that the Yankee has succeeded in his shameless mooching campaign and will be welcomed for breakfast with Bill Samuels Jr., himself a godson of Jim Beam, at Maker's Mark distillery in Loretto.
It doesn't take much of a nose for bourbon to find Maker's Mark--huge signs point the way from Bardstown through 20 miles of countryside to the Star Hill Farm distillery. It's a painstakingly preserved national historic monument, which Samuels' father, now deceased, began restoring in 1953, when he decided to return to the bourbon business, feeling no one was making quality product any longer. After a long search, he bought the Loretto site (partially because it offered a good water supply) and set about creating small quantities of whiskey (the company spells it whisky, as do the Scots) by old-fashioned, hand-crafting methods. It didn't take long for the bourbon to garner attention, and it might be said that Samuels and his son have led the industry towards the superpremium end of the market, except that these distant relatives of the outlaw Jesse James have been renegades in the staid world of brown-beverage marketing. Since being bought by Hiram Walker in 1981, it has aggressively--considering its small output (nearing 300,000 cases a year)--advertised, and the younger Samuels has been a whiskey gadfly, going out of his way, for instance, to claim that bourbon makers know much more about aging whiskey than the vaunted Scots.
At breakfast, the irreverent Samuels finishes conferring the honorary title of Kentucky Colonel on two employees--referring to them as reprobates in the process--and then turns to educating the Yankee on bourbon marketing history. "We haven't done a very good job of it until lately," is his summation. It was Prohibition that caused the decline of America's taste for its own native quaff, he claims. When liquor was allowed to be sold after an almost 14-year hiatus, bourbon distillers had to wait years before they could age their product for market. Scotch and Canadian blended whisky makers filled some of the void left by bourbon and rye makers. "We're only just now getting over that," Samuels says. It nettles him that Scotch makers have managed to build a cache of age and quality for their blended and colored product that bourbon doesn't have. "Most Scotch drinkers don't even know what they're drinking." He points out that Scotch is often aged in used bourbon casks, and that liquor takes longer to mature in a cold climate. "In a sense bourbon is older," he says, "though nobody's ever sold it that way."
A postprandial tour of the distillery is a picturesque walk in the Kentucky countryside from the Quart House, the package store where a century ago neighbors came to have jugs and jars filled, through the distillery and warehouses, to the bottling room where the trademark red sealing wax is applied to each bottle by hand. David Salmon, a vice president, runs visitors through the process, explaining that the mashbill includes winter wheat that defies the pressure cooking that would trim hours off the beer-making process. In the old days, making the beer was much less predictable, but now distillers can time fermentation so they needn't rise in the middle of the night to start distillation. Another regulation of the process was developed in the early nineteenth century by Dr. James Crow, creator of Old Crow. Sour mashing, or saving a a portion of the mash from one fermentation to place in the next, assures yeast uniformity from one batch to the next. Virtually all bourbon is sour-mash whiskey. Farmers feed their livestock with left-over mash.
Crow, a Scottish physician, chemist and acquaintance of Louis Pasteur, is credited with standardizing bourbon production through the use of instrumentation and sanitation. He was master distiller at a distillery in Versailles, Kentucky, now called Labrot & Graham. It was bought in 1994 by spirits giant Brown-Forman, which did its own laudable restoration of the then-shuttered facility. The company now does the final aging of its small-batch entry, Woodford Reserve, there, but it won't be until 2003 when it will package examples of the brand made entirely at Labrot & Graham, using its traditional copper pot stills. Master distiller Lincoln Henderson says that the present whiskey is a result of marrying the best barrels from his Old Forester distillery, "the select, the reserve, the honey barrels, we call them."
Maker's Mark uses a column still and an old-fashioned pot still in its two distillations, but rather than searching for the bourbon that has matured the most sublimely, it rotates barrels in a specific sequence to maintain even maturation in all its whiskey.
The tour ends at the old Bickle fire truck that sits in a shed, and Ed O'Daniel, the president of the Kentucky Distillers Association, who grew up hunting on the property, points out that you can still hear the birds chirp even when Maker's Mark is in full production. "They have been too modest about their restoration of this place. It was literally falling down when I was a kid."
Back in Bardstown the bourbon festivities are hitting full stride with a barrel-making demonstration and the World Championship Bourbon Barrel Relay in the park surrounding the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History, which is packed with artifacts and explanations about the progress of the craft. Particularly interesting are the thousands of old whiskey containers and bottles used over the years.
Inside the museum, an auction begins in full camp style. Carl Lusk, of the Kentucky Railway Museum, is bringing the show to order. In rushes a woman, wearing turn-of-the-century garb, spouting slogans about the evils of alcohol, and brandishing a hatchet.
"Carrie Nation, you get out of here," says Lusk. When she doesn't acquiesce, he tries another tack: "If you don't want people to drink, you can buy all of this whiskey." She doesn't, and is summarily dismissed.
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