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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 1)

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.

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