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

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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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