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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

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These men, members of Heaven Hill's World Championship Bourbon Barrel Relay team, will defend the title in a few days. The plant, which dates to 1934, has been recently retooled to full modernity with computers, up-to-the-minute instrumentation and a sterling safety rating to boot. The whiskey, when in cartons, will join North America's largest collection of spirits under one roof in a cavernous finished-goods warehouse that is currently brimming in anticipation of holiday demand. The world's second largest holding of Bourbon surrounds the building in 40 warehouses.
So the Heaven Hill folks have much to brag about their prodigious whiskey production this September day at the beginning of the Kentucky Bourbon Festival. Instead, what they are crowing about is a building that makes no alcohol: the new Bourbon Heritage Center. The visitors' center offers a sophisticated presentation on the art and history of Bourbon making with films, interactive exhibits, a visit to an aging house and even a tasting. It's also at the forefront of a trend: the industry's growing accessibility to the public.
Makers of Bourbon, America's original spirit, are learning what winemakers and Scotch distillers have long known: tours and tastings create lifelong customers. An official Bourbon Trail now traverses Kentucky, where most of the spirit is made, with seven stops representing all but one major producer. Growing numbers of visitors are traveling this route through rolling hills, horse farms and frontier history that holds charms even for those who aren't whiskey enthusiasts.
To be fair, some distilleries have long welcomed guests, but the experiences are ever improving. For one thing, it wasn't until 2000 that Kentucky law changed to allow thirsty visitors a taste of liquor on premise. Now most distilleries pour free samples and all sell their products alongside branded merchandise at their gift shops.
That most Bourbon distillers operate within the small area that provides Kentucky's pure water and sweltering summer heat makes the category easy to negotiate compared with far-flung Scottish still houses. That Bourbon is also highly defined by U.S. regulations makes the production process easy to understand, and fans of particular liquors will quickly learn the variables that create the nuances they have grown to love. Nevertheless, each tour is unique.
The experience is an immersion into the charming, if confusing, culture and history of Kentucky. It's a world of rustic characters who create an elegant quaff by a process that is by turns part science and folk recipe, some of which should be seasoned with a grain of salt. Nominally competitors, Bourbon makers are often friends, sometimes even blood related. While their parent companies market fiercely, they concentrate on making great whiskey. During the annual Bourbon Festival in Bardstown, they become spirits idols to gathered fans, but don't lose their common touch.
The festival, and much of the Bourbon Trail, centers on Bardstown. The tidy village, its hominess and friendly people paint the picture that reportedly inspired Stephen Foster to compose the state anthem, "My Old Kentucky Home." Daniel Boone, Abraham Lincoln and Jesse James walked the region. Bardstown is the Bourbon capital not only for its proximity to four makers, but also the Oscar Getz Museum of Bourbon History located downtown near the Lawn at Spalding Hall where many of the Bourbon Festival events—barrel rolling included—take place. Its trove of artifacts date to the pioneer days and make a good first reference.
Heaven Hill sponsors a trolley from downtown with a brief tour of Bardstown on the short trip to its visitors center. Harry Shapira, who with his cousin, Max Shapira, is a principal in the largest independent family-owned Bourbon company (you'll find that every stop on the Bourbon Trail has its own superlative), directed the project. It has a sophisticated design meant to communicate the basics of Bourbon on a substantive level: prominent materials are limestone (a huge shelf of which filters much of Kentucky's water), copper (the material of choice for stills) and oak (the barrel wood responsible for most of the whiskey's flavor).
A large panel tells of Elijah Craig, the legendary eighteenth-century Baptist minister and still man credited with stumbling upon an essential Bourbon process. The story goes that he mistakenly charred the inside of a barrel, then used it anyway. The toasted staves sped and improved whiskey maturation and a new whiskey was born. Some question the legend, but predictably not Heaven Hill, which has a brand named for Elijah Craig. Polite visitors shouldn't either as they soon stand to sample some of that rich Bourbon themselves in a nosing and tasting room that is in the shape of a huge barrel. Whatever you believe, learn the importance of charring. It is now part of the legal definition of Bourbon that it be aged in new charred-oak barrels for a minimum of two years, four if the age isn't stated on the bottle. Char is the source of Bourbon's toasty, vanilla and caramel notes as well as its deep color, as only water—no flavor or coloring—can be added to the spirit. Used barrels are sold to lend flavor to Scotch, Irish and Canadian whiskies as well as rum.
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.
By way of proving his point, Pickerell offers some superaged Maker's Mark to a few visitors in a tasting room off his office (not a part of the standard Maker's tour). It's 12 years old and past its prime, woody and bitter. The point is that the company feels it makes the Bourbon as best it can, and extra aging won't make a better product. Of course, the philosophy leaves no room to add lines as other brands so often do.
The tour includes a visit to the modest bottling line where ladies hand-dip the package into hot red wax. In the gift shop, visitors wearing heavy gloves can dip their own 375-ml souvenir bottle of Bourbon in a wax caldron, a task that is harder than it would seem.
The world's best-selling Bourbon is something of an icon of the frontier spirit, and for its guest facilities it chose a name—the Jim Beam American Outpost—that conjures that image.
It's not on the frontier anymore, but, in Clermont, it is on the northern periphery of the Bardstown Bourbon solar system. The Outpost offers not a tour, but a series of educational exhibits about Bourbon. The logical first stop is the theater where a short film covers production and the colorful Beam family. The narrator is Booker Noe, a grandson of Jim Beam who died in February 2004 just as much a legend as his famous ancestor.
Noe became an outsized Bourbon ambassador when he created and promoted the ultrapremium Booker's Bourbon. A good ol' boy raconteur with a sly sense of humor, he traveled the world explaining how the marketing guys had asked him if he could create a quality Bourbon to rival the burgeoning single-malt Scotches. He told them that it already existed. The whiskey that he and his close friends drank was taken from select barrels and enjoyed uncut and unfiltered at a scorching proof. From that first brand grew Beam's Small Batch Bourbon Collection that also includes Knob Creek, Baker's and Basil Hayden's.
Booker never much kept to the marketing script. Inevitably he'd tell an explosive cooking story, a fishing yarn or a family chestnut that poked fun at Jim Beam—whatever came to mind. The cookout he hosted each year at his house always turned into a hootenanny, with the great man playing the jug. It's still one of the prized invitations of the Bourbon festival, with his son, Fred, hosting in his place.
Fred, developing his own humorous style, has stepped in nicely for his father. He chose a commemorative bottling of Booker's and recently sealed the 10 millionth barrel of Jim Beam. He also helped create the touring Great Whiskey Debate, a mock argument between himself and a kilt-wearing representative of The Dalmore single-malt Scotch, which Jim Beam Brands imports. The combatants tout their own quaff, while good-naturedly teasing the other's.
At the Outpost, it's a curious mixture of industry, Kentucky countryside and Southern hospitality. You're surrounded by the world's largest collection of Bourbon, yet you examine vestiges of frontier whiskey making. The 1779 Bailey's copper pot still, the oldest in the United States, underscores the humble beginnings of Bourbon and the Beam family, with its seven generations of distillers. The Hartmann Cooperage, which operated from 1875 to 1925, has been transplanted here. The T. Jeremiah House, a former family dwelling, displays antiques and a working tabletop distillery, the smallest in the world, as well as offering a tasting.
The closest you'll get to the modern Beam operation is a peek into Warehouse D, a tin building blackened by possibly tipsy fungi that thrive in the moist atmosphere of distillation, and a whiff of its maple candy aroma.
Booker always said he looked to the "center cut," or middle floors, of the rick houses for the best Bourbon. At the barbecue that afternoon, Fred Noe reveals that his father also liked houses that faced north and south because the configuration is good for airflow. Two were recently opened at Beam's Boston, Kentucky, distillery, which is now named for Booker. Fred hosts the affair, which is tinged with a bit of sadness as it's the first time his father isn't the ringmaster. But Fred assures there will be continuity, saying, "My job is not to change a damn thing."
While the Beams have stamped this site, they no longer own it. The family business failed during Prohibition. After repeal, investors bankrolled Jim Beam, then 70 years old, to rebuild the distillery, which he did in a mere 120 days. Although the company eventually became part of Fortune Brands (see F. Paul Pacult's excellent American Still Life for a family history), Beams continued to run it. The present master distiller, Jerry Dalton (who also authored a book on Taoism—go figure), is the first non-Beam to hold that position.
Head east on the Blue Grass Parkway and you find the Four Roses Distillery in Lawrenceburg. If any Bourbon plant appears out of place in Kentucky, this is it. The Spanish-mission-style stucco building from 1910 offers not only architectural curiosity and, of course, the roses, but a chance to purchase a Bourbon that has been generally unavailable here since the 1950s. Former owner Seagram's made the decision to concentrate on blended whiskey sales domestically and export its straight whiskey to Europe and Asia. Four Roses now belongs to Kirin of Japan, where the brand is hugely popular. Kirin is determined to pursue more U.S. sales, which pleases master distiller Jimmy Rutledge, whose labors sell in a market he rarely sees.
Much is made of Four Roses's use of different mash bills and yeast codes to maintain consistency. Corn imparts sweetness and makes Bourbon America's own invention, as distillers discovered it here. But high rye content is key to the Four Roses light and spicy profile. In Bourbon, the main function of malted barley, the only grain in single-malt Scotch, is to jump-start fermentation, as yeast readily feeds on it. Each distiller has its own guarded yeast culture. Four Roses has many. When Rutledge gives tours, he likes to show how grain quality is protected as well. Truckloads of grains are immediately analyzed by nose for impurities after being briefly nuked in a microwave to accentuate aromas. Grains that pass are dumped into a hopper. Those that don't are used in other grain-neutral spirits in other distilleries.
Four Roses ages its whiskey in one-story warehouses to avoid the temperature variations that other distillers prize. The tall rick houses that stand nearby the distillery belong to Wild Turkey. To see Four Roses aging, you have to travel to its Cox's Creek facility near the Jim Beam Outpost.
Four Roses also distills Bulleit Bourbon Frontier Whiskey, a product of the world's largest spirits concern, Diageo, which briefly owned the distillery. It's the brainchild of Tom Bulleit, a Kentucky lawyer who says he resurrected the whiskey from a 175-year-old also-rye-rich recipe (29 percent) passed down from his great-great grandfather. The product was first made by what is now the Buffalo Trace Distillery. Seagram's bought Bulleit. Diageo bought Four Roses and retained the Bulleit brand when it sold the distillery. Now Diageo is putting its serious marketing muscle behind the brand, which, with Tom Bulleit stumping it across the country, will be available in all 50 states by the end of the year.
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.
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