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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 5)

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.

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