Traveling the Bourbon Trail

Me, Ryan (right) and Mike (front)
Me, Ryan (right) and Mike (front)

I met Ryan 8 years ago at a wedding and we soon started getting together “virtually” for playing video games. At the wedding, we found that we had some similar interests in various kinds of games and have been playing together ever since. In many ways, it’s odd that one of my best friends is one that I’d only physically met a single time, but there are even more people that I’d met through Ryan that, until recently, I also knew very well yet had never actually met.

Last year, our little gaming group (which consists of around 8-10 people) had discussed trying to meet up somewhere.  We’ve got some people up in Minnesota, one in Alabama, one in Ohio, three closer to the East coast, and me here in Missouri.  At the time, the Bourbon Trail in Kentucky seemed like the logical place to try and meet up, though some other options had been tossed around.  We couldn’t pull it off for last year, but we made a bigger push to get something together this time.  We couldn’t get all of those people together, but 5 of us met up in Frankfort, KY last weekend to visit some distilleries.

Woodford Reserve
Woodford Reserve

I’ve been brewing beer for quite awhile, so I had a handle on what the basic process of distilling entails.  There were some interesting differences between the different distilleries we visited however, including their history, architecture, barrel placement, and so on.

One thing they’ll tell you at these distilleries is that “bourbon” is distinct from “whiskey” in that it must only be aged in new, charred oak barrels (there are a few other requirements, but it’s one of the things that sets “bourbon” apart from “Tennessee Whiskey” like Jack Daniels).

We stayed at an airbnb apartment in Frankfort very close to Buffalo Trace Distillery, which is one of the oldest continuously operating distilleries in the country.  Unlike many others, they still produced bourbon during Prohibition because they had a Federal license to produce spirits for “medicinal purposes.”  We took the regular tour and then a “ghost tour” that evening, learning a bit about various potential “spirits” that live amongst the other “spirits.”

The sour mash at Woodford Reserve
The sour mash at Woodford Reserve

Unfortunately, while we got to see all the barrel houses at Buffalo Trace, they shut down their distilling operation in July and August due to the heat.  We got to see a working distillery at Woodford Reserve, our next destination.  This place was quite a bit more “corporate” in feel, and though distilleries have been present on the property for quite awhile, the current product, Woodford Reserve, has only existed since the 1990s.  Still, bourbon is made in the traditional way and it’s a large operation that you can see in action.  This distillery was one of two locations where we saw the sour mash bubbling about, where yeast began the fermentation process.  This part of bourbon-making only takes a few days, after which it’s distilled down (read: boiled to the point where the water is separated from the alcohol) and then loaded into barrels.

So many barrels...
So many barrels…

Those barrels will hang out for a period of years.  At Buffalo Trace, some barrels are kept up in the top of their barrel houses, but they can only be kept there for up to 6 years because the heat ages the bourbon faster.  The 10-12 year (or older) product is kept within the first few floors, where aging takes longer and the flavor profile changes over that period.  Ultimately, this means that some bourbons are aged at the top, some are aged in the middle, and some are aged at the bottom.  Woodford Reserve, on the other hand, rotates their barrels from the top to the bottom so the flavor remains consistent between each bottle they make.

That first day, we also hit up Wild Turkey, but we couldn’t catch a tour in the time we had.  We did participate in a tasting, however.  I can’t say the portions were great, and it was probably my least favorite of the locations, but I’m still glad we stopped by.

From left to right: Paul, Ryan and Mike.

The next day, we went to Maker’s Mark and found them to be pretty similar to Woodford Reserve in terms of their history vs corporate balance.  They’re also a large operation and the tour was pretty cool, especially the part where they explain their trademark wax topping that they pull off for each bottle.  Apparently, a worker can dip something like 100 of those bottles a minute before they pass through a cooling box that solidifies the wax prior to packaging.

Maker’s Mark was a really nice facility, though their buildings are all mostly black and sheet metal instead of brick.  You can tell it’s a newer facility, and they’ve got a more “corporate” feel.  Incidentally, they only had one or two barrel aging buildings on that portion of the property and, as we left, a few miles away, we saw 10s of more buildings where they were aging bourbon.

From left to right: Ryan, Josh, Mike and Paul.
From left to right: Ryan, Josh, Mike and Paul.

The last place we went was Heaven Hill, a company I wasn’t really familiar with, but apparently they own Evan Williams (a bourbon I am familiar with).  By the time we got there, they weren’t holding tours, but they were having a Bourbon Connoisseur’s Tasting of sorts.  It was the most expensive of the tastings ($20…), but you got 4 healthy doses of different bourbons and you got more information about the barrels, the aging, the differences in how bourbons are produced (like, what grains you add to them), and so on.  For example, we tasted a “25-year-whiskey” that, normally, I’d assume would taste really good…but this was apparently an accidental batch that was forgotten for 10 years in the wrong part of the barrel aging house.  The distiller aged it a bit longer in a different barrel (one that wasn’t oak, so it didn’t count as “bourbon” anymore), but it was salvageable as a teaching tool.  It didn’t taste nearly as good as it should after that much aging, which just goes to show that “25 years” isn’t necessarily great.

Heaven Hill Distillery
Heaven Hill Distillery

Of the places we went, I think we were universal in our love for Buffalo Trace and for the tasting we had at Heaven Hill.  It isn’t that the other places were bad, but the corporate feel of Maker’s Mark and Woodford Reserve really showed.  As I told the guys, it reminded me of the Anheuser-Busch tour in St. Louis: the beer isn’t that great, but the tour is still fascinating just to see it all at scale.  It’s still valuable information, but perhaps didn’t have the “character” we were looking for.

We also heard great things about Jim Beam Distillery and their tour options, but unfortunately, we just couldn’t fit it in.  Next year!

Ultimately, we had a great time.  We fit some video games in at night and hit up some of the restaurants in the Frankfort area (Bourbon on Main was pretty good…great bourbon list, too…  Buddy’s Pizza was also quite good.)  Hopefully we can get together like this next year or the following year and get more folks to join us.

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