A Journey Down The Bourbon Trail

The surging popularity of Bourbon and Rye in the past decade is partly due to the increasing numbers of people that visit Kentucky each year.  These visitors gain a newfound appreciation of the history and dedication behind these spirits.  The Bourbon Trail can please both the novice bourbon drinker and the bourbon expert alike with different tailored experiences at each distillery.  Just recently I led the 9 Maple Bourbon Trail Tour with a group of 12 guests.  For many of them it was their first experience and I am sure not their last.

Rickhouse at Willett Distillery

Our group was based in downtown Louisville for 4 nights at the Embassy Suites which is in a very good location with access to everything.

Day 1

The group arrived on Wednesday throughout the day.  Our first group get-together was not until the evening and this gave myself and a couple of others time to check out the new Angel’s Envy distillery and do a tour.  This is a must stop in Louisville for anyone on the Bourbon Trail and for my future tours, this will definitely be included.  It is a beautiful distillery and visitor experience.  All $27 million can be seen here, with its shiny Angel-shaped spirit safe to the fancy tasting bar.  The tour itself was great and will be covered in a future blog post.

The spirit safe
The tasting

Our 9 Maple Bourbon Trail group tour started off with a welcome dram of Angel’s Envy Rye at the hotel before heading to our first group dinner at Doc Crow’s Southern Smokehouse, a classic southern joint with a great selection of BBQ items and cocktails.  Just what the group needed before venturing over to the Haymarket Whiskey Bar…

Welcome dram of Angel’s Envy Rye
Group dinner at Doc Crow’s

Day 2

The southern part of the Bourbon Trail was on the itinerary for our first full day, Thursday, with stops at Maker’s Mark, Willett, Heaven Hill and Jim Beam.  Here is a brief description of each experience:

  • Maker’s Mark – a beautiful location just south of Bardstown; a very nice overall tour; large groups; you get to see all of the different parts of the distillery including the new warehouse built into the side of the mountain used for aging the Maker’s 46; great spot on location for lunch with a bar making bourbon slushies (good timing); a nice gift shop where you can wax your own bottles which is a fun experience; great overall first stop on any tour – exceeded expectations!

The group at Maker’s Mark with bourbon slushies in hand
  • Willett Distillery – another beautiful spot just outside of Bardstown; surrounded by tall white warehouses filled with aging spirit; this tour happened to be one of the group’s favorite tours; family-run, working distillery; just felt right; nice tasting opportunity at the end of the tour; decent gift shop with some fun swag and bottles to bring home – really looking forward to getting back to Willett.
One guest chillin’ out at Willett
On the Willett Tour
The Willett rickhouses
  • Heaven Hill – after two tours already for the day, our group did the Connoisseur Tasting at Heaven Hill which was about an hour-long tasting that included the following whiskies: Henry McKenna 10 Year Old, Old Fitzgerald 12 Year Old, Heaven Hill Bad Bourbon Aged 25 Years (this was a sample bottle of something aged too long – tasted really bad to me, but some people didn’t mind it), William Heavenhill 14 Year Old, and the Pikesville Straight Rye – overall a relaxing tasting and great to try some of the brands that you can only get at the distillery
The tasting
  • Jim Beam – to finish off the southern trail, we made a stop at Jim Beam for their Cocktail Experience; you get a token from the gift shop and climb the hill to get your cocktail; a nice selection of cocktails and well-made; a good way to end the day
The gang at Jim Beam

Our group had a night off in Louisville and some of us went to Harvest, a superb restaurant run by Chef Patrick Roney.  Chef Roney prepared a special tasting menu for our table of 8.  It was a fantastic way to end our first full day on the Bourbon Trail.

Meal at Harvest

Day 3

On our next full day, Friday, we got up early since we had four distilleries to visit and a cooperage.  The Brown Forman Cooperage, Peerless Distilling, Woodford Reserve, Wild Turkey and Buffalo Trace were on the agenda for the day.  Here is a brief description of each experience:

  • Brown Forman Cooperage – to see the coopers work up close is a fantastic experience; most of the barrels being made were for Jack Daniels and Woodford Reserve; a nice intro presentation to start the tour; safety goggles on and closed-toed shoes are a must; great photo opportunities; this will be a must do stop on any future tour

A cooper at work
Charring up the barrels
  • Peerless Distilling – a newer ‘craft’ distillery which released their 2-year old rye the day after our visit; very interesting to have a newer craft distillery in the middle of our tour of more familiar brands; a lot of pride in their process and history; a very nice visit – just wish we could have sampled the rye (which you can now) – a couple of guests on our tour went back the following day to pick up four new bottles so we did eventually get to try it…
Filling the barrels with new rye

  • Woodford Reserve – another beautiful location among the rolling hills of horse country; a very polished tour where you are able to see where some of the spirit is made; as a group you are bused down from the visitor’s center to the distillery; great to see the barrels being moved on the tracks; nice tasting at the end with some chocolate; gift shop was ok
A Woodford washback
The Woodford spirit still
Barrels are rolling
  • Wild Turkey – after two distillery tours and a cooperage tour, we were ready for a tasting; held at the newer Wild Turkey Visitor’s Center; beautiful spot overlooking a river valley; the tasting could have been better as we were grouped with some people that just came off the tour and had a different experience, the tasting included the normal range of Wild Turkey
We got to meet Jimmy Russell!
  • Buffalo Trace – our last stop on the eastern trail was at Buffalo Trace where we did a tour; highlights included our guide who had quite the sense of humor and being able to visit some warehouses and the bottling line; next time would like to do a more in-depth tour; the tasting was ok on the top floor of the Visitor’s Center but the shop lacked any special bourbon for purchase which was a disappointment – with all of their brands there should have been something special…

The Blanton’s bottling line
A couple of Saratoga bartenders

That evening we returned to Louisville for our second group dinner, this time at Bourbon’s Bistro.  We had some nice cocktails and great meal to round out another full day on the trail.  Bourbon’s Bistro is not in downtown Louisville, but a great area of Crescent Hill with lots of fun spots.

Group dinner at Bourbon’s Bistro

Day 4

On our final full day in Kentucky, Saturday, we decided to make it a “horse” day.  Our group started the day back near Lexington where we visited the famous Claiborne Farm which is home to some past Kentucky Derby winners and is where Secretariat is buried.  We were able to pet Orb, the 2013 Kentucky Derby winner, and to see many other horses and areas of the farm that are used for stud purposes.  It was a great way to spend the morning and a get a good sense of the significance of horses and history in Kentucky.

At Claiborne Farm
A horse staredown

For lunch we tasted beer at the West Sixth Brewery and had food at Smithtown Seafood in Lexington.

West Sixth Brewing

Back in Louisville it was time to head to Churchill Downs to visit the Kentucky Derby Museum and spend the rest of the afternoon at the track.  It happened to be the same day that the Preakness Race was running in Baltimore, so we were able to watch the live stream feed on the main screen at Churchill Downs.  It gave us a sense of what it might be like at the Derby, but without all of the people!  Some day…

At Churchill Downs

Our last evening was spent dining at Butchertown Grocery, a great newer restaurant in Butchertown area of Louisville.  It was a nice way to end our tour as a group.

At Butchertown Grocery

Final Thoughts

Wow, it was a fantastic trip and a great group!  I learned a lot of things about each distillery and Louisville.  We had an aggressive schedule but the breaks between each visit helped.  There were a few things that I would change or add, but overall it was the perfect balance of tours, tastings and fun.  I look forward to the next tour.  Please let me know if you are interested in joining.  All of the whisky tours can be found at: Whiskey Tours

Distilleries Visited:

Angel’s Envy – 500 E Main Street, Louisville, KY 40202

Maker’s Mark – 3350 Burks Spring Road, Loretto, KY 40037

Willett Distillery – 1869 Loretto Road, Bardstown, KY 40004

Heaven Hill – 1064 Loretto Road, Bardstown, KY 40004

Jim Beam – 526 Happy Hollow Road, Clermont, KY 40110

Peerless Distilling – 120 N 10th Street, Louisville, KY 40202

Woodford Reserve – 7855 McCracken Pike, Versailles, KY 40383

Wild Turkey – 1417 Versailles Road, Lawrenceburg, KY 40342

Buffalo Trace – 113 Great Buffalo Trace, Frankfort, KY 40601

 

Restaurants:

Doc Crow’s Southern Smokehouse – 127 W Main St, Louisville, KY 40207

Harvest – 624 E Market St, Louisville, KY 40202

Bourbon’s Bistro – 2255 Frankfort Ave, Louisville, KY 40206

Butchertown Grocery – 1076 E Washington St, Louisville, KY 40206

 

Bars:

Haymarket Whiskey Bar – 331 E Market St, Louisville, KY 40202

Old Seelbach Bar – 500 S 4th St, Louisville, KY 40202

Brown Hotel Lobby Bar – 335 W Broadway, Louisville, KY 40202

META – 425 W Chestnut St, Louisville, KY 40202

The Silver Dollar – 1761 Frankfort Ave, Louisville, KY 40206

Hilltop Tavern – 1800 Frankfort Ave, Louisville, KY 40206

The Hub – 2235 Frankfort Ave, Louisville, KY 40206

WhistlePig Distillery

Visit #21, April 27, 2016WHISTLE I

Nestled in the rolling hills just west of the Green Mountains in Vermont sits the WhistlePig Farm.  Purchased in 2007 by Raj Bhakta, WhistlePig Farm started aging rye whiskey stocks in 2008 and by 2010, they launched their first 10-year old rye whiskey.  With the help of the Master Distiller David Pickerell, the WhistlePig distillery is now averages 400 cases a day of bottle production.  The site itself is located in a picturesque area of Vermont and it is evident that WhistlePig has been successful in its business plan of expansion with a relatively new still house built in an early 1900’s barn.WHISTLE IV

WhistlePig Farm is not open to visitors currently, but we were lucky to make a visit as a member of the writing community that focuses on whiskey.  Our tour leader for the afternoon was Connor Burleigh, the operations manager of the distillery.  Connor started with an internship in 2014 and quickly moved from sales to operations a year ago.  He provided us with a great tour of the facility and tasting.

Our guide, Connor
Our guide, Connor

The WhistlePig business plan is interesting.  Since they source whiskey from different distilleries in Canada and the United States, they plan to stick to this source for the whiskies that have already become popular.  They believe that if they start to use the rye whiskey that they produced in-house, it would change the flavor profile and it would be a problem for consumers that are already accustomed to a certain taste.  They do want to create their own product in-house eventually, but it will not replace what they currently age from these different sources.  Most newer distilleries that we have visited in the U.S. have an end goal of just producing their own whiskey.  This is not the case with WhistlePig.  A different approach.

Here are some notes from our tour of the property and still house:

  • 1200 acres of farm land: 700 arable acres, 330 acres used for rye production, the rest rented out, grain stored off site
  • 30,000 barrels overall stored in various locations
  • rye whiskey sourced from 3-4 different distilleries both in Canada and the United States, Old World sourced from MGP in Indiana
  • 1% of hard wood in Vermont is white oak, we saw a variety of barrels including Madeira barrels, some with #4 char and toast
  • Old World is chill filtered in a milk tank
  • 1 week of production held in bottling tank
  • 600 bottles an hour / 400 cases a day, hand-labeled
  • California is the biggest market
  • WhistlePig rye found in 7 countries
  • new distillery opened in November 2015 in a barn built in the early 1900’s
  • 2-year legal battle to get barn ready for distilling
  • 750 gallon Vendome pot hybrid still
  • 1400 lbs of grain in the mash tank
  • 5 900 gallon fermentation tanks, 3-5 days of fermentation
  • 5-7 hours of run time for the still: 4-5 hours for the heart run, they do keep some heads, they keep the still running 18 hours a day, 5 days a week
Barrel House
Barrel House

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Oloroso Sherry Cask
Oloroso Sherry Cask
Bottling Area
Bottling Area
A new bottle
A new bottle

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Milk Tank
Milk Tank

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Mortimer, the still
One of the distillers
One of the distillers

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Mash and fermentation
Mash and fermentation
Fermentation tanks
Fermentation tanks

Connor provided us with a great tour of the facility.  It was a busy place with barrels being moved around and the still house in production.  Since the still has only been running since last November, they were experimenting with different runs, including some bourbon runs.  It will be interesting if they go this path at some point.  The restored barn that was converted into the new still house was incredible.  They had a huge open entrance perfect for hosting large groups and explaining the history of WhistlePig.  Upstairs they also had a large loft area that was perfectly set up for large parties or gatherings.

What would a distillery visit be without a tasting!  We had the privilege of tasting many of the different cask finishes that make up their products and the new 15-year old before release.  Quite amazing.  Here is a list of the 11 different tastes that we had, including a cognac aged in WhistlePig barrels:

  • 10-year old original rye, ABV 50%
  • Madeira finish – 4-6 weeks for most finishing – 12-year old
  • Sauternes finish
  • Port finish – double gold in SF spirits competition
  • Old World – 63% Madeira, 30% Sauternes, 7% Port finishes
  • Muscat finish – 4 months of finishing
  • Oloroso Sherry finish – over a year finished
  • Tokaji finish – Hungarian sweet wine – 2 months of finishing
  • Pedro Ximenez finish – 1 year of finishing
  • Pierre Ferrand XO cognac aged in WhistlePig barrels for 1 year
  • new release 15-year old, aged 6 months in Vermont oak, received a 97 in Wine Enthusiast magazine

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What a great experience to try all of these different finishes.  I do have to say that it became difficult after 5 or 6 of them to have a clean palate to taste, but we did our best.  This was the first time we have experienced what it takes to create a blend of rye whiskey.  It was sure a fascinating treat.  Thanks to Connor and the entire WhistlePig group for inviting us to visit with them and share with us their business plan and production.WHISTLE III

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Charles’ Notes:  This was an exciting visit for me.  I had just returned from a food tour in Miami where I saw WhistlePig in almost every bar and I was intrigued with how such a young distillery could be so popular across the U.S.  And it was fun to be invited to a place that is not yet open to the public.  The business plan of WhistlePig really made me think about what do distilleries want from their model.  Do they want to be real craft distillers where they make small in-house products that take years to develop?  Or do they want to find a business model that will sustain them for the future and allow them to experiment?  The fact that WhistlePig will continue to source never occurred to me until this visit.  But they want to maintain expectations.  Do other distilleries follow this plan?  It is an interesting direction.  They were gracious hosts and we enjoyed our visit to their farm.  I look forward to revisiting with them in the future.WHISTLE IX

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Mad River Distillers

Visit #20, April 9, 2016MAD XVI

The road recently thawed on this mid-Spring day in Vermont.  The night before there was some snow which probably made the skiers over at Sugarbush happy.  On top of Cold Springs Farm Road just south of Waitsfield, VT, sits Mad River Distillers, a five-year old distillery making rum, whiskey and rye.  Cold Springs Farm dates back to the mid-19th century and became a horse farm later in its life.  The horse barn on the farm became what is now the distillery in 2011 and began to produce spirits in 2013.MAD XVII

Vermont is a very picturesque state and the location of this farm, now distillery, is amazing with the mountains in the background.  Our group consisted of some members of the Saratoga Whisk(e)y Club, and we were all very excited to get inside to check out what they were producing.  Saratoga Whiskey Club

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Distiller and guide Zack

Our host, one of two distillers at Mad River Distillers, was Zack Fuller.  Zack studied distilling in Scotland and is now distilling and experimenting in this beautiful spot in Northern Vermont.  He provided our group with an excellent overview of their process and equipment.  Here are some notes from our tour:

  • distilling takes place 7 days a week
  • pre-milled grains come from a 300-mile radius (Vermont, New York and Massachusetts)
  • fair trade sugars from Malawi used for rum
  • Vermont apples are used for brandy
  • 250 gallon mash tank
  • 4 500 gallon fermentation tanks for whiskey and rye, this fermentation lasts 4-5 days
  • 2 separate 1000 gallon fermentation tanks used for rum and brandy, this fermentation lasts between 2-3 weeks
  • Zack used a great quote: “farts CO2 and pisses alcohol” – never heard that one before
  • Mueller pot still from Germany
  • 53 gallons of mash pumped from fermenter into still – run times for the still: heads – 15 minutes, hearts – 1 – 1 1/2 hours yielding 4-5 gallons, tails – less than 15 minutes
  • Cold Spring water is hard water
  • various sized barrels used including 15, 25, 30 and 53-gallon barrels with some Spanish sherry butts
  • they started aging the bourbon and rye in 25 gallon barrels for one year
  • 53 gallon barrels are from Kentucky and Minnesota
  • some 25 gallon barrels used to age rum come from Canada
  • in 2015, they produced 2,000 cases of spirits
  • the goal for 2016 is 3,000 cases
  • distribution currently in Vermont, Massachusetts and Rhode Island
Zack at the Mueller still
Zack at the Mueller still

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The tour itself was perfect and to have one of the main distillers explain everything made it even more special.  Zack was extremely knowledgeable and was able to answer all of our questions and give us some insight as to where they want to head as a company.  Future collaborations with Lawson’s craft beer company really perked our ears.

We finished our tour with a tasting of 7 of their spirits.  Here is what we tasted:

  • Vanilla Rum – infused with vanilla beans for 6-8 months, 40% ABV
  • First Run Rum – aged 4 months in lightly charred oak barrels, 48% ABV
  • Maple Rum – best seller, aged 6-8 months after syrup is made, 48% ABV
  • Corn Whiskey – 85% corn, 5% rye, 5% wheat, 2-3 months in a lightly toasted barrel, 48% ABV
  • Bourbon – mash bill: 70% corn, 10% wheat, 10% oat, 10% barley – aged for 1 year in a 25 gallon barrel, 48% ABV
  • Malvados – 100% Vermont mixed apples, Malvados means “wicked” in Portuguese, 50% ABV
  • Revolution Rye – 100% rye, 3 varieties – chocolate, cracked malt and toasted, 48% ABV
  • We also got to try a small sample of a single malt that they are doing with Lawson’s brewery and their Hopscotch, very tasty!

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Overall it was a great tour and tasting.  Wine Enthusiast just rated the Revolution Rye with 92 points and it definitely is a good rye to pick up, if you can find it.  We were happy to be able to purchase a variety of their spirits.

Charles’ Notes: This visit worked out great.  We didn’t really know much about Mad River Distillers other than what was on their website.  You still can’t get their product in New York State.  It turned out to be the highlight of the weekend.  Zack was super friendly and helpful with our questions and it turned out to be a great time spent.  It is always such a nice experience when you have unknown expectations and walk out with new appreciation of a craft.  They are craft distillers that care about their product and put the love into it that is needed to get noticed and grow.   I look forward to returning to Mad River Distillers in the future and trying some more of their single malt products.

Also, they are located near Waterbury, VT, which is a great place to stay.  It almost feels like the craft beer mecca of the United States.  Lawson’s and the Alchemist breweries are located here and produce phenomenal beers.  We spent Saturday night in town and definitely recommend The Prohibition Pig for BBQ and the local taverns for some great draft pours.  Cheers!MAD XI

 

New York Distilling Company

Visit #17, February 21, 2016NYD-I

Brooklyn is still hopping.  It was an unseasonably warm Sunday morning in February.  We made our way under the East River for brunch and spirit making.  There were lines at the restaurants as the weather made it too easy for people to eat.  But that didn’t deter us from getting to visit a distillery that was high on our list of NY state distilleries.  New York Distilling Company is located near McCarren Park in North Williamsburg.  It is an early adopter to the distillery scene in New York state along with Tuthilltown Spirits and a couple of others.  At just over 4 years old, it is the third oldest distillery in New York City.

You enter through their bar, the Shanty, a well-decorated spot with a large window overlooking the operations of the distillery.  Here we were welcomed by Selma, a whiskey connoisseur, who provided us a sample of their Ragtime Rye which had recently sold out.  There was time to wait due to a private tour being led by Allen Katz, co-owner of the distillery with his partner Tom Potter.  A sample of rye and a nice cold beer put us in a good frame of mind for our tour which was led by Max, the new bar manager of the Shanty.

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The tour started with an overview of the distillery and its products, gin and rye.  They only do gin and rye since these are true to New York history, with the creation of the cocktail in New York City.  Here are some of the notes from the tour as well as information that was collected through an e-mail exchange with Allen Katz:

  • Mash bill of rye – 72% rye, 16% corn & 12% malted barley
  • Ingredients sourced from the Pederson Farms near the Finger Lakes area of NY state
  • Whiskey production is seasonal – rye harvest is in June and July, and depending on the weather, corn harvest is usually in September
  • Rye is distilled in Brooklyn and at their second distillery in Upstate NY which is a facility that is co-owned with Black Dirt Distillery
  • Mash tank is heated using a steam jacket and is 3,000 liters
  • Two fermentation tanks also 3,000 liters each, fermentation takes between 3-5 days
  • The kettle still is 1,000 liters and comes from Germany, manufactured by Christian Carl
  • Average still run time: heads – minutes; hearts – depends on what they are distilling and can be several hours (gin can be 6-7 hours); tails – whatever is discarded at the end of the hearts run
  • Their goal is to fill 1,000 barrels of rye this year
  • Most of the barrels come from an independent stave company in Missouri and they also source some barrels from the Kelvin Cooperage in Kentucky
  • Barrels are stored both on site and at a second facility in Upstate NY – this gives them capacity to grow
    Still from Stuttgart
    Still from Stuttgart

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Max’s expertise, being the bar manager, was describing each product we tasted at the end of the tour.  Here is what we tasted:

  • Dorothy Parker American Gin – notes of hibiscus and elderberry
  • Perry’s Tot Gin – 57% ABV, the historical proof at which gunpowder could still be fired if soaked in spirit, ‘tot’ refers to the British measurement of alcohol
  • Chief Gowanus – New Netherland Gin – an old recipe from 1809 of American genievre, unaged rye whiskey distilled with juniper and hops, and then run though a third distillation, 3-6 months aged in an oak barrels
  • Rock & Rye – a marriage of young rye whiskey and rock sugar candy, aged 6 months to a yearNYD-XIIINYD-XV

What makes NY Distilling Company different as well is that it is situated right next door to Engine 229, Tower Ladder 146.  So throughout the tour it felt like we were part of the fire station as fire trucks were continually called out for service.  Not to mention the large flag hanging above the rafters, it was unmistakably New York City…   Overall, it was a great tour and experience.  Max and Selma made it for a great afternoon.  And, thanks to Selma for letting us sip some of the Ragtime Rye and the secret still of spirit located behind the bar.

Charles’ Notes: I was very much looking forward to getting to Brooklyn.  Coming down from Upstate NY and staying in Manhattan is always a tidal wave of energy that hits you when exiting Penn Station.  So it was nice to get over to Brooklyn and have a great brunch at the Brazilian restaurant down the street from the distillery, Beco.  I highly recommend this little spot.  Brought me right back to Brazil.  At the distillery, the Shanty was great and the tour was open and informative.  It was also nice to be able to communicate with Allen via e-mail afterwards to ask some questions.  I look forward to watching their growth and tasting more of their spirits in the future.NYD-XVI