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

Teeling Whiskey Distillery

Visit #29, September 24, 2016

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The last stop on our week-long Ireland distillery adventure was to The Liberties area of Dublin to visit the Teeling Whiskey Distillery.  Dublin was once home to over 30 distilleries, but the last one closed in the mid-70s. Teeling opened just recently in 2015 and is the first new distillery to open in Dublin in the last century.  Similar to some Tullamore D.E.W. branding, Teeling Whiskey uses a phoenix on its labels to represent the return of Irish whiskey to Dublin and to the Teeling family.

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Our tour started with the history of whiskey in Dublin and in Ireland, its rise and fall and now resurgence across the country.  A video described the roller-coaster ride of Irish whiskey history and the construction of the new Teeling Distillery.  They sure did not hold back on the building of this modern distillery with a very nice gift shop, bar, tasting area and semi-museum of artifacts and timelines.  And the inner workings of the distillery were just as impressive.

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Here are some notes from our tour of the “working” area of the distillery:

  • they use a wet mill – the water reduces the risk of explosion
  • 15,000 liter lauter tun used, holds 30 tons of grist at 60 degrees
  • 6 fermentation tanks – 2 wood (for looks) and 4 metal – 30,000 liters each
  • fermentation takes between 3 to 5 days
  • each of their stills has a name
    • Alison is the Wash Still – 15,000 liters – temp at 90 degrees
    • Natalie is the Intermediate Still – 10,000 liters – temp at 84 degrees
    • Rebecca is the Spirit Still – 9,000 liters – temp 78.2 degrees
  • stills come from Siena, Italy – each are 5 tons and valued over $1 million
  • aging is done outside of the city in Louth – too dangerous to mature whiskey in the city due to fire concerns
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Lauter Tun

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Wooden washbacks in front of metal ones
Wooden washbacks in front of metal ones
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Natalie, the Intermediate Still
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Rebecca, the Spirit Still
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Alison, the Wash Still

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Description of the barrels and aging

Our tour ended with a premier tasting of the following:

  • Teeling Single Malt
  • Teeling Single Cask
  • and a distillery only Single Malt finished in Cabernet casks
The tasting
The tasting

Overall it was a good tour.  Unfortunately it was on a Saturday and the distilling floor was non-operational.  It’s always nice to be able to see the whiskey being made.  It was a very different experience from our other 5 distillery tours in Ireland earlier in the week.  Just being in Dublin made it more crowded and busy.  The tour was on a strict schedule and there was not much time to linger.  We also rushed through the tasting at the end which was less than ideal.  But this is part of being in a big city on a weekend too.  Teeling is becoming a very popular destination and I am glad we were able to see it now in its early stages.

Charles’ Notes:  I had very high expectations for this visit.  It was our last distillery visit during our week in Ireland which included Kilbeggan, Tullamore D.E.W., Jameson Midleton, Dingle, Walsh and Teeling.  But there was something off about the visit.  Our reservation was lost, even though it was guaranteed in advance with a credit card.  The tour felt rushed and the tasting too.  I had read so many great reviews about distillery visits here so maybe my expectations were too high.  Or it’s possible my earlier distillery visits during the week were competing with each other.  But whatever the reason, it seemed off.  I do think they have a good thing going there with lots of potential and I will definitely be back to make another visit on another Ireland distillery tour.  The bar was a very nice touch and the space was well planned out.  I am still a big Teeling fan!  It’s great to witness the new Irish whiskey renaissance.

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A. Smith Bowman Distillery

Visit #22, May 17, 2016

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Just 58 miles south of Washington, D.C. resides the A. Smith Bowman Distillery.  It was an overcast Spring day that I made the trip to Fredericksburg, VA, the town located at the midpoint of the opposing capitals of the Civil War.  Most people come to visit the Civil War battlefields, but my purpose was bourbon.  In fact, they had just released another limited edition whiskey the day before, one that had sold out quickly in 8 hours, unfortunately for me.  But with that news behind me, I decided to enjoy the tour of the distillery as if the limited edition didn’t exist!Bowman - XXXV

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The A. Smith Bowman distillery just celebrated its 80th anniversary.  Licensed in 1935 by A. Smith Bowman, the distillery was originally located at the Sunset Hills Farm in Fairfax county outside of Washington, D.C.  In 1958, Robert E. Simon purchased most of the farm/distillery and in 1988, the distillery was moved to its current location in Fredericksburg, VA.  He moved it here because of the rising costs in the D.C. market.  The site was originally a cellophane factory that was used to wrap up cigars and cigarettes.  They were large when they moved, but in 2003 they were sold to another family and operates on a smaller basis now.

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The tour guide for the afternoon was Erin, one of only 13 people that work at the distillery.  Erin explained the history of the distillery and its move to its current location.  She also went over all of the different spirits that they produce.  Here are some notes from the tour of the distillery:

  • two stills used for production, George and Mary
  • George – Vendome still #1965, started using this in January, 2015, pot/column still, mash used for George is 500 gallons
  • Mary – 25 year old passive still – temperature not controlled, double reflux, triple distilled (first two distillations done at Buffalo Trace), only used in the Fall and the Spring seasons, was the original still for the Fredericksburg location
  • they chill filter their bourbon at 28 degrees for aesthetic reasons, the Abraham limited release is the only non-chill-filtered bourbon
  • barrels are stored upright (they don’t need to be rotated when standing upright), they use 53-gallon barrels from the Independent Stave Company in Lebanon, KY – American Oak from the Ozarks, char level of 3.5, bung holes are found on the ends of the barrels
  • close to 10,000 barrels are stored on site
  • distilling and operations happen from 7:30am to 3:30pm Monday-Friday
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Erin starting off the tour
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Explaining the barrels and char process

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George, the Vendome
George, the Vendome

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Mary, the passive still
Mary, the passive still

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The Mash Tank
The Mash Tank

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Chill-Filtration Tank
Chill-Filtration Tank

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Bung at the end of barrel
Bung at the end of barrel
Spirit from barrel entered into moat
Spirit from barrel entered into moat

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Anniversary Barrel
Barrel warehouse
Barrel warehouse

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Bottling Line
Bottling Line

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Erin was a great tour guide and gave a nice, comprehensive overview of the distillery and the process of making its whiskey.  It was nice to be able to go into all of the different rooms and see their style of production.  They definitely combine the old with the new.  I was amazed to see how many barrels they stored on site.  And the fact that they were stacked upright!

We gathered around the tasting table for the last part of the tour.  The first three spirits below were what we tasted, but listed after are the other products that they make:

  • John J. Bowman – Virginia Straight Bourbon Whiskey – Single Barrel, 100 proof
  • Bowman Brothers – Virginia Straight Bourbon Whiskey – Small Batch, 90 proof, comes from 8 barrels that are blended
  • Mary Hite Bowman Caramel Creme Liqueur – made with bourbon, probably excellent over ice cream
  • Abraham Bowman – Virginia Limited Edition Whiskey – two releases a year, this latest release sold out in 8 hours!  Wheat Bourbon
  • George Bowman – Colonial Era Dark Caribbean Rum – 1750s recipe, colonial style from Guyana, aged 3 years in bourbon barrels
  • Deep Run – Virginia Vodka – distilled 7 times, corn based
  • Sunset Hills – Viginia Gin – citrus

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Limited Edition!
Limited Edition!
Tasting table
Tasting table

Thank you to Erin for the great tour.  It was also nice chatting with the head distiller, Brian Prewitt, who started at A. Smith Bowman Distillery in 2013.  It seems like he has found a great place here at this distillery and based on the demand for the Abraham Bowman, he is making some great whiskey.

Brian
Brian

Charles’ Notes: It’s been a while since I visited a distillery that had close to 10,000 barrels on site.  Most of my time the last few months was spent visiting newer craft distillers in the Northeast, so it was refreshing to be back among the masses of American Oak.  The smell, the age, etc.  Obviously I was disappointed with not being able to get a bottle of the new Abraham Bowman, but in this day and age of bourbon mania, it’s best to get there on time.  Brian was great to talk to and learn about his history both at UC Davis in California and his time brewing in Colorado.  The A. Smith Bowman distillery is in good hands with his skills.  I look forward to getting back through Fredericksburg to see what is new in the future and will definitely time my visit better to arrive on the release date, not the day after.

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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

WHISTLE II

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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