Monday, April 18, 2011

Bourbon Trail Day One

For my spring break vacation this year I decided to head towards Kentucky and learn all I could about bourbon as I hit as many distilleries as I could find and talk my wife into enduring. Since I knew they would all blend together like a fine whiskey I knew I has to post some notes while I still had distinct memories.


Buffalo Trace

Wild Turkey

Four Roses

Giant Conglomerate Which Actually Owns The Distillery

Sazerac Company
A privately-held and family-operated alcoholic beverages company with headquarters in New Orleans


Kirin Brewery Company of Japan
They kept telling us that Four Roses is the top brand of bourbon in Japan

Photo Of Me Doing Something Silly


Gorgeous rolling pastures on the way in to a quaint but kinda crowded working area. It's a little surprising how free visitors are to wander around.

A huge complex sprawling all over the landscape. The area is so big that a tour van is needed to get around to the different areas.

Done is Spanish Mission style, the building look less like an industrial plant than a overly busy Mexican style resort.

Pre-Tour Movie

Ten minutes going over the distilling process in a theater room decorated with old-timey equipment.

A five minute show in a stuffy gallery overlooking the mash pots featuring the ancient brewmaster and his son who has been waiting for dad to keel over for 30 years so he could get a promotion.

Fifteen minute film in the tasting area which was surprisingly informative even after two previous distillery tours.

Production Area Tour
Bourbon is made by malting and then distilling a mixture of grains which must be at least 50% corn. The distilling process also has odd arcane rules.

None. To see the production area, you have to take the Hard Hat Tour which requires reservations days to weeks in advance.

Wild Turkey has just built a brand-new shiny state of the art building with double the capacity of its old plant. I mean brand-new. They were still paving the roads to it and painting the stair railings. Most everything is looked at through windows but they do let you up close to the fermenters to stare in.

The most up close and personal tour. The aging equipment is front and center and you can reach out and touch nearly everything.

The other crucial definitive aspect of bourbon is that it MUST be barrel aged in virgin white oak for at least four years.

Since they don't let you see the production you linger a long time in the warehouse which is very interesting in its own right. The rows and rows of barrels are mind boggling and its fun reading the dates and labels on all the barrels.

The Wild Turkey warehouses dot the landscape like 2001 monoliths. The one you tour goes back to the 1880s and smells like it too. It overlooks the recently abandoned original factory so it is also a great photo op.

The bourbon is barreled, aged, and bottled at a different site, but they do have photos of their single story warehouses which they claim result in more consistent flavors than the seven-story behomoths of their competitors, which oddly have two warehouses on Four Roses grounds.

Bottling and Labeling
Bourbons would all just be fancy brown booze if there weren't cool labels and improbable stories about the founders for the fancy shaped bottles.

You are allowed to wander up and down the filling station line while about a dozen employees process and fill the small batch specialty bottles. They are friendly and fun. While we were there they spilled about half a barrel of aged bourbon all over the floor.

All the bottling is done at the main corporate bottling plant in Arkansas. You can see the giant tanker trucks leaving the site.

Also done off-site. But from a branding perspective there are roses everywhere.

There is no reason to go to a distillery if you aren't going to get to sample the goods.

They let you taste the "white dog" or unaged undiluted moonshine before it becomes sellable bourbon. They then let you taste a small batch and a single barrel variety but not the super-aged expensive stuff. They also have a bourbon cream which makes Baileys taste like haf-and-half.

They let you try any two of six flavors. My wife and I mixed and matched to get four total. The most interesting was the super-sweet American Honey style.

Four Roses only sells three varieties, an 80 proof blended, a 90 proof small batch, and a 100 proof single barrel. You get to taste all three and the pours are generous. For four bucks you can keep the tasting glass.

Gift Shop

They had buffaloes on everything imaginable and a few things unimaginable. A lot of trinkets and geegaws and even food, but surprisingly little booze. We got a bottle of the bourbon cream since that isn't sold nationally yet and a case of bourbon jam for gifts.

The gift shop tour center is an old-fashioned building all off on its own with lots of tee shirts edging towards the trashy side. For gifts I got two sets of three packs featuring their premium brands.

Four Roses had the classiest selection of accessories and books. The small bottles of the the Small Batch were a little pricey but nice.

Tour Highlights
There is a lot of repetition to the shpiels and patters from each tour, but they each do a good job getting across what is unique about their brands approach to making a product which is rather tightly defined.

As a mid-sized distillery this had a nice mix of folksiness and scale. They people were all super-friendly, but the Hard Hat Tour really needs to be less hard to get.

The size of this operation is stunning. It is a huge operation closer to an oil refinery than a moonshiner's still. And the contrast between the brand new factory and the rickety old warehouses is intriguing.

For getting an up-close look at the process this plant can't be beat. Not only is this the most intimate tour, the equipment has a great patina to it.
You can really learn all you ever need to know about bourbon and any one of these tours but each had a cool unique aspect which made glad I went to each one. Plus the samples are always nice.


Anonymous said...

Nice Review! Headed to the Bourbon trail for the first time in a couple of weeks. Info was great. Was there a "Day 2" that you plan to share?


yellojkt said...

There will be a Day 2 and a Day 3 but my posting pace is pretty leisurely nowadays.

Anonymous said...

Hah! No problem. Will check back over time.