HOME | IN THE MAGAZINE | BACK ISSUES | SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2008
“… if by whiskey, you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine and ale that is consumed when good fellows get together, that puts a song in their hearts, laughter on their lips and the warm glow of contentment in their eyes; if you mean that sterling drink that puts the spring in an old man’s steps on a frosty morning; if you mean that drink, the sale of which pours into our treasury untold millions of dollars which are used to provide tender care for our crippled little children, our pitifully aged and infirm and to build our highways and schools—then, Brother, I am for it.”
It is this speech, popularized by Noah “Soggy” Sweat, Jr. in the 1950s, that has carried me, doe-eyed and trembling in anticipation of the journey ahead of me, to Louisville, the gateway to Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail. I’ve come for Kentucky gold—red likker, white dog, my own personal panacea—and the Trail will lead me to my prize.
With the historic and opulent Brown Hotel as my home base, I bee-line it to the nearby Seelbach Hotel. Built in 1905, the Seelbach once hosted F. Scott Fitzgerald and is the namesake of the 1917 classic Seelbach Cocktail, which my barkeep makes perfectly: bourbon, Cointreau and a whopping 14 dashes of bitters, topped up with fine Champagne. It’s a libation I can envision Daisy Buchanan enjoying as she descends onto the Seelbach’s luxurious ballroom, and the perfect start to a Louisville tasting tour.
For more local cocktail culture, Proof on Main is worth a stop. Located on what was once Whiskey Row (a stretch of Main Street that, from the 1840s until Prohibition, was home to more than 50 whiskey merchants and distilleries), Proof is a contemporary restaurant/bar housed in the new 21C Museum Hotel. Brushing past a dynamic bronze satyr (I discover later that locals rub “Randy’s” apple before ordering a shot), I sidle up to the bar.
Brooks Reitz, Proof’s general manager, sees plenty of tourists at his establishment, often clutching maps of Louisville’s “Urban Bourbon Trail,” listing restaurants and bars with extensive bourbon programs. “Eighty percent of the tourists we get in who are interested in bourbon are new to it,” he says. “People are getting more into it, like they did with wine and craft beer.”
Locals, he adds, have always appreciated their native spirit. “Growing up in Kentucky, it’s what everybody’s dad drinks,” he says. “Which bourbon you drink is a source of pride, it aligns you with a certain group. If you drink Wild Turkey 101, you’re a badass, because that stuff packs a wallop. If you drink Van Winkle, well, you’re probably rich.”
Reitz recommends a visit to Bourbons Bistro, located 10 minutes from the downtown core among Louisville’s quiet Victorian homes and shops. Despite being just three years old, the restaurant and bar feels more traditional than the airy and modern Proof. (It helps that Bourbons’ building is more than a century old.) With about 130 bourbons and nine different flights of American whiskey, the place is a bourbon lover’s dream (bourbon even makes it into the food). I try the 10-year Chardonnay-finished experimental bourbon from Buffalo Trace, savoring its aromatic spiciness and bitter-chocolate notes while I chat up the gregarious locals next to me. As the evening wears on, the bartender shares samples of Bourbons’ personal bottlings, including the peppery Woodford Reserve Personal Selection—the most interesting to me, as that’s where I’m going in a matter of hours.
Two centuries ago, the Kentucky hills sheltered the beginnings of bourbon culture. A quintessentially American spirit, bourbon is the result of settlers adapting the whiskey-making traditions of their Scotch-Irish heritage to a land where neither rye nor barley grew easily. Corn, however, thrived in Kentucky’s temperate climate. Moreover, permanently chilly, mountain-fed springs allowed distilleries to safeguard their yeast cultures and to more effectively cool their distillate. And since the spring water was filtered through limestone, it was iron-free, protecting this newfound spirit from metallic overtones.
By the late 19th century, says bourbon historian Mike Veach (who also is a special collections assistant at the Filson Historical Society in Louisville), Kentucky was home to hundreds of distilleries, and the spirit had become so integral to the state’s identity that you could buy postcards listing it as one of the four pillars of Kentuckian society. (The other three were racehorses, tobacco and pretty women.) But in 1919, Prohibition put distilleries across the state out of business. And it didn’t end with the repeal of the Volstead Act in 1933. “Prohibition doesn’t really end until 1950,” says Veach. “Prohibitions ends, but you’re in the middle of a Depression. Then, during World War II, you can’t distill whiskey because the government wants you distilling high-proof alcohol for the war effort. It takes four years, minimum, to age bourbon. So between 1918—because World War I also needed high-proof alcohol—and 1950, when bourbon is plentiful again, you’re talking 32 years.”
During that time, people’s tastes changed (veering toward the lighter Canadian blends they’d been able to sip during Prohibition), as did their perception of America’s native spirit. “Bourbon has always had this dual image,” says Veach. “[There’s] one of the Southern gentleman on his plantation sipping his bourbon…. But in reality, most people saw bourbon being the cheap drink. It had a kind of brown-paper-bag image.”
Between that prejudice and the enforced hiatus in production, those 32 years decimated the bourbon industry. Of the handful of producers who did survive, many found themselves unable to bring their distilleries back into operational condition, and large companies quickly bought up smaller labels. Today, just nine bourbon distilleries remain in operation in Kentucky.
But in the past couple decades, bourbon’s profile has risen, and visitors are flocking to the state to see the spirit firsthand. In reaction, the state legislature has passed laws allowing the sale of alcohol on historic sites, creating a loophole in the state’s notorious “dry county” regulations.
Additionally, the distilleries banded together almost 10 years ago to create the Bourbon Trail tourism campaign. Seven distilleries—soon to be eight, with the addition of Barton in 2009—have opened their doors to visitors with guided tours and education centers. “We saw what was going on in California with the wine country, and we saw what we had with Bourbon Country,” explains Eric Gregory, president of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association. He says the association tracked more than 500,000 distillery visits in 2007, and “it’s a number that’s growing every year.” The Kentucky Bourbon Festival, held in Bardstown each September since 1992, attracts more than 50,000 guests.
“The four pillars are still there,” says Veach. “I would say that the only pillar that’s fallen out is the tobacco, and that’s a national thing. But Kentucky still has plenty of racehorses and plenty of pretty women—and plenty of bourbon.”
Chirps of the Kentucky cardinal function as a helpful alarm clock and I race to Woodford Reserve, where master distiller Chris Morris has offered to give me a personal tour. This takes me east into Versailles (pronounced “ver-SALES”) through picturesque rolling hills cradling the idyllic distillery and surrounding horse farms.
Morris walks me down the short hillside steps to Woodford’s solid, limestone still house, which looms over a gentle stream across from the barely visible, crumbling ruins of the old Oscar Pepper distillery. At the still house, we get down to business, with Morris pointing out the open cookers where his mash is prepared by carefully cooking down the corn, then lowering the temperature to add the rye, and then lowering it again when malt is introduced.
After the corn is mashed and malted, it heads to the cypress fermenters. The flavor of the porridge-like mixture changes markedly as the yeast performs, turning from a green apple to green banana in the span of one day. Woodford zealously guards this yeast, as all distilleries do, to preserve their bourbon’s unique flavor profile. It’s an heirloom, recreated in 1929 from their lost Old Forester strain.
Unlike every other distiller in Kentucky, Woodford uses majestic, teardrop-shaped copper pot stills, reminiscent of Glenmorangie’s in Scotland. This is no coincidence; Morris has visited Scotland more than 30 times since 1991. Walking on, we reach the section where the newly made whiskey is poured into barrels. Much to my delight, Morris pours me a sample of this 110-proof new-make whiskey, or “white dog.” Crystal-clear with a breathtakingly robust, grainy sweetness, this raw spirit’s elegant complexity leaves me in awe. It isn’t yet bourbon, but it is damn good, which prompts the question: “What makes good bourbon?”
“Good bourbon is any one you like,” Morris says philosophically, but then adds that quality bourbon should be well balanced, with the sweetness of the corn and oak kept in check by the spiciness of rye and rounded out by unctuous flavors of caramel, nut and Christmas spice.
Standing among rows of barrels, it becomes obvious why so few distilleries could restart after Prohibition: Whiskey-making is expensive. Not only are there all the costs of making a simple spirit, but also the added ones required to turn white dog into Kentucky gold: the warehouses and years of storage, and the expense of the new oak barrels themselves, which must then be properly charred. Morris explains that Woodford is the only distillery to maintain its own cooperage (a cask-making facility), where barrels undergo a two-step charring process, getting first toasted with radiant heat for 23 minutes and then charred with intense flame for 20 seconds, to add deeper complexity to the bourbon.
At the rick house, where barrels age in climate-controlled quietude, Morris reveals that Woodford loses 3 to 5 percent of its whiskey yearly to the “angels’ share,” the Bourbon Country term for evaporation. Over seven years of aging, this can add up to one third of each barrel fluttering into the atmosphere, and indeed, the air in the warehouse is heavy with the sweet smell of aging whiskey.
“Trace” is another word for “trail,” and bison once had many trails that criss-crossed the United States, which pioneers co-opted as roads. Buffalo Trace’s massive distillery is built on one of these trails, located along a Kentucky River shoal. The 233-year-old distillery is a juxtaposition of technology and history, with wires, pipes and large, steaming industrial buildings framing ancient brick warehouses and immaculately manicured grounds. Buffalo Trace produces a legion of award-winning whiskies, such as the monstrous George T. Stagg bourbon, the spicy Sazerac 18 Year rye and the caramel-scented William Larue Weller wheated bourbon.
My Buffalo Trace tour begins with a visit to the distillery museum, followed by a walk through the ancient rick house and a tour of the hand-processed bottling facilities. In the Blanton’s bottling room, eight intensely focused employees, each hunched over a bottle, meticulously attach labels, stoppers and wax seals before lovingly placing the single-barrel bourbon in a velvet bag and cardboard box, ready to be shipped. It’s a sight to behold and makes me realize the devotion to detail that Buffalo Trace goes through at each step of their whiskies’ lifecycles.
But my real “Eureka!” moment on this tour comes when I spot a stockpile of Buffalo Trace Experimental barrels-aging. While I don’t see any specifics on the barrels, I do notice that they are experimenting with different-sized barrels. Later, master distiller Harlen Wheatley explains that Buffalo Trace has about 1,500 experimental barrels holding 33 different varieties of bourbon, and the distillery intends to distribute two or three experiments a year as limited-release bottlings. “It’s a nice way to try things out and get free feedback,” he says, adding that particularly successful experiments may make it into regular production.
Heading back to Bardstown, I stop at Heaven Hill, named after William Heavenhill, the farmer who originally owned the property. Besides being home to a number of high-quality whiskies, Heaven Hill also houses the Bourbon Heritage Center. While the property itself is unremarkable (the still house was destroyed by a huge fire in 1996 and only the bottling facility and rick houses remain), it’s a mere five minutes from downtown Bardstown and offers a fantastic film, interactive tour and journey through an immense rick house. In the colossal, barrel-shaped tasting room, as I taste Evan Williams Single Barrel and Elijah Craig 18 Year Single Barrel, a gleam of amber catches my eye. Behind my guide is a bottle of Parker’s Heritage Collection Cask Strength bourbon, which, after copious amounts of (I’ll admit it) pleading, I manage to taste. This deep-copper beauty is incredibly drinkable, despite being 122.6-proof. A first-edition bottling from an extremely small batch of 22 barrels, Parker’s Heritage shows vanilla and spice on the nose, with flavors of dark chocolate, tobacco and caramel that keep on giving.
My travels done, I leave secure in the notion that bourbon is well on its way to doing for Kentucky what Cabernet did for California. Is it too much to expect that Kentucky’s next step will be a flurry of boutique distilleries, returning innovation and inspiration to the pre-Prohibition renaissance that the Bluegrass State once enjoyed? With continued interest and excitement for the Bourbon Trail, it can only be a matter of time.