A Visit to the Motherland . . . Kentucky
The Bourbon Social in Lexington, Kentucky
Day 1, October 7, 2016: Off to the Races
The morning started with us driving through the lush fields outside of Lexington, Kentucky, on our way to the vast pastures of Keeneland Racetrack for opening day weekend. After years of hearing about the great horseraces in Boubon country from DQ (a.k.a. Dave Query, my boss) and watching the Kentucky Derby each May on the big screen arriving at Keenland Manor was enough to give me butterflies. It. Was. Awesome. And even better yet, we were there to hang-out with some folks from Kentucky, taste some delicious bourbon (Jim Beam’s newest product “Double Oak”) and learn from a professional handicapper on how to bet at the races.
Things were just getting going at the tracks when we pulled ourselves away – we were on our way to see one of the best distilleries in Kentucky: Buffalo Trace. As you enter the grounds you get the immense feeling of history, with huge rick houses filled from wall to wall with those beautiful barrels. The love and passion that the family has for making one of the best bourbons in the country is palpable. The 34 of us in the tour were lucky enough to have the one-and-only Freddie as our guide. Freddie is a third generation worker on this distill, and his dad pushed the 6 millionth barrel off the line in 2008. Following and making history, this year Freddie will push the 7 millionth barrel off the line. As we toured through the distillery, we stood in the rick house right next to barrels that have been aging for close to 20 years in hopes to produce the finest bourbon around.
As the tour concluded with us tasting White Dog, Eagle Rare, Buffalo Trace and Bourbon Cream, my man and I were granted a private tour with Freddie himself. I wasn’t sure what this was going entail, but boy were my expectations blown!
Freddie started by taking us into the warehouse where the actual barrels are brought in: 100,000 a year and a huge investment at $170 dollars per barrel.
He told us about all the experimental projects that buffalo trace is working on, new types of barrels, and new kinds of grains in use, especially oat. These projects excite Freddie most as he sees it as the future of bourbon, excited to embrace and lead change. Our private tour then led us to the actual distill rooms with vats so huge it felt like being among giants. We were lucky enough to try to White Dog right our of the 15,000 gallon still. Then Freddie showed us through the bottling process of Blantons: it takes a line of eight people to bottle the single barrel, everything being done by hand. The craft of this bourbon and the investment are remarkable.
We learned a lot from Freddie. Ultimately there is no right or wrong way to drink your hooch: drink it the way you enjoy it and then have another, preferably in the same glass.
Bourbon Capital of Kentucky then off to the Bourbon Social
Day 2, October 8, 2016: Countryside Touring
After a little strong coffee, we were off to Jim Beam Distillery in Clermont, Kentucky. Beam has been producing bourbon in Clermont for seven generations, and they have rolled out 13 million barrels of bourbon since the first barrel in 1935. We were lucky to jump-in on the production line to fill some Knob Creek bottles from barrels aged for at least 9 years at 100 proof. Whew!
At West End Tavern, we serve the “3 B’s” flight: Booker’s, Basil Hayden’s, and Baker’s all coming off the line of Jim Beam. They each have characteristics unique to taste profiles, too. Booker’s is 120 proof, straight from the barrel, uncut and unfiltered. It brings on the heat so you can cut it with a drop of water, as Booker Noe suggested. Basil Hayden’s rye is a heavy whiskey aged for 8 years and bottled at 80 proof. Finally, there’s Baker’s, named for Jim Beam’s grandnephew. Coming in at 107 proof, this bourbon is described as dangerously drinkable.
All-in-all, Jim Beam is HUGE and the rick houses are grand . . . they have so much whiskey coming off the line and are building more and more houses to store it in, the newest being the size of a football field.
We ended our tour in the tasting room, a super high-tech version with each person having a digital card to swipe at the dispenser to ensure a precise pour of your favorite hooch (or soon to be favorite!).
We left Jim Beam and headed towards the bourbon capital of Kentucky: Bardstown. Also declared one of the best small towns of America, we sure felt the enchanting draw as we pulled into town. And man was it in celebration mode! People’s bourbon-excitement was in full swing with lively lines for the craft show and the restaurants. One restaurant not to miss would be Mammy’s Kitchen – Ultimate Fried Bologna & Cheese, anyone?
We then traveled a mile outside of Bardstown, rolling through the country and vast pastures of Kentucky, to the Heaven Hill Distillery. All the master distillers of Heaven Hill are members of the Beam family. Their most well known labels are Evan Williams and Elijah Craig, but they hold a share of some unique sought-after bourbons amongst the seekers. In 1996 a massive fire destroyed the production plant, so Heaven Hill took over the Bernhiem distillery; however, the aging and bottling still take place on Heaven Hill. My favorite bourbon on the Hill is Parker’s Heritage: every edition is unique and they are currently on their 10th edition which was aged for 26 years. You should see what’s left in a barrel after 26 years, once the angels and the devil has gotten their share, that is. Jim Beam uses the devil’s cut where-as most distilleries sell the once-used barrels to Scotland for scotch or to islands for rum.
We were then off to Aviation Museum of Kentucky for The Bourbon Social – a celebration of all things bourbon with local distilleries and delicious southern food prepared by local chefs, all held in a sweet airline hangar surrounded by vintage planes. Very cool. We tasted many different up-and-coming bourbons that were just getting released after aging for the last four or more years. One to note and look out for is Barrell Bourbon batch 008, aged 9 years and with a proof of 132. It hasn’t hit the Colorado market yet, but when it does, West End Tavern will most certainly have it. We got our taste on and then we were off to the biggest, baddest selection of whiskey anyone as ever seen at The Bluegrass Tavern in downtown Lexington. We were just standing there in awe of a collection that is heralded as the best in the world. I’ll never forget that moment!
Ahhhhhhhh Kentucky! We tasted, we toured, we splurged and we fell in love with the birthplace of bourbon, so prized for and produced by the white limestone water that runs through. We felt the love and care that goes into the process of distilling, storing, waiting… and gained a new appreciation of what a master distiller does. So cheers to a trip well traveled, a spirit well loved, and a state that we’ll return to again and again.