The American Whiskey Trail is a journey. An American pilgrimage — but instead of Mecca, we were headed to Nashville, where the men drink, the girls dance, and you only get stoned for it if you pay the man $20.
As we boarded the bus, and then the plane, Frank told the nearly 20 writers, bloggers and reporters to drink responsibly. But this is America and we were headed South. And when you’re headed toward that border, I’m told you cross the line.
In five days, we did just that. And here is our story. (Read Day 1)
Vendome Copper & Brass Works
That old 8:30 in the morning seems to be the magic starting time, and we were on our way to Vendome Copper & Brass Works. Established in 1904 and family-owned for three generations, this shop doesn’t have much in the way of breakfast booze, but they are the guys that make the stills for the guys who make the breakfast booze, so I gave them a pass.
Twenty years ago, when the American bourbon market was still flat, they expanded into businesses like rum, but they started getting calls in ‘99 from craft distillers, and business has boomed over the last five years as consumption rocketed and the states and Los Federales changed their prude and arcane laws.
The work that goes into these machines is incredible. Hand-made, every one.
And American. The first thing a new distiller does when he wants to get moving on his project is get these guys on the line, and it’s a damn fine place to begin the Kentucky Whiskey Trail. Jim Beam Kentucky is beautiful. In the city, they decorate their buildings with the Colonel. And the countryside? It’s God’s countryside. And it is also where Jim Beam’s great grandson, Fred Noe, lives and works with his son. The two of them met us at the door, and we jumped on the truck to the distillery. It was 10:40 in the damn morning before I had my first taste of whitedog, but that didn’t bother my star-struck brain too much. “You feel it in your belly!” our tour guide exclaimed — “the Kentucky hug!” That’s fine and all, but we’re drinking with Fred Noe so I was a little distracted. Noe is a 7th-generation Beam, and the company has used the same stream of yeast since old Jim’s in 1935. His factory is a whiskey-lovers wonderland, and the first type of distillery we visited. Set in rolling green hills and run by the family, but industrial as heck.
They kind of gave us the run of the joint. Or at least let me do all of the things I wanted to, which was bottle my own bottle of Jim Beam Single Barrel …
… watch Fred Noe slam the bung into his 13th million barrel…
…then have a glass of 9-year, uncut, unfiltered Beam, which Fred poured us from the 10 millionth barrel of his fine product.
This a.m. whiskey thing is a dangerous delicacy. And this particular glass was stunningly good.
Deep amber in its coloring, there were actually burnt charcoal flakes in the glass, like a man’s man’s Goldschlagger. Sweet on the nose, it has a lingering honey and maple scent. After my first, I wrote “stunning” in my notebook. A sweet maple burn hangs on the palate until a strong, cedar finish with a bite. The burn lingered pleasantly with the wood.
So we stole ourselves another glass, walked outside next to a barrel truck, and enjoyed the strangely gorgeous combination of country roads and rural industry.
On the walk back to the shop, we noticed that the bark of the trees is black. Turns out it’s a moss that spreads from the “Angels Share” — that bourbon that evaporates and escapes the aging barrels. It’s a pain for the locals, but all you have to do is hose it off the gutters, Fred told me. Hit it with some bleach, if you want. No biggie — just a little whiskey moss.
Enough science. Word is Fred’s fixing to grill, and I’d kill you right now to be there on time.
Fred Noe’s House
Fred Noe lives on Whiskey Row in the “bourbon capital of the world.” Though if you want to type that into Google Maps, go with 3rd Street, Bardstown, Ky. His great grandfather, Col. Jim Beam, bought the house around 1900. Jim Beam’s son, T. Jeremiah Beam, took the house after. Jeremiah didn’t have any children, so his nephew, Booker Noe, took the reins. And now his son, Fred is in charge.
Fred’s son, Fred IV, greeted us at the door and walked us right in.
The old manse used to be a girls’ school, and it shows in the grand exterior and two-story entrance hall. But from front to back, it ain’t New England rich — it’s country fabulous. Stuffed taxidermy and old whiskey labels decorate the walls. Grandma is on the couch, watching a small TV with her helper and Fred IV’s brand new, tanned, platinum-blonde wife. A collection of Col. Jim Beam’s silver julep cups adorns the dining room buffet.
But all this is so we can get to the back, where Fred III has set up his Man Compound. And that’s where the grill is roaring and Ronnie is slinging cocktails.
I had just gone for a glass of Basil Haydens, thinking 80 proof neat was a good way to begin a noon BBQ. A man standing nearby interrupted his cell phone conversation. “Can you hold on a second, honey?”
“No,” he sternly warned, turning my way. “That,” he whispered, “is for ladies.”
“It’s girl bourbon,” he doubled down, in case I didn’t get it. “You’ll have a Bakers.”
I did. Especially since Booker Noe’s old friend, Baker himself, was standing behind me.
No 80-proof lunch whiskey today. Baker’s is 107 proof, and he ain’t even the strongest bourbon on the table. I drank. And had another. And now I’m hooked on a $50-a-bottle bourbon with a reporter’s salary. Thanks.
Amber to the eye, the nose is vanilla and caramel. And to taste? Pecans and vanilla, with a smooth finish. You really don’t notice just how strong it is, at least with a single ice cube to steel the nerves.
The man cave was recently redone by the TV show, ManCaves, and features a Jim beam chandelier …
… a handsome bar with the coolest patrons…
… as much Hank Williams Jr. merchandise as a man can handle, and a wonderful collection of family photos that leaves little doubt: The Noe family eats, drinks and is merry. Oh, and they marry skinny. As one does.
There’s a giant silver grill, a nice patio covering, and a smokehouse, where Fred hangs meats he’s curing, guarded by the American flag.
Barricade the walls a bit more, and it would be a phenomenal place to while away the time during a zombie apocalypse or North Korean invasion, so long as they can’t swim their artillery over here. Across from the grill, there’s even live music. And then there’s the appetizers, which are a clue to the Noe family’s secret recipe for staying so svelte: Old-fashioned butter bean soup, pan-fried cornbread, pimento cheese dip, and country-fried ham cooked in red-eye sauce.
Never before had Merle Haggard’s “I think I’ll just stay here and drink” rang more true. This was my happy place, and I wanted to stay forever. But staying isn’t always even in the cards – even for a Noe.
“Dad made me go to college,” Fred Noe III told us as we gathered in the shade for a 1 p.m. tasting. “Eight years and a lot of his money later, I finished. I thought ‘dumbass’ was my name the first 10 years of my life.” But after college, “dad taught me how to taste whiskey — how to really taste it” — with the Kentucky Chew, which pretty much consists of chomping and smacking your lips with bourbon in your mouth.
“Doesn’t sound good, doesn’t look good.” But damn if it doesn’t work.
Jim Beam’s Signature 12-year was the closest to the nine-year uncut we’d had at the distillery. Rich caramel to the eye, the nose loses a bit of that regular Jim Beam sweetness, carrying more wood with maple only at the end. On the tongue, there’s a strong cedar taste up front, with barely a hint of sweet and a touch of smoke on the finish. Bookers was my baby, though. And it was Booker Noe’s baby too. When he was alive, he selected the barrels, keeping them at the sweet spot — the 5th and 6th floors of his nine-story barrel houses — and decided when they were ready to bottle. His handwriting still adorns the bottles, though his son Fred does the picking these days.
At 124.1 proof, Fred doesn’t mess around. Uncut and unfiltered, you can occasionally even catch a few chips of charcoal floating here or there in the golden amber liquid. On the nose, I detected vanilla and maple, with a strong and powerful blend of woods on the palate. And now that we’d opened up the stomach a bit, it was time for the meat. BBQ pork chops with roasted apples, green beans cook with ham, scalloped potatoes and cole slaw. Any doubt that Noes know how to eat was erased when I saw them serving delicious pieces of fried chicken as a side.
Gather over at the grill, Fred III told us. He had an old family trick to show off. Something he’d learned from pops: The old flambe, Booker’d called it.
Turns out that’s just dumping a bottle of the 124-proof Bookers over the pork. About half the bottle. “Y’all can do this at home!” he assured me.
My phone died as I filmed the fire. But I was OK — I had another bourbon.
Buckle in. We were back on the bus headed to Maker’s Mark in Macombe County — a picturesque settlement about an hour away. Meticulously laid out by grandma in the 1950s and ‘60s, it’s hard to even tell you’re at a factory. More like a miniature golf course, complete with babbling brooks and manicured flower beds.
“Why aren’t the trees all black from the moss?” I asked.
“We take care of our trees,” Rob Samuels told me. That’s Rob, son of Bill Samuels Jr., whose dad, Bill Samuels Sr., made the recipe for one of America’s most popular and delicious premium bourbons.
But the Samuels are an old family traced back to Scotland in the 1500s. They came to Kentucky when it was in the midst of earning its name, which is Cherokee for “bloody battleground;” they took part in the Whiskey Rebellion that forced George Washington to raise the largest army he ever commanded; and they are genuinely a part of the state’s history. Ora Sayers Samuels even accepted the 1865 surrender of Confederate guerrilla Frank James, outlaw and older brother of Jessie James (the gun is proudly displayed at the distillery); and his son Bill was a friend of Col. Sanders.
Bill Sr.’s secret was replacing rye with red winter wheat, Rob says. So his mash is 70 percent corn, 16 percent winter wheat and 14 percent malt. But Rob is a busy man, so when a few of us hang back to see what happens when we take a deep breath of CO2 fumes off the vats, he understandably gets a little frustrated.
And when Benny dropped his sun glasses in the barrel house, Rob got a little more frustrated, bless his soul — we reporters can be a trying bunch.
Still, he took the time to explain how Maker’s Mark rotates its barrels to insure a more universal aging. “The barrels are rolled off the rick [(which are rungs holding the barrels)] to the elevator, off the elevator, to the rick,” he said.
Seconds passed. Then more. Then a few more seconds.
“We rotate them,” Rob deadpanned.
We could have laughed at the Internet joke. But it was more funny to sacrifice BuzzFeed Benny to our host, who probably isn’t a big BuzzFeed reader.
But he was plenty nice enough to give us a taste of Maker’s white, which is what his granddad would have tasted in 1954 when the first 19 barrels rolled out at 90 proof, before he’d aged them. Clear, of course, the nose is corn — sweet, sweet corn, plus nuts. But on the taste, it’s not so sweet. A little bitter, even.
After two years in the barrel, it’s a pale color and some maple sweetness has replaced the strong corn flavor, but it’s still sour.
Maker’s Mark, as we all buy it, is aged for an average of 6.5 years, though Rob starts considering barrels for inclusion after six years. Caramel in color, matured Maker’s has a honey nose and a maple smoothness, with a long, lingering finish and a lovely burn.
Rob, we’re told by some folks further down the trail, is a different type of man from his father, and Rob’s grandfather was a different type of man from his own dad’s. In fact, Bill Sr.’s story starts with fleeing the whiskey business. Old Samuels Sr. didn’t want to be a distiller. So he sold off the distillery that made what his grandson calls the “most awful whiskey you’ve ever had,” and opened a bank.
But maybe he should have brushed up on his calculations: The bank failed in less than 60 days — a record, I’m told, though I didn’t bother to check. Samuels Sr.’s wife, Margie, convinced him to get back into the business, and she seems to be the marketing genius of the operation. Beyond the immaculate campus, she picked the name, designed the bottle as it still looks today (wax and all), and even made the symbol — “the mark of the maker.”
The “S” stands for for Samuels. The IV, because Bill Samuels Sr. was the fourth generation of legal distillers (following two illegals). The star represents Star Hill Farm, where the distillery was built. And the three breaks in the circle are for the three whiskey bans: The Civil War, Prohibition and World War II — the first and last because the copper, grain and alcohol were needed for weaponry. Today, the labels are still cut on an 80-year-old, hand-operated machine, and Rob is in the market for another machine from the 1930s.
And when he got back into the whiskey business, Bill Sr. was determined to not make the hogwash his family had made for generations, and he is responsible for making a truly fantastic bourbon far ahead of the bourbon boom of the 2000s. He even burned the last copy of the 170-year-old Samuels formula when he made his own formula, accidentally setting the drapes on fire in the process.
Bill Sr.’s grandson Rob, who came on in 2006, has a few other interests. His tenure got a little lot of attention when he floated lowering the 84-proof Maker’s Mark to 80 proof. Self-described purists lost their shit, but it sure got him a lot of press, so I guess he won that round.
But he also has an interest in art. Namely, Dale Chihuly, who, he assured me, is “America’s greatest artist.”
I nodded, skeptical.
“One piece cost me my whole bonus check,” he shared.
See, Rob doesn’t look like he spends any less lavishly than old Fred Noe does on his four wheelers and grills, but as far as Kentucky personalities go, he is just about the polar opposite of the big man. Professionally courteous, with no discernible accent, he doesn’t really care for our Internet jokes, whiskey revelry, or research on CO2’s effect on the human brain.
But back to this Chiluly fella. Rob decided to commission hundreds of these glass sculptures, which are the stuff of traditionalists’ nightmares. Bright, round and flowing, they resemble an old-fashioned 1960s Jello dish, and range from that to, well, naked, translucent, glassy-eyed cherubims (who signify “the angels share”).
In a dark and narrow room flanked by barrels, Rob hosts dinners underneath the strange, rainbow glow of a see-through ceiling layered with these hundreds of sculptures. “This was installed two weeks ago,” says a man who is very proud of his Chiluly collection. “And it will be here forever.”
He calls it “The Spirit of the Maker.” I never met Bill Sr., so he may be right I guess.
The exhibit “Salutes those who have pioneered, and redefined genres, refusing to be constrained by convention.” It looks to me like what the stained glass of Catholic churches might look like if the communion wafers were laced with LSD. Every home needs one of those rooms.
Bill Sr.’s first love may have been banking, and Rob’s passion may be glass art, so I doubt there’s going to be a reality TV show anytime soon (where the Noes, I’m sure, would thrive), but America is lucky Rob Samuels, his dad and his granddad make Maker’s Mark Bourbon. When most folks were making crap, they were producing quality, and still are to this day, creating a go-to bourbon for a party. A bourbon as iconic as it is tasty.
Oh, and you know, I dunked the shit out of my whiskey bottle. Which was awesome.
They found it two days later and mailed it to me. Nice guys who make good whiskey. (And now have my address.)
It was the second notebook I’d lost that trip. It was day two. Doing a fine job, I am.
Louisville by Night
The Silver Dollar Bar is a place to be. The owner, a youngish punk-rock-looking fellow offered me some 1951, four-year Old Granddad, Bottled In Bond. We tasted it beside a modern bottle of the same, and there’s pretty much zero comparison. I guess they just had more complexity and sweetness in 1951, with blackberries and honey on the tongue. The Beam representative and the owner are a generous bunch. We finished the bottle while the bartender played Hank III’s psychotic brand of old-time country on the record player and Benny looked for ghosts.
One cab filled up with reporters to head back to the hotel. A second cab filled up with most of the rest. But the reprobates (me, Benny and Moody) tried to squeeze in one final drink. Moments before the last cab pulled in, a rowdy crew of locals poured into the bar. We cheered them loudly, as we often do when we see new people, and Benny told them about the ghost he found in the men’s room. (Me thinks it was just a cab driver conducting an Arabic phone call while taking a dump, but Benny was certain.)
They didn’t believe we were journalists, and checked our IDs to make sure we weren’t having them on. Then this crew of lawyers, punks and drunks adopted us, throwing us in a cab to whatever must-see location they’d concocted. Moody and I took the back seat, flanking what my limited experience suggests is the most aggressively gay man in Louisville.
I’m talking the kind of guy that thinks “no” is an hysterical tease. And as Moody tried to convince him I was more his type, and as I tried to turn him onto Moody, Benny generally stoked the tensions from a packed second row and we passed darkened country houses and long roads. Around this time, I started to wonder if we’d made the right decision, because without even seeing that movie “Hostel,” I am damaged by its tourist-murdering premise.
But our friends were just friendly — in some cases too friendly — so from there to Jared Shubert’s Monkey Wrench for a glass or three of Old Forester 86 with the owner, a damn fine man himself, and some good country tunes.
It was a good 2 a.m. conclusion, if you ask me: We’d survived without being abducted and tortured, so I was pretty sure we were good to go.