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.
It was morning pretty fast. I bought a Red Bull, a Cookies & Cream Hershey bar, and replaced my second lost notebook with one that could fit in my pocket. All ready, we boarded the bus for Brown-Forman Cooperage.
Brown-Forman is the largest American-owned spirits maker, and this — this is where the barrels are made. And damn is it cool.
It’s an exhaustive process that goes into barrel-making. They spend the first four to six months drying the wood (that gets rid of about 20 percent of the moisture); the next four weeks in the pre-drier (at 100 degrees); then 10 days in the kiln (at 160-180 degrees), finishing with a moisture of around 12 percent. And that’s just when the wood is ready to use.
And during the housing crisis, the hardwood industry took a hard hit, we’re told. In 2006, 2007, the industry was producing 12 million board-feet of hard wood, but by 2012, that was down to 6 million. The number is climbing back up again, but a lot of infrastructure was lost. Today, new barrels sell for as much as $250 (and they have to be new to make bourbon), and resell for around $130 to Scotch and beer and other companies that don’t need new barrels for their product.
Making barrels is an age-old trade. Today, heavy machines do a lot:
But some very important bits are accomplished by hand:
And watching Brown-Forman char its Jack Daniel’s barrels is one hell of a show.
“Back on the bus.” And thanks to a few accidents on the highway, we took the back roads to Woodford Reserve. Please, please follow our lead. They are stunning.
Woodford is yet another stop on the tour that is different as hell from everywhere we’d been.
Jim Beam was a factory among gorgeous hills; Makers Mark was an authentic 1950s distillery that looked a little like Disney Land; Woodford Reserve looked as authentic, gorgeous, and timeless as any buildings I’d ever seen, with stone walls and heavy wooden shutters along a babbling stream and steep wooded hills. But the funny truth is it wasn’t so old-timey at all.
But don’t panic. It’s a damn cool modern story. And it tastes good, to boot.
A large white tent was set up out back over a lovely stone patio, overlooking a gorgeous bubbling brook and tall trees, all set for next week’s derby. Since 1999, they’ve made the official whiskey of the Kentucky Derby – a decadent, depraved and wonderful event. We sat just off it in a spacious wooden barn, where master distiller Chris Morris served us gourmet fish cooked with Woodford Reserve, incredible chocolate bread pudding with Woodford butter sauce, and cool iced tea. As we ate, he told us his impressive story – and Woodford’s.
The land we were on was settled by one Elijah Pepper in 1812, year of our Lord. He settled to farm and make whiskey, and today, Brown Forman is in the process of excavating that distillery. One piece sits just beside their own handsome stills (but those, later).
Elijah’s son, Oscar Pepper, commercialized the venture over two years, starting in 1838, and he and his partner James Christopher Crow helped to modernize the whiskey industry, making Old Crow (which is still made today, though I don’t know if it’s the same) and Old Oscar Pepper.
But in the banking panic of the 1860s, they sold it all off to Labrow and Graham, who opened and closed it on and off until Prohibition. And during WWII, they sold it to Brown Forman, who operated it until 1959, when what Chris Morris calls “Bourbon’s winter years” settled in, and Brown Forman closed the little rural distiller, selling the 500 acres of land to a farmer who had little need of the seven acres occupied by stone buildings, so allowed them to sit.
But in the 1980s, when American consumers enjoyed an influx of premium spirits, including foreign vodkas, cognacs and scotch, Brown Forman got the itch to counter, and here’s where they made their own damn thing from scratch — in a very modern way.
The company commissioned a group of students from the University of Kentucky to spend a summer doing an exhaustive survey of abandoned distilleries, leaving no stone unturned, and reporting back. The students were blown away by the Old Crow distillery, leading to a little embarrassment back at corporate (oh yeah… we’d forgotten about that one we used to own…). In 1993, Brown Forman bought the land and its buildings back from the farmer they’d sold it to years before, and released their premium spirit in 1996.
Hell, everything from the location to the name was run through test groups, polled with marketers and chosen by corporate. And Morris, a company man through and through, readily tells the story. Morris himself had worked nearly every job in the company, even spending time working in the glass quality laboratory — an exciting place indeed. And while Noe was a bigger-than-life character and Rob Samuels was an art-interested family heir, Chris Morris is a soft-spoken but warm scientist, complete with moustache.
Today, Woodford is made with unfiltered water from the well of Pepper Spring. Lighter on corn than some of its competitors, after the grain is cooked…
…it has a long fermentation (six days — or double the typical three) in old-fashioned wooden tubs, is heavy on rye and malt…
…and is distilled in Scottish-style pot stills…
…using a typically Irish, triple distilling method…
…before it is aged in beautiful, stone, climate-controlled warehouses for an average of seven years.
And it’s been a hit. In 1996, they kicked off with 125 cases and in 2013 they sold 250,000 cases. Along the way they became the first bourbon to be officially endorsed by the Kentucky Derby, and their $1,000 (for charity, for charity!) rose-water, silver-and-gold mint julep is a favorite for the world’s elites descending on the Bluegrass State. (Don’t worry, it comes with free refills.)
As the tour wrapped up, we still hadn’t had a taste of whiskey. It was well past lunch, for damn sake! So when Morris poured a pint from a barrel, our group was thirsty.
Not a lot of people get to try barrel-proof Woodford Reserve. Very, very few, since they don’t bottle it. But they should. At 7.8 years, this glass was 128 proof and I would have been wise to keep that in mind, because by the time the glass got to me, the tour was moving on and good Mr. Morris was impatient. So I took a slug. Like, not an adult slug. A High-school slug of whiskey, like I was in the woods with five guys splitting a pack of cigarettes and a plastic bottle. Except, as aforementioned, this was no 80 proof plastic bottle. And boy that woke me up and brought me back.
Woodford Reserve is a golden brown, and on the nose, it’s not unlike a cognac: Sweet and floral, with maple, raisins and notes of tea leaf. To taste, there’s a lot of wood, with prominent oak, cedar and almonds, and a sweet finish with a lingering burn.
Then we were on to the newest product: Woodford Double Oaked, the “super premium” brand Brown-Forman introduced in 2012. The difference here is after seven years, they remove the spirit at 110 proof, then barrel it again for a year. On the eye, it’s a darker amber than Woodford Reserve, with chocolate, cinnamon and maple on the nose. To taste, it is more herbal, with a hazelnut middle and a much sweeter, vanilla aftertaste. It was worth the wait. This is damn good whiskey, so we bought a bottle for the road. Lord knows we had a taste. Responsibly, of course.
But the day was still young! And we wrapped up our Kentucky end of the American Whiskey Trail with a little trip into a place as far removed from Fred, Rob and Chris as I can imagine.
Jim Beam was a factory among gorgeous hills; Makers Mark was an authentic 1950s distillery that looked a little like Disneyland; Woodford Reserve was carefully tested modern history.
Wild Turkey is, well, more like Springfield’s nuclear power plant.
As our bus pulled past two rent-a-cops guarding the looming factory’s near-empty parking lot, I remarked to a fellow traveler that I’d had Wild Turkey, Wild Turkey Rye, and $400 Wild Turkey Tribute Japanese edition, and the one thing that links them all is they all taste like Wild Turkey. But I hadn’t had a glass in a long time, so was excited to give it another go-around with a few more years under my belt.
It’s on a bigger scale than any other distillery we’d seen.
It actually manages to make a turkey intimidating.
Ben Franklin would be proud.
Inside, the building is a true wonder of modern engineering, with hundreds of square yards of 42,000-gallon beer wells, 30,000-gallon fermenters, 15,000-gallon mash tuns and a guy behind a heavy door, staring at a line of computers.
It was late in the afternoon, so most folks had gone home: In addition to a shy guard who tailed us, the only other man we saw in the distillery was Santa Clause-looking fellow, tinkering dutifully on some tanks behind heavy glass, and greeting us with a happy wave.
It was too dark to take a picture, though, so I’ll never know for sure if he was real. And then across the parking lot to the barreling plant, where they’d finished for the day, but we still got a free bung (the things that plug the bung hole). So we had that going for us. Which was nice.
But while most of the work was finished in the distillery and the barreling building, the bottling plant was humming along just fine, filling bottles of a flavored vodka the company makes far away and ships in to prep for the shelves.
A fast bottling line can put out 10,000 cases a day, and it is the most industrial place we saw on the American Whiskey Trail: A shiny factory where men and women don nets to cover their hair, and the men wrap their faces to keep their beards from polluting the process.
The bosswoman said I didn’t have to wear one. But I did. Solidarity, brothers.
But all is not lost to the machine, and the old warehouses Wild Turkey ages its whiskey in lie across the road, near a stunningly beautiful old railroad bridge.
The old warehouses stood in beautiful, if stark, contrast over the valley…
…and offered an imposing view of the factory.
And walking their dusty, dark, dirty and haunted halls, I couldn’t help but notice that if I were a hobo, I’d be quick to post up for a few nights.
But maybe sleep outside so I don’t bother the ghost much.
And then the whiskey!
The new tasting house is about as stark and modern as every other part of the factory on the outside…
…but inside, it’s spacious, constructed with beautifully carved wood and sporting stunning, ski-lodge-esque views of the old train bridge.
I didn’t write anything down here, because my recollection still held true: While W.T. 101 is a high-alcohol hit, there simply isn’t a lot of variation between the brands. ”Grandpa’s crying whiskey,” one reporter remarked on the slightly bitter, wooded tastes.
An interesting standout was Wild Turkey Forgiven — a whiskey made when a worker accidentally combined a tank of rye and a tank of bourbon. I couldn’t help but wonder how that guy felt after he hit the definitely irreversible switch that poured 30,000 gallons exactly where it wasn’t supposed to be. But in the end, it was damn decent. I tried to recreate the experience with my tasting glasses to limited success.
Another one of their products that definitely differentiates itself is Wild Turkey American Honey – one of their best sellers. And if you’re looking for a good breakfast cocktail, give this one I use at the bar Bourbon a twirl:
The Bourbon Honey Milkshake
Combine in a shaker:
2 ounces of American Honey,
3 oz. of whole milk,
1 teaspoon of honey.
Add ice, and shake as hard as you damn can. Pour it out frothy into a highball glass, then grate some nutmeg over the top and serve. I promise: You make your friends one, you’ll be making them all night.
Then back in the bus and on the road to Lexington! At this point, I was pretty depressed at having lost my second notebook. Plus my phone was dead. So I just sat back and threw back a few. Though I did wake from the haze the next morning with a damn fine cocktail recipe stuffed in my pocket for my lady:
Jacob’s Jalapeno Spiked White Julep, as served at Coles 735 Main, a local restaurant with a good chef and a staff that didn’t seem to love us.
Clap a sprig of mint to release its oils, then toss it into a julep cup.
Fill the glass with crushed ice, and add 2 oz. of Jacob’s Ghost — an 80-proof white whiskey from Jim Beam — and 1 oz. of jalapeno simple syrup. Garnish with a mint, and add a dash of confection sugar.
A blur of first-time selfies, shots, ghost stories and local IPAs later, it was Friday morning, and we were on our way to see a woman about a horse.