Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Bardstown, Bernheim and Bourbon

We were in Bardstown for a week with the goal of completing the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.  The seven distilleries shown below make up the trail. Three are located near Bardstown and four near Lexington. If you visit them all you get a "free" t-shirt.  Free as in being charged a small fee at most stops but they all included a tasting of their fine finished products which makes it worthwhile.  A heads up, there is no way you can do them all in one day.  It took us four.  Historically, the whole bourbon making business would be in Western Pennsylvania if the corn farmers had not fled to the Kentucky wilderness to avoid the tax placed on their corn whiskey.  This was the first test of the new government as they moved in to collect the tax.  When President Washington lead the army into Pennsylvania to enforce the law many of the farmers fled to Kentucky.  It is known as the Whiskey Rebellion. 
The tours range from huge operations like Jim Beam, the country's largest bourbon producer, to the newest, Town Branch, that has a bottling line that only fills six at a time.  While making bourbon is the same, as prescribed by law, each distillery offers a little different look at the whole process. 
Starting on the top left is the photos show the steps used to make bourbon.  All bourbon must have at least 51% corn, but most distillers use more.  They also use barley malt and rye (except Maker's Mark which uses wheat).  Next, the grain is ground and cooked to make a mash.  They then add yeast and ferment the grain for three days to produce alcohol.  The alcohol is then distilled into a high proof (alcohol content).  This can be done more than once to increase the alcohol content.  That finished alcohol is then placed in oak barrels (Nanc pounding the bung in) and stored for a minimum of two years.  The longer it is aged the better it gets.  Finally, the aged bourbon is bottled. 
A common site in bourbon country is the hundreds of rickhouses that each hold thousands of barrels.  The aging in the charred barrels is what gives bourbon its taste and color.  The bourbon ages differently depending on how high in the rickhouse they are stored.  The higher the better because of the big difference in temperature from summer to winter.  There are more barrels of bourbon aging in Kentucky than the are people.
A few pictures from the rickhouses.  This is a real hands on business as barrels are rolled into place.  Bottom middle is a plum bob that makes sure the ricks stay plum under all the weight.  Most are stacked from seven to nine stories high.  By law each barrel can only be used for bourbon one time.  The barrels are made of oak that must be fire charred.  Used barrels are sent to Ireland and Scotland to be used in their whiskey making and also to Tabasco to age their peppers.  As the bourbon ages a bit of it evaporates each year.  This is known as the angels' share and its aroma fills the air around the rickhouses. Each barrel holds 53 gallons for which the distiller pays a tax of $6.51 per gallon, per year.  This tax is charged every year based on 53 gallons regardless of how much evaporation has taken place.  Bottom right is a barrel at Wild Turkey that has be aging for over 25 years at a tax rate of almost $350.00 a year even though it will only yield about 12 gallons of very expensive bourbon.  The angels must of loved that barrel.    
Each distillery's tour has something different to offer, at Maker's Mark they actually encouraged you to put your finger in the fermenting vats and taste it.
If you buy a bottle at Maker's Mark you get to do the final step of dipping it into the hot wax to seal the top.  We also enjoyed a few of their neat ads.  Touring Maker's Mark brought back memories of a wonderful Marker's Mark evening I had with our friend Jack on one of our visits to Florida. 
Woodford Reserve is a smaller distillery located in old, historical limestone buildings.  The new operation has only been open a few years and they even have the company cat, Elijah, that refused to leave when they moved in.  I like the old still and the barrel horse, another use for used barrels.
Jim Beam is the largest distillery and has a new tour center (bottom left).  The new tour includes an area where the entire process, from making mash, to distilling, to putting the final product in barrels, is done on a small scale just for the tour.  That is where Nanc got to pound the bung into the barrel.  The statue is Booker Noe, Jim Beam's grandson, who ran the distillery for forty years. 
Beam had an interesting collection of their famous specialty decanters and the many labels their bourbon has been sold under over the years.  Top right are the control bottles they take out of each batch and store for two years.  They are then given to employees.  Nice perk! 
The tour of Heaven Hill includes the Bourbon Heritage Center that has a very good historical presentation going back to the Whiskey Rebellion and the farmers moving to Kentucky.  They tell the story of how Elijah Craig, a minister, accidentally figured out how putting the alcohol into charred barrels changed the taste and created bourbon.  They also had a display of the 1996 fire that destroyed several rickhouses during a storm with 70 mph winds.  When all that alcohol caught fire all they could do is watch and try to keep it from spreading. 
Four Roses is a brand that had fallen out of favor but has recently been revitalized by new owners.  There distilling is done in this historical building.  Bottom right is the inside of a still.  If you see one of these Four Roses trucks with placard 3065, it is full of alcohol.  They distill their alcohol in one location and then transport it 70 miles to be barreled, aged and bottled.
Here we are at Wild Turkey.  They have a brand new distilling operation, but they were closed down for the summer, as many do because the mash does not ferment very well as the temperature goes up.  They are building a new bottling plant and tour center that will be open next year.  The tour was ok but all we saw were empty fermenting vats, the control room and grain bins.
Our final stop on the Bourbon Trail was Town Branch, the newest distillery in Kentucky.  They are a small operation with only two vats, one small still and a bottling line that only fills six bottles at a time.  A unique feature of this stop is that they also brew beer at the same facility.  The barrels show the whole process for both beer and bourbon.  Their Kentucky Bourbon Barrel beer, aged in bourbon barrels as the name implies, was so smooth that even Nanc liked it. 
Of course, one can not do a bourbon tour without doing a tasting at each.  Another reason you need to spread your visits over several days.  The tasting included a description of each of the products. Some allowed you to choose what you wanted to try while others had the glasses poured and waiting for you in the tasting room.  At Four Roses the hostess poured three different bourbons, while at Jim Beam they have automatic dispensers that required a card to get your two choices.  If you go with a friend you can share four selections. When we drink liquor, bourbon is our drink of choice so we did make a couple of purchases.  We had a fun time on the Bourbon Trail and recommend it is a stop if you are in the area.  Each distillery gives you a little different look at the whole bourbon industry.
And in Bardstown if you misbehave on the tour you are subject to public ridicule.
We decided to take a hike at another interesting stop in the area, the Bernheim Arboretum in nearby Clermont near Jim Beam.  The Bernheim Forest is on 12,000 acres of worn out and logged land that was purchased by Isaac Bernheim in 1929.  The land was allowed to return to a more natural state and today includes gardens, art, trails and an education center.  The prairie was being burned to kill invasive species.
At one spot on the hike they have a Canopy Tree Walk (upper left) that goes out over the top of the trees so you are looking down into the forest.  Real Cool!  I also found a geocache along the trail and we saw a couple of neat insects.  This was a pleasant ending to our time spent in bourbon country.


Tricia @geekyexplorers said...

Great summary of the Bourbon trail - it's on our list of must do's!

Ray/Wendy said...

Nice review, we had taken in Jim Beam Dist. many years ago but see we need to refresh ourselves.

Marty Cassidy said...

And your favorite is?

The bourbon trail is somewhat of a hassle to "tour": a lot of miles in some pretty out-of-the-way places. Four days to hit them all is pretty good, not because of the alcohol intake (you can always spit) but because of the travel times.