If you read my last blog, you know about my trip through the Mississippi Delta to Memphis and then on to the home of Country Music, Nashville, Tennessee. After checking out the honky tonk scene on Lower Broadway Wednesday night, I hit the road Thursday for Indianapolis, by way of Louisville, Kentucky.
As I said last week, due to circumstances I was traveling by myself, which presented me with the opportunity to take my time and engage in some ‘touristy’ type stuff. One of the things I have wanted to do for a long time is take the time to travel the Kentucy Bourbon Trail. Kentucky is known around the world for two things: thoroughbred horse racing and bourbon. Bourbon is known as “America’s native sprit”. The Scots have Scotch whiskey, the Iris have Irish Whiskey, the British have gin and the Russians have vodka. Bourbon is the only alcoholic beverage that is a distinct product of the U.S.A. And 95% of the world’s bourbon is fermented, distilled, aged and bottled in the State of Kentucky.
The Bourbon Trail is in the north central part of the state, between Bardstown, Lebanon and Lexington. It consists of seven major and seven craft distilleries. Each one offers tours of its facilities. When I stopped at the Kentucky Welcome Center, I picked up a map of The Trail and gave it a look. Since I was headed up I-65 toward Louisville, and my schedule was loose but was still, nonetheless, a schedule, it looked like by best shot was around Clermont. So, off I went.
There is both quiet a bit of science and art necessary to make bourbon. But what makes bourbon bourbon? Actually there is a legal definition for those that are interested. Bourbon is a type of whiskey distilled from grain mash. To be considered bourbon, the mash must be between 51%-80% corn. Most distillers use a mash bill around 70% corn. Once the whiskey has been distilled, nothing but water can be added, preventing the use of anything that can enhance flavor, add sweetness or alter color. Also to be considered bourbon, the distilled whiskey must be aged in new charred white oak barrels for a minimum of two years. Most premium bourbons are aged between 5-12 years. Bourbon is bottled between 80-125 proof. Only water can be added to ‘proof down’ the product, which is usually aged at 140-180 proof. Sounds simple huh?
I got off the interstate at Clermont, headed to Four Roses. Four Roses is a small distillery. It is about four miles off the interstate. On the way, I passed the big cat daddy of them all, Jim Beam. More on that later. I go to Four Roses to find that the tour I had chosen was of their warehouse and bottling facility. The actual distillery is located about 20 miles away in Lawrenceburg. I made it in time for the 2:00 o’clock tour, paid my 5 bucks and off we went. The first thing you notice there is a much of small, squat squarish building. Turns out those of the ‘rick’ houses where the bourbon is aged. At Four Roses, that aging takes at least 5 years.
If you want some more background, you can find it here Four Roses
After quick drive around the property, the first stop was the barreling house. Four Roses receives two tanker truck loads of clear, distilled liquor from Lawrenceburg each day. It is offloaded into holding tanks in the barrel house, where it is quality tested, proofed down with water and then used to fill the new white oak charred barrels. The barrels, which hold 53 gallons each, are filled, marked and then moved to the loading dock for transport to one of the rick houses. On the other side of the barrel warehouse were old, dirty barrels that had just come back for bottling. When they are ready, those barrels come back from the rick house and are emptied into a reservoir and then pumped into holding tanks in the adjacent bottling plant. More on bottling in a minute.
From there we went to tour one of the rick houses. The rick house is the place where the art and magic of making good bourbon really takes place. Aging is the process that takes raw, clear ethyl alcohol and turns it into bourbon. All whiskies are clear when they are tapped off the still. It is the aging process that defines their final color, sweetness and taste. Remember those new charred white oak barrels? Both the oak wood and the charring play an important part. As the bourbon is aged, the charring on the inside of the barrel acts like a charcoal filter, giving the finished product is smoothness. It also give it its distinct caramel color. As the product ages for years in the barrel, the alcohol seeps into the wood, causing the liquid to absorb the natural wood sugars present in the oak barrel staves.
It turns out that Four Roses is the only bourbon distillery that uses single story rich houses. They believe that this keeps the temperature more constant and does away with the necessity of rotating barrels from higher to lower floors during the aging process. Turns out the temperature difference between the floor and upper reaches of a multi-story rich house can be as much as 30 degrees in the summer time.
We were told all this information on the way to the rich house. But seeing it from the inside was an awe inspiring experience. As we approached the door of the rick house, the first thing that strikes you is the wonderful, dreamy smell. It smells strong and sweet at the same time, almost like walking into a confection shop while candy is cooking. Turns out that is part of the process of the outside of the barrels giving off the wood sugars during the aging process. I swear, if the could figure out how to bottle that smell, it would be commodity in its own right.
Walking into the rick house was quite a treat. Barrels of whisky in racks. The racks are 18 barrels deep and six barrels high throughout the warehouse. Its all made of wood. Quite a bit of craftsmanship in its own right. And all of those barrels are moved, stacked and unstacked by hand.
The bottling plant was next. Four Roses sells three brands of bourbon. Yellow Label, which is 80 proof, Small Batch which is 90 proof and Single Barrel, which is bottled at 100 proof.
While I was there they were working on Small Batch .
As we headed back to the gift shop, I asked how many rick houses there were. Turns out they have 24 of them. And each one can hold up to 20,000 barrels. I did the math in my head. That works out to 480,000 barrels or the capacity to age 25,440,000 gallons of bourbon at one time. I wonder how many LSU home games it would take to use up all of that? At the gift shop, we were treated to a little tasting and got a free glass for our trouble. I bought a couple of other souvenirs and headed back toward I-65.
I didn’t have the time for another tour, but I couldn’t get this close and at least not take a look at the Jim Beam operation. I drove past the distillery. It looked enormous. Think medium sized chemical plant sized. It seems the Beam family has been making whiskey in Kentucky since 1795. Today they are the largest distiller of whiskey in the world.
Today the brand is named after a fifth generation member, James B. Beam, who built the company back up after Prohibition. When I got there, I decided it was appropriate to take a selfie with the man himself.
The biggest difference between Beam and Four Roses was scale. You figure that out when you see the distillery and then turn off the road and see the Jim Beam rick houses. They are enormous. I don’t know how many barrels each one holds, but it has to be a lot. The pictures don’t really do them justice. They are much bigger when you are standing next to them looking up.
After looking around and taking a few photos I had to head out. On my way back to the highway, I encountered something totally unforseen. So unforseen that I had to circle back and get a picture to verify it. You don’t have to be down South very long to understand how Southern Baptists feel about intoxicants, the Devil’s potion, whiskey, being at the top of the list of things that are strictly “verboten”. But there it was, right there in front of me. The Clermont Baptist Church, on Jim Beam property, sitting between and dwarfed by two enormous warehouses filled with bourbon. Only in Kentucky I guess.