8 a.m. might seem like an early start time for a bourbon tour, but this is Kentucky. There are barrels to see and whiskey to taste. Our mission: four distilleries in two days. Accepted.
We rode with Mint Julep Tours – nice, knowledgeable, and able to deliver us safely to our whiskey.
While every distillery is the same basic idea, I enjoyed how distinctly different the grounds and tours were. Each had something unique to offer that highlighted what story they wanted associated with their product. First up: Woodford Reserve and Buffalo Trace.
On the way to the Woodford Reserve Distillery, really nice horses grazed by the side of the road thanks to the thoroughbred farms. Hay bales out in the fields looked like barrels, so that set the scene.
A whiff of beer (before it is improved through distillation) greeted us when we entered the distillery. Big vats of mash bubbled. Woodford Reserve is the only triple-distilled bourbon and three huge stills reached to tall ceilings.
I especially liked the rickhouse where they keep the aging barrels – limestone, from about 1890. Distilleries tend to show the cute, small rickhouses on the tour, so this held 5,000 barrels as compared to the large ones that hold 50,000. I don’t know what it is about a roomful of sleeping barrels, but I could pretty much look at them all day. So much potential being created in those wooden cocoons. And yet they look so peaceful.
Woodford had my favorite tasting – not what as much as how. We “reset our olfactory” by smelling our skin, the most familiar smell to us according to the guide. Then we used the “3 sip rule” where the first sip is “mostly pain” to acclimate the palette. The second is a chance to move the whiskey around and coat the mouth. So that by the third sip, you can taste the whiskey fully.
My favorite of the whiskies we tried was the double oaked, which is their traditional bourbon finished in a second, deeply charred barrel, giving it nice flavors of butterscotch candy and crème brulee.
Along the road on our way from Woodford Reserve, we passed the Old Taylor Distillery, which was shuttered in 1972, but is now being revived to be a working distillery. The grounds have a romantic shadow of their former splendor – they were designed to have a chateau look and beautiful gardens to be a destination distillery long before the Bourbon Trail was a thing. And a whiskey woman, Marianne Barnes, will be master distiller. The plan is to reopen the distillery in late spring, so that’s probably a good time for me to return to Kentucky.
Our afternoon stop was Buffalo Trace, which is America’s oldest continuously operating distillery. They kept producing through Prohibition to supply the much-needed medicine for the all those who suffered from chronic thirst for 13 years.
They play up the "whiskey on the range" story. Their introductory video features a lot of grain in slow motion while majestic buffalo roam. Their oldest warehouse was Warehouse C – an imposing brick structure that looks like a prison with barrels peeking out the windows.
“I'll save you, barrels!” I want to call out. “And then I will consume you.”
They also have a great water tower with a big buffalo on it. I like to think it’s full of bourbon and should the area run out, you could just bring buckets and jars to fill up from the tower reserves. That’s probably not true.
Warehouse C is from 1885 and has just 24,000 barrels although Buffalo Trace has 400,000 barrels aging. In 1996, a tornado tore the roof off, but thankfully didn’t steal any whiskey.
We also got to go to a little bottling house where I watched two of my favorite bourbons file past me on a conveyor belt – Elmer T. Lee and Blanton’s. It is wonderfully meditative to watch whiskey bottles go from empty to full and then get dressed and boxed. The best part was watching them put the little horses on the Blanton’s bottles and then inspect them. So darn cute, those horses.
Nothing special about the tasting, really, until “dessert” when we got to try bourbon cream – the US version of Irish cream. Delicious. The gift shop was disappointing because they didn’t have any of their tough-to-find brands. I did, however, run into Keenie, who is 4th generation of the famed Stagg bourbon family, so that was a treat. I definitely can’t find that in Brooklyn.