It’s not every day that you get to hang out with a master distiller at a cocktail party, but my first night in Louisville, I found myself talking with Willie Pratt, master distiller at Michter’s. Willie has a Southern charm and a gentle presence. I was struck by how appreciative and happy he seems about the work he does. It’s nice when people love to make bourbon as much as I love to drink it.
The event was a dinner at Proof on Main with time before to chat with Willie and other whiskey-loving guests.
The first thing he told me was that his mother was a schoolteacher and his father worked in the coal mines, so he’s not from a whiskey family, but it didn’t take him long to find his way into the industry. He worked for Brown-Forman for decades and came out of retirement to work for Michter’s because he would be able to make whiskey the way he wanted – helping to set up production from the stills on up.
By 9 a.m., we were at Maker’s Mark’s door. Day 2 on our distillery tours of Kentucky, and we were ready.
The Maker’s Mark distillery has a lot of Southern style – a charming house is the waiting area and you stand on a large front porch to the distillery to get the introduction. They were still polishing the huge copper stills when we arrived.
Enormous mash tubs that will make 400 barrels of whiskey each bubbled and frothed. We got to dip our fingers through the spongy top layer to taste the fermenting beer, which has a sweet, tangy flavor.
Maker’s Mark has over 400,000 barrels aging and they are building more warehouses to step up production with rising demand.
“No bourbon distiller has enough bourbon,” said our guide.
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.
After three days in Kentucky, I can confirm that the main ingredients of the state are bourbon, pride, and horses. In Louisville, you can’t walk three feet or five minutes without being reminded it’s time for a bourbon - and someone is nearby to recommend a good one. You pass prize-winning thoroughbreds by the side of the road. A “Kentucky hug” is the warmth from a bourbon. And they give you a stamp to reward you for drinking whiskey. Forget Vegas. If I want a grown-up Disneyland, Kentucky will do just fine.
For bourbon bars, Louisville hits the mark. A whole book of them – the Urban Bourbon Trail passport – shows the ones that have more than 50 bourbons. If you get just six stamps in the passport, they give you a free t-shirt. Show a little bit of bourbon knowledge and the bartenders will steer you past the front row and recommend some of the ones that are harder to find, at least in Brooklyn – Old Forester Birthday Bourbon, Colonel E.H. Taylor barrel proof, and Kentucky Owl were a few I got to try. I also took pleasure in ordering some more common ones that I rarely see in my neighborhood, including Elmer T. Lee and W.L. Weller 12 year. In Louisville, you can usually find what you want unless the name starts with Pappy and ends in Van Winkle.