Burns the Hairs Right Out of Your Nose

Also check out Jane’s roundup of great eats in Louisville, Kentucky, “The Colonel’s Got Competition.”

You’ve heard of blended whiskey? Well, here’s one thing you never, ever say: blended bourbon. When they mix up bourbon at the distillery, a little from this barrel and a little from that, it’s called mingling, and bottlings from a batch of barrels is called small-batch bourbon. When the flavors sit around together and age, it’s called marrying. But blending—that’s what happens when the rotgut purveyors take neutral spirits, the clear pure alcohol that you can buy from companies like Archer Daniels Midland, and add some straight bourbon (at least 51 percent) to it.

Read CHOW’s whiskey primer.

And listen to a podcast of Jim Leff, writer and cofounder of Chowhound, talking and drinking bourbon.

That’s one lesson you might learn on tours of bourbon distilleries. Another is that bourbon makers—the Colonel Sanders types in white suits and old-fashioned glasses who look like they sit on the front porch with a cigar and a shotgun—are now frontmen for big corporations. No matter how many Jims, Joes, Bookers, or Evans are on the labels, there are only a dozen bourbon distillers in Kentucky, and they make it all—small batch, big batch, speed rack, or top shelf. (Almost, though not all, bourbon is made in Kentucky, thanks to the water, the white oak, the weather, and the corn.) And while there’s constant reshuffling of who owns what, by and large, the distillers are owned by just a few companies. Woodford Reserve, for example, is owned by Brown-Forman, which also owns Early Times and Old Forester. Fortune Brands owns Jim Beam, Basil Hayden’s, Booker’s, Knob Creek, Old Crow, and Old Grand-Dad.

Maker’s Mark bottling machine

Maker’s Mark bottle waxing

At most distilleries, different ages, proportions of grain, and mixtures make different bourbons. According to Mark Waymack (at Straightbourbon.com), bourbon makers wanted to cash in on the same upscale market driving sales of single-malt scotch, so they created premium bourbons. Some, like Blanton’s, went the “single barrel” route, taking the best barrels from the distillery and bottling them without mingling. Others, like Woodford Reserve or Jim Beam’s Baker’s, Booker’s, Basil Hayden, and Knob Creek, went the “small batch” route, taking their best barrels and mingling them into a consistent product.

But business aside—or, rather, business at the center—six bourbon distilleries make a point of welcoming the public. You can visit them all on what the Kentucky tourism board calls the Bourbon Trail, an adventure into the lovely countryside outside Louisville, Frankfort, and Lexington. Make Louisville your headquarters; the tours are all within an hour and a half, and the city’s got great food.

The tours take you through almost the entire process, from cooking to fermenting to distilling to aging to bottling. At Maker’s Mark, you can even see the press where they make the paper labels and watch women (all women when I was there) dip the bottles in red wax. They’re selling Americana on these tours, particularly Kentuckiana, so everybody throws in a little old-timey feel, like the antique hand-operated machine that cuts Maker’s labels. All the distillery tours are different, but one is probably enough to get a feel for the process and the area. If you want a lovely setting, try Woodford Reserve (which is not part of the official Trail), with its historic buildings set among trees and rolling hills. If you want interactivity, try Maker’s Mark, where you can dip your own bottle in red wax. And if you want merchandise, Jim Beam is the place to go, though the distillery isn’t open to the public, just a museum with a tasting room. Heaven Hill doesn’t have a tour, but it does have a tasting.

How Much Does It Hurt?

Here’s how you smell bourbon: Breathe through your mouth, because otherwise the alcohol will burn your nose. And here’s how you taste bourbon, with what they like to call the Kentucky chew: Take a sip and swish it all around your mouth, sucking in a little air to gargle it a bit (that’s the chewing part).

Sometimes, sucking down some particularly rough stuff, you’ll measure quality by how painful it isn’t. Other times, you’ll notice how bitter, how sour, how sweet it is, and what kind of maple, vanilla, or other flavors come through. Maker’s Mark, for example, is one of my favorite everyday drinks; because it’s made with wheat instead of rye (in addition to corn) and distilled at a lower proof, it’s a little softer and less bitter. Booker’s is unfiltered, complex, and strong. Some of the more expensive bourbons aren’t necessarily the best. A.H. Hirsch has a beautiful bottle and a high price, but taste-tested against others, it just feels harsh and overaged. Four Roses Single Barrel stands up to it at half the price.

Moonshine + Age = Bourbon

Corn mash

What you learn on the tours is that bourbon is essentially moonshine with a little age on it. Bourbon is, by law, made from at least 51 percent corn that’s been distilled into liquor and aged for at least two years in new barrels made from charred white oak.

It’s made by taking the grain—corn, plus maybe some wheat, rye, and/or malted barley—milling it, cooking it, and cooling it. The mash is then exposed to yeast (and, often, a backset, or starter, from a previous batch, like a sourdough starter, which ensures consistency). As with wine, different strains of yeast produce different flavors, and proprietary strains are closely guarded. Next, the bourbon’s distilled, which means vaporizing the alcohol and then condensing it into a clear liquid, called low wines, because it’s a low proof.

You’ll see some old copper stills, but even if a distillery is using a steel column still, copper is always a part of the process; according to Malt Advocate, copper adds a certain something—literally. Copper actually disintegrates into the bourbon, and bourbon made without copper has “less sweetness and honey” and more of a taste of cabbage.

Proprietary yeast strains

The liquid is distilled again (and sometimes a third time) into high wines, or, colloquially, white dog, maybe because it’s got a pretty sharp bark. One of the highlights of the tours is watching the clear liquor come pouring out of the still into a try box, an elaborate contraption that lets the revenuers (government tax collectors) come in and try it to check the proof. The leftover mash is used for animal feed.

Water is then added to the clear liquor to get it to the maximum 125 proof, and it’s put into new barrels made from (statutorily required) white oak, charred to the specifications of the distillers; the degree of char on the barrels changes how a bourbon tastes.

Try boxes

The barrels are kept in warehouses where the summer heat forces the liquid to expand and seep into the pores of the wood, and the winter cold causes the liquid to contract and pull out the oak’s esters, which are the chemical compounds that give bourbon its color and caramel and vanilla flavors. The barrels are rotated until the whiskey is bottled. Sometimes water is added again to get it to the desired proof. Other times you’ll buy “barrel proof.” And chances are, you’ll want to add your own water before you drink it.

When you taste bourbon formally, you taste it straight, because water actually changes the flavor, and keeps changing the flavor the more you put in. It’s kind of a fun experiment to put an ice cube in it and notice how the taste changes as the ice melts.

Warehoused barrels

Two more things I learned from the bourbon aficionados in Kentucky: If you want to mix it with Coke, use Maker’s Mark, which has matching caramel flavors. If you want to mix it with ginger ale, use slightly spicy Woodford Reserve.

The Bourbon Trail

Buffalo Trace
10001 Wilkinson Boulevard, Franklin County, 1-800-654-8471

Hours: Tours on the hour Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Saturday 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Closed Sunday, Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day.

What to Expect: Tour the aging warehouse, where you can see the barrels and the hand-bottling process. A full “hard hat” tour during which you can see the entire process from grain delivery to bottling can be scheduled by calling two weeks ahead. All tours end with a tasting of Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey and organic Rain Vodka (handmade from scratch at the distillery).

Four Roses
1224 Bonds Mill Road, Lawrenceburg, 502-839-3436

Hours: Tours on the hour Monday through Saturday 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. (September through June—call for exact dates of summer shutdown). Closed Sunday, Fourth of July, Election Day, Thanksgiving, December 24-26, New Year’s Eve, and New Year’s Day.

Interested in sampling some bourbon concoctions? Try these cocktails:

Brown Derby
Bourbonella
Horse’s Neck
Mint Julep
Tea and Whiskey Highball
Ward Eight

What to Expect: Short film and tour of the distillery, where you see the fermentation and distillation process (aging and barreling take place off site). Ends with a sample of 100-proof, single-barrel Four Roses Straight Bourbon.

Heaven Hill
1064 Loretto Road, Bardstown, 502-337-1000

Hours: Tuesday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday (March through December) noon to 4 p.m. Closed Monday, Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day, and Easter.

What to Expect: You can only see the barrels here; the distillery is at another site. There is a museum with videos and interactive displays to learn more about the process. The tour concludes with a tasting of Evan Williams Single Barrel Bourbon and Elijah Craig 18 Year Old Single Barrel Bourbon.

Jim Beam
149 Happy Hollow Road, Clermont, 502-215-2212

Hours: Monday through Saturday 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Sunday 1 to 4 p.m. Closed all major holidays.

What to Expect: You can take a self-guided tour of the grounds of the world’s largest bourbon distiller, although you can’t see inside. Afterward, sample a changing selection of small-batch bourbons from the home of T. Jeremiah Beam (Jim Beam’s son), which now serves as the tasting parlor and family heirloom museum.

Maker’s Mark
3350 Burks Springs Road, Loretto, 270-865-2099

Hours: Monday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., with tours every half hour from 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.; Sunday (March through December) 1 to 4:30 p.m., with tours every half hour from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m.; special candlelight tours available in December from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.—call during the fall season to find out exact dates. Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day, and Easter.

What to Expect: Built in 1805, Maker’s Mark is the country’s oldest working distillery. You can tour the grounds and watch the bourbon-making process from grain selection to bottling. (You get to hand-dip your own bottle into the signature red wax.) The tour concludes in the tasting parlor, where two small-batch bourbons are sampled.

Wild Turkey
U.S. Highway 62 East, Lawrenceburg, 502-839-4544

Hours: Tours Monday through Saturday at 9 a.m., 10:30 a.m., 12:30 p.m., and 2:30 p.m. Closed Sunday, all major holidays, the first week of January, and the last two weeks of July.

What to Expect: Tour the distillery and see the bourbon-making process from start to finish. No tasting available.

Woodford Reserve
7855 McCracken Pike, Versailles, 859-879-1812

Hours: Tuesday through Saturday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday (April through October) 12:30 to 4:30 p.m. Closed all major holidays.

What to Expect: Take one of three different tours that together cover every aspect of the Woodford Reserve distillery and its bourbon-making process. All tours cost $5 and end with a sampling of Woodford Reserve Bourbon.