Loretto, Kentucky is not a large town. It's a small community of about 900 people, twenty percent of which are employed by Maker's Mark distillery. Getting there takes about an hour and a half from Louisville, as you drive south through Bardstown and further out into the remote country side.
Loretto is remote, but beautiful. You can see why the Samuels family chose to buy the old distillery site back in the early fifties. It not only sits near a twelve acre lake of clean, mineral-rich Kentucky water, but it's also one of the most picturesque and bucolic sceneries on the entire Bourbon trail. Getting out of the car on an early Fall morning, taking in the vast landscape before us, was quite inspirational and moving.
If you don't think fashion applies to the world of wine and distilled spirits, we probably won't ever see eye-to-eye on a good many things. A line has most definitely been drawn in the sand when it comes to "cool" Bourbons and "uncool" Bourbons in the modern era of boutique whiskey. Buffalo Trace, Four Roses and Heaven Hill are definitely the cool kids, their whiskies hoarded like old 45-rpm Smiths singles, while distilleries like Beam and Maker's Mark are seen as rather square and for the unsophisticated crowd. Having now been to all five of those distilleries and tasted through a good majority of their selections, I definitely take issue with that stereotypical classification.
Maker's Mark is absolutely the most beautiful distillery in all of Kentucky—and it's not even close for second place. The campus is simply breathtaking with it's stark black buildings accented with red shutters and shingling. Apparently when Mr. Samuels took over the distillery in 1954 he focused 100% of his time to making a superior whiskey (as he should have). His wife, however (much like my own), had the gift of aesthetics and realized that the distillery needed to look both inviting and pleasing to potential visitors, and she did most of the interior and exterior decorating herself. If you've never been to Kentucky and you have a romantic ideal in your mind of what a distillery should look like, I can promise you it looks like Maker's Mark. As for the other ones, well....they're....nice, I guess.
The distillery building itself at Maker's Mark is quite a spectacle. It's an old wooden house with several stills that go up through the ceilings of several uneven floors. It's so old-timey and down-home that you almost think it's fake—like some sort of fabricated Bourbon Disneyland. Not the case, however. It's actually that fucking quaint, if you can believe it.
The first copper still awaits you right as you enter the door, the creaky wooden stairs just to your left. The distillery has seen a lot of expansion over the last year with the addition of a third still behind the original two, and a set of new fermenters next door. If you're confused as to why Maker's Mark went from the minor scandal of lowering their proof a few years back, to releasing a new cask strength edition only one year later, I can answer any lingering questions with one small word: Suntory. If you're out of the loop, Suntory merged with Jim Beam last year to form a serious spirits conglomerate on the level of Diageo and Pernod-Ricard. Suddenly, after a serious influx of Japanese cash, Maker's Mark wasn't quite so worried about stretching out their inventory to maximize profit. They could go right back to making the best damn Bourbon they could, regardless of capitalistic necessity. That was a great thing for whiskey lovers, believe me. I'm not at all bitter about the retraction. For me personally, there's been no better addition to the Bourbon market over the last few years than the Maker's Mark Cask Strength Edition. That never would have happened without the merger.
I wish I had time to go over the entire tour with you here because it was indeed one of the more succinct and explanatory visits to a distillery I've ever had. I came to Maker's Mark a fan of their whiskey and I left an utter devotee. We tasted the freshly-milled wheat powder, the initial cook of the grist, and the freshly-fermented mash right before it came out of the fermenter and was readied for distillation. The mealy-substance was sweet and delicious, and you could tell that it was clean and purely-flavored just by dipping your finger in it. As we sat down for our experimental tasting of the Maker's 46 single cask selections, I could still taste that freshness in all of the whiskies.
As I watched an army of red wax-covered bottles come off the bottling line this morning, I had a completely different view of the brand. Maker's Mark really was a pioneer in the production of serious Bourbon of the utmost quality when it first started sixty years ago. Today, with the partnership it has formed with Suntory, I get the feeling the distillery workers are incredibly relieved—like they feel they can finally get back to doing what they do best, without worrying about how to maintain max profitability. There's definitely a newly-renewed focus on superior flavor and there's no better example of that than the recent cask strength release. Except for maybe the new Maker's 46 cask strength. It's really, really good.
After grabbing lunch at the nearby cafe, we headed back north through Bardstown to Clermont, the home of Jim Beam's main distillery, although not nearly their largest (the Boston plant known as the Booker Noe site is apparently twice as big). We had a date to select a few casks directly from the warehouse this afternoon.
There to help us pop a few bungs was the man himself: Fred Noe. I had never met him until today and, let me tell you, he is a complete madman. He's definitely a guy I'd like to grab a few beers with. F-bombs galore and a hilariously-salty vocabulary that could make a sailor blush. We felt right at home with Fred.
I'm actually a big fan of the Knob Creek 120 proof single barrel expression, so I was more than excited to pick out a few potential selections for K&L. Fred doesn't mess around either. He's all business in that warehouse, except when he's cursing. He dropped his iPhone at one point, and grumbled, "I hope that fucker falls right through the cracks and goes straight to hell!" I don't think Fred is a fan of modern technology. I could have spent all day with this guy, just listening to the hilarious comments right and left.
As a distillery, the Clermont site is absolutely gigantic in comparison to its other bretheren. Beam has more than 1.8 millions casks in warehouse at the moment. They make 50% of all the Bourbon in Kentucky. Their monstrous stills pump out Bourbon like an oil rig in the arctic. It's quite impressive to watch first-hand.
On your way out of the distillery there's an old placard with Jim Beam standing on Michigan Avenue next to a few colleagues. I got a kick out of the "yet moderately priced" tag. It's still true today, however. Their products are still great values in the current market.
Two pizzas and five beers later, David OG and I realized we'd been hanging out in the wrong part of Louisville. The Garage Bar on the eastern side of downtown is definitely the spot, and the up and coming Butchertown neighborhood is like the Brooklyn of Kentucky. I could write an entire blog post just about this place (and maybe I will later). One of the best pizzas I've ever had—anywhere, and just a super cool scene that proves the global food and drink movement is on the up just about everywhere. I was blown away.