Kentucky 2015 – Day 3: Loretto to Clermont

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.

-David Driscoll


Kentucky 2015 – Day 2: Down to Business

As we walked into the Four Roses barrel and bottling center this morning (Cox's Creek, as it's called) located outside of Bardstown, there was already a dozen barrels lined up and ready to taste. I had emailed tasting coordinator Mandy Vance ahead of time, told her what we were interested in, and she had readied a rock solid supply of the choicest barrels available. I had tested my pull a bit already, requesting a few particular recipes and age statements in advance, but still I asked her for one more favor before we arrived: could we bring a third friend with us?

Not only was Mandy happy to ready the tasting area, set out glassware, and grab a bag of tortilla chips to snack on while we sampled the goods (because she's simply awesome in every way), she was more than happy to oblige my request. I saw her face light up when our third tasting partner walked into the room.

Normally Mandy would be the one popping bungs, dipping the whiskey thief, and filling our glasses with delicious Four Roses Bourbon, but we told her our friend was a pro; we should let him do the dirty work. He didn't waste any time either. He instantly hit the barrels, sending that receiver deep into the depths of each cask, pulling out that brown elixir by the glassful. Who was this mystery man, you ask?

None other than former Four Roses master distiller himself, Jim Rutledge. Who better to taste barrel samples with than the man who actually made the whiskey? Yes, Jim is indeed retired these days, but that doesn't mean he isn't itching to get back into that distillery. Jim is one of those guys who lives for his job and doesn't like to sit still, idling his free time away with comfort and tranquility. I think he's restless in retirement (maybe that should be the name of the sequel to Sleepless in Seattle?) and I'm pretty sure he was more excited to be there than we were.

There was a lot of whiskey to be tasted, so there was no time for fooling around—despite the fact I was giddy about hanging out with Jim again. We ploughed through a serious line-up of casks that were far better than I expected. We nabbed two 11+ year old beauties (unknowingly at first because we chose them blindly) and a number of incredible nine year olds. There was a lot of variety on the table—spicy ones, rich ones, lighter ones, and decadent ones. It was overwhelming because I liked them all for different reasons.

While some might enjoy tasting with an expert like Jim because of his guidance, I actually appreciate the contrast he provides me with. His favorites are rarely mine, and he'll tend to find brilliance in a whiskey I've hastily skipped over. I find myself going back in for a second opinion after he gives his assessment, wondering if I've missed something. Even if I don't actually arrive at his appraisal in the end, I like trying to see things from his perspective. Jim's background in the industry is so different from most other Bourbon distillers, having worked for the Bronfmans most of his career. As a blended whiskey company, Seagram required its distillers to have an incredible working knowledge of a variety of whiskey styles, and Jim was often tasked with creating component flavors rather than singular entities. As Seagram began to shut down various distilleries in Kentucky, such as the Calvert site in Louisville near Churchill Downs, they relied on Jim's talent and scientific knowledge to recreate those necessary styles at Four Roses instead. It's from that history that the company's ten different distillates originate (LDI/MGP is also a former Seagram distillery, for those interested in the subject).

After we finished tasting, the three of us took a stroll through the rest of the bottling site and met some of the other Four Roses staff. They absolutely adore Jim and you could tell they were genuinely happy to see him. Again, I think most of the pleasure was on his end. We let him do his thing while we coordinated lunch plans.

We took Jim out for an absolutely crazy lunch at Mammy's in Bardstown—recently voted the number one small town in the United States. It was just nuts. People were dancing on chairs, listening to loud music, and just getting wild. You should've seen my side dish of tater tots! In all seriousness, we had a great time catching up with Jim, talking about whiskey, and just gleaning a bit of his incredible depth of experience. As an aside, it was good to hear that Four Roses is still not using GMO corn, opting to pay its farmers, and the farmers surrounding its farmers (to prevent cross-pollination), not to make the switch to Monsanto. That makes fifty-five straight years of good old, 100% natural Indiana corn for Four Roses. Kudos to them.

After a great first half of the day with Jim, we drove on over to Heaven Hill to meet our buddy Rob Hutchins in the Bardstown warehouses. We were interested in tasting a few Bernheim samples as it's a whiskey we've never tasted directly from cask. For those of you unfamiliar with the brand, Heaven Hill's Bernheim label (named after the Louisville distillery) is a wheat whiskey. Not a wheated Bourbon, like Weller or Maker's Mark, but rather a genuine wheat whiskey—as in a mashbill consisting of 51% wheat, 38% corn, and 11% malted barley. 

Tasting the Bernheim out of barrel was a completely different experience than from the bottle. The liquid is dark and deep in color with a spiciness that simply explodes on the palate. We might have a couple contenders from this lot.

As we left Bardstown I spotted this huge hawk in the sky, circling over the warehouses, swooping between the buildings, looking for prey.

"That's us right now," I said to David. "We're like two hawks, scouring the Kentucky landscape for Bourbon barrels, in search of a kill."

"I'm thirsty," he said.

-David Driscoll


Kentucky 2015 – Day 1: Out for a Walk

There's a lot of drankin' history on display just about everywhere you look in Louisville. Not five minutes after we had stumbled out of our hotel on to the street we unwittingly came upon the legendary Pendennis Club—a long-established Kentucky gentleman's hall dating back to the 1880s where the Old Fashioned cocktail was supposedly conceived. The current clubhouse was built in 1928 and is still home to some of the most legendary post-Kentucky Derby parties on the planet. The Pendennis is also known for its boxing events, which once sported a young Muhammad Ali rising through the ranks. I can only imagine the incredible debauchery that has taken place within those walls.

Hanging a right on Main Street we turned on to what was once Whiskey Row, and hopefully will be again. As you may or may not know, however, the plans to rebuild the once-thriving section of Louisville hit a snag this past July when a fire partially gutted the renovations and halted Brown-Forman's quest to bring the Old Forester distillery downtown. You can see the myriad of beams on the right bring used just to keep the facade of the building upright and stable. The distillery had been hoping for a 2016 opening date, but the tarp hanging over the wall now reads "Opening in 2017". I'll be back to talk a bit more about this later, as we have a date with Brown-Forman while we're here in town.  

Now and again I get the feeling that, for some of today's more fashionable whiskey fans, drinking everyman Bourbon is kind of like reading the New Yorker, or going for a hike on the weekend—it's something people like to say that they do (and even take a certain amount of pride in "doing"), but it's rarely something they ever get around to. My favorite thing to do when I come to Kentucky is to go to a bar and order all the inexpensive things we don't see in California, rather than hunt down the rare stuff. As we sat in the lounge near our hotel last night, I ordered a glass of Very Old Barton and the waitress just stared at me for an uncomfortable few seconds, before saying: "You want Barton?" 

"Should I not want it?" I asked insecurely.

"No, you most definitely should!" she answered with a huge smile. "It's so cheap, but so good! Most people don't order it." 

"Are you saying I'm cheap?" I said, teasing her at this point. Then she leaned in, glanced quickly over her shoulder towards her manager at the bar, and whispered to us:

"You know you can get this stuff for $8 a bottle across the street at CVS. You're better off doing that and drinking it in your hotel room."

"No....", David and I both responded in unison. It couldn't be that inexpensive, could it?

I immediately got up off my chair and told her, "If that's true I'm going to buy a bottle for us, and one for you too." David laughed as he took a sip of his drink, and I told them I'd be right back after I investigated. The liquor shelf at CVS was towards the back, so I moseyed down the aisle towards the Bourbon and, sure enough, there it was: Very Old Barton on sale for $8 a bottle. But the shelf was empty (unsurprisingly). Not to worry, however, because right next to that gaping hole were 1.75 liter bottles for $17. I grabbed two of the gigantic Weller-shaped monstrosities and headed back to the bar across the street. I handed one to the waitress ("Oh my God, I can't believe you actually did it!") and kept one for David and myself.

We drank a few more glasses while talking business back at the hotel before calling it a night. Four Roses awaits tomorrow.

-David Driscoll


Kentucky 2015 – We're Here

As you come in over the Ohio River, you begin to see downtown Louisville out the window, lined with trees and those historic brick buildings that always remind me of Bourbon country (I just put this iPhone snap up on the Instagram page). The 981-mile waterway once played a major role in Kentucky's past, allowing for the swift transportation of goods aboard river steamboats. In fact, it's the reason that Louisville as a city even exists. The only hitch in navigating the river's transit were the falls, where weary water travelers needed to pull the boat over, come back on to land, and prepare to start again just down stream. It only made sense to build some sort of hub at that point on the Ohio River. A place to rest, get supplies, and take a break before heading back to the boat. That's how Louisville was born. 

On the other side of the river is Indiana—just a stone's throw from the Kentucky border. A little ways up river—where the two states meet Ohio—is the town of Lawrenceburg, Indiana where MGP distillery cranks out much of today's rye whiskey selection, and a number of fine Bourbons as well. I know people freak out when they see "distilled in Indiana" on the back of their label because they want real Kentucky whiskey, but in essence it's all from the same vicinity. It's all been traveling down the same river since the steamboats came in and made the transportation of Bourbon much more efficient, opening up new markets and spreading the word of the great American spirit.

And you can picture all of that as you fly over the Ohio River, into Louisville. A winding piece of American whiskey's history on display.

-David Driscoll


Is This All You Have? – A Kentucky Primer

So we're off to Kentucky again tomorrow, hoping to track down a few good barrels to get us through the cold winter months, and as I dig through my email box this morning I'm surprised by how many people still ask me if we have Pappy or George T. Stagg available each day. These bottles come out once a year, and they sell out that very same day when we run our customer raffle (a list that now has more than 19,000 names hopelessly competing for about 30-40 total bottles of various rare American whiskies). When searching for a rare annual release in the Bourbon realm, I would venture to say that the worst possible thing to do is to email the spirits buyer at any major retailer, simply because you're going to be the 37th person to have done so that day alone. At this point the names all blend together in my mind. I have a rubber stamp response to most of these inquiries. No one person stands out anymore. Everyone's husband in need of a special anniversary gift is equal. Everyone's grandfather whose lifelong wish is to taste just a sip of delicious Bourbon is just as sympathetic. These emails get pushed into a gigantic folder that I'll deal with when the time actually comes—that date in late November when we spend about $30,000 worth of man hours digging through names, distributing these treasures fairly, to make about $1000 worth of overall profit.

That being said, I still get a kick out of watching people mosey their way over to the Bourbon shelf, start pacing slowly from one end to the other, their eyes intently focused on each bottle, until they reach the beginning of the brandy section. Then they stop, look back to the left, and wonder if they may have missed something. "Excuse me, is this all the Bourbon that you have?" they'll usually shout from across the store. You mean other than the 80+ selections right there in front of you, from just about every major distillery in the country with a smattering of small micro-distilleries as well? A selection of Bourbon that represents just about everything available on today's market except for the rare, annual releases and those once readily-available things like Elmer T. Lee and Weller 12? Yes, this is unfortunately all the Bourbon I have to sell. If you want to stumble across a startling surprise, you're going to have to go out into the sticks. Bakersfield or Fresno. That's where I would start. Or maybe Toddy's Liquors, a small stop off the beaten path in the outskirts of Bardstown. I found a bottle of 10 year old Ancient Age there once with dust all over it and a faded label. That's the kind of place you have to look. If you want to ride with me over to Modesto, I can take you to every shitty dive along Highway 99 and you can try asking that question again. I'll bet you those guys have all kinds of other Bourbons in the back (whether you would want to drink them or not, however, I don't know).

With this year's trip on the horizon, people inevitably want to know what we're going to bring back. Rare casks? An older treasure? Something mysterious and mystical from a forgotten cellar? Maybe if I were going to Gascony that might happen, but they're ain't nothin' like that in Kentucky anymore. We're going to Four Roses, Jim Beam, Maker's Mark, and the usual suspects, but there are no more relics to be had at any of these distilleries. And to be honest, I'm not sure I would want them if they were actually there. I long for the days when Bourbon drinkers came into the store, bought a bottle of Buffalo Trace for $20, told me a little anecdote about their plan to play poker and drink whiskey, and then smiled before walking out the door. Those were great days, and the Bourbons we sold during that era are still right there on the shelf, just as tasty as they ever were, and just as inexpensive. But those heady times have been replaced by an army of antiquers, mainly looking only for the things that we don't have and that we never will again (at least not outside of our long-shot raffle system). And I get it. Every one reaches a certain point in their drinking evolution where they want to taste something older, rare, or outside the norm. I'm no different. We're simply in a situation where there's no room for advancement, however. We're like millions of people working for a company that only promotes fifty people annually. You try hard to be patient, but eventually you get fed up with occupying the same position, year after year—hoping to work your way up from the bottom, but getting denied each time you apply for a higher post. It's almost Kafkaesque at this point.

Despite the rather narrow-minded focus the market has taken, I'm still really excited to be going back to Kentucky. It's going to be a great trip and the weather forecast is terrific. We have some fun appointments lined up, we'll be meeting up with a few legends of the industry, we'll be hitting the streets at night, and we'll also visit a few places we've yet to see previously. I'll be live-blogging the entire time, per the norm, and you can follow along with our journeys here each day. I'm optimistic that we'll find some great barrels for those of you who are still satisfied with the everyday stuff. I can't wait to come back from Kentucky with a few great finds, get the casks bottled, put the new editions on our shelves, smile at my efforts, then watch the first guy come in to glance at the new arrivals and say to me, "Is this all you have?"


-David Driscoll