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Sunday
Oct272013

Kentucky Summary

I'm on the plane heading back via Chicago right now, going through the excess photos I've taken and thinking about some of the lessons I've learned and interesting tidbits I didn't get to fit into the series of posts this week. I am definitely leaving Kentucky with a very positive feeling concerning the producers we visited and their passion about whiskey-making. It is ultimately their fervor for fine Bourbon that inspires me, so I'm certainly recharged and motivated concerning my own. 

There are distillers in Kentucky who would rather make no Bourbon than mediocre Bourbon, even with the recent upswing in demand. In order to keep the supply chain satiated, many distilleries have added on extra shifts and are distilling every day without a rest period. It wasn't always this way for producers back in the day, especially during the summer months when many distilleries would shut down. Now that Wild Turkey has expanded into a newer, higher-volume facility, they can return to their old schedule, taking the summer months off to shut down the site. The reason behind this is the temperature. Jimmy Russell, like many before him, doesn't think that the distillate produced during warmer months is as good as the spirit produced during the Fall, Winter, and Spring. According to Russell, the fermentation times get all messed up and the resulting beer doesn't taste the way that it should. I'm not sure if Campari is too fond of this policy, but are you really going to tell Jimmy Russell how to make his whiskey?

Another interesting fact concerning Bourbon production is the location of the distilleries. Water is one of the most important facets of spirits distillation and you're going to need a quality well if you're going to make quality whiskey. Back in the day, before reverse osmosis was the norm and all water could be treated with ease, having the purest source of well water made a big difference in the quality of each Bourbon. Stitzel-Weller was known for having a fine well to draw from, which was part of the reason it was built out in Shively. The other had to do with taxes. Certain remote locations were free from restrictions and were easier to manage. This is currently the case with Adelphi's new distillery in Scotland, which is being built out the middle of nowhere for that same reason.

If you head out into the middle of nowhere, you can definitely find a number of old, non-operational distilleries from Kentucky's past, particularly if you see warehouses. Many ancient sites have been left completely as they were, while utilizing the rickhouse space without touching the still house. Heaven Hill purchased the old Glencoe distillery (in which David OG's grandfather once owned a share) for storage, but if you stumble out towards the back of the driveway the older facilities are still there. Being from the Bay Area, you don't see a lot of property just left unused like you do in Kentucky. It's really quite fascinating to know that these places still exist despite the fact they haven't been used in decades.

We hit up our share of liquor stores across the state to see if we would find anything interesting, but we didn't come up with anything crazy. I bought a pint of Very Old Barton 6 year 100 proof since we can't get that in California (only Ridgemont Reserve for us) and I really enjoyed it. It's a pretty good little whiskey, especially for the $8 it cost me. I snagged a 750ml as well for the suitcase. Another Sazerac whiskey we don't get is Ancient Age, so I ordered a glass of the AAA 10 year in downtown Louisville at dinner one night. When I went to find a bottle, however, all I ran across was one last 1.75L plastic jug at a remote Liquor Barn express. I asked if they had any 750ml bottles and they said the product was actually being discontinued. Other stores said they hadn't been able to order for months. That would follow suit with what we heard from the folks at Buffalo Trace. There's just not enough. 

The joke of the trip between us boys was definitely the Hot Brown. While we stayed at the Brown Hotel in Louisville for the first two nights, we failed to order what is perhaps the most famous local dish in Kentucky from the place known for making it best. Brian ended up getting Hot Browned (an open-faced turkey sandwich covered in cheese sauce) at Kurtz's in Bardstown. That was the last one any of us ate, but we definitely asked every person we met where we could get the best Hot Brown. That, of course, spiraled quickly into juvenile jokes about toilets. I still have the sense of humor of a six year old boy, so I was in tears most of the time.

Looking out at the bridge over the Kentucky river from Wild Turkey distillery, and into the forests beyond it, I was deeply moved by the beauty of the countryside in Bourbon country. There's definitely a feeling that gets into your bones when you there. It makes you want to watch horse races, and drink Bourbon, and eat Hot Browns. It makes you want to breath in the autumnal air and visit every distillery you can. Today there are Bourbons being made in Colorado, Massachussets, and even Texas, but there's something special about Kentucky. I'm not sure I've figured out exactly what it is yet, but I'm closer than where I was before. I guess it's probably just tradition, right? A heritage of which its people are proud and honored to be carrying on.

-David Driscoll

Saturday
Oct262013

Pre-1964 Whisk(e)y Tasting @ Seven Grand - Oct 28th @ 7pm

Fresh off our LAWS VVOF tasting of legendary Stitzel-Weller bottlings, SoCal Whiskey Club is hosting an exceptional old whisk(e)y tasting of their own. While, we're wrapping up our trip to Kentucky, you could be sipping some pre-prohibition hooch in luxury. We've learned so much and accomplished an incredible amount, but the highlight of the week was tasting all this great Bourbon! We wish you could've all been here with us, everyone will get a crack at the casks we bought, but you can go celebrate our triumphant return with the SCWC guys @ Seven Grand in Downtown LA.

THE LINEUP:
1. Old Sunny Brook 4yr Bourbon
93 proof - distilled 1937(?) bottled in 1941
2. Old Hillsboro Brand Bourbon
100 proof distilled 1937 bottled in 1942
3. G.R. Sharpe Old Style Whiskey
100 proof distilled 1913 bottled in 1917
4. Old Forester Bourbon
100 proof distilled 1952 bottled in 1957
5. Ambassador 25yr Scotch
86 proof distilled in the 1920's bottled late 1940's early 1950's
6. Ballentines 30yr Scotch
86 proof distilled in the late 1920's early 1930's bottled between 1954 - 1964

Buy a ticket - $75

Saturday
Oct262013

Kentucky: Day 5 โ€“ Stitzel-Weller

No American distillery is currently as revered by whiskey geeks as the old Stitzel-Weller plant near Shively – for years the home of Old Fitzgerald Bourbon and the office of "Pappy" Van Winkle himself. Stitzel-Weller was opened on Derby Day in 1935, but had been planned before the end of Prohibition to capitalize on the coming liberation. Julian "Pappy" Van Winkle had worked for W.L. Weller and sons when they created the first "wheated" Bourbon recipe. In 1933, he and a close friend Alex Farmsley bought the Weller company and soon partnered with Arthur Stitzel, merging the companies to form Stitzel-Weller. The following year they began construction on the distillery that would continue to produce a "wheated" recipe.

For Van Winkle, Farmsley, and Stitzel, the practice of distillation was more of an art than a science. Apparently there was a sign in the distillery that read "No Chemists Allowed" in support of this philosophy. The column still used at Stitzel-Weller did not contain rectifying plates surprisingly, but rather just a long, straight column through which the steam would rise and eventually make its way into the doubler. It was entirely made of copper and stood sixty-five feet tall, but without the plates the whiskey came off at much lower proof than a standard column still would normally produce. It's believed this type of distillation was essential to create fine "wheated" Bourbon and today is replicated by Maker's Mark.

While the distillery has been non-operational since the early 1990s (and like the Old Taylor site has pretty much been left untouched), the warehouses are still used today to house whiskey. Diageo, who inherited Stitzel-Weller in the 1980s when owners DLC merged with Guinness/United Distillers, uses the buildings to house their Bulleit Bourbon brand and the office as headquarters for Tom Bulleit.

The history of "Pappy" Van Winkle is on full display in the visitor's center, which isn't open to the public but is available for private tours from Diageo. Two wooden signs hang from the post out in front: one reading Stitzel-Weller and the other displaying Bulleit (which is actually distilled at Four Roses in Lawrenceburg).

Although Pappy Van Winkle is not a Diageo brand, but rather owned by the Van Winkles and produced by Sazerac, there's no attempt to shy away from the fact that he's the reason people care about Stitzel-Weller today and is an important part of the distillery's history.

In fact, Pappy's old office is part of the general tour. Rather than preserve it or refashion it in the manor with which it was once kept, however, the space is now used by Tom Bulleit as his main office. It's almost like the Oval Office where it's both a functioning workspace, but also part of a guided tour due to its historical significance. Where once a portrait of Pappy or Stitzel may have hung over the mantle now hangs a portrait of Tom. I think he's pretty pumped to hold down that space. It seems like he had fun decorating it.

The cooperage room has also been left intact and today functions as part of a museum piece.

There's also a pretty cool old bottle collection of former SW brands.

While Stitzel-Weller still holds a place in the hearts of wheated Bourbon fans everywhere, for now it's just a warehouse space like many other defunct distillery sites in Kentucky. The rickhouses are the valuable part of these ghostly sites as distillation is easier (and cheaper) to contract than to do one's self. There are rumors, of course, that Diageo may revamp the SW site and eventually begin producing Bulleit whiskey itself, but for now these are just whispers in the wind. I have to think that Diageo is missing out on a big opportunity to turn people on to the Bulleit brand by not allowing general tourists to visit the location. Buffalo Trace was an absolute madhouse of Pappy fans longing to get a peek at where the whiskey is made. I'm positive these people would be just as passionate about seeing where it was made as well. And they'd probably buy a bottle of Bulleit while they were there. That's just my two cents!

Major thanks to Diageo for opening up their locked gates and letting us snoop around. It was fascinating for both of us.

-David Driscoll

Friday
Oct252013

Kentucky: Day 4 โ€“ Ghost Distilleries

Driving down the road near Woodford Reserve outside of Versailles, you'll come upon the former Old Taylor Distillery which operated from 1936 to 1982. It's right on the road. You can't miss it. There's a barbed wire fence surrounding the site, but it's easily navigable.

Before Old Taylor Distillery was known as Old Taylor Distillery, it was known as James C. Johnson distillery. No one is sure when the distillery along Glenn's Creek was founded, but it's believed that a distillery of some sort was located here from about 1816 on. It was sold in 1879 to Jacob Taylor, whose brand of whiskey was called, originally enough, J.S. Taylor. Jacob's father was a man known as Edmund H. Taylor and in 1882 he bought his son out of ownership. The name was quickly changed to E. H. Taylor & Co. and he operated it with his sons from that point on until Prohibition.

You've got to be careful if you approach the old Taylor site because there are holes surrounding it that drop down dozens of feet into oblivion. It's a completely abandoned facility, to the point that it feels like you're in a horror movie just waiting to happen. Silent Hill or Resident Evil could easily be filmed on location here. It's a very uneasy feeling.

The giant warehouses still stand solemnly in the distance with broken windows revealing nothing but darkness. The campus itself is huge and it goes on down the road for a mile or so.

Across the street from the main entrance are a few fully accessible office buildings. The windows are broken and the roofs are caving in, but you can easily enter at your own risk.

If you've got the guts you can really explore the facility. But you are in the middle of nowhere without help if you should need it.

Please, feel free to navigate from room to room. If you feel like being butchered by a hockey mask-wearing psychopath, that is.

Ka-kaw! Ka-kaw! Yep. Something bad is about ready to happen.

There is so much debris still relevant to the old operation that it's a wonder no one has come to clean it up and dispose of it all. 

There are all kinds of ledgers, receipts, and records dating as far back as 1968 just sitting there on site. It's totally surreal. 

And then there's this house just sitting back deep in the woods, totally abandoned and waiting for some silly tourist to come wandering in. If there are such things as ghosts then this is most definitely where they live.

Keep driving down the road, however, and you'll turn up at ghost distillery number two: Old Crow. Oscar Pepper built this distillery on Glenn Creek in 1860 and his primary brand was Old Crow. Four years later, however, Pepper died and E. H. Taylor was made executor of the estate. By 1870, Pepper's son, James E. Pepper, was able to take control of the operation with the help of Taylor, until the site was bought by the W. A. Gaines Company in 1878. After Prohibition, the distillery was bought and renovated by AMS and then run by its successor: National Distillers. National folded in 1985 and the site is now used by Beam for warehousing space.

Beam may be using the Old Crow warehouses for maturation, but they're sure not using this one.

The stillhouse is visible, but only from far behind a chain link fence. The whole area is totally creepy, so don't go alone. Especially this close to Halloween.

-David Driscoll

Friday
Oct252013

Kentucky: Day 4 โ€“ Wild Turkey and More Barrels

Morning in Lexington. We were all pretty tired after a long day and a late night, but we braved the 27 degree weather, coffeed up at a nearby Starbucks, and loaded into the car for our drive out to Wild Turkey.

Of all the distilleries we've visited in Kentucky, Wild Turkey is in perhaps the most pristine and picturesque location. The bridge over the Kentucky river reveals the new visitor's center and the rolling green hills spread out along the 700 acre estate. The morning air was cool and crisp as we exited the car and walked into the main office to meet up with Eddie Russell, son of legendary WT master distiller Jimmy Russell.

Jimmy Russell is in his 59th year working in the whiskey business and he's one of, if not the most, respected distillers in the history of Bourbon. It's because of his dedication for tradition and his unwillingness to change, even in the face of corporate takeovers, that Wild Turkey has stayed true to one recipe and one singular vision. While Buffalo Trace, Four Roses, and Heaven Hill get a lot of love from the insiders –with the Pappys, the Parkers, the Staggs, and the cask strength, limited edition releases– I don't think it will be much longer before Wild Turkey joins that bunch. Now that Eddie has pushed for more single barrel, higher proof edition editions from Campari, we're about to get a much closer look at what the Russells can really do.

The new distillery at Wild Turkey has been in operation since 2010. The old site nearby, where everything currently in bottle was produced, has since been demolished. It's one of the cleanest and most utility-focused facilities we've ever visited. Everything is centered on quality control.

Wild Turkey's fermentation room is a huge open space full of stainless steel tanks. The Russells do not specify what the mash bill for their Bourbon whiskey is, but they do say that it's a "high rye" recipe. They start by cooking the corn, then adding in the rye, and finally the barley to unleash its enzymes. Wild Turkey, along with Four Roses, is one of the few distilleries we know of that is still refusing to purchase GMO corn. They've been sourcing their corn from Bagdad, Kentucky for 45 years and refuse to go elsewhere. Their rye is imported from Germany (after the midwest switched over to soybeans it was tough to find high-quality rye), and their barley is from a farm in South Dakota.

Again, like Four Roses, Wild Turkey cultivates its own yeast at the distillery using the dona tub (rather than dump in dried commercial yeast) and they've been using the same strain since 1950. Jimmy Russell, like Jim Rutledge, is adamant about the role of yeast in the ultimate flavor of the whiskey. Eddie said people had been trying to talk his father out of it for years, saying it didn't matter what type of yeast he used. I find it amusing that there are people out there who want to tell a master distiller with 59 years of experience what does and doesn't matter in whiskey production.

After touring the distillery, we walked with Eddie over to the oldest warehouse on the campus – the Bonded A rickhouse built in 1890. It was time to do some barrel tasting with Eddy.

We entered to a row of barrels that had been pulled in anticipation of our arrival. Eddie got his wooden mallet and began banging the side of the bungs, popping out the corks, and filling our glasses with sweet, single barrel, cask strength Wild Turkey Bourbon. All of the whiskies were fantastic and showed incredible range. Some were smooth and mellow like candy corn, others were peppery and spicy. One was really reduced with big, chewy, tannic wood on the back end. Another was light and aromatic.

Although it's still under construction, Jimmy Russell wanted to show us the new visitor's center that will be opening soon overlooking the hills and river beneath it. At 79 years of age, the man is still going strong, travelling all over the country quite frequently in support of his brand. He had just returned from a big event in Las Vegas, but he was as enthusiastic as ever. It's really quite an honor to listen to him speak and talk about the old days of Bourbon production. I'm hoping we can do a podcast at some point.

The architecture of the new building is really cool. I think the whole experience is really going to change the way consumers feel about Wild Turkey whiskey because the approach is more modern, but without sacrificing any of the great tradition of the brand. The whiskey is much more complex than the standard 101 stuff lends on, but we rarely get the chance to taste the singular versions of it. Personally, I was completely blown away by our visit. I'm very, very excited to start working more closely with both Eddie and Jimmy. Again, far and away the best whiskey we've tasted on this trip was at Wild Turkey.

After leaving Lawrenceburg, we had to back track to a few other appointments. We had a 1 PM meeting with Max Shapira over at the main Heaven Hill offices in Bardstown, then we needed to do some barrel sampling with Jim Rutledge at the Four Roses Cox warehouses. We stumbled on to a run of OBSO barrels that really riled us up. For some reason the sweet cinnamon spices and lighter richness levels were really popping our palates. We took three barrels instantly – two 10 year olds and an older 11 year cask. All really fantastic.

After that is was time to explore. I was shocked by what we found down the road from Woodford Reserve near Versailles. There's an entire blog post that needs to be written about Kentucky's ghost distilleries. Some of these places are just plain haunted looking. We were all shocked at the manor in which they had simply been abandoned and left alone. Maybe I can write this up tomorrow. We've still got one more day and quite a lot to do.

Until then!

-David Driscoll