Kentucky: Day 2 – Bardstown

If you drive about an hour southeast of Louisville you'll find the hamlet recently voted America's Most Beautiful Small Town: Bardstown. Practically all the houses in the area are charming, the main street is like a Norman Rockwell painting, and the whole experience just makes you want to duck into some small coffee shop for a mug of hot chocolate – especially with the cold wind blowing as it did today.

Besides being one of the most picturesque small towns in the country, Bardstown, Kentucky is also home to three of the state's most important whiskey producers. One of them is Barton Distillery, known today as 1792 Ridgemont Reserve. We didn't have time to do much at Barton other than snap this photo, however.

The second, and largest of the them, is Heaven Hill. Twenty-two of Heaven Hill's rickhouses (each holding anywhere from 22-25 thousand casks and with new ones storing up to 100K) are located in Bardstown, along with their insanely large and jawdroppingly-complex bottling line. The entirety of the distillation process, however, takes place in Louisville at the Bernheim distillery. This has been the case since 1996 when Heaven Hill's Bardstown facility was gutted by a gigantic fire that sent rivers of flaming Bourbon pouring down the property's hills. A grizzly fatal car accident two years earlier had already dampened the location of the stillhouse for the Shapiras, the family that owns Heaven Hill, but the fire sealed the deal in their minds. They would not rebuild a new distillery at Bardstown.

Looking at the black residue that covers the walls of the various rickhouses, you're instantly thinking about black soot and other possible remnants from that tragic inferno. However, the black substance that grows on a warehouse wall is mold feeding off the the sugar content left from the evaporating alcohol. As the water evaporates from the aging whiskey it carries with it some of the sweetness from the oak maturation. When the water dries it leaves just a bit of that sugar content on everything in the area, which provides a food source for the black-colored mold. That's how law enforcement spotted bootleggers during Prohibition years – by looking for black trees or black buildings (or a hill full of black maples). That was a sure sign that whiskey maturation was happening nearby.

When we decided to visit Heaven Hill's Bardstown operation, we were obviously coming to taste whiskey and take a tour of the facility. However, I'm not sure that any of us were prepared for the size and scale of what we found waiting for us. While Heaven Hill is still a family-owned, family-operated company, it's a huge spirits producer. So big that their one million-plus barrels (yes, more than a million whiskey casks) of Bourbon only account for 18% of their overall business. The bottling line is fully-mechanical and looks like something out of the opening intro to Laverne and Shirley. The Bourbon-filling line (pictured above) can pump up more than 1,000 barrels a day.

We learned a bit about barrel-coding at the filling station. The 13 stands for the year the barrel was filled. The J stands for October (tenth letter in the alphabet, tenth month in the year) and the 23 stands for the day of the month. DSP KY-1 stands for Bernheim – the distillery at which the whiskey was produced.

I think our favorite room at Heaven Hill by far was the label room – stacks and stacks and stacks of packages filled with labels for the hundreds of various vodkas, fruit spirits, and liqueurs made by the spirit giant. 82% of what Heaven Hill does is inexpensive booze. But they do make a whopping 86 different Bourbon brands! EIGHTY SIX! That blew my mind. We're used to Elijah Craig, Evan Williams, and Larceny at K&L, but when I started going through the labels there were many names unfamiliar to us out in California. Daniel Stewart?

Kentucky Gold?

The Yellow Rose of Texas? There were so many I could barely keep up.

Some brands, like Mattingly & Moore, were names of former distilleries in the area that had since closed down and stopped producing. Heaven Hill had purchased the rights to the brand name, however, and continued to make the whiskey for those in the area who supported it. Some brands continued on with production despite their relatively small profit percentages. Rittenhouse Rye, for example, apparently costs Heaven Hill more to make than what they sell it for wholesale, due to the higher costs of rye grain today. Sticklers for tradition, however, they continue to produce it because they don't like to raise their prices on value brands if they don't have to. Despite the one million casks being aged by HH in Bardstown, they were still running short on a number of brands – particularly the more mature selections. We were informed that Elijah Craig 18 would be making a return in a few years, but at a much higher price point.

With so many products being made at Heaven Hill there's a lot of people working in the facility and a lot of action going on around you at all times. It's almost overwhelming.

Despite all the fun we were having in the bottling plant, we had come to Heaven Hill for the Bourbon, so it was time to get out to the warehouses and start popping bungs. The crazy thing about HH is that, for all the different brands they make, they only do two different Bourbon mashbills: one wheated formula and one with rye. That means that all the different flavors that make up the different labels come from age, proof, and maturation. There are so many variables that can affect the flavor of a particular barrel: which floor it was aged on, was it near a window, which warehouse did it come from? These are all factors that Heaven Hill keeps a detailed watch upon.

We started with the Henry McKenna barrels before moving on to Elijah Craig, and eventually the Evan Williams single vintage selections. We found two dynamite casks that were no-brainers: one super high-proof Elijah Craig that was very dark and full of richness and a spicy Evan Williams that brought a lot of sweet wood on the finish. We left very happy with our selections.

Then it was on to Kurtz's for lunch where we actually ran into Heaven Hill owner Max Shapira. He's a really nice guy and we talked with him a bit while we ate. I think there's been some form of gravy on everything I've eaten in the last 24 hours.

Just across the way from Heaven Hill, with the rickhouses off in the distance, sit two old corn silos that mark the way to Kentucky Bourbon Distillers and the newly-rebuilt Willett distillery. Long known for their sourced-whiskey-brands like Noah's Mill, Rowan's Creek, and Johnny Drum (along with Willett, of course) the Kulsveen family is finally distilling again after a long, long stoppage.

I wasn't sure what to expect when we pulled up to the new complex, but I can tell you that I definitely didn't expect an operation on the size of what we found. They're filling 22 new barrels a day at Willett and they've already got more than 6,000 casks filled of their own new-make whiskey. Since January of 2012 they've been firing away and we all couldn't have been more impressed with the design, the interior, and the quality of the revamped distillery.

The Willett distillery, despite being entirely remodeled and renovated, is not a new distillery. It was originally founded in the mid-1930s by former Bernheim superintendent Thompson Willett, whose father was once co-owner of the nearby Barton distillery. When Thompson was 27 they decided to build their own facility and in 1937 the first barrel was filled. Subsequent Willett generations would become less interested in the business and decide to get out of the Bourbon game, but in 1984 the old site was purchased at auction by Evan Kulsveen, a hard-working Norwegian who emigrated to America and had married Thompson Willett's daughter. He was looking to bring back his father-in-law's once great operation, but he would first need some money. Apparently Evan Kulsveen is not the kind of guy who takes out loans.

Almost thirty years later, after decades of building relationships and selling other people's whiskies, Evan Kulsveen has finally achieved his goal. They're up and distilling at Willett once again and the smell of fermenting corn is in the air. They've got eight big tanks to cook in so there's plenty of potential in the new set-up.

While they're fermenting again at Willett, they're not using mashbills commonly seen throughout the industry. They've been dipping back into Thompson's old notes, digging out four old recipes – one of which is 72% corn, 13%, and 15% barley. It's not often you see more barley than rye. They're also not distilling the same way as other producers. Willett Bourbon is actually double-distilled on two different types of still. Kulsveen's son-in-law Hunter Chavanne showed us the first run on the towering column still, which produces a white dog that tastes much like other Kentucky producers.

The second run, however, is done on the old Willett pot still and results in a softer, more elegant style of white whiskey. It's very different than what any other American whiskey producer is currently doing and it seems to be working very, very well for the Kulsveens.

There are six warehouses on site at Willett, one of which is entirely full of 6,000 new Willett whiskey barrels. The buildings have been there since the 1930s and are mostly full of whiskey from other distilleries. This one, however, was entirely from Willett.

While Willett has basically put the kibosh on their single barrel program ("Once we got down to only 200 barrels in storage we knew we needed to put the brakes on," Hunter said), there are still a few gems available for purchase at their excellent gift shop. Like this 25 year old rye at 100 proof from a single barrel. Yum.

Before leaving Bardstown we had to go and find David OG's great-grandfather's distillery, of course. Max Shapira said it was now a Heaven Hill-owned site, but he gave us directions on how to find it. I don't think we were supposed to walk on to the property, but how could we deny David this opportunity?

I'll let him tell you about that, however. I'm pooped. That was a lot of typing.

-David Driscoll


Kentucky: Day 1 – Louisville Nights

We're here. Four guys just hittin' the town. We got dinner and drinks at Proof on Main Street.

There are bars everywhere brimming with Bourbon. It's in the air tonight. Oh Lord.

-David Driscoll


Bluegrass Bound

I’ve been selling Bourbon for almost a decade. While my love for various types of spirits is vast, none has quite a place in my heart like Kentucky Bourbon. Not only was Bourbon the first spirit that I truly geeked out on, it also holds an important place in my family history. I credit my larger than life Great Grandfather, Abram Ali Lyon, for my decision pursue a career in this industry. Transforming my passion for gustatory adventure into a profession would have never been realistic to me had it not been for this man.

Abram Lyon, or as we affectionately called him Popoo was born in a poor village in Russia. He lived there until just before the start of WWI when an Uncle stateside sent word that he needed help manning his "Service Pharmacy," in Los Angeles. In 1975, Popoo wrote an autobriography, consisting of three volumes detailing is entire journey from his village outside Vilnius to the pharmacy to his rise as a prominent importer and distributor of alcohol and his eventual purchase of a distillery in Bardstown. Meeting my grandmother, Susie Lyon, during his military service in San Francisco, they eventually moved back to Los Angeles where he bought a beer distributor in the weeks before the repeal of prohibition. He built his distribution company by traveling the world buying whisky, cognac, developing brands and remembering nearly every meal he ever had. 85% of everything he talks about in the book is food.

Having only started the first volume, I can say that what I’m doing today is not at all out of stride with what Popoo was doing nearly 80 years ago. Beyond his near picture perfect recollection of every single meal, he also describes his business dealings in depth. His first foray into the booze business seems to be a botched deal to buy Woodbridge Winery during prohibition, which was a coop at the time. It all sounds made up, but apparently, my grandfather was approached by Mike Gallo to be come partners in the Lodi winery. The idea was to sell sweet grapes to Sebastiani as well as Italian families back east who had special permission to produce wine for home consumption. Popoo was skeptical that the winery would be used exclusively for above board production, but invested some $10K nonetheless. His suspicions were apparently correct at one point confronting Gallo accusing him of being a con-man. They ultimately part on good terms when Gallo returns his entire investment of $10,000 during a quick trip to the bank, Popoo was grateful that Gallo's flashy and expensive style was not a total farce.

He details his adventures from his first spirits brand, Hollywood Gin to his partnership with the great Al Hart, the development of Kahlua, his conversations with "old man Sauza," telling encounters with various prominent distillers across the country, he was a true liquor industry veteran. He was Vice President of the WSWA for many years and ran distribution for Schenley brands throughout Arizona. All this leading up to his eventual purchase of the Glencoe Distillery in Bardstown. The incredible thing about his autobiography is just how relevant everything he talks about to what I’m currently doing in my life. He talks constantly about designing labels, finding deals, new brands and how Scottish coffee is terrible. I’m going to wade my way through the rest of this tome and hopefully find some cool Kentucky stories to relay throughout the week.

-David Othenin-Girard


Kentucky: Day 1 - Headed for Ken-tuck-ee

There was always some part of me that wanted to be in charge. Pretty much insisted on it. Wanted people to listen to what I had to say. But there was a part of me too that just wanted to pull everyone back in the boat. If I've tried to cultivate anything it's been that. I think we are all of us ill prepared for what is to come and I don't care what shape it takes. These old people I talk to, if you could have told them that there would be people on the streets of our Texas towns with green hair and bones in their noses speaking a language they couldn't even understand, well, they just flat out wouldn't have believed you. But what if you'd of told them it was their own grandchildren? Well, all of that is signs and wonders but it don't tell you how it got that way. And it don't tell you nothin' about how it's fixin' to get neither. 

If you've ever seen the movie No Country For Old Men, you don't really need to read the book. I just finished reading it on the plane for the fun of it, because I like Cormac McCarthy as a writer, but the book and the movie are pretty much identical to one another. That quote above is from Sheriff Bell, played by Tommy Lee Jones in the film, and it's in both versions of the story. I identify with those words greatly -- not just the self-description given, but also with the idea that as we age we're often unprepared for the changes ahead of us. Not only do we not anticipate them, but we're not happy about them either. In essence, that's the gist of the story. You think you've seen it all, but there's always the potential for more. And Anton Chigurh is the face of it (Javier Bardem's Oscar-winning role in the movie).

We're headed for Dallas at the moment, where we'll have an hour to kill before we board the flight to Louisville. Having just finished the novel, I'm pondering the parallel in the current narrative to Kentucky's thriving Bourbon industry. If you would have told Julian "Pappy" Van Winkle fifty years ago that his name would become synonymous with a whiskey so coveted that thieves were willing to risk breaking into the distillery, stealing a huge portion of what was bottled, and attempting to sell that whiskey for three times the retail value on the black market, do you think he would have believed it? Do you think Four Roses distiller Jim Rutledge ever imagined retailers having to raffle off his special selections and that accounts would call him, bitching and screaming about not getting their fair share of the allocation? Do you think anyone in Kentucky would have believed you if you had told them by the year 2010 people around the world would be taking pictures of their products, portraying them like trophies, creating cellars full of the choicest collections, and yearning for Bourbon whiskey at such a level that their own distilleries would be unable to supply the insatiable demand?

I don't think so. As Sheriff Bell said, "they just flat out wouldn't have believed you."

The revival of enthusiasm concerning Kentucky whiskey has created a fanaticism for the liquid that I have to believe outshines any other period in history. I've read about previous spells of Bourbon hysteria, about speakeasies and bootleggers, and the trade of barrels down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. But unlike today those periods were mainly focused on providing consumers with something tasty to drink. In the past, I have to think that if the barrel made it down to Louisiana safely the mission would have been considered successful. Today's needs are not necessarily based on consumption, however. There's plenty of Bourbon to be drunk. Hell, I think Jim Beam alone can make enough whiskey for most communities to fortify their needs. Today's desires are about connoisseurship, but also about self-indulgence. There's an excitement created when someone lets you in on the inner secrets of the whiskey world -- the idea that there are richer, rarer, more pleasurable experiences possible for consuming a glass of Bourbon. As soon as that door is opened it's difficult to go back through.

When I started working with the spirits at K&L (a job no one wanted back then), I was totally captivated with the Bourbon selection. Not because the bottles were famous, collectable, or highly-desired (because they weren't at that time), but because they seemed so romantic -- so quintessentially Kentuckian. The forest stenograph depicted on the Black Maple Hill bottle looked so quaint and peaceful. The cigar nestled in the mouth of the Pappy reminded me of a real-life Colonel Sanders. Back then these whiskies were just sitting on our shelves and I would look at them for hours each day as I walked the liquor aisle. What were these whiskies? Why were they more expensive than the others? What did age do to the flavor of Bourbon whiskey? I remember shelling out for a bottle of Vintage 17 and loving it. I remember getting my first bottle of Willett 20 and closing my eyes as I took in the richness and spice. Man, was that exciting to me. I remember trying to convey that passion to other customers as they pondered which selection to purchase. I didn't really know anything about whiskey as a whole, but I knew how excited I was about Bourbon.

Today there's little semblance of that time left within me. 

Part of it was I always thought I could at least someway put things right and I guess I just don't feel that way no more. I don't know what I do feel like. I feel like them old people I was talking about. Which ain't going to get better neither. I'm bein asked to stand for somethin that I don't have the same belief in it I once did. Asked to believe in somethin I might not hold with the way I once did. Now I've seen it held to the light. Seen any number of believers fall away. I've been forced to look at it again and I've been forced to look at myself. For better or for worse I do not know. I don't know that I would even advise you to throw in with me, and I never had them sorts of doubts before.

Back in the day I used to get the question from customers, "What's a special Bourbon that I could give my father as a gift this Christmas?" and I would light up. "I've got all kinds of options!"  I would say, half-running over to the Bourbon shelf, brimming with the light of the newly initiated. These days I've got plenty of tasty Bourbon, but the special ones are more trouble than they're worth. These days I spend most of my time explaining to people why they can't get a bottle of Stagg, or Weller Larue, or the 2013 Limited Small Batch from Four Roses. And I just mostly ignore the requests for Pappy anymore. I'm disappointed in what the Bourbon experience has developed into for me personally, not because of the rabid demand (I love talking to people about booze), but because of the anger, the anxiety, and the dissatisfaction I see in people's faces and hear in their voices. It's Pappy or nothing for many consumers because they don't really care about whiskey, or Kentucky, or understanding what makes a bottle of Bourbon so enjoyable and exhilarating. It's mostly about the hunt and what they're willing to do to win. When you legitimately care about booze, when it's of the utmost importance to your daily life, that mentality is so off-putting that it's hard to keep putting on a smile on the sales floor. I'm losing my smile, as Shawn Michaels once said.

Yet, here I am on a plane headed towards Dallas, where I will board a connecting plane to Kentucky. I'm hoping that my first visit to Bourbon country will reinvigorate me as my previous trips to Scotland and France have done for my enjoyment of single malt and brandy. I'm hoping that tonight, somewhere in Louisville, I can find something beautiful about Bourbon that overpowers the status quo of trophy hunting and reminds me that people and places are ultimately what matter. Most importantly, I'm hoping that -- if I do indeed find what I'm looking for -- I can capture it, take a photo of it, and use my keyboard to convey it in words. I know a good number of K&L customers who are rather sad about the current state of Kentucky whiskey. The scarcity of beloved bottles, the buy-now-or-forever-be-doomed-to-wonder state of affairs. Like Sheriff Bell, I've realized that -- as much as I'd like to -- there's nothing I can do to change that. 

Maybe I can explain it, however. And maybe along the way I can learn to appreciate what we have rather than long for what we don't.

-David Driscoll


Making Time for John

Speaking of making time, I made some time to have lunch with John Glaser on my day off today. Luckily, John was willing to make some time for me as well. John is one of the true nice guys in this business and we usually try to make sure we see each other when I'm there (in London) or he's here. We had lunch at The Cavalier near the mall downtown on Market and talked about our current projects.

While sadly there won't be a Flaming Heart release this year, fans of Compass Box peated whisky are still in for a treat. John will be releasing a tenth anniversary release of the Peat Monster featuring older whiskies in the marriage. I had a chance to taste it today and you can really pick out the Laphroaig. John told me there were various Laphroaig whiskies, ranging from 7 to 11 years old if I remember correctly, as well as some older peated Ardmore malts, about 15 and 16 years of age. These are interwoven with smoky Caol Ila, smoky Ledaig, and a bit of Clynelish. There's also a dash of Spice Tree (Clynelish aged in new French oak) tossed in for good measure.

It also has a bitchingly awesome label.

John is expecting the Peat Monster 10th Anniversary to clock in at around $99.99 retail, so make some room in your budget for the upcoming release. He also expressed interest in our 1979 Faultline Blended whisky because it appears John stumbled upon some similar casks, but even older in age. He took a 33 year old cask of blended whisky and married it with a cask of 40 year old blended whisky to create a new expression he's calling The General. Look for that one early next year.

We're off to Kentucky tomorrow. This time, however, we'll have K&L co-owner Brian Zucker along for the ride. He has no idea what's about to hit him.

-David Driscoll