Creating Different Bourbon Expressions

One question we're often asked by K&L customers concerning our various Bourbon selections is what makes one different from another. For example, if Buffalo Trace makes Buffalo Trace Bourbon, but also Eagle Rare, George T. Stagg, Rock Hill Farms, and a ton of other labels, then what's the difference between them? Obviously some whiskies are older than others. Some are obviously different in proof. But are those the only real differences?

I knew in advance of our trip that Buffalo Trace made three different mash recipes (high-rye, low-rye, and wheated) but I didn't realize that the distillery deciphered between Buffalo Trace and Eagle Rare whiskies (both from the same mash recipe) by flavor rather than by design. The Eagle Rare Bourbon has a ten year old age statement, while the BT has no statement, so age can also be a factor, but according to the guys in Frankfort it's mainly decided by flavor. Certain parts of certain warehouses create similar flavor patterns in barrels as they mature, but they still taste through the casks to see which formula they're beginning to represent over time. If the whiskey tastes more like what they consider the Buffalo Trace flavor profile, they'll mark that barrel BT. If it's starting to taste more like Eagle Rare, then they'll call that one ER. In essence, the development of the barrel can often dictate which label it ends up a part of.

Heaven Hill had a similar explanation. Different parts of the warehouse, different alcohol percentages, and different flavor developments help to direct each cask into its ultimate expression. It's not always decided in advance, but rather later on down the line.

-David Driscoll


Voices in the Crowd

I was eating lunch with my wife today at Santa Ramen in San Mateo, a renowned noodle spot with a line out the door from open to close, and I couldn't help but eavesdrop on the conversation happening next to me. A young man was bringing his parents out to eat ramen for the first time with his Japanese girlfriend, who was trying to explain the significance of the soup to them. The parents were Chinese, so the couple was looking to use similar comparisons in Chinese cuisine to help them understand the experience. The father, however, was having none of it. 

"It's just soup," he said dismissively after the girl asked him what he thought. "It's nothing special. I eat won ton soup all the time."

"I think it's really about the broth," said the girl. "They cook it for eight to ten hours here and that's why it's supposed to be special."

"It takes hours to cook won ton soup, too," grumbled the father. His wife disagreed with that statement, but was critical of the soup's spiciness. "This isn't spicy at all," she griped. Until she got to the broth and almost choked on the fiery goodness. There was pretty much nothing the poor girl could do to get her future in-laws to appreciate the Japanese ramen. The father ended up leaving the table before the lunch was over after getting upset about the ten cent charge for a plastic to-go bag (a charge required by law now in San Mateo county). 

"They have to charge you for the bag," the girl said. "It's the law here just like in San Francisco."

"They don't charge you for bags in Chinatown," the man countered.

"Well, they're supposed to," said the girl.

You see this same attitude with whisky quite often – a certain stubbornness when someone tries to get another person out of their comfort zone. It might be a cultural defensiveness (like the above example) where one person's pride in their own heritage clouds their ability to appreciate another. I've met Kentuckians who won't touch a drop of Scotch whisky, and Highlanders who rather die than have a dram of over-wooded Bourbon. It might also be a reversal of roles where one person is angry that they're the person being introduced rather than doing the introduction. I got the feeling the father was also defensive because he wanted to be the one introducing the girlfriend to more Chinese delicacies, rather than the other way around.

I sometimes think that our egos are preventing us from really enjoying ourselves and the company of others. Very few people are willing to actually listen to you anymore. They're often too caught up in what they're going to say to you instead, or thinking about a similar experience that one-ups your own. The wine and spirits industry is rife with this kind of behavior, but maybe it's just a commonality among humans. And especially in-laws.

-David Driscoll


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


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.

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


Kentucky: Day 5 – 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