Kentucky: Day 4 – A Few Notes

There's a lot information I've written down over the last few days that I haven't been able to fit into the general posts, for which I have about 45 minutes each to write. It's not easy to edit both photos and pump out a stream-of-consciousness article when you're in a hurry, so not everything makes the cut.

One story I thought was very interesting from yesterday's visit was Jim Rutledge's account of an evening in back in 1996 when they forgot to add barley to the mashbill. We always talk about corn and rye, or corn and wheat, when we talk about the contents of Bourbon, but the barley plays a very important role. Corn is a starch that can be converted to sugar, and eventually to alcohol, but the proper enzymes need to be introduced. When we chew on starch our saliva helps us with that process. When you're cooking a mash for fermentation, barley helps to provide those enzymes (so can commercial enzyme powder if you're lazy), so it's absolutely vital to the process. For some reason that night, either by absent-mindedness or a mechanical failure, the barley wasn't dropped into the mash and the cook took place with just the corn and rye.

By the time Jim's assistant notified him of the problem, the corn and rye mash had been cooking for long enough to turn into a sticky goo – about the consistency of peanut butter, according to Jim. It was a mess. They had to start pumping cold water into the tank as fast as possible so that the goop wouldn't make its way into the pipes and clog up the entire operation. As enzymes break down the sugar they help to maintain the viscosity of the mash. Without that process the whole batch can turn to sludge. The fermentation time at Four Roses is about 80 hours per tank, which seems crazy to me because most distilleries in Scotland are doing it much faster. Oban's ferment time is also 80 hours and they're notorious because of that. It's one of the reasons they claim their whisky is so light and fruity. Jim feels the same way about Four Roses. "If you're looking for just the straight alcohol there are faster ways of doing it," he said. Obviously he's looking for more than that.

-David Driscoll


Kentucky: Day 3 – Lawrenceburg/Frankfort

Full disclosure here: I am a big Four Roses fan. I love the whiskey. I love the man who makes it: Jim Rutledge. I love everything about the way they do business. They're the only distillery in Kentucky that will bottle single barrels at cask strength for K&L private selections and they have impeccable customer service with their retailers. Needless to say, I was very excited to finally get a chance to see the distillery and take a tour with Jim. We arrived on a cold, cloudy morning and quickly rushed inside to escape the chilly wind.

Jim Rutledge is one of the most knowledgeable and friendly distillers in the business, but that doesn't mean he's without strong opinions. He's very clear about what in his mind constitutes a quality Bourbon whiskey. While he admits that the recent Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch is one of the best whiskies he's ever tasted, he doesn't think the outstanding flavor had anything to do with the maturity. You can see from the above diagram that Jim firmly believes Bourbon tastes best in between the six and eight year old age gap. In fact, although the current 2013 FRLESB whiskey is a marriage of 13 and 18 year old casks, he claims he was very close to approving a different marriage using much younger stock. "It's not about the age," he said. "It's got nothing to do with that." I absolutely love that he's passionate about spreading that message. It means a lot more coming from him.

Having worked decades for Seagrams, and eventually through Kirin's takeover of the Four Roses brand, Jim has done and seen it all. He watched Seagrams ruin the Four Roses name, turn it into cheap blended "rotgut," as he calls it, and eventually bankrupt itself in the end (he still keeps a momento of the Seagrams LDI blend on his office mantle as a reminder). The reputation of Four Roses as a Bourbon brand after Prohibition was in very good standing. During that period you could still get a pint of Bourbon every ten days if you had a doctor's prescription and one out of every four "patients" chose Four Roses as their "medicine." When the ban was lifted Four Roses quickly became the nation's top brand. Seagrams made its fortune by purchasing Canadian whiskey during Prohibition and amassing an arsenal, ready to unleash at the right moment. Once the ban on alcohol was lifted, they became an overnight giant in the industry. Four Roses was better known than Seagrams, however, so the Bronfman family set their sites on acquiring the name. Decades later after doing so, the Four Roses reputation was in the toilet and the brand wasn't even being sold in the country where it was made.

For years and years Jim attempted to persuade Seagrams to focus on making Four Roses Bourbon again, rather than blended whisky. Ironically enough, the whiskey being made at the Frankfurt distillery went into Seagrams VO, while the LDI and Maryland distilled spirits went into the Four Roses blended. It wasn't until Jim proposed making a whiskey under a different name, say Bullitt County Bourbon, that Seagrams perked its ears. Unfortunately, they soon discovered that the name was too close to another trademarked brand by a small producer named Tom Bulleit, who was contracting his whiskey from Buffalo Trace. Rather than come up with a new name and use Jim's experience and ingenuity to create a new and exciting whiskey, Seagrams spent the money to buy out Tom Bulleit's brand instead. Eventually, Seagrams own misteps ran the company into the ground and Kirin bid for the available Four Roses brand and distillery. Diageo soon picked up Bulleit and Jim was free to get back to work on rebuilding the Four Roses Bourbon brand in America. In 2007, he walked into K&L and tasted us on his first creations. We've never looked back since.

If there's one person to help talk you through distillation, it's Jim. Here we were yesterday thinking that Willett's column still to pot still process was an anomaly in the Bourbon business, but it's not. It's just that no calls the second part of Bourbon distillation a pot still – they call it a doubler (but really it's just a pot still, as you can see). The beer goes into the beer still (or column still), which was pictured in the previous photo, at about 8% ABV while steam pushes through a series of plates that will eventually strip the alcohol to 65% when it reaches the top. It's then condensed into the "doubler" and increased to around 70%. This is why we need to visit the actual distillery of each brand we sell. You think you understand something, explaining it to customers day-in and day-out, until you find out you really don't totally grasp it. I didn't, at least.

Whereas some producers focus on distillation and others on barrel maturation, yeast seems to be Jim Rutledge's biggest passion. He's as excited about yeast and it's potential to create great tasting Bourbon as anyone I've ever met in the industry. Four Roses is renowned for using five different types of yeast and part of the reason goes back to the old Seagrams days. Seagrams had a research and development department totally dedicated to exploring the effects of different cultures in spirits distillation. This was partially because they would purchase a brand, but close the distillery where the brand had formerly been made (Henry McKenna, for example, which had been made at Fairfield distillery). Rather than operate an entirely different plant, they would use different yeast strains to create different flavors to help separate their newly purchased brands – a practice that was carried over to Four Roses. 

Today there are five different yeast strains fermenting in giant red cedar vats at the distillery. There are also a few stainless steel tanks as well. Jim is a stickler for making sure the mash cook and fermentation process have taken place correctly. If the spirit doesn't taste right coming off the still, they'll discard it and sell it off to a rectifier for vodka. They have a panel to decide whether or not a spirit is worthy of going into barrel. If they vote down a batch of distillation it's $30,000 worth of profit they're losing. Jim says this can happen almost every day. In order to keep things fresh, Four Roses creates a new strain of yeast culture every single week. Compare this to other distilleries that are dumping enzyme formula and bags of dry commercial yeast into their tanks with each cook and you'll really start to understand how seriously JR takes his whiskey.

The Four Roses warehouse buildings are not at the distillery site, so we decided to come back tomorrow to do barrel sampling at the Cox facility. In the meantime, however, we were starved. This place looked amazing from the highway. And it was. Mmmmmm.......pulled pork with cole slaw and baked beans.

Buffalo Trace distillery is like something out of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle or a scene from an old mobster movie. We were waiting for trenchcoated men with tommy guns to step out of a side alley at any moment. Much of the distillery, formerly known as George T. Stagg, was built in the late 1800s and is like a functioning museum. Much of the equipment onsite hasn't changed since Prohibition and the huge campus, about 100 acres, seems like a Hollywood studio. It's really a sight (and site) to see.

Every building is made out of red brick and no matter where you look there's steam coming out of some pipe or window. It looks absolutely amazing against the stark grey sky.

Walking through the distillery's innards is like moving through the inside of an old U-boat or some contraption from the Henry Ford museum. Staircases lead up through metal casings as smoke piles out of vents in the floor. I really couldn't get enough of it.

Buffalo Trace's beer still is like a rocket silo. It's absolutely huge! It towers up several stories and really manages to crank out some serious distillate.

Their "doubler" is nothing like a pot still, but rather like an Apollo moonrover. 

They also have this giant thing outside called a "kettle" still that they sometimes use to finish off their Rain vodka. I'd never seen anything like it.

There's also a distillery within a distillery at Buffalo Trace. Harlan Wheatley had this little experimental pot still installed a while back and the room was named the "Colonel Taylor Jr. Distillery" – a place where they can play around with things like rice and oats without having to take time away from their normal production. This is also the still that ran 159 times to create the Clix vodka. Can you imagine having to do that 159 times?

Of course we raided the warehouse to find some tasty Buffalo Trace samples. The shortage of whiskey is no secret at the distillery. There's nothing in the gift shop besides 1.75L bottles of Buffalo Trace, Rain vodka, and the Bourbon Cream. No Weller, no Eagle, no Elmer, no Blantons....nada. They're totally wiped out for the year. We did find some tasty BT selections, however.

And what the heck is this? Peated malt whiskey from Buffalo Trace? Yikes! Can't wait.

That's it for today!

We've got a lot to do tomorrow in a very short amount of time.

-David Driscoll


Bardstown Beckons

Popoo got into the spirits game the moment prohibition ended. While he had dabbled during prohibition and certainly sold perscription alcohol through his pharmacy, he was certain the country was headed toward repeal in the months leading up to the ultimate demise of the Volstead Act. His first endeavor was to purchase a beer distributor affiliated Los Angeles Brewery. This quickly moved in to rectification and his first brand, Hollywood Gin. I might try to recreate that one day! Apparently, that went well so he started to develop cordials and shop the market for other products to sell. He spent the next 20 years distributing spirits throughout Southern California and Arizona. He became very close to the famous Al Hart, who developed some of the eras biggest brands and is still remembered by some here in Kentucky. Sometime in 1951, Ben Maltz of Chicago offered Popoo the opportunity to buy the Glencoe Distillery in Bardstown. It was actually the second Glencoe Distillery (KY-4 & KY-230 according to Sam Cecil), the original being in Louisville and sold some famous brands like Old Bardstown & Old Fiddle. The capacity was nearly 100 barrels a day and had more than 40,000 barrels aging in it’s 80,000 barrel warehouses. To give you a context Heaven Hill produces 1000 barrels a day and the little Willett Distillery is pumping out a solid 22. There was also a new bottling line and access to the Glencoebrand despite the fact that the original distillery was still owned by National Distilling Co.

 His first visit to Bardstown to check out the condition of the distillery, he describes a picturesque little town, just a quaint as we found it today. The distillery was 5 miles outside of town, located in Nelson County. Nelson County was famous even then for making the best Kentucky whiskey. Among the legitimate distilleries operating at the time (Weatherfill & Frazer, Heavenhill, Beam, Barton, Dant, etc.) there were stillmany illicit alcohol producers set up throughout the county’s hilly countryside. According to Al, the few liquor stores in the county had nearly gone out of business and would have gone under if not for the illegal sale of what he calls, "white mull." He made sure to describe just how vile this backwoods whiskey really was, although apparently that's all locals drank at the time. While homemade hidden stills chugged 

Old Glencoe warehouse still in use by Heaven Hillalong producing illegal hooch, the gleaming Glencoe Distillery was in impeccable shape on his arrival. Ultra clean and organized, the distillery managers name was Ned Simpson, who my grandfather admired greatly for his efficient management style. He was also enamoured with the fact that the "distillery slop" or the spent mash could be sold to the farmers around the distillery. One of his first moves was to actually start charging the neighbouring farm nearly twice as much for the slop, which they'd been getting at wellbelow market prices. He was promptly served with an injunction and forced to sit down with the farmer, a lawyer, and the judge to hash out an agreement. The farmer reluctantly agreed to accept slightly higher price and concead that there was no legal reason why the price shouldn't be raised. Certainly, Popoo was a bit of hardass when it came to getting what he thought he deserved. Of course, these days distillers give that nutritious by product away to anyone willing to haul it out of there.

No surprise that he mentions the most incredible southern fried chicken and cornbread in Bardstown. He actually describes this meal more than once, although I can't tell if he's describing subsequent visits or just reminding us how good it was. After seeing the incredible potential of the distillery he returns to Los Angeles to contemplate the sale. Needless to say, he contacts his fellow investors and immediately sets out setting up financing. He also enlists my grandfather to take over as head of the distillery, who quickly moved my mother to Kentucky to begin studying the distillery and it's innermost workings. After seeing this special little town and seeing the rundown remains of the distillery he once owned, I know exactly why he made the decision. I mean 40,000 barrels and a distillery for his first trip to Bardstown. Let’s see if we’ll be as lucky!


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