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.