There are officially nine distilleries along the trail but plenty more large and small distilleries scattered throughout Kentucky that are worth a visit. All distilleries on the trail offer guided tours and talk about their history and bourbon making process which is followed by a tasting. While you might think nine tours are going to get repetitious, they did not and we learned something new on every one.
The Kentucky Bourbon Trail member distilleries are (pictured in order): Maker’s Mark, Jim Beam, Bulleit, Evan Williams, Town Branch, Woodford Reserve, Wild Turkey, Heaven Hill, and Four Roses (forgot to take a picture).
Bourbon starts with a “mash bill” which is essentially the master distillers’ recipe. By law, bourbon must contain at least 51% corn but the rest of the ingredients – rye, barley, wheat and yeast – is up to the distiller. Raw ingredients are ground through a mill (to help break down the starches) and limestone filtered water is added to the mix which is called “mash.” Most distillers add mash from the previous distillation (called “backset”) to ensure consistency with the yeast (this mixture is referred to as sour mash). Some distillers use the traditional cypress open vats while others choose stainless steel.
When yeast is added the mash begins fermentation which is the yeast converting sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide. The mixture must be kept at the perfect temperature as to not kill the yeast but keep them alive so they can continue working their fermenting magic. To achieve the appropriate temperature, coils circulating cold water line the inside of the fermentation tanks.
Now the mixture is known as “distillers beer” and has an oat mealy consistency and beer smell. The mixture gets pumped to a distiller (or “still”) where the heat is cranked so the alcohol can vaporize up through the still. Once it reaches the top, it cools to a clear 125-proof liquid known as low wine. The low wine goes through another distillation process where it comes out a potent paint thinner strength of 135 proof. And this high potent clear liquid is what they call “white dog.” Bourbon law states that bourbon can not enter the barrel higher than 125 proof so it must be diluted.
Now it is time for bourbon to enter the barrels. By law, bourbon must be put into new, charred oak barrels. The purpose of charring is to caramelize the sugars naturally occurring in the wood so the bourbon will be infused with this sweetness as it moves in and out of the wood while aging. Charring also gives bourbon its amber color. Historically, bourbon was shipped in previously used barrels which did not fair well for the whiskey if the barrel was previously used to ship something like fish. But by charring the barrel, they could sterilize it and remove nasty flavors. By accident they discovered that charring also imparted a nice flavor and color by the time it reached New Orleans.
Exactly what type of oak and the level of char vary among distillers. Is it a quick 15 second char or a longer one that lasts nearly a minute? Or is the barrel slowly toasted and then charred as in the case of Woodford Reserve? As long as it is “charred” it doesn’t matter.Historically, distillers had their own cooperages but that has become cost prohibitive today and most buy their barrels from a manufacturer.
Once the white dog is placed in the barrels, they are capped with a “bung” and sent to the rick house where they will relax with other thousands of barrels until they are well aged. By law, bourbon must remain in the barrel for four years to be called Straight Kentucky Bourbon. Some distillers (Woodford Reserve) opt to age their bourbon longer (7-8 years) which will impart a different flavor than those with a shorter aging time. Bourbon moves in and out of the wood over time and as the weather changes from the hot, humid summers to cold winters.
Bungs seal the barrel and keep the bourbon in but the trick is rolling them into place with the bung facing up so there is no leakage.
Rick houses are built of heavy wood frames with multiple floors. Each floor typically holds three barrels high.
Most rick houses have open windows so the weather can play its part and illuminate the inside of these dark buildings. Some distillers that have very tall rick houses (like the eight-story ones at Jim Beam) will move barrels from the top to the bottom midway through the aging in order to ensure consistency.
Jim Beam, Woodford Reserve, Bulleit, and Willett all have different styles of rick houses ranging from metal to stone.
One thing you notice in bourbon country are the many rick houses that dot the landscape.
While visiting Barton 1792 (which is not officially on the trail) a representative just finished a barrel select tasting and offered to let us help pull a sample with a “whiskey thief.” When someone wants to buy an entire barrel the master distiller selects a number of barrels for them to taste before deciding which one they want. They were buying an entire barrel and the master distiller gave them five to chose from.
When finished aging, barrels are dumped, filtered and ready for bottling. Depending on the size of the distillery you will either see a very automated line or a much more hands on line where the labels are being applied by hand.
Since barrels can only be used once in the bourbon making process what happens to the millions of empty barrels? Many are shipped to Europe and Canada to age scotch and whiskey. A new popular trend is to age beer in them and call it bourbon barrel ale.
After all is said and done (I meant drank) . . . we realized there are so many flavors and sensations that come from bourbon and personal preferences will vary. Do you like a rye bourbon with peppery, harsher notes or a wheated, high corn bourbon for its sweetness. How do you like your finish? Smooth and slow or with a burn that slides all the way down and lingers? We amassed a little taste test of our own on the picnic table for a recap of our experience and to compare products. Betsy still likes the sweeter wheated Maker’s Mark with a high corn content and I (who am usually not a bourbon drinker) like the smooth drinking Basil Hayden’s (from Jim Beam Distillery). And we both like the punch that Booker’s provided (also a Beam product). There is only so much room in the RV for bourbon so we settled on our favorites and bought a few.
If you are wondering what happened to bourbon during prohibition, then look closely at this bottle’s label.
That’s right, with a doctor's prescription you could get bourbon for medicinal purposes. Bet there were a lot of people sick back then! Who wouldn’t be sick for a 16-year old bourbon and it promises no headache in the morning? Most distilleries went out of business but a few survived and many others came on-line later. Today the American bourbon industry is thriving and is exported worldwide with a serious infatuation by Asian countries – so much so that they are buying distilleries.
Even if you are not a bourbon drinker, the tours and history are fascinating. Each one was a little different and gave us new knowledge about how the product is made. We have a whole new appreciation for this unique American icon.