Vital Information wrote:
I went on a trip to Kentucky four years ago with some friends and did most of these tours too. I blogged about it at the time and I hope you don't mind me copy/pasting that here. Not just to increase my own cred at the expense of your thread but because I cover much of the same territory but had slightly different experiences and maybe people will enjoy reading about them too.
I'll present it as is but note that it's likely some of the details of the tours have changed, and I know some of my tastes have changed; I'm more tolerant of high-rye bourbons these days and I'm also not as big a fan of Maker's Mark as I once was. I'm guessing you probably had a different tour guide than us at Wild Turkey because I can't imagine anyone writing up the tour we had without mentioning her personality. I hope she's still around 'cause I've been telling people about her for years.
I just got back from a trip to Kentucky with a couple friends of mine. We spent two days touring various distilleries along the bourbon trail, culminating in a bourbon industry event--the Bardstown Sampler, which is a preliminary event to September's Kentucky Bourbon Festival. Eight distilleries were there, and I wish I had kept better tasting notes. But I figure I'll throw together some of my recollections from the weekend for you anyway.
At 9:00 am on Friday morning, we arrived at Buffalo Trace distillery in Frankfort, KY for the first tour of the day. It was a great tour to start the day. The people there were very friendly, the gift shop/guest center staff were helpful, and our tour guide was knowledgeable and a very nice guy. We were told he is a former mayor of Frankfort. Apparently among our (small) group was one of the distillery's "ambassadors", a very talkative little old guy who was probably the smiliest and friendliest guy I ever met. So one of the distillery's head honchos came out and walked along on the tour with us, chatting, until we reached a certain walkway upon which this "ambassador" had been celebrated with his name inscribed upon a brick. The guy teared up a bit; he was visibly moved.
Apart from that, the tour basically set the pattern for most of the other tours we would experience during our stay. It started with some information about the distillery, followed by a a short film that was basically a PR love letter to the history and tradition behind their bourbon. Also, this was the first of several distilleries that claimed to be the oldest "X" distillery in Kentucky, where "X" is a phrase like family-owned or continuously operating or something similar. This particular distillery was one of only 4 in the country that was licensed to continue operating (producing medicinal liquor) during prohibition. After the film we got to walk through a rickhouse and then retire to the guest center/gift shop for a tasting.
A brief word about the rickhouses--these were my favorite part of any tour that allowed entry, apart from the tastings. The rickhouses are the giant warehouses where bourbon barrels are stored during the aging process. A typical rickhouse might be 6 to 9 stories high. The barrels are on ricks that are stacked three high per floor and are 15 barrels deep. Each floor has row after row of these ricks. The rickhouses seemed to average holding about 20,000 barrels each. The great thing about them though is walking through them, smelling the "Angel's Share," which is the industry term for that portion of each barrel lost to evaporation during the aging process. They smell real, like wood and vanilla and bourbon. I could walk through them for hours, just running my hand along the barrels and smelling the smells. One of the rickhouses at Buffalo Trace had been damaged by a tornado a few weeks ago. Part of the roof and the top-floor wall on one side of the building had been torn off (this was a brick wall, three bricks deep). However, the barrels themselves remained in the ricks. I can't imagine what it would be like to have a tornado start hurling 500lb barrels of bourbon out of a warehouse at you, but I'm willing to try it.
In the Buffalo Trace gift shop, they had bottles of 20+ years old Pappy Van Winkle bourbon available for around $100. Damn. I wish they'd let us sample it, but instead we sampled the Buffalo Trace titular line and for some bizarre reason, Rain Vodka. I enjoyed the bourbon, tolerated the vodka, and off we went to the next distillery.
Second was Woodford Reserve. The drive to this distillery, and the distillery grounds themselves, are pure Kentucky, or at least the storybook, non-trailer-trash-and-meth-infested Kentucky. Tiny roads, well-kept fences with horses overlooking, rolling hills, and everything just so green you can hardly believe it. This tour cost $5 while all the rest were free. The tour was OK, and the bourbon tasted nice, but everything in the gift shop was about 3x the price of similar items at other distillery gift shops, and for $5 the tasting could have used something a little fancier than a plastic shotglass (which could have contained more than 1/2 ounce of bourbon for that matter, but that unfortunately was par for the course at all the distillery tours. Some of them had no tastings at all). Also, the tour guide couldn't seem to shut up about the fact that the distillery was owned by Jack Daniels, how great Jack Daniels was, Jack Daniels this, Jack Daniels that. Hey, how about being proud of the product you actually make here? Also, there was a group from Toyota who was touring the facility at the same time we were, and the tour guide kept referring to them as "The Japanese." What, all of them? (Well, maybe. Everywhere we went this weekend, there were japanese tourists. I don't know if they were all part of the same group from Toyota, but it really became apparent how popular bourbon is in Japan.)
Next we stopped by Four Roses. I'd never heard of them before, and that apparently is because until recently they were only available overseas. Even now, they are only available in Kentucky and foreign countries. We didn't have time to go on the tour, because we absolutely did not want to miss the last tour of the day at Wild Turkey. The gift shop lady said we only got to taste the product if we went on the tour, and since it wasn't available anywhere else (at least anywhere we'd be likely to be), we bought a couple of bottles between us (and regretted it once we tasted it later. That shit sucks. At least I didn't get the $35 single barrel product, only the regular bourbon.) The distillery is apparently owned by Kirin, the Japanese brewing company. There was a japanese promotional poster in the gift shop and apparently one of their slogans is "Have a sweet evening, please."
The last tour of Friday was Wild Turkey. My friends and I have a history of drinking a lot of Wild Turkey together so this was something we'd all been looking forward to, and it didn't disappoint, It was the least formal tour of the bunch, but also one of the most educational. The tour guide was a crazy lady who wasn't afraid to just holler at people. She defined bourbon as "a good young whiskey, a new charred white oak barrel, and a whole lotta laws. That's it, it's just that easy, it's just that simple." She ended quite a few of her sentences with that little catch phrase there. I don't know that I can explain how enjoyable it made the tour simply that it was so unpolished. It was apparent that this lady was not a professional tour guide reading cue cards, but someone who had been involved in the process and knew it well. All three of us pretty much blew our spending wads getting shit at their gift shop. Also, I ran into another homebrewer just chatting with people while waiting for the tour to start. Nice guy, down from Michigan--he let me try some of his homebrewed scotch ale in the parking lot. It was fantastic.
Saturday we started, again at 9:00 am, at the Jim Beam Kentucky Outpost. Now, I'm a fan of Jim Beam. It's not the best bourbon in the world, but it is very good for such an inexpensive bourbon, and it's typically what I use for mixing drinks. However, I was pretty disappointed in their tour. They had what they called a "self-guided" tour, which basically means that they sit you in front of a movie screen where you watch a 10 minute promotional film, then you walk along a path with some museum-like exhibits (an old-fashioned still, an old-fashioned cooperage, an old-fashioned fire engine, etc.).
The high point of the Jim Beam tour went as follows: The only people other than us on the "tour" were a middle-aged guy from Pennsylvania (who was wearing a goddamn cowboy hat) and his wife. My friends and I were looking at the cooperage display when they caught up with us. The wife started pointing things out about the display and seemed really interested in everything, but the guy looked really agitated and impatient. He kept saying "I know, I know" and "My family had a still, I know all this stuff." Finally she sighed and said "Fine, we can go look at the fire truck." LOL
The tasting was nice though; it took place in the Beams' old house in very comfortable surroundings and they sampled a couple of their higher-end lines for us. There was also a very interesting miniature still on display in the house. But I'd have enjoyed the display a great deal more if they'd sprung for a tour guide and maybe actually taken us through some of the real distilling process like every other distillery did, instead of letting us show ourselves a bunch of crappy museum displays.
Then we visited Maker's Mark, another bourbon I happen to like quite a bit. The tour was nice, we got to see quite a bit of the actual process, but of course by this time much of the information was old hat to us. They did have some very nice old-fashioned wooden mash tanks that were over 100 years old and still in production, so those were nice to see. At the gift shop after the tour, you can buy a $13 375-ml bottle of Maker's Mark and hand-dip the trademark red wax seal yourself. It's gimmicky, but kind of neat, and $13 for a 375-ml bottle isn't out of line at all, not to mention the keepsake value. So of course I waited in line for 20 minutes like the rest of the idiots to hand-dip my bottle. Not one of us did a good job of it at all, incidentally--the wax seals don't have that nice drippy effect like you see on the typical Maker's Mark bottle. So from now on I'll probably leave it to the pros.
The last tour we went on was at Heaven Hill. They've built quite a nice Bourbon Heritage Center in Bardstown, KY, and their tour is really quite professionally done. I can't say that I enjoy too many of their products though. They distill Evan Williams, Elijah Craig, Old Fitzgerald, Fighting Cock, and related bourbon brands. They also distill or import a really long list of other spirits that I won't even bother getting into, except to say that Burnett's Gin sucks ass. The tour and the facility were really nice though, and the tasting room at the Bourbon Heritage Center is extremely nice, built into a giant barrel at the center of their gift shop/museum. We sampled the Evan Williams single barrel and I think the Elijah Craig 12-year-old small batch. The former had such a pronounced rye character that it would be easy to mistake for a strong rye whiskey instead of a bourbon, but the latter was quite good. I don't know about $55 per 750ml bottle good, but definitely drinkable.
That evening, the Kentucky Bourbon Festival had their preliminary event, the Bardstown Sampler, at a big barn outside of town. Eight distilleries were there, along with about a dozen tables of catered food from different local restaurants and suppliers. Heaven Hill was there sampling 5 of their products, but since I wasn't fond of any of them, I don't remember which ones they were; 1792 was there with a single product which was very good; Four Roses was there with both their regular bourbon and their single-barrel (which I found out had maybe the highest rye percentage of any product I drank all weekend--their bill is 60% corn, 35% rye and 5% malted barley. I seriously cannot recommend their products at all); Van Winkle had 4 different products (including that 20+ year old $100 bottle of Pappy Van Winkle I mentioned earlier, so I did eventually get to taste it. WOW. If I were going to drop $100 on a bottle of bourbon, this would probably be the one); Buffalo Trace had another table separate from the Van Winkle table with several products available for tasting, and all their stuff that I tasted was really good; Jim Beam had several products as well, including both Booker's and Baker's from their high-end lines (Booker's was too high-rye for me, but Baker's wasn't bad); Maker's Mark was sampling both their regular bourbon and their new pre-mixed Mint Julep product (which I tasted, and it seemed okay, but I have never had a real Mint Julep so what would I know); and Wild Turkey was there offering their Rare Breed (very good), Kentucky Spirit (a bit disappointing for me, since it's their most expensive product), and their new Russel's Reserve (a new favorite), along with the 101 and their Liqueur.
Yeah, I'm having a hard time recalling exact details of all the bourbons I tasted, but that should give you an idea of the high and low points. I do remember talking to a Jim Beam rep for a while and mentioning my complaints about their tour. He seemed very receptive and agreed with many of my suggestions, and gave me a nice insider's perspective of the Jim Beam distillery. Then I mentioned Maker's Mark and how much I enjoyed it, and he said "Yeah, women like it." Yeah, I got told.
So anyway, I came home with 2/3 a (crappy) bottle of Four Roses, a 375-ml bottle of Maker's Mark hand-dipped by me personally, a Wild Turkey hip flask that is absolutely gorgeous, and a wild assortment of glassware, some of which I bought at gift shops and some of which was swag at the Sampler. I spent a crapload of money, maintained a bit of a low-end buzz all weekend (which occasionally was nurtured into a full-on drunk), got to taste some of the best bourbon in the world and learned so much about bourbon that my head is still spinning. Or maybe that hangover hasn't quite gone away yet.