We just got back from our trip to Lexington and its bourbon environs. Tired, happy, a box or two of "new friends" and some great insights into the art of distilling. In the time allowed, we got to visit Makers Mark, Four Roses, Buffalo Trace, and Woodford Reserve. Ran out of time for Jim Beam, and Heaven Hill and Wild Turkey were closed on the day we wanted to visit.
Here are some Comments:
Best tour: Hands down it was Buffalo Trace. We took the general distillery tour and followed with the Hardhat Tour. Both tourguides were wonderful. Very personalble, and knowledgeable. Both tours went to great lengths to make it interesting to rhe three kids we took along. This Hardhat tour took you from grain and weighing to milling, through the mash and distillation process and even bottling and storage and small things like how the barrels are drilled for sampling and then plugged and how barrel bands are shimmed to prevent leaks. We got a chance to see the yeast, the mash, taste both the sweet and sour mashes, and the "white dog" right out of the distilation process. We also saw the drying room for the used mash and the storage areas where we got to smell (and taste if you want) the dried leftovers that are sold as cattle feed. We went through several historic buildings, nothing was off limits, nothing held back. In the Blanton's bottling hall, they were bottling Blantons after a batch of Eagle Rare. We were in time to see barrels dumped, bottles loaded, sealed and boxed. The kids got Blantons stoppers and labels from the very friendly line crew who did not mind us waling throught their work area and taking pictures. We tasted Eagle Rare, Buffalo Trace, Buffalo Trace bourbon cream (think Bailey's) and Rain vodka, which is being produced in the off season. The Trace is also the only distillery to bottle and sell its white dog in the gift shop. The kids got McGillicuddy root beer and bourbon chocolates while we tasted. The Trace was fun and we were treated like family. Being a Weller lover, we also got some great shots of Weller products and historic bottles.
Second Best Tour: Maker's Mark. Makers does a good job of showing you the family history and involvement in their product. The distillery is clean, painted and beautiful. Very tidy. The tour guide was fun and the tour interesting. They did allow you to taste the fermenting mash right from the cypresss tubs just like the Trace. We tasted the MM 46 and regular Makers, but also got a chance to try the white dog. And as real tourists, we all dipped our own bottles. As a MM Ambassador, we were especially welcomed and given additional gifts as we toured the facility. A nice touch. Again, bourbon chocolates all around. Very enjoyable tour, but all told, the Trace was way better.
Third Best: Four Roses (Imagine that). I'm not a fan of Four Roses, and it appears from their talks that since they are owned by Kirin (Japan), they do a lot of business overseas. We had to taste their small batch and single barrel to get some enjoyment, but the overall neither was one I would choose for my personal cache. The distillery has only 48 employees and transports their product by truck to a bottling plant. The plant seems a bit in need of a good coat of paint, not nearly as clean and fresh as BT or MM. The tour was, however the most detailed in the area of grain bill and the distilling process, which was a plus for the day.
A Disapointment: Woodford Reserve. Woodford is part of Brown-Forman brands (Old Forrester and Jack Daniels among others) and was the most industrial of the tours. Very clean, like a showroom. We were constantly reminded of the rules foisted on them by OSHA, which apparently no other distillery has to follow, such as turn off cell phones, no smoking on the premises anywhere, and no flash photography, all apparently OSHA rules in order not to set off an explosion. Lots of line and guard rales to stand behind, not tasting of the mash, no tasting of the white dog, and in the biggest indignity of the day, when the tour guide actually rolled a barrel and filled a glass with bourbon straight from its slumber in the oak, she poured most of it down the drain and passed a glass, not to taste, but to smell only. We did get to see a guy filling barrels and setting bungs in the barrel, but in the bottling hall we were reminded not to cross the yellow line or talk to the bottler crew. Woodford made a big deal about their three copper distillers and the process for fine bourbon from these, but in the tasting room, we were given a sample of Woodford and told to take a sip, then get some ice and let it melt in the glass before the second sip. True to form, straight WR burns the back of your throat and mellows after application of ice, and therefore water. I got the impression that WR sets their tours as a corporation and corporate lawyers had a hand in every aspect of the tour to prevent customer interaction with the process. I also think, IMHO, that WR was acquired by Brown-Forman because they needed a boutique bourbon to add to their bevy of liquors. The guides were crusty, the tour sterile, and I was charged $5 for the privilege. Given the three hours at the Trace for free, not worth it in my book.
Two other notes, the Liquor Barn grocery stores in Lexington are a great place to snag some of the harder to get brands. I got their last bottle of Old Rip Van Winkle 10 year. Also plenty of Weller 12 year, and Weller Antique 107 was $19, signigicantly cheaper than here at our state stores when you can find it.
Had dinner at Ramsey's steakhouse in Lexington one evening. It has a fascinating collection fo Maker's Mark bottles, including a complete set of NFL color waxed bottles. Very cool.
We were on our way into Bardstown one day for lunch and found outside of town a cooperage in action. It was an interesting side stop that we stumbled on.
“Sure I eat what I advertise. Sure I eat Wheaties for breakfast. A good bowl of Wheaties with bourbon can't be beat.” -- Dizzy Dean