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The Bourbon Trail [Oct. 27th, 2010|07:16 pm]
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After the Pow-wow, J and P and my MIL moved the fifth wheel to mid-Kentucky for the next stage of the trip. I drove up from the Nashville airport to meet them at the new campground, Taylorsville Lake State Park, in Mt Eden, KY. This was a beautiful park and a far cry from the previous state park in Dawson Springs. The sites were large and level; everything was very nice and spacious, so the crew had no trouble getting the rig parked without me. We stayed at Taylorsville Lake for just shy of a week and never saw a park employee. There must have been one there at some point, because we came back from touring one day to find a parking pass slipped under the windshield wiper of the truck, but we never saw them. I suspect gnomes.

We’d planned to stay closer to Louisville, KY but this was the closest campground that still had openings. I couldn’t figure out why, until we learned that the annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival was being held that weekend in Bardstown, KY, which bills itself as the Bourbon Capital of the World. The festival itself was fun and family friendly, with an antique car show, kiddy rides, crafters and so forth. All of the major distilleries had booths there, most set up to look like their distilleries, selling toys and souvenirs. The spirits were sold in a separate area which was admission with ID only, which I thought a clever way to keep out underage drinkers. Since one of our party was under 21 we didn’t indulge there.

Which didn’t mean we didn’t get plenty of bourbon while we were in bourbon country! Over the course of the week, we toured the Maker’s Mark distillery and visited the other distilleries on the Bourbon trail. Maker’s Mark was neat: a beautiful facility where even the cutouts in the bright red shutters on the dark buildings were shaped like their signature bottle.

The best of the rest of the bunch was the Wild Turkey distillery, where they were happy to show us a video about the plant and pour samples even though we weren’t on the official tour. The worst was Heaven Hill, where the short tour ended outside at plastic-covered folding tables, and the whiskey was pre-poured, setting out in little plastic cups in the sun. If you wanted to sample their product in the fancy tasting room with comfortable chairs and air conditioning, you had to pay for and take one of the longer deluxe tours. The guide was verbose and pedantic; when I asked what proof the “white lightning” was as it came off the still, I was quickly corrected. “White lightning” isn’t what the double-distilled but not yet aged liquor is called. It’s “white DOG”.

I now know more about bourbon and how it is made than I thought there was to know. Every distillery tour or film starts with what bourbon is and how it is made. Bourbon is made from a mix of grains: by law more than 51% corn (most use about 70%), mixed with malted barley for enzymes which help to convert the starch in the grains to sugars, and either rye or wheat to fill out the blend. The water used is also important. Any iron in the water turns the whiskey black and ruins it; what makes central Kentucky perfect for bourbon is that the local water is filtered through a limestone scarp, removing the iron and adding minerals for good yeast growth. The grains are ground and mixed with this limestone water, then cooked into a thin porridge. Yeast is added and the slurry (called mash, as for beer) ferments in open tanks for about a week. Some old (or sour) mash is added to the new batch of sweet mash, resulting in a more even product and more complete fermentation. That’s why bourbon is a sour mash whiskey. The fermented porridge is poured into a still, where the alcohol is boiled off and collected and run through a second still to bring it finally to a liquor (white dog) of not more than 160 proof (again by law).

From the second still the white dog is decanted into new, charred oak barrels, where it will age for at least two years. At this point legally it is bourbon. Most bourbon ages longer, and the process of resting in largely unheated warehouses forces the spirits into and out of the wood of the barrels as the temperature fluctuates, dissolving some of the esters in the charred wood and imbuing the bourbon with deep color and taste. Quite a bit of the bourbon evaporates away during this process, filling the warehouses with the wonderful scent called the “angels’ share”.

It was very interesting to learn about the aging process. Maker’s Mark, for example, only makes one brand of bourbon. They rotate their barrels through the aging: a newly filled barrel goes into the top stacks of the warehouse, where the temperature s are the most extreme, and over years gradually descends and comes to rest in the bottom-most stacks, where there is very little temperature variation. Every barrel goes through the same weather cycles and temperature swings, and the end product is all the same. At Wild Turkey and Buffalo trace distilleries, they bottle several different brands. The barrels stay in the same place in the warehouse throughout the aging process, and the barrels from the middle of the stacks are bottled as premium bourbons, while the ones at the top are blended into lesser brands.

It was also interesting to hear about the byproducts of the process. The spent grains, pretty much all protein and husk once the yeast is done with them, are sold as animal feed (leading one tour guide to point out that the milk you have with cereal in the morning started with Kentucky bourbon.) The barrels can only be used once for aging bourbon; used barrels are sold for aging other spirits like scotch, and just recently some beer makers have started using bourbon barrels to finish their beer. We bought some of that last and really enjoyed it: Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale. Yum!

I never used to drink hard liquor before I met J (make of that what you will) but I really enjoyed the tastings. I also got a useful tip about adding just a touch of water to bourbon to smooth it out a little and that really made a difference in my enjoyment of the stuff. We came away from the tours with a few bottles of the bourbons we liked best, Wild Turkey Rare Breed and Makers Mark, both small batch bourbons, a really amazing organic vodka distilled at Buffalo Trace (who knew vodka could be good straight?) and a honey/bourbon liqueur from Wild Turkey. No more booze buying for a while; the liquor cabinet is full!