My Old Kentucky Bourbon Trail: Part II

(This is a two-part post.  For part one, click here.)

If there are two things Kentucky is known for, it’s Bourbon and horses; and they sure know what they’re doing with both.  After leaving the Maker’s Mark distillery (as described in Part I), we decided to stop in at famed Churchill Downs, where the Kentucky Derby is held each year.

It was an impromptu suggestion, and to my lasting shame, I didn’t even know if the horses would be running then or not.  Luckily for us, we were able to catch the last two races of the day.

To say the day was hot would be an understatement.  And by “understatement”, I mean “damned lie”.  The temperature was pushing 100º, and the humidity was nothing to sniff at either.  And there we were, after having spent all day wandering around in it, eating giant omelets and drinking Bourbon.  I, for one, could hardly tell left from right.  How those horses were able to run is beyond me.

At Churchill Downs, there’s no admission fee, aside from the few dollars they charge for parking.  You can just wander in and watch the races from wherever you please.  (Obviously, the Derby is a special occasion, and such rules do not apply.)  We found seats right in front of the finish line.  For the Derby, I think these seats go for about one billion dollars.

We placed a friendly bet or two, but didn’t win anything.  I think there may be more to the art of horse-wagering than picking based on the name you like best.  After the race, they cooled the horses by drenching them with buckets of water.

Some of the horses were special enough to have men in suits dump water on them.

A short walk helps keep their post-race muscles from cramping.

The next morning, it was off to Woodford Reserve for our final distillery tour of the weekend.  Woodford is less than an hour East of Louisville, close to Lexington.  There are loads of horse farms in that area, easily identified due to their impeccably-painted wooden fences with rounded corners (so the horses don’t hurt themselves on anything sharp).  If you go in the Spring, avoid the interstate and take Highway 60 to Lexington for the most scenic view of all the new-born foals.

Woodford has the best-kept grounds of all three distilleries we went to.  The area feels polished, to be sure, but it’s not overdone.  Having been on this tour before, I knew to expect a refined (if touristy) experience, and I was not disappointed.  There is a shuttle van to take you down this hill, but you can take the stairs instead.  You will beat the van by a lot.

Even though the buildings look like jails, they are not very menacing.  The bars are there to keep people out, and barrels full of aging Bourbon in.

While our guide began his tour, a cat wandered up.  Of course, no one can resist a Bourbon kitty.  He stopped the tour dead.

He didn’t seem to mind, though.  I think this is his job.

Inside, the buildings were surprisingly airy and light.  I love these colors and the hand-lettering.

This is the outside of one of the cypress fermenting tanks.  There are stairs nearby to a second floor, where you can look into it from the top.

This is the top of a fermenting tank, filled with bubbling corn mash.  Once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.

I’d never seen an empty one before.  This is what they look like on the inside.  I think the coils are to help regulate temperature, by running hot or cold water through the pipes, but I could be mistaken.

There were six of these giant tanks in this area.  I wonder how long they use them before they have to replace the wood, and if I can have the wood when they’re done with it.

They fill the tanks from long pipes that swivel out over the tops.

In the distilling area, there are three huge copper stills imported from Scotland.

Inside the still is a mysterious fan.  Nobody knows why it is there.

The distilling area is like a cathedral, with incredibly tall ceilings, stone arches, a balcony in back, even a raised dais in front to showcase the distilling process.  The details are beautiful.

Down a few stairs, in the same building, new barrels fresh from the cooperage are stored out of the way.

They look a little too clean.

Some of the old barrels get turned into a decorative wall.  There is a good brew pub here in Chicago that has a similar treatment around their bar.  Since the brew pub came second, I think we know where they got the idea.  Makers of Bourbon-barrel-aged beers are crying a little at this sight.

In the bottling area, our guide poured a glass of cask-strength Woodford into a glass held by a very lucky member of the tour.

He poured out most of this glass, to the group’s chagrin.  There was an audible and involuntary gasp from every throat.  The glass did get passed around for everyone to smell, as a taunt.  Afterwards, while most everyone else’s backs were turned, this tiny bit was unceremoniously tossed onto the ground.  I may have wept a single tear.

Back at the visitors’ center, the traditional Bourbon balls were passed out.  Woodford has the best of any distillery I’ve been to.  They are still not as good as the ones my Old Kentucky Grandmother makes.

And with that, we bid au revoir to Kentucky, and set out for Chicago and home, back to our city lives.  I can’t speak for everyone else on the trip, but that weekend certainly did me a world of good.  A little time to relax over good food with good friends, and sit with a slowly condensing glass of amber-gold Bourbon on chattering rocks… what else could you want?  Luckily, thanks to liquor stores and distributors, you can enjoy most of this in your own living room; I highly recommend trying it.

Thank you for letting me take you on this little journey.  And now, back to our regularly scheduled programs.

My Old Kentucky Bourbon Trail: Part I

This two-part post is a slight departure, as there are no recipes, but it does involve Things Culinary.  I thought you might like to read about it and see some pictures.

As I’ve mentioned before, I lived in Louisville for a few years.  My time there was full of good food, great Bourbon, and some of the grandest people I’ve ever met.  So when a couple of dear friends here in Chicago asked if we would be interested in traipsing a bit of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail with them, I leaped at the chance.  A weekend in one of my favorite cities, filled with Bourbon, food, and friends?  Yes, please.

The planned itinerary included two days touring three Bourbon houses, strategically chosen for their proximity to one another and driving distance from Louisville, as well as by virtue of their product quality… and the fact that they give free samples and are open on Sundays.  You know, the important things.

Saturday morning started off bright and (reasonably) early with a stop at the Bardstown Road Farmers Market, just around the corner from my old apartment.  If there’s one thing Louisvillians love, it’s keeping things local; and there’s hardly a better or more popular brunch than the omelet stand at this market.  Sure, you can peruse the market, take home as much fresh produce as you can carry, and cook your own; but if you’re doing Louisville right, you’re in no shape to cook anything on a Saturday morning.

As long as I’ve known about this particular stand, the same guys have been braving the rigors of cooking omelet after omelet for a never-ending phalanx of hungry locals, through the stifling humidity of Louisville summers.  Behind their open-flame burners, the wall of heat they face unflaggingly would make Lucifer himself blanch.  I’ve no clue how they stand it; just waiting in the inevitably long line makes even me wilt.

When you get to the front of the line, they ask what you want, but I’ve never seen the point in special orders here.  All the ingredients they use come from their own farm (right smack in the middle of the city) and from other local farmers, and they’re all delicious.  Just tell them how many omelets you want; they’re experienced enough to make you something great.

The selection varies from week to week; this week’s omelets featured beets, summer squash, chopped herbs, Capriole goat cheese, Kenny’s cheddar cheese, smoked catfish, and the always delightful slice of Blue Dog bread hidden underneath.  Eaten on the only available benches (aka parking bollards), it was an ideal antidote to the previous evening’s cocktails (to set the weekend theme, of course), and the fuel we needed to power through the long day ahead of driving and tasting.

Our first stop was the Bourbon Heritage Center, run by Heaven Hill Distilleries.  This isn’t an actual distillery tour, as they distill their liquor elsewhere, but rather a tour of the aging warehouses and a fairly thorough explanation of the Bourbon-making process.

The warehouses stand in a clearing surrounded by cornfields, and are truly monolithic things.  They’re white and stark, except for where black mold creeps up the sides, living off the water that evaporates from the thousands of barrels inside.  It’s a little ominous, but if a breeze hits just right, the air smells sweetly of fermenting corn.

You would actually have to be some kind of idiot to smoke around these buildings; the alcohol hangs heavier in the air than the humidity.

Inside the warehouses, there is a blend of old-style and new-style inventory tracking methods.

The bracing in the warehouses is crucial; with so many barrels (50,000 I think per warehouse, though my recollection could be off), if they remove too many from one side, the weight shift can make the entire thing collapse, as happened to one warehouse several years ago.

I love all the hand-painted signs.

Each barrel is numbered.  Milestone barrels, such as this 3,000,000th barrel, get a special place in the warehouse.  This one is so old, it is most likely less than half full, due to the “angel’s share” that evaporates out.

The main Bourbon brands at Heaven Hill, Elijah Craig and Evan Williams, aren’t my favorites, but it’s always nice to try different things.

Next on the agenda was a trip down the road (just make sure you pick the right road) to Maker’s Mark.  This is our usual house Bourbon, so you won’t hear any complaints from me about the quality of the drink itself; but the tour felt a bit Disneyland to me.  Apparently, they were recently bought by Jim Beam, which makes me a little sad.

The setting is bucolic as all get out, but things feel just a touch too polished.  I do love the colors, though.  There are cheesy little cut-outs of the Maker’s Mark bottle in each shutter.

Around the corner, though, there are bigger warehouses.  I guess they put them around the back to not spoil the whole “pastoral country home” shtick they’re got going.

Turns out they really do manufacture things here; the pallets on the loading dock are a dead giveaway.

Inside the distilling area, it was about one million degrees.  The area is full of things that are only slightly menacing.

lots of important lights
a tiny door in the wall for no reason

This is a mash tub, in which they cook the grain mixture that makes Bourbon, when fermented.  The tanks are immense, and go through the floor into another story below.

Each one holds many, many gallons.

Six huge fermenting tanks are in the next room, and all are full with a thick and bubbling mixture of fermenting grains.  The cypress wood is smooth with age and thousands of tourists’ hands.

Fermenting yeast makes a roiling foam along the edges.  The tanks are totally open; you can lean over and look right in, even stick your finger in to taste the mash if you like.  I wonder how many lost sunglasses they pull out of these tanks every year.

It still looks a little spooky sometimes.

In the aging warehouse, there are elevators; but only for moving barrels.

Maker’s Mark has an “Ambassadors” program, which allows you to fill out a form online and get your name on the end of a barrel.  When the barrel is mature, you have the option to buy a bottle from your shared barrel.  Thousands of visitors see these barrels every day, so you should find a more creative name than “HHHHHHHHH” or “FOXY-BLONDE”.

At the end of every tour, you are offered a sweet called a Bourbon Ball.  The center is very sweet and slightly soft, and flavored with Bourbon.  The mixture is dipped in chocolate, and usually topped with a pecan.  Nearly every distillery offers them, made with their own particular Bourbon, of course.  They’re never as good as homemade ones.

Stay tuned for Part 2, In Which Bourbon Is Tasted.  Exciting!