Month: September 2013

Bluegrass and Bourbon

Spend a week roaming around the land between Louisville and Lexington, Kentucky and you get an appreciation of the awesomeness of nature and the amazing ability of man to harness, use and bluegrassexploit what nature gives. The state of Kentucky, well, the part in the north middle at least, sits on limestone. The limestonelimestone filters the natural aquifer, providing pure clean water for distilling bourbon and calcium in the soil for that wonderful bluegrass. That calcium makes for stronger, faster racehorses and an industry that defines what thoroughbred horses are all about. And, while we didn’t see any of the grass as blue we did taste the bourbon.

As much as the limestone base is essential to racehorses and bourbon, it is the weather that aids in the distilling of bourbon. Weather that can go from hot and steamy to cold and icy. Avirgin barrelspparently, a mash bill made of at least 51% corn, rye or wheat and bourbon warehousebarley just loves that kind of weather. Especially if it’s stored in virgin white oak charred barrels and left to sit, rest as they say in Kentucky, for at least four years in big old warehouses with little light, lots of windows and racks upon racks, most up seven stories. The fastest aging bourbon is on the top, where the extremes of weather are most profound. The process starts with the mash bill, and it is a legal recipe. According to a 1964 law, to be bourbon,Tom @Woodford Reserve the spirit must be made of at least 51% corn. Most use rye as the second grain, giving bourbon that spicy in-the-front-of-the-mouth taste. Some, like Maker’s Mark,  use wheat, a sweeter grain, and a smoother sip.  When you walk into a warehouse you are greeted with a strong aroma. The distillers call that angel’s share the evaporated portion of the barrel as it rests in the warehouse. It’s sweet, not overpowering but definitely there. copper distilling tubsFirst the mash bill is cooked, the mixing of the grains and the water to make a, well, mash. Sometimes called bourbon beer, full yeast vat bourbon beerit’s then transferred into vats, most of the distilleries we visited used cypress vats for the process of turning the yeast and the grain mash into a sugary mix. After the yeast has done it’s thing, the mixture is moved to a distilling process to pull the spirit or vapor off with a steam and make it into a clear liquid, sometimes called white dog, or ghost whiskey.could be out of hogwarts The distillery at Woodford Reserve looks more like a room at Hogwarts, with it’s bulbous shaped copper distillers that slowly heat the bourbon beer to pull off the clear liquid. Then this clear liquid that goes into virgin white oak charred barrels. By law, a bourbon barrel can be used only once. It must be white oak and charred not more than 60 seconds. Distillers distinguish the aging of their bourbon by the secondsmaster distiller that the barrel is charred, anywhere from 35 seconds to 58 seconds. It’s the charring of the wood that gives the white dog it’s amber or caramel coloring when it comes out of the barrel after at least four to six years. The barrel to the left was filled just barrelledon September 4, 2013. A master distiller like Jimmy Russell of Wild Turkey, has years of experience. Jimmy has been with Wild Turkey for 54 years, and his son is training for the position, only being on the job for some thirty years.

Distillery warehouses face two potential problems, one is fire [an alcohol fire can not be put out] and the second is the warehouse structure. The rick house, as the warehouse is called, is little more than racks, to hold the bourbon barrels, surrounded by a thin walls with a locked door and bars on the lower windows. plumb lineWhy anyone  thinks someone can stroll out of a rick house with a five hundred pound oak barrel is beyond me. The balance in the structure is important, any sway in the racks might bring the whole thing down. Every rick house has a plumb is in a center position to make sure that the adding and subtracting of the barrels doesn’t through off the balance.

Spend a week between Louisville and Lexington Kentucky and you just might have a better appreciation of The Native American Spirit, bourbon.

Finding the Bourbon Trail

In 2008, on a trip to Chicago, we came across a small sign along the side of the road, the kind the government puts up to let you know about what’s ahead. The sign read: The Bourbon Trail.distillers assoc Now, who can resist a sign like that? Growing up in California I was familiar with wine tours through Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino. But bourbon? It took another five years before we could make that happen, but we did. We highly recommend the trip. Kentucky is a beautiful state.

Wine, while interesting, is fermented grapes, almost as old as mankind. Or is that mead?  But whiskey? Legend has it that St. Patrick introduced Ireland to the distilling process, learning the process in Spain or France. The process takes a bit of science so the initial product was probably either quite potent or not good at all! By the seventeen hundreds distilling became a viable illicit business and was inevitably made legal by taxing, that is a law that imposed taxes. In America, the illicit part was a grand tradition of the frontier. And in the 1700’s Kentucky was the frontier.

Whiskey, sometimes called the water of life,  is distilled grain. Distilled grain in Scotland is called Scotch. In Ireland it’s Irish Whiskey. In America we call it Bourbon.  Started in 1998 by the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, the Bourbon Trail is one of those marketing ploys that brings together the combination of IMG_0053 buffalo traceinformation both current and historical, touring and tasting. What’s not to love? Distilleries are pretty small, workforce-wise. The seven on the trail for the most part had between one hundred to one hundred twenty employees, red wax dipthat included the distilling, warehousing and bottling crews and I guess, tour guides. Not a lot of employment, but a lot of product making a lot of money. Don’t you just love free market enterprises? From Buffalo Trace in Frankfort, to Maker’s Mark, where you can dip your own bottle in the famous red wax,wild Turkey to Wild Turkey where you can get a bottle with a mistake on the label, to Woodford Reserve where you can see the building that used to house thethe revenurers government T-men [for Treasury], to the still house at Jim BeamJim Beam and the tasting room at Heaven Hill Heaven Hillthat’s shaped like the inside of a oak barrel, not to mention Four Rosesthe charming and understated Four Roses where we found copper mint julep cups, and the newest of bourbon labels, Town Branch, Town Branchthe trail was enlightening and entertaining. And, you want the finish to be as good as the endthe trip. So, cheers, or, in honor of St. Patrick, Slainté, to our new collection of bourbons!


I should have pictures, but I don’t. I was having so much fun, enjoying myself, it was like the last ten or so years were just erased, that I forgot to memorialize the time together. I think FaceBook and Twitter make us think we have to do this. I’m sure before there was Social Media, not as many people took pictures, candid yet posed, to show off to family and friends. But now, I guess, you’re supposed to remember to do that. LOL, it was like the time I came in by boat to the White Cliffs of Dover and I watched and forgot to take pictures. Just like that.

So it was a great weekend, time with friends we could have lost and thankfully have not! So today we proceeded to the event that was our raison d’être for this week in Kentucky–the Bourbon Trail. Is it a gimmick? Yes. Is it hokey? Well, sort of. But still, marketing aside, how many people know exactly how and why the spirit [alcoholic drink]  known as Bourbon, is the national American drink? IMG_0053 buffalo traceDid you know it’s regulated by law? Just like champagne must be grown in Champagne France, or like the coffee beans must be grown in a twenty mile by two mile side of the hill in Hawaii to be called Kona, in order for a whiskey to be called Bourbon it must meet several requirements. It must be made in the US. It must be made from a grain mixture that is at least 51% corn. It must be aged in new charred oak barrels. It must be no more than 160 proof or 80% alcohol by volume. It must enter the barrel for aging at no more than 125 proof or 62.5% alcohol by volume. And it must be bottled at 80 proof or more (40% alcohol by volume. We started with the distillery that is the oldest, longest running [yes, even through the thirteen years of Prohibition] in the entire United States.

As a side note, Bushmills, operating in County Antrim, [yes, part of the UK] was already over two hundred years old when the distillery that is Buffalo Trace was begun. But I digress. While we tend to think of Kentucky as the only place to make bourbon, that’s not true. It’s made in Tennessee, Michigan, California, Illinois, lots of places. That’s not to say it’s good, just that it’s made.

So, before I toddle off to sleep.. Bourbon is named after a county that is named after the French royal family, house of. It can be aged four years or twenty four years. It ages more aggressively in the heat and actually has a hot after taste. And, it’s bright amber golden color comes from the charred oak. By law, nothing can be added to the mixture, if they do, they can’t call it bourbon, it is just plain old whiskey!



A New View

Okay, so vacation. A new view. Things to see, places to go, people to meet. Well, yes, and no. When the girls were little and we planned vacations there was little wiggly room in the planning. I mean, come on, there were four of us, clothes, food, travel, not a lot you can leave to chance, not if you’re a Type A like me. Now is different. All the same stuff goes on, things, places, people but there’s a lot more wiggly room.

We were headed across I 40 toward Knoxville to turn right toward Kentucky when we passed Gatlinburg. You know, home of Pigeon Forge and Dollywood. We were making spectacular time and we had no one waiting for us at the other end of the trip, that would be the next day, but not that day. Well, by the time I thought of it, we were past the exit. Tom, my trusty cartographer and guide [who sometimes needs to be reminded that he has not been replaced by the GPS], pulled out the map and said take exit X, and so I did. We’re driving down this backroad that is so proud of itself for having a Route number it was twisting and tuning in every direction.  Let me set the stage, here, there was nothing on this road, a few small cottages, lots of trees, and woods, that’s about all. Well, we drive around this bend and there’s this huge white long airplane hanger type building sort of nestled up against the mountain. IMG_0050 BushNext to this building is another and another and soon the entire side of the road is nothing but big white plant buildings. And, we’re trying to figure out what it is when we past this very neat white house opposite a huge parking lot and a general store and it dawns on me, this has something to do with Bush’s Baked Beans.

My mom had a two gallon brown ceramic pot she bought in La Jolla California, well, I can’t remember when, she always had it. And she would buy white navy beans, soak them for twenty four hours. She’d buy bacon, and brown sugar and molasses and I don’t know what else and make this sauce. After the beans had soaked she’d bake them overnight for eight hours then pull the pot out of the oven and mix in the sauce and back for another eight hours. And you could smell those beans! Oh my! She didn’t do it often, not often enough for me, anyway. When they cooled, she’s put them in glass jars and we’d have homemade baked beans.

So we there we are driving down this road, rounding the corner, heading for Pigeon Forge and I pulled off the road. I have no idea what Pigeon Forge is like. I’m sure it’s charming. But the whole point of being on vacation is to do something you couldn’t or wouldn’t do in a regular day. I backed up into a ditch, well, almost, turned around and pulled into the parking lot.

Sometimes you just need a new view.