Learning About Bourbon From a Master Distiller

“You can just sit here drinking and I’ll spin the table.” Wild Turkey Master Distiller Jimmy Russell gives the tabletop a push and sends two half-ounce whiskey shots around in front of me. “One is our rye bourbon and one is our straight. I want you to tell me what you think.” Talk about being put on the spot. Russell has been making whiskey for 58 years and has city streets, mixed drinks, and, of course, bourbons named after him. It’s like Alexander the Great asking me to critique his battle plan.

We’re sitting in the Wild Turkey sampling room, which looks out on a few of the 23 massive 30,000-gallon fermentation vats at the heart of the distiller’s new plant in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. “These are about ready to bottle,” he says of all the bourbon shots on the table. “We’ve done tasted them all the years they’ve been aging and we’ll be tasting them again soon to be sure they’re done.” In other words, Russell knows exactly what he’s looking for in every single sample sitting in front of us. And when each one tastes the way he thinks it should, he and the other members of the Wild Turkey tasting panel will okay the bourbon for bottling.

I, on the other hand, have no idea what I’m looking for. Even though I’ve spent the last two days on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail educating myself in the Commonwealth’s signature export, I can’t properly describe what I’ve just poured into my mouth. I’ve explored the barrel-aging warehouses at Jim Beam and Woodford Reserve, poked my head into the Wild Turkey yeast fermentation tank, and learned proper whiskey sipping techniques at Heaven Hill, yet when it comes to making sense of each bourbon I taste, I draw a blank.

Truth be told, gaining a better understanding of bourbon is just my excuse for spending a couple of days in the heart of the Bluegrass State. Besides producing champion college basketball programs and thoroughbred bloodlines that dominate the horseracing scene, this area of Kentucky is a tourist destination in its own right. I’ve found plenty to do bouncing between Louisville and Lexington, from exploring Churchhill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby, to eating the best meal I’ve had all year at a little restaurant named Jonathan’s—after its immensely gifted chef and owner, Jonathan Lundy. And I’m not alone in mixing tourism with bourbon tasting, the previous Saturday brought 1,000 visitors to each of the distilleries. That’s a lot of people looking to expand their whiskey palates.

But, if you’re like me, you might need a few lessons to distinguish average whiskey to something special. “I look for four things,” Russell says. “Caramel, vanilla, wood, and sweetness. You want the finish to leave a good taste in your mouth.” He adds that each person is going to look for a distinctive balance of flavors. Russell explains how to examine, smell, and sip the bourbon shot he gives me, describing his approach in developing each brand I’m sampling. My taste buds become more attuned to the spirits, which I hope will put them at an advantage as bourbon is becoming more and more popular.

Thanks to the rise of small-batch premium brands and “Mad Men”-inspired mixed drinks, Bourbon is in the midst of a renaissance, and the folks running the distilleries in central Kentucky’s horse-dotted hills couldn’t be happier. Kentucky produces 95 percent of the world’s bourbon, according to the state distillers’ association, and production has increased 50 percent since 1999. There are 4.7 million barrels of bourbon currently aging in the state, the most since the early 1980s. There’s at least one barrel of bourbon in storage for every person living in Kentucky.

Along with expanding production, distilleries are making over their visitor centers to accommodate the growing interest in the native spirit. The Distillers’ Association launched the Kentucky Bourbon Trail in 1999 to highlight a series of six distilleries that give tours. The self-guided excursion through the country roads and state highways has averaged double-digit percentage growth in the past five years. Since 2007, 2 million visitors toured at least one distillery, and nearly 25,000 people completed the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.

Heaven Hill Distilleries, whose brands include Evan Williams bourbon, built a new visitor center last year that features a museum-like tour through the history of bourbon in the region and a huge barrel shaped tasting room. Jim Beam, the world’s top-selling bourbon, is currently pumping $18 million into upgrading its visitor center and making other improvements at its Clermont plant to accommodate the growing number of tourists.

The Four Roses and Woodford Reserve distilleries also have put money into upgrading visitor centers. Maker’s Mark is in the midst of an estimated $50 million expansion that will boost production, expand bottling capacity, and accommodate larger tour groups at its operations near Loretto in central Kentucky. And next month Wild Turkey will break ground on a new visitor’s center. “We’re going to build it like a tobacco barn and it’ll look out over the Kentucky River,” says Russell.

We’ve just wrapped up a our behind-the-scenes tour of Wild Turkey, and as we step back onto the plant floor the smell of fermented grains and the constant hum of machinery bombard my other senses. The plant was built three years ago when the company realized it couldn’t expand the old one anymore. “We haven’t changed anything with the making part,” says Russell. “Just got bigger.” He acknowledges there are a lot more computer systems in place, automating some of the processes and making it so workers can add ingredients or tweak the temperature with a few keystrokes. But all that is necessary when you get to this size. “We’re currently filling 560 barrels a day,” says Russell, “and since everything we make is aged eight-10 years, we have to plan out carefully.”

Down at Woodford Reserve, the boutique distillery I toured this morning, such careful planning takes on a whole new meaning. This premium small batch bourbon maker only makes two brands of bourbon and starts by cooking up each batch in four of the smallest fermentation vats in the industry. Each vat is made out of cypress wood and feeds into a set of three copper pot stills. According to my tour guide each 7,500-gallon vat produces 850 gallons of new whiskey at the other end of the still. This alcohol goes into charred white oak barrels just like at other bourbon distilleries, but Woodford stores its barrels for eight years, on average, in limestone warehouses that date back to 1893.

It’s a sophisticated operation done with handcrafted precision in the middle of a national historic landmark outside of Versailles. It looks like what most people think Kentucky is supposed to look like—stately stone and wood buildings perched on scenic rolling hills in the middle of miles and miles of horse farms. This is by design since the distillery underwent a massive restoration project that has paid off in spades for Louisville-based Brown-Forman, parent company of Jack Daniels, which bought and rehabilitated the property in 1996.

Resurrecting the derelict farm and distilling site took two years and a reported $7 million, but it resulted in a distillery that not only supported the kind of production needed to build a national brand, but also is a tourist destination on par with some of California’s finest wineries. And like many California wineries, Woodford Reserve charges money for its tour and tasting. The tour was interesting and colorful enough to make it worthwhile, especially when you factor in the tasty sample of its premium bourbon offered at the end. In accordance with Kentucky law, Woodford, and every other distillery I visited, limits its samples to half-ounce shots.

To acquaint myself with a wider range of whiskeys I visited the Bluegrass Tavern in Lexington last night, 40 minutes up the road from Woodford Reserve through some of the most scenic thoroughbred country imaginable. The tavern has 187 different types of bourbon on the menu and a staff that’s well versed on the subject. My bartender helped me hone in on my preferences and told me plenty of stories about the bottles in their collection. I was lucky to be there on a school night when the bar was relatively quiet. As the home of the University of Kentucky, Lexington has a big-college-town feel—the entire downtown area is frequently flooded with basketball-crazy students when the NCAA champion Wildcats play at Rupp Arena. So I managed to get my fill of bourbon in relative peace before stumbling back to the Gratz Inn.

Up until 1996, distilleries couldn’t even sell visitors a bottle of bourbon, much less pass out samples. As Bill, my tour guide at Heaven Hill Distilleries in Bardstown, explained to me, “Everyone would come here looking to taste some bourbon and buy a bottle, and we’d have to send them to the liquor store. Then the state passed a law about six years ago allowing us to offer samples at the end of each tour.” Visitors can also buy up to three liters of whiskey at the distilleries. These changes have driven the explosion in bourbon tourism.

Heaven Hill had 1,000 visitors the Saturday before my visit—they all came by car or motorcycle—no tour buses, to Bill’s chagrin. “I’d rather have a tour bus because they’re fun.” Heaven Hill makes Evan Williams and several other brands of bourbon. Most are bottled at the Bardstown plant but none are actually distilled here—not since the distillery went up in flames. On November 7, 1996, the Heaven Hill distilling building burned down along with seven warehouses full of bourbon in one massive conflagration. The plant was almost completely destroyed—more than 90,000 gallons of alcohol burned. To keep up its bourbon production the company bought a distillery in Louisville, which it still operates, and then ships the alcohol to the Bardstown plant for storage and bottling.

“When these barrels arrive at the warehouse they weigh 510-522 pounds,” says Bill, “And they contain 53 gallons of alcohol.” We’re standing in the middle of one of Heaven Hill’s warehouses where hundreds of bourbon barrels are stacked all around us.

Besides the free standard tour, Heaven Hill offers a behind-the-scenes walk through ($25) and a trolley tour of downtown Bardstown and the surrounding area. I opted for the trolley tour and got to see much of historic Bardstown, including the Doll Cottage, which is an old log cabin school, and Federal Hill, the antebellum mansion that inspired the Stephen Foster’s ballad, “My Old Kentucky Home.”

Large groups should consider a ride on the Old Kentucky Dinner Train, which serves a four-course meal while steaming through the countryside. And if you really want to be part of something special, visit during the annual Bourbon Festival, September 11-16. You’ll find bourbon tastings from dozens of craft distillers, barrel-making exhibitions, and every bourbon-soaked food you could imagine. It’s the biggest event of the year around here, so plan out your trip months in advance.

When I got back to Heaven Hill, Bill took me to the tasting room where he poured 10- and 20-year-old bourbons for me to taste. But he insisted I learn to do it the right way first. He asked me to pick up the 10-year-old bourbon and tilt it on its side to detect any cloudiness. Then he told me to swirl it around and give it a whiff. It smelled smoky and a bit spicy. Next he asked me to add three drops of water to the glass, swirl it around, and then smell the bourbon again. The spiciness wasn’t as pronounced it was before. “Now,” he said, “you’re ready to take a sip—just don’t slam it back like John Wayne.”

Both bourbons were delicious, but the 20-year-old had a way of coating my mouth with a smoky caramel taste that made me chew on it for a while before swallowing. Heaven Hill produces a lot of bourbon, but not as much as some of the other distilleries in the area. “The same year we barreled six million, Jim Beam barreled 12.” He’s hoping the Jim Beam distillery 20 minutes down the road in Clermont, Ky., will drive more tourist his way when its new visitors center is completed this fall.

As home of the best-selling bourbon in the world (Jim Beam White) the Jim Beam distillery is massive in scale, sitting on 480 acres and housing, at any given time, 1.6 million barrels of bourbon. Walking the grounds and seeing the old Beam family homestead provides a better sense of the history and care that’s gone into producing whiskey on this site for the past 215 years. In lieu of a walkthrough in the nearby distillery, we watch a movie on the production process. From there, we tour a warehouse and learn that the record-high temperatures of the past couple of years have aged some of the spirits slightly more than average.

While the walking tour of the re-created small-batch whiskey still, the Beam family home, and the bourbon warehouse is educational, the distillery has more ambitious plans for the new tour launching this fall. “This is the first time in Jim Beam’s history that we are allowing visitors to see our bourbon-making process,” says Kimberly Bennett, director of the Beam Heritage Center, “It will be a very up close and personal experience.” When the new center is built, visitors will experience an interactive tour that includes helping to make Knob Creek, Beam’s single barrel craft bourbon, by stirring the grains to make the mash and filling the bottles.

Witnessing the bourbon-making process and tasting the results not only brings a better understanding of the care that goes into making Kentucky’s signature export, but also an appreciation the character of the people who make it. From the distilleries to the taverns, every place I visited in Central Kentucky was filled with down-to-earth characters eager to share their love of the local spirit. I wasn’t a bourbon expert before I went on this tour, and I can’t say that I am now. But I know what I like and I know how explain why. And I have some master distillers in Central Kentucky to thank for that.

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