Kentucky's Bourbon Trail

May 22, 2002
Filed under Destinations

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The tantalizing aroma that wafted from the box of bourbon balls when I opened it, a gift
from a friend last Christmas, was enough to whet my interest in a spirit I hadn’t tasted
since college days. But the flavor of the little chocolate-covered orbs was even better.
The friend had returned recently from a tour of several Kentucky distilleries, and she was
so fascinated by the fermenting process that our curiosity was aroused. “The action of the
yeast in the fermenting mash is what creates the turmoil,” she said. “Every distillery uses
a different strain, and some have been around for generations. You really need to go.” I
agreed, and telephoned Marge Bateman at Kentucky Tourism, who offered to arrange visits to
the distilleries of our choice. She explained that before Prohibition shut them down in
1920, more than 200 distilleries had been operating in Kentucky. Thirteen years later, when
Prohibition came to an end, 35 of them reopened. Today, nine remain, producing a wide
variety of bourbons. For our tours, we chose Buffalo Trace in Franklin County, Labrot and
Graham located in Versailles and Maker’s Mark in Loretto. All are located within a 50-mile
area that lies roughly between Frankfort and Bardstown. The offices of Buffalo Trace
Distillery are housed in an elegant 13-room limestone mansion that sits high on a hill
overlooking the tree-shaded Kentucky River. Throughout the 1960s, the sumptuous house had
belonged to former distillery owner Albert Blanton, who also owned a large farm nearby,
said Theresa McAninch, hospitality and events coordinator for Buffalo Trace. Under
Blanton’s ownership, and in fact until last year, the distillery had been known as Ancient
Age. Our visit to Buffalo Trace, which spans 110 acres and includes 14 warehouses where
250,000 barrels of bourbon are aging at any given time, began at the historic red-brick
“free house.” Until about 20 years ago, the padlock could be opened only by a government
agent “to make sure the whiskey was properly taxed before it was sold,” McAninch told us.
Now, taxes are added at the time of sale. The free house is now a visitors center where a
short video provides an introduction to the distillery. The high-ceilinged room, built more
than a century ago, features brick walls decorated with whiskey memorabilia, such as dozens
of copper stencils and stenciled barrel heads. McAninch noted that although 90 percent of
all bourbon is made in Kentucky, that is not a requirement. “But for whiskey to be bourbon,
the distiller must follow certain rules adopted as standard by Congress in 1964,” she said.
“It must be made using at least 51 percent corn; it must be aged a minimum of two years in
new, charred, white-oak barrels; and it must not be more than 160 proof, or 80 percent
alcohol.” We walked to nearby Warehouse H, a four-story stone-and-brick structure built in
1881 that houses about 10,000 barrels of aging whiskey. McAninch pointed out that the floor
is not attached to the walls, but is a wood platform with four stories of platforms atop
it, rics comprised of planks weighty enough to support all those 52-gallon barrels, each
weighing about 500 pounds. This is an amazing room, the dim light revealing a world of
barrels, floor to ceiling, some of them oozing their precious cargo (no sealant is used on
the staves, but six steel bands encircle each barrel). Buffalo Trace, which is aged from
seven to nine years, is the top-of-the-line. If the label says “Kentucky Straight,” the
contents have been aged at least two years, McAninch said. Distilling at Buffalo Trace,
which operates with a staff of 200, takes place between October and April, with 40,000
barrels produced each year. Equally imposing, though smaller, is the Labrot and Graham
Distillery, a stately cluster of stone buildings now listed in the National Register of
Historic Places, just east of Frankfort. Over the next two hours, our guide, Dave Salyers,
showed us, step by step, how bourbon is made. First he suggested we sample the malted
barley and rye that make up about 28 percent of the whiskey; the jaw-breaking corn was not
available to sample. “Some distilleries use red wheat,” he said. “We look for the snap and
zing rye gives us.” Salyers described the process of soaking the barley, boiling the
setback, and adding the malted barley. He led us upstairs to a room of four bubbling
witch-like cauldrons, the cypress fermenting tanks. Yeast eating the sugar produced by the
corn and barley is what causes the sour, mocha-colored brew to churn so ominously.
Distillation, which goes on all year at Labrot and Graham, is the next step. Bursts of
steam heat the mash, causing the alcohol to rise off it as vapor, which is then condensed
back to liquid. Over the next 18 hours, as distilling continues, it is transformed from
distiller’s beer to low wine, high wine, then crystal-clear new whiskey, ready for the
barrel. Salyers noted that the barrels, made in Louisville, are toasted with a mix of
nutmeg, cinnamon, caramel and vanilla as they move along a conveyor. Next the wood is
charred 1/16-inch deep, to open the grain; then the barrels are filled and stored where
they will age for six to eight years. The distillery turns out 110 barrels of bourbon a
week, up from 17 a week three years ago. The next afternoon we drove through tiny Loretto
to visit Maker’s Mark Distillery. The dozen restored buildings in the complex, many of
which date from the 19th century, are brown frame with red shutters and cream-colored trim.
It’s easy to think that they looked little different in 1805, when the facility (then a
grist mill/distillery) opened. Current president, T.W. Samuels Jr., whose father bought the
650-acre property in 1953, has made the distillery inviting to tourists and was
instrumental in creating the Bourbon Trail. Maker’s Mark, with a staff of 60, is another of
Kentucky’s smaller distilleries, with peak capacity of just 38 barrels a day. We were
treated to the site of a five-story copper still and a roomful of cypress vats, each one 12
feet deep and 12 feet across. Several were brimming with the sour, roiling and spitting
oatmeal-like glop, that through the alchemy of distillation, would one day be as mellow and
translucent as pure amber. We walked to the office/gift shop where tours begin. Here
visitors can buy T-shirts and other apparel, cups, glasses, pens and more, all bearing the
Maker’s Mark logo. Bottles of the fine spirit, each capped with rich red wax, stood in neat
rows, though not for sale on the day of our visit, as it was Sunday. “But we can offer you
this,” said the clerk, spreading a small sheet of wax paper on the counter. On it, she laid
half a dozen bites of what they eat in heaven — chocolate-covered bourbon balls.

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