My “Brief” History With Bourbon: Part 1

Music:  Randy Newman – My Old Kentucky Home

Drink:  Jack Daniels

My brief history with bourbon began a few years ago.  I attended a conference in Louisville (pronounced LOO-uh-vuhl, and slur those vowels together as much as possible – so much so that the “uh” is nearly nonexistent) with my friends Jake, Jerri and Ryan.

When my friends and I travel, we’ll be damned if we’re going to eat at a chain restaurant we can easily dine at almost anywhere.  I can get Burger King or McDonald’s any time (though I never do…gross).  Instead, we seek out the local color.  What do these people eat?  What do these people drink?  That is, the ones that don’t go to Burger King or McDonald’s.  Being from suburban Connecticut, I’m spoiled when it comes to food.  I have access to nearly every type of food there is with at least three restaurant options for each.  So chain restaurants have no appeal to me anywhere.  Local color is where it’s at.

That being said, it is not always easy to find “local”.  There are places in this country where you have to scour and dig deep to find it.  For example, while staying in eastern Virginia for a wedding, I was in the mood for pizza.  I asked a cashier at a grocery store I had stopped in where to find local pizza, to which I received the response, “Well…there’s Pizza Hut and Dominoes.”

“No,” I said, “I don’t mean near here, I mean only here.”
“Little Caesars?”

I politely ended the conversation.

I ended up hearing about a local place with a few stores in various places nearby so I gave them a try.  I may as well have gone to Little Caesar’s.  Maybe I shouldn’t have asked a teenager in the first place because even where I’m from they’re all about the fast food but I was tired and he was right there.

Fortunately, that wasn’t the case in Louisville.  There, finding local was very easy especially with the help of the plethora of minds and conversations I can tap into on the internet instead of just one teenager at Kroger.

The crowning achievement in our endeavor to find the best local place to eat was Hammerheads.  I cannot describe to you properly how fantastic this place was.  We’re pub people, in general, and this has become a standard for me of a proper pub.  The beer selection was great with plenty of local options and the food was fantastic (served on wood planks, no less).  If you’re ever in Louisville and you enjoy excellent pub fare, go find Hammerheads.  And I do mean find it.  It’s literally in the basement of a house in a neighborhood adjacent to what seemed like a light industrial zone.  We actually thought we had gotten lost on one of those GPS ghost trips (where you put in the given address and end up nowhere).  But when we saw the full-size Hammerhead shark mounted to the exterior of the house (on or above the porch if I remember correctly), we figured we were there.

It’s hard for me to encourage you to go there because I become torn when recommending really good to exceptional things to people.  I want people to share in the experience but I also want to keep it to myself.  For example, I’m an introvert.  I like to be with friends but I need a quiet place to recharge whenever I travel to a conference.  I find myself an out-of-the-way spot that I can visit without interruption when I need to.  I don’t tell anyone where it is (save my wife who can interrupt me whenever she wants; just not right now I’m blogging).  I especially need this when traveling with Jake who can be so boisterous that I can hear a ringing in my ears if I’ve spent a significant amount of time with him.  In fairness to Jake, he has mellowed out over the years but I still get that ringing from time to time.

My places of retreat and respite survive when people don’t know about them.  But places like Hammerheads survive because people do know about them.  My trouble is when too many people know.  When your favorite restaurant’s line gets longer and longer.  When your favorite bourbon’s prices skyrocket, or when you can’t even find them anymore.  Admittedly though, I’m sure that I’ve contributed to this scenario for other people who discovered bourbon long before I did.  So I’ll put up with the lines, the difficulty of finding my favorites and the increasing prices.  They are keeping my favorite things alive and, in the case of bourbon, adding more enjoyable bottles to the shelf (and less enjoyable bottles as well; it’s tough to navigate sometimes).

As I mentioned, we’re typically pub people.  At the time we would have sought out local beers.  However, given that we were in bourbon country we decided to use our free day before the conference to go discover bourbon for ourselves.  It seemed only right to delve into Kentucky’s famous brown juice.  At the time, that’s all I knew about bourbon; it’s brown.  Jerri, who knew much more about it than the rest of us, suggested a few distilleries we could visit.  Four Roses, Woodford Reserve and I forget the third.  Jim Beam, maybe?  Based on the names alone, Four Roses sounded pleasant and expensive and Woodford Reserve sounded upscale and expensive.  Since we weren’t concerned with buying any, merely experiencing it at its origins, when we found out that Woodford is the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby, we headed there.

For a suburbanite, Woodford’s facility feels like it’s in the middle of nowhere, which was great.  It’s in Versailles which gets its name, like many other counties and towns in Kentucky, from a French origin.  There’s a history to it but I don’t remember.  What I do know is that unlike in France, where it’s pronounced vair-SIGH, in Kentucky it’s pronounced ver-SALES (complete with a Kentucky accent, of course).

The distillery is surrounded by rolling hillsides peppered with barns, horses and farmhouses, each surrounded by miles of wood pasture fence that’s even more charming when it’s painted white (and most of it is).

The visitor’s center sits at the top of the hill coming up from a small river feeding into Glenns Creek.  The stairs leading down to the distilling house and the aging warehouses are Limestone, as is the external construction of the warehouses themselves.  Limestone plays an important role as the water used to make the bourbon here, and other distilleries in Kentucky, is filtered through it in the earth before it’s pumped up from a well.  It is also, therefore, very plentiful here.

We decided to take the tour of the facility (paid, of course).  Our guide, Keith if I remember, did an excellent job explaining distillation, mashbill, what each piece of equipment is used for, the history of this particular distillery, etc.  We made an impression on him as we always enjoy full participation in these types of things with plenty of mirth (maybe he had that ringing in his ears when we left).  It was a great experience and I gained a greater understanding and appreciation for this drink that I had previously passed by on shelves without a glance.

What I didn’t know then was that this distillery is atypical of what your average commercial Kentucky distillery is like.  Woodford is the only distillery that ages its bourbon exclusively in Limestome rick houses.  It’s also significantly smaller than other distilleries (particularly when compared with someone like Jim Beam which has facilities in two different locations, though they are across the street from each other).

Beyond the copper pot stills imported from Scotland, the Limestone rick houses, the history of the distillery, the distillation techniques and everything else we learned on the tour was the catalyst that propelled me into my bourbon enthusiasm.  When we walked into the aging warehouse, we saw barrels stored to the ceiling.  It was impressive for someone who’s never seen it before.  Each barrel housing over one hundred bottles worth of bourbon taking its time to mature through the passing seasons.

And it was there that my nose was engaged.

I smelled what is, in any barrel aging setting, called the angel’s share.  The alcohol, and whatever water was used to lower it to the desired barrel entry proof, soaking through the wood and evaporating into the air (where the angels enjoy it).  It was soft and gentle.  Oak and the distilled spirit within unified beautifully.  It wasn’t merely wet wood, it was sweet.  I didn’t understand it at the time, all I knew was that I wanted to stand there and smell it for hours.

The tour ended with a tasting of their standard offering of “Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select” (which, up until then, was their only offering; seems like a long name for the only thing you make) and the new permanent expression of Woodford Reserve Double Oaked.  Before this day, and that amazing scent of whiskey maturing in Oak, I would have put a glass of bourbon to my nose and thought, “Smells like rubbing alcohol.  No thanks.”  But on this day I understood.  What I was smelling here in my plastic souvenir shot glass was the sweetness of the flavors of the whiskey (72% corn, 10% malted barley, 18% rye in Woodford’s case) combined with the flavors imparted by the Oak.

Eureka!

That moment of understanding is when I started to love bourbon.  And my enthusiasm has only grown.

As a side note, I ended up purchasing a bottle of the Double Oaked (which I preferred over the DIstiller’s Select) because it was a fresh expression, unavailable at home.  I ended up with a bottle signed and dated by Chris Morris, Woodford’s Master Distiller.  All of the employees received one and, at the checkout in the gift shop, I somehow received what I believe was supposed to be Keith’s bottle (I didn’t even know I had it until we got home).  Keith, if you ever read this and remember, I’m sorry.  I’m even more sorry because I opened it and drank it all (I was new to bourbon; I just wanted to sit and relive that moment of understanding).  I’m not sorry I drank it, of course, but I wonder if it would have been worth something some day if it had remained unopened.  Regardless, I’m sorry to Keith.

After departing the distillery with my newfound understanding and appreciation, we stopped at a local liquor store (Liquor Barn, I believe) to peruse the bourbon selection.  We were only interested in anything we wanted to try immediately, now that we knew what it was, or bottles that we couldn’t get back in Connecticut.  Looking back, I would have made very different selections.  Most of what we were told wasn’t available at home (we didn’t know; we never looked) actually was.  And most of the stuff we skipped by I have since discovered to be unavailable here and delicious.

We did come home with some great bottles to try and enjoy.  Even if they were available here, the bottles we had were, in a sense, Kentucky local.  And that counts for something.

I’ll continue with my home bourbon adventures with Jake in Part 2.

If you ever have a chance to tour a distillery, I do recommend Woodford Reserve.  Even if not there, take the opportunity to stand in an aging warehouse and just smell.  Then pick up a glass of bourbon, remember, and understand.

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