Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Bourbon Immersion, pt 3

Woo...so back on track. Day four found us, as usual, running late and frantically trying to bang clothes on our backs and shoes on our feet before heading out to Woodford Reserve for a personal tour of the facilities. Now, the last time I was there, we were graced by the wonderful Chris Morris himself, who personally took us through every step of the process from grain to goblet--and then sat down to lunch with us. The man is loaded with knowledge not only of the craft of distillation, but of the history of the industry as a whole, and truly, deeply passionate about distilling.

We sat through the standard 7-minute video introducing the plant and whiskey in general, then made our way down to the fermenters. We walked into the fermentation room and were greeted by the sight of a very fat, very happy cat lazing on the bottom of the stairs leading up to the tanks...not something I think you'd see at any other distillery. The fermenters are cypress, and quite a bit smaller than the other distilleries we'd seen thus far; all but two were empty; our guide explained that their output was being diminished prior to shutdown for the summer in a few weeks. As the wood sits empty, it dries, and starts to shrink; we could see where the metal bands hugging the tanks had pulled away from the wood. Prior to startup in the fall, they need to steam the tanks for up to two weeks in order to restore them to mash-holding capabilities.

The stills are beautiful. They are, I believe, the only non-Vendome stills currently operating in Kentucky. (I do need to double-check that, so bear with me.) Scottish in origin, three copper pot stills stand to the side of a massive wood floor, at the head of which stands the proof box--hand-turned to make the proof cuts--and a large notebook, with actual cuts, proofs and times written down, by hand, with an actual pen, by an actual person.

That, I think, was the thing that stood out the most for us: the attention to detail, the hands-on nature of the plant, and the tiny, tiny output as compared with behemoths like Heaven Hill and Buffalo Trace. The last time we toured Woodford, Chris Morris tasted his white dog with us, next to the finished product, and I still remember being stunned at the beautiful, clean, ripe melony, almost mezcal character of the distillate. Now, I do enjoy Woodford, but I feel that its true expression is...dulled, somewhat, from the still to the bottle, and we couldn't figure out what was going on.

When we entered the bottling room, we were surreptitiously offered a taste of woodford--straight from the barrel. Uncut, unmingled, high-octane...I still think about that taste of whiskey. It was phenomenal, to say the least. I would buy that at barrel strength, a la George Stagg or Parker's Heritage, or even at 107 proof, unmingled with Old Forester, maybe in a single barrel expression. Chris knows what he's doing with his "honey barrels" of Forester, but I'd love to see the character of the stuff he's got at Woodford be able to shine through...I mean, c'mon, we've had a Four Grain, and a Sweet Mash, and a Chardonnay-barrel finish, which are very nice and cool and whiskey-dorky, so how about a micro-run of single barrel stuff? Please? And while we're at it, maybe a bottle or two of "Woodford White?"

Ah, well, if wishes were horses...

After a lovely lunch on the patio in the noon sun, which did much to restore our flagging vitality, we proceeded on to Wild Turkey; this time taking a back road which, after zigging and zagging and eroding our confidence, abruptly spat us out on an S-shaped bridge...and WHAM! there was Wild Turkey. Riding over the Kentucky River, the green-and-red silos and buildings of the plant beckoning us onward, and the four of us singing along to Merle Haggard belting out "Okie from Muskogee," we truly felt great things were in store for us...

We pulled into the Turkey parking lot, walked into the visitor center, and stopped dead--there, sitting casually in a rocker just inside the front door, was Jimmy Russell, Master Distiller. Holy crap. We'd met him very briefly a few months before, at Whiskeyfest in Chicago, and again when he stopped in at our bar, but this was just too damn cool for words. We went up to him and introduced ourselves, and he recalled us as being the ones who made all those "crazy drinks." Yep. Jimmy Russell remembered us. We tried very hard not to be too fanboyish, but we were fully stoked.

The public tour was pretty standard; the requisite video, then viewing the barreling and ageing facilities; the positively immense fermenters (of which there are dozens,) and then the still, where we were able to taste the white dog. Turkey's white dog is lovely, perhaps a bit lighter than Woodford or Trace, but a bit meatier than Heaven Hill. We were the only ones on the tour who stepped up for a taste of the white dog, and we got some hilariously dirty looks when we went back for seconds. Look, we weren't drinking it to get plastered; the first little drickle we were allowed we rubbed on our hands, and smelled for about five minutes, before going back to actually taste the stuff. White dog makes great hand lotion, by the way.

Tour over, we rambled back along the road to Woodford, bypassing it, and continuing along to the Old Taylor distillery...this is where I really wish we had thought to bring a camera, as the grounds are just incredible. The distillery is abandoned, but the buildings are still there, and with a little hopping around we were able to walk through the grounds. (Note: this was technically trespassing. Do Not Do This. We are bad people.) The plant itself is beautiful from the outside; with everything overgrown and turning to mildew and vegetation, the atmosphere was appropriately post-apocalyptic. Down along the river... a roofed-in reflecting pool and a pair of beautiful gazebos. Now that Sazerac has acquired the brand, I'm wondering if they might consider purchasing and renovating the property here; it'd rival Woodford in its quiet charm and beauty.

We couldn't stay long, however, and so were off again, back to Louisville, for a dinner at the exclusive Pendennis Club, supposed home of the Old-Fashioned. (Definitively not true, as they claim it dates from the 1880s, which is about 50 years too late. Perhaps the originator of the "new-wave" old-fashioned, with muddled cherries, orange and soda water, but certainly not the original cocktail. --digression.)

Pendennis, however, has a no-jeans policy, which of course ran counter to our sartorial packing choices, so a stop was made at a Wal-Mart to purchase dress slacks on the way there...and of course, since we were already late, the first Wal-Mart Googlemaps took us to was a grocery store. (I had no idea Wal-Mart even had grocery stores. Frightening.) Eventually, after much hilarity and finger-pointing and peanut butter rock, we made it to town, showered, dressed, and ran out to meet Bobby from Bulleit at Pendennis. Honestly? Good food, if a trifle unimaginitive, and truly the best damn turtle soup I'd ever had...

A couple games of pool later and we were off to Nachbar (again), and then Seidenfadens, a little karaoke-friendly dive bar in Germantown, where we reprised Okie from Muskogee to a stunned crowd of Kentuckian semi-hipsters...we closed the place down and then rolled back to the hotel at about 5 to contemplate our 10 am appointment with Jim Rutledge at Four Roses...showing great fortitude by turning down invitations to continue the party at a friend's house.

Next up: Four Roses, Buffalo Trace, 732 Social, Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye, Nachbar (again).

more whiskey stuff

So I'll be getting back on track with my bourbon blowout in a couple of days; but right now things are just shakin'. New food menu is more or less finalized, new cocktail menu at VH will get sorted tomorrow (WITH the inestimable Toby Maloney at the helm!), and Tales is a week away, but tonight I'll be heading over to the Whistler to drink some Rendezvous Rye and chat with David Perkins, master distiller at High West! I'll try to remain sober enough to pose a question or two that may be worth posting here...but no promises. Mostly I'd love to find out from whence their current stock hails, as fruitless as that tack may be. Update later.


Monday, June 22, 2009

bourbon immersion, pt. 2

Day two was a rough start...we awoke too late to tour the Four Roses rickhouses near Bardstown, and had to hightail it to Louisville to make our appointment with Heaven Hill. Upon pulling into the parking lot we were met by Jim Land, a 30-year veteran of Heaven Hill. He started the tour by pointing out the brick aging warehouses all around us; they were built in the 1930s and were currently used solely to age Christian Brothers brandy, the moneymaker brand for the company. He was quite candid about every aspect of the whiskey-making process; for instance, the company uses one mash bill for practically every whiskey they make; the differences come strictly from the barrel and mingling processes. He also gave us the precise proportions they use, explained the relationship between fermentation--they prefer a 3-5 day fermentation--and temperature--as low as 64 F for a 7-day fermentation. Heaven Hill was amazing in its level of automation; we were introduced to two operators who, using a simple graphical interface, were controlling the mash cook, cooling, fermentation, column distillation, doubler distillation, and transfer to holding tanks. Uniquely, they ship their uncut white dog out to their rackhouses in Nelson County, where it's cut to 125 proof and aged.
The fermentation tanks were covered; the first of that style I'd seen. The operators stressed that we had to look inside them, very important...we discovered why when Jim opened up a tank and bade us stick our heads in to smell...and a concentrated blast of carbon dioxide almost knocked me off my feet! With the open-top fermenters I'd seen before, there's a layer of CO2 above the tank, but nothing as intense as the rush we got there. This was immediately after tasting the white dog, which was delicious, if a little less interesting than that of Maker's or Woodford, but a little more complex than that of Buffalo Trace. After a breakfast of white dog and carbon dioxide, we were directed to walk down three flights of curving stairs...Those folks have a heck of a sense of humor, I'll tell you.
Jim then showed us the receiving area where the grain is dumped, and pointed out the trucks that are constantly on the move to and from Wisconsin, hauling the stock for their whiskey. Around back he pointed out the bullet holes in another set of fermenters...Yeah, bullet holes. Kentucky, right? His words, not mine.

At this point our lack of breakfast was fast becoming a serious issue, so we saddled up for Mike's Feed Store, and tucked into some of the best damn ribs and worst damn cornbread I'd had in a while. A cold glass of root beer and we were on the road for Lawrenceburg, for an appointment with Wild Turkey. I'd toured this distillery the last time we were in Kentucky, and wasn't expecting much, but still game to learn a little more...Unfortunately the last tour was at 2.30, not 3.30 as we'd thought...a fact that was to prove fortuitous in the end. We bummed around the gift shop for a minute, then split for downtown Lawrenceburg to see the sights...and ten minutes later were on the road again. No disrespect intended to the town; there just wasn't much going on for out-of-towners.

So back to the hotel for a quick nap, then dressed in our Sunday best and off to Basa, in my opinion the best restaurant in Louisville. Full disclosure: the owners and chef are good friends of ours, and so we feel incredibly warm and welcome whenever we go, but even so, the food is just plain amazing. Authentic, classic Vietnamese done with French sensibilites and technique. Perfect seasoning, execution and presentation. Fine food in the company of good friends, washed down with Rittenhouse Bonded, then off to 732 Social, their new hot spot on Market Street. Great spirits and cocktails--one in particular called a Dirt Funk, which recipe unfortunately escapes me at the moment--again in the company of good folk. The bar closed, we repaired to Nachbar once again, for more Old Fitz and Barton. Note: every bar in Louisville has a great whiskey selection.

That's about where things get hazy, so we'll continue tomorrow with Woodford Reserve, really Wild Turkey, Old Taylor, Pendennis Club, Nachbar (notice a theme here?), and Seidenfaden's.


Sunday, June 21, 2009

bourbon immersion, pt. 1

Day one we rolled into Louisville around midnight...Wayne the Train Hancock on the radio, skyline passing by to our right as we hit the bridge into Kentucky. We met up with some friends at Nachbar, out in Germantown, and celebrated our arrival with glasses of Very Old Barton 90 proof and Old Fitzgerald 86 proof...which were followed by a few more glasses of Old Heaven Hill bonded and white label...which led to sopes and carnitas at 5.30 AM...all of which made our 10 AM appointment at Maker's Mark seem impossibly close and unachievable.

We made it to Maker's Mark by about 11.30. Now, in all honesty, I've never been a huge fan of the brand; on the nose I often find too much char, and the palate seems to crest early and then fade rather quickly. I also have little patience for those who order Maker's just because that's all they know; that's the marketing. You like the wheat, great, there're plenty of interesting wheated bourbons out there; give 'em a try. That being said, I have nothing but respect for what the brand has done for the industry; essentially creating the whole category of "premium" bourbons. At least it gets people drinking bourbon...

The folks over at Maker's Mark were the very soul of hospitality. The grounds were immaculate, and the operations remarkably streamlined. All the employees I saw seemed to be content enough with their jobs, especially our exceedingly excitable tour guide. At the end of the tour we were invited to taste the white dog, or pre-barrel distillate, and the final product. Side note: one of the main reasons we wanted to tour the distilleries was for precisely this reason: to taste the white dog. It's an amazing spirit; the corn sings out loud and clear, the rye or wheat dances around that, and all is backed by the clean cereal notes of the barley. I'd never had anything like it before our first trip to Kentucky, and now was looking forward to seeing the intricacies of everyone's white dog.

I was excited as we nosed the Maker's dog, it was far more complex and layered than I was expecting...but oh, was the palate disappointing! A big giant hole, right in the middle of the palate, barely showing the wheat I was looking for. The tour guide casually mentioned that they'd diluted the dog with water down to about 90 proof, although to us it tasted closer to 75 or 80. After the session was over I approached the guide and politely expressed my disappointment in the watered-down dog...at which point she offered to run us back to the still to taste the real deal as it flowed from the doubler! Holy crap! A few minutes later and there we were...sipping 138 proof dog from a metal dipper...and there it was! A beautiful spirit, aromatic and fresh, the wheat notes fairly sparkling big bowl of crisp, heady cornflakes. The palate was everything we were hoping for, as well; full-bodied and lush, viscous and to the point, with a gorgeous, lingering finish. Definitely above and beyond.

We split after spending a little money in the gift shop, and swung by Jim Beam for what proved to be the flat-out lamest tour on the trail. Starting with a video that reduced the incredible history of a colorful family to 7 of the blandest moments of my life, we were then ushered into the tasting room and offered a sixteenth of an ounce each of the Black label and Bookers...and then bade farewell. They say that they're overhauling the tour, and within three years there'll be something to do there...but they could have tried a little harder.

Back to Bardstown then, and a stop at the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History...we got there about forty minutes before closing and were frantically rushed to see everything. I sould spend hours there and still not be satisfied. When you go, check out the wall of 50-mL old bourbon bottles, as well as sundry old liqueurs and rums and such. Also on display are dozens of old bottles dating back before Prohibition, many with the original whiskey still inside.

One note: it is basically impossible to get into trouble in Bardstown on a Monday night in June. The liveliest place we could find was a bright and empty sports bar called Cricket's; nice place, but hardly the crowd we were looking for...So back to the hotel to smoke Cubans and pass around a 375 of Maker's we'd picked up and hand-dipped at the distillery.

Next Time: Heaven Hill, Mike's Feed Store, almost Wild Turkey, Bourbon's Bistro, Basa, 732 Social, Nachbar.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Bourbon Country

So I just got back from a whirlwind, 5-day rampage through Bourbon country; tours of almost every distillery, sips of white dog, explorations of Louisville's nightlife, and headfirst immersion in bourbon (at times literally). I've got to go to work right now, but over the next couple of days I'll be posting a rundown of our experiences, as well as some correlations I've been making in my quest to really understand whiskey, especially bourbon whiskey, in its transformation from grains waving in the field to that amber hammer we know and love. I'll probably get a bit emotional at times, because when you see the love that goes into this product it becomes impossible not to be affected by that love yourself.

Sunday, June 14, 2009


I love Cynar. I purchased a bottle quite randomly at my last bar, and kind of enjoyed it, but it wasn't until I started drinking at The Violet Hour that I discovered the Rapture that it can bring. Now I get the chance to turn people on to it every night. Check out this awesome Italian commercial:


Tuesday, June 9, 2009

the experience

What's the ultimate goal as a bartender, cook, restaurant manager, owner, etc.? Different for everyone, I guess... but the thing to remember is that we're here to do two things: create a convivial and enjoyable atmosphere for the guest, and pay the rent. Do the first well enough, and the second will follow. So why tell someone they don't want what they think they want? We spend a lot of time doing what we do; as we transform raw product (vegetables, meats, booze, sugar, even extending to unfinished floors and bare walls) into something fit for consumption, we naturally see it from every angle. If I suggest to someone that they might like something else better than what they've ordered, there's a good chance I know what I'm talking about. I don't just want you to come in, fill up, and roll out; it needs to be an experience. Even when just having a cocktail, or a quick bite. And no, the experience needn't be extended and time-consuming; sometimes just a smile and a good attitude is all that it takes. Wanna just make money? Cool; but as long as you're doing it why not do it the best you can? Make people happy, genuinely happy, and everything else will fall into place.