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).

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