If my 2012, folks, began with the afterglow of visiting Spain — with dry sherry, fresh seafood, and melt-in-your-mouth jamón — it has ended with the afterglow of Kentucky. It has ended with the memory of bourbon, amber and oaky, filled with notes of caramel and corn, vanilla, char, and spicy rye — with a vision of giant copper stills, and the delicious smells of sour-mash fermentation and barrel aging firmly implanted in my nose.
Kentucky — to clarify — wasn’t a planned December destination. It was one more state that Sarah and I were going to drive through on our epic road trip from Philadelphia into the heart of the Midwest to visit her family. But round about Maysville — the girlhood home of Rosemary Clooney (and a totally charming place to stop for an afternoon) — we found ourselves ahead of schedule. And with a couple of days to kill, we decided: why not? Why not lets hit the bourbon trail, see some distilleries, and discover how the stuff is made?
It turns out that Kentucky’s calcium-rich water is good for two things: breeding strong horses and making hooch. Today, about eleven distilleries dot the Kentucky landscape — down from the hundreds and hundreds that operated before prohibition, but way up from the depths of bourbon’s unfashionability in the joyless 1970s. They churn out what has become one of the signature signifiers of American-ness — one among a handful of products that, like Coca-Cola and jazz, may be counted as our contribution (for better or worse) to the world.
But that’s not why I was interested. I wanted, first of all, to see some distilleries because I personally like the product. The rhetoric of produced-to-be-premium whiskeys positions them as a little effete, a little pretentious, a little bit of a marketing gimmick. And I find that to be sad. Because they are, as a species, a pleasure to drink. They offer complexity of flavor, some sweet smoothness, and a connection to tradition that — though it smacks of nostalgia and marketing, itself — feels a bit like drinking America’s early history. And besides — well — I’ll just say that Maker’s Mark was the whiskey that made me decide I like whiskeys. How can you quibble with that?
But the other — to my mind more important — reason I wanted to visit distilleries has less to do with the drink itself. It turns out that one of my favorite activities, on vacation or otherwise, is to see how stuff is made. I have a great deal of enthusiasm for people who make tangible things — for people who devote themselves to mastering a craft, and who are themselves enthusiastic about producing something that’s not simply saleable, but really, honestly good.
This is the legacy of my being a folklorist, I guess. I got into the folklore business because of a fascination with well-wrought stories. But what I learned from my graduate studies is that that allure translates to material culture, too — to potters and painters, to people who make furniture, and food, and — apparently — booze.
The making of bourbon is a wholly industrial business. Whether it looks like a high-tech chemical plant of today, or whether it looks like an old-timey mill is irrelevant. Whiskey is the province of large corporate concerns; even the smallest batches are enormous; and the journey from mash tun to aging to bottle amounts to an extended assembly line.
And yet — bourbon is also a craft. It is an industry populated by folks who care about the subtleties of sight and smell, who tend to mixtures of grain and wild yeasts, who thieve aging liquor from dusty barrels to determine whether it’s right — whether it’s done. It is a process that is wholly recognizable to me as a home brewer, even as it would be equally recognizable to a factory worker making soap, or bleach, or industrial solvent. Bourbon is (another) one of those products that seems to blur the line between art and craft and industry. And that, I suppose, is also why I was so keen to see it made.
At any rate, in the end, the entirety of the bourbon trail was too ambitious for a mere two-day jaunt. We were only able to visit Woodford Reserve, Buffalo Trace, and Maker’s Mark before motoring off into the setting sun, toward our various Yuletide festivities. But three distilleries was enough, at least, to get a taste for how it is done, and to learn the basics of what makes this particular whiskey a thing unto itself.
We learned, for instance, that bourbon doesn’t absolutely need to be produced in Kentucky. When Finger Lakes Distilling makes McKenzie Bourbon Whiskey on the banks of Lake Seneca in New York, it isn’t some illicit affectation. To be called bourbon in the United States, a whiskey needs only be at least 51% corn; it needs only be aged in a new oak barrel; it needs only never exceed 160 proof during the distillation process. Other things like geography are important to the character of the product, but not necessarily the name.
We learned, too, that not every craft bourbon is the same. The distinctive spiciness of Woodford Reserve derives from its relatively high percentage of rye in the mash. While the sweetness of Maker’s Mark is all in its use of wheat. Single barrel bourbons have a character unto themselves; the type of oak in the barrel — French or American — makes an enormous difference to the final product; and at least according to the folks on the Maker’s Mark campus, it is entirely possible to over-age bourbon — and not to good effect.
Finally, we learned that terms like craft and premium are not necessarily attached to the particulars of the bourbon-making process. Of all the distilleries we visited, Woodford Reserve produces whiskey on the smallest scale. They ferment their mash in glorious cedar vats, triple distill it in copper pot stills, and come out with an end product that is — perhaps — close to what one might consider ‘vintage’ (‘retro?’).
But not so Buffalo Trace. They boast the largest stainless steel fermenters in the business. They produce vodka, and gin, and any of a number of other spirits marketed by Sazerac (their parent company). Their campus could easily be mistaken for a modern factory complex.
Yet despite these differences, they both make delicious bourbon. Despite these differences, the end product can rightfully be designated ‘premium’; and the degree to which its makers care about it, no doubt, makes it ‘craft.’
By the end of the third distillery, I had the distinct impression that Sarah — who is not, herself, a huge whiskey fan — had had quite enough with the touring (thankyouverymuch). She said that she enjoyed the first one. She said that seeing me giddy, asking the tour guides geeky questions about enzymes and starch conversion efficiency, was a lot of fun. But she said, too, that she was ready to move on.
The next day, though, as we headed through Saint Louis and onward toward family time, she got a call from her brother. And wasn’t I pleasantly surprised when she broke into a twenty-minute animated explanation of all that she had learned.
Does that make Sarah a whiskey convert? Probably not. But I would venture that it bodes well for getting to hit the bourbon trail again, when next we’re in the neighborhood. I couldn’t say for sure. But I nurture a warm, oaky ember of hope.
(As usual, you may click on images to expand them. They are, most definitely, best viewed large.)