Kentucky where the good times roll

Kentucky where the good times roll

There's nothing like a heady blend of sunshine, history and great hospitality to create a great drink, as Marcin Miller discovered

Distillery Focus | 16 Oct 1999 | Issue 6 | By Marcin Miller

  • Share to:
I'm not sure about you, but travelling around in the air-conditioned luxury of a Chrysler Voyager, driving past signs proudly advertising 'The most awesome fleamarket in the world', admiring the yard art while listening to Tom Waits' Mule Variations playing on WFPK Radio all makes for a pretty good time. Add to that blazing sunshine and temperatures in the ‘90s and it gets even better. Then, of course, there's the Bourbon and the Kentucky hospitality.May or June has to be the ideal time if you're planning to visit Kentucky; it's the horse-racing season and it's hot. Go before and you'll freeze, go after and the humidity will do you in. The extremes of temperature go some way to explain why Bourbon matures so much more quickly than Scotch. Coming from the airport, less than an hour from Chicago, you enter Louisville via Mohammed Ali Boulevard. Many of the small wooden houses on the small estates that line the route are identical; the locals call these cookie-cutter homes. Louisville itself is essentially small-town America.It's easy to imagine getting disorientated as there are few real landmarks. However, there are some gems; for example the gigantic Roman Catholic cathedral rejuvenated recently and the stunning Gothic-style Seelbach Hotel spring to mind.Louisville makes the ideal base from which to explore Kentucky's distilleries and other attractions.About 200 years ago a Gaelic diaspora took place, triggered by religious persecution further north and many of its casualties ended up here. But it's too easy to forget that the British were not alone in adding to the population explosion; European influences are clear and you can see it in the place names; Versailles, Germantown, Schnitzelburg and the county from which the whiskey takes its name, Bourbon. Shunned by the Puritans of New England, the Presbyterian pioneers ventured further and deeper into the unknown. For the purposes of this magazine, the chief of their exportable skills was the ability to distil grain. The bountiful state of Kentucky, which remained part of Virginia until 1792, yielded a far greater crop than the early settlers could realistically cope with. So to stop the grain spoiling and rotting, they made whiskey. There is, as with all history, a huge amount of romance and anecdote attached. The first Bourbon was created by the Reverend Elijah Craig. His name lives on in a current brand of Bourbon because in 1789 he accidentally scorched the wooden staves in which his whiskey was stored; the result was a more attractive proposition than the overpoweringly strong frontier whiskey.If you combine romance and the history you end up with heritage. Some would argue with that syllogism but, clearly in these days of fin de siècle decadence, having something tangible to act as a reminder of simpler days is worth promoting. And, hey, it's a quintessentially American drink – so why not be proud of it? Every distillery you visit will probably bear a sign at the entrance from the National Historical Register claiming that it is, in some way, shape or form, the oldest
in Kentucky.Maker’s Mark is a National Historic Landmark and the oldest distillery site currently in production. Founded in 1805 the majority of construction took place between 1869 and 1902. Visually, Maker's Mark is stunning, like a Victorian village complete with greens and pavements. The site is also remarkably peaceful. Even when running at full capacity you can only hear the birds and the odd air-conditioning unit. The Quart House is America's oldest standing packaged liquor store; a drive-through designed to be at horse height. Throughout the distillery site the window shutters are repainted annually the same red of the Maker's Mark wax seal. Those same shutters also feature a cut-out of the distinctive bottle shape. All around are positive reinforcements of the identity of the brand. There is no doubt that you are at Maker's Mark. It is a distillery where tradition and technology sit comfortably alongside each other; the wooden fermenters are over 100 years old, while the barrel management system is computerised. Handmade, it takes two weeks to make a thousand cases of Maker's Mark.You see a lot of wood in Kentucky: oak, poplar, walnut, cherry. It's something of a recurrent theme. So much so that Maker's Mark is in the process of completing a 300-species botanical tree garden in association with the Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest.Jim Beam's American Outpost is 20 minutes south of Louisville. White and built in the colonial style with a lovely garden set in rolling hills, Jim Beam is a beautiful house. The house was originally built as a hotel in 1911. But when Prohibition set in Jim was so upset that he used the distillery site as a quarry. The history room, situated in the house on the main distillery site is home to a model of the smallest working still in the world, made in 1959 and based on Heaven Hill. If it could run it would produce a gallon a month – a stark contrast to the production of the full-size Jim Beam distillery, from which flows 40,000 proof gallons of
whiskey a day. Jim Beam introduced small batch Bourbon (like Booker’s) 11 years ago. Small batch is defined by difference in recipe, age and proof. Do taste Bookers if you can (look out for the small batch Bourbon tasting in Whisky Magazine Issue Seven). Named after Booker Noe, Jim Beam's grandson and Master Distiller Emeritus, it is bottled at 125-126 degrees proof, strained but unfiltered. The colour is brilliantly golden and the nose is hugely toffeed. In Kentucky, tasting is conducted with the mouth open so the bouquet/nose then hits the back of the palate. Bookers has an enormous mouth-feel with stacks of oak and displays opulence, giving the impression of being at the peak of its powers.Wild Turkey or, as it is known around these parts ‘The Kickin' Chicken’, lies 10 miles outside Frankfort in Lawrenceburg. If you want to pay homage to the bird make sure you don't come between mid-May and October because the distillery is not in production during the summer. Even if you visit when Bourbon is being made, you'll have trouble tasting any. Wild Turkey is made in a moist county so you can't buy liquor in restaurants or bars. It can only be bought packaged for home consumption. Laws are strictly obeyed; federal law means that the windows on all the warehouses are barred. But of course, not everyone in Kentucky is as law-abiding as the distillers. Tales abound of the Cornfield Mafia, responsible for Kentucky's biggest cash crop revered as the best grass in the world. The Wild Turkey label has been recently re-designed so the bird now offers a profile rather than staring you down. The visitors' centre offers the usual T-shirts but a recent inclusion has appeared in the shape of a mischievous pair of boxer shorts featuring the turkey and the words ‘Too good to gobble’.Labrot & Graham remains the most charming of all the distilleries, standing in an unbelievably peaceful and picturesque setting. The birds sing and you can hear the occasional woodpecker. It is, according to Dave Scheurich the distillery manager, "the oldest, smallest, slowest, newest distillery in the county."Set in the heart of horse country, all the original buildings were restored in an investment of over $10 million with a view to creating a showcase distillery for Brown-Forman. Elijah Pepper started distilling in Woodford County in the late 1700s. This distillery is the only one in the US using traditional pot stills and has the advantage of using water from stone reservoirs which enables them to produce all year round. Other distillers used creek water which would, of course, dry up in the summer. This, the oldest working distillery in Kentucky has been referred to as the cradle of Bourbon distilling.Production has recently doubled and is running currently at 70 barrels a week. The small scale of the operation is reinforced when you see the bottling plant, where everything is done by hand, even the labelling.It is against Kentucky regulations to offer visitors a dram, so after a free hour-long tour enjoy a (Woodford Reserve) candy with a glass of peach iced-tea. Brown-Forman is looking for its investment to be repaid after eight years and with Bourbon of this quality, they have to be on to a winner.Buffalo Trace, formerly known as Ancient Age, is a huge distillery offering visitors free one-hour tours. It was first established here in 1775 but Indian raids forced it to shut in 1776. The principle structure was built in 1782 and the site was reopened in 1783 with the earliest record of whiskey leaving the distillery dating back to 1787. In those early pioneering days, the region was covered in 10-foot high sugar cane and populated by buffalo. The buffalo would march 30 or 40 abreast through the sugar cane leaving behind trails. These trails, or traces as they were known, became the easiest way for settlers to get around.Currently, the distillery produces 300 barrels a day and uses the largest still in Kentucky. It is also home to the world's smallest bonded warehouse which has just a single barrel, the five millionth one produced at the distillery since the end
of Prohibition.Food
Here follows a selection of recommended restaurants, some of which appreciate the whiskey enthusiast's pleasure of combining the dram with dinner.Kurtz Restaurant
Bardstown, (+1 502 348 8984)
The mother of the current owner, Marilyn Dick, knew chicken-licker Colonel Sanders very well. Typical dishes: southern fried
chicken (lard is de rigeur), hickory, applewood and oak smoked ham, corn pudding, corn bread, French beans, scalloped potatoes and coleslaw. Fortunately today, the coleslaw is made using salad oil. Apparently, during World War Two laxative oil was used instead. Lemon meringue pie and coconut cream make a delicious desert, (especially with a trickle
of Bookers).The English Grill at The Camberley Brown Hotel
Louisville (+1 502 583 1234)
The oak-panelled dining room gives the impression of being filled with extras from TV’s Ally McBeal. Appetisers: applewood smoked salmon with dill potatoes, served with caviar vinaigrette. Entrées: grilled pork tenderloin with melted beet greens and black-eyed peas, country ham and shallot broth with creamed ham hock. It's not cheap but it is a great experience. There is a chef's daily five-course menu at $50 or $75 with wines.The Oak Room
at The Seelbach Hilton
Louisville (+1 502 585 3200)
This really is the business, a place alive with history and elegance where Al Capone was known to play blackjack. A large mirror is mounted directly opposite his favourite chair, installed at his request so he could see his opponent's cards. The private room also features secret doors in case a quick get-away was required. Typical dishes: fabulous rack of lamb with a Woodford Reserve Bourbon truffle sauce. We enjoyed a seven-course dinner, where Bourbon was part of every dish. Ensure you spend some time with bar tender Emeritus Max Allen Jr, the second of three generations working the bar at The Seelbach, whose anecdotes will entertain you into the very early hours.Café Metro
Louisville (+1 502 458 4830)
Fresh local ingredients well prepared with a cosmopolitan feel feature at this attractive, airy, neighbourhood restaurant. Typical dishes: crab cakes from $7.25. Main courses from $18.95 include grilled shrimp and scallops with a mango, cilantro (coriander) purée and a roasted red bell pepper timbale and sautéed chicken and shrimp with a pesto, garlic cream and artichoke hearts with sundried tomato and corn.
Magazine Archive

From the archive

Select an issue

Subscribe Now

Subscriptions for
Whisky Magazine are available
in print, digital or as a
complete package

The Benefits

8 print editions a year

Enjoy the convenience of home delivery

Full access to every digital edition via desktop, iOS or Android device

Latest Issue Subscribe Now

The Whisky Encyclopedia - Coming Soon 2024

Discover the world of whisky with our comprehensive encyclopedia
Featuring companies, distilleries, brands, glossaries, and cocktails

Join The Community

Sign up to the Whisky Magazine
newsletter letter and get access to the latest
in all things whisky

paragraph publishing ltd.   Copyright © 2024 all rights reserved.   Website by Acora One