Distillery Focus

A bourbon thoroughbred

Stuart Maclean Ramsay was totally sedcued by Kentucky's smallest distillery, which uses Scottish copper pot stills and a rare method of distillation.
By Stuart MacLean Ramsay
Autumn is a special time to visit the rolling hills and tree-lined hollows of central Kentucky. The distilleries are in full swing after a summer hiatus; the warm days and cool nights being ideal conditions for the white oak casks to nurse along the slumbering spirit.About an hour’s drive from Louisville is Labrot & Graham, Kentucky’s oldest operating distillery. The landscape is dotted with farmhouses and corrals enclosed by white wooden fences. Thoroughbred racehorses graze on the fertile Kentucky bluegrass, shaded by white oak, maple and dogwood trees.Nestled in this horse-country heartland, straddling the banks of Glenn’s Creek, are the limestone buildings of the Labrot & Graham Distillery. Refurbished and reborn on 17 October, 1996, Labrot & Graham was conceived by its owner, the Louisville based Brown-Forman Company, as a tribute to the history and tradition of handcrafted bourbon whisky distillation in Kentucky.Owsley Brown II, chairman of Brown-Forman, pledged the company’s commitment to honouring these past traditions in a speech which he gave on the day the distillery reopened, “We believe this distillery has a story to tell, about bourbon’s special place in Kentucky’s history, and that the telling will be good for Kentucky and good for the industry ... touring the distillery and warehouses and walking around these beautiful grounds should be like stepping back to a time when Kentucky and bourbon whiskey were in their youth, when making and enjoying whiskey were as much a part of daily life as growing corn.”Labrot & Graham is the smallest distillery in Kentucky and creates ‘small batch’ whiskey from start to finish, producing 45-50 barrels a day. It is the only bourbon distillery to use copper pot stills exclusively, and employs the rare method of triple distillation to do so. Crafted in Scotland, the pot stills are just one of several historic links between the spirits of Kentucky and Scotland at this unique distillery, where Scottish and Scotch-Irish roots run deep. Both traditional and innovative, Labrot & Graham is a reflective journey to the origins of bourbon and a confident glimpse into the future of American whiskey making.Elijah Pepper, whose hilltop home overlooks the distillery, began making whiskey on the Glenn’s Creek site in 1812. Elijah’s story belongs to an earlier, turbulent period in American history, a time of hardy pioneers and frontier migrations. The state of Virginia established Kentucky as a county in 1776, offering the new settlers 400 acres of land to build a cabin and plant a field of corn. Elijah brought his distilling skills from Virginia in 1797, settled in Versailles (pronounced ‘Versales’), the Woodford County seat, and began making corn whiskey behind the county courthouse. In need of abundant, pure limestone water for a growing business, he moved the operation and built his cabin on the nearby Glenn’s Creek site. Labrot & Graham has been called ‘the cradle of bourbon’ due in large part to the pioneering scientific achievements of James Christopher Crow, a Scottish physician and chemist. Elijah Pepper’s son, Oscar, hired Crow as head distiller in the 1830s, and he spent most of his career perfecting the craft of bourbon distillation at the distillery. Dr Crow recognised the importance of producing a consistent and reliable product from batch to batch. His scientific training helped him understand the sour mash process used by all bourbon distillers today and the benefits of charred oak barrels for maturation. Crow is also credited with developing several measuring instruments still in use by the industry.James Crow’s expertise at what was then called the Old Oscar Pepper Distillery attracted many prominent admirers of the time. The two brands produced at the distillery, Old Crow and Old Pepper, were enjoyed by such luminaries as Mark Twain and Walt Whitman. Henry Clay, the great American statesman, lived several miles from the distillery and would stop by the still before heading off to politics in Washington. Clay would select several barrels of whiskey to take with him, “to help lubricate the wheels of government”, as he put it.After Crow’s death in 1856, the running of the distillery passed to James E Pepper, Oscar’s son. The Pepper family were renowned horsemen, not too surprising given the stud farms that surround the distillery, and one of James’s horses ran in the first Kentucky Derby, in 1873. In 1878 the distillery was sold to Leopold Labrot, a French wine merchant, and his partner, James Graham, a banker in Frankfort, Kentucky. Louisville’s Brown-Forman company then bought the renamed Labrot & Graham Distillery from the Labrot family in 1941 and made whiskey at the site until the late 1960s. Brown-Forman then sold the distillery and it stayed silent until 1994, when the company repurchased it and restored the historic site.Brown-Forman spent more than $7.5 million in its tribute to traditional bourbon-making at Labrot & Graham. Last year, 35,000 visitors from 50 states and 55 countries travelled down the McCracken Pike to tour this bourbon birthplace. A visitors centre and crafts shop overlooks the distillery, housing informative displays and photos outlining the history of Labrot & Graham and Kentucky bourbon. But the glory of Labrot & Graham lies inside the distillery buildings of Glenn’s Creek a hundred yards down the hill.My spiritual guides when I visited the distillery were Lincoln Henderson, master distiller for Brown-Forman, and Dave Scheurich, the distillery manager. A pair of affable and easy-going Kentucky gentlemen, they walked me through the distilling process, giving occasional side commentaries on how to cure country ham and explaining the correlation between racehorses, bluegrass and whiskey. According to Dave, ‘’the limestone bed is close to the surface around here. Calcium and minerals leach into the bluegrass and give the horses strong bones. At the horse auctions in Lexington this September, a racehorse sold for $3.9 million. And pure limestone water produces excellent whiskey – the limestone bed was once a prehistoric inland sea that covered this region. It acts as a purifier, taking iron out and adding calcium and minerals, a great environment for the yeast to do its work. Our well is 80 feet deep and the water is ice cold.”The mashbill for the Labrot & Graham spirit is 72 per cent corn, 18 per cent rye and 10 per cent barley malt. The cooked grains ferment in two-inch thick cypress wood fermenters for five to seven days, creating a beer of around 9 per cent abv. “The fermentation takes longer than at other distilleries,” explains Lincoln, “and our four fermenters hold 7,500 gallons each, the smallest in the industry. Only two other distilleries are using cypress instead of stainless steel, and one of them is converting to stainless. Wood creates a different environment than stainless steel, with more esters and consequently more sweetness.”As you descend the steps from the brew house to Labrot & Graham’s spacious still house, the bonny sight of three graceful pot stills working away would make a single malt lover, or maker, catch their breath. Built in Scotland by Forsyth’s, the coppersmiths of Rothes in Speyside, they produce America’s only triple distilled whiskey. The long, slender-necked stills stand nearly 16 feet tall, comprising a beer still, high wines still and spirit still. With pot still distillation a distant, pre-Prohibition memory in Kentucky, Dave Scheurich visited Scotland to research pot still shapes in 1994. “We’d go into a single malt distillery and ask the manager or stillman why the swan’s neck had that particular shape,” he explained, “every time, they’d puff out their chest proudly and say, ‘It gives the whisky character’.” “Doctor Bill Lumsden at Glenmorangie was a great help, and Richard Forsyth, the coppersmith, drove us down to Auchentoshan, the only triple distilled whisky being made in Scotland. We wanted more reflux in our spirit and went for a tall neck design.” About two weeks into production, Edwin Dodson, manager of Speyside’s Glen Moray distillery, spent a week at Labrot & Graham, giving advice on cut points and balancing the stills.“One of the concerns we had with the first or beer still,” Dave continued, “was that the suspended solids in a corn mash might stick to the steam coils used to heat most single malt stills, giving the spirit a burnt, popcorn taste. So we use live steam injection instead, and have a teardrop - shaped bottom on the still for heating and drainage.” Most Scottish single malt distillers would be content with the spirit that comes off the second, high wines still (known in Scotland as the low wines), but Labrot & Graham distils it one more time, in the spirit still. “The spirit from the third still comes off at 158 proof (79 per cent abv), says Dave, “which was fortunate for us because bourbon has a legal limit of 160 proof. There’s 23 more proof points in our whiskey than a standard bourbon, and it makes for a more refined product with less static in the background.”The still house overlooks the cask filling station, where the new spirit goes into oak barrels at 110 proof (55 per cent abv), reduced with demineralised water. “Most bourbons go in the barrel at 125 proof,” according to Dave, “but you get more wood extractives – sugars, tannins, colour and vanillin – at a lower proof. It’s expensive but the whiskey ages better.” Labrot & Graham uses medium charred barrels, made by
Brown-Forman’s Bluegrass Cooperage in Louisville. The barrels are rolled a short distance to the distillery’s limestone warehouse. The walls are two feet thick and embedded in the limestone blocks are thousands of fossilised sea creatures, a prehistoric reminder of the ancient inland sea underneath Kentucky’s soil. There are four floors inside with three barrel tiers on wooden ricks per floor. In this environment, about three to five per cent volume per barrel is lost through evaporation each year – the angels’ share – and the whiskey that goes in at 110 proof will come out at around 120 proof after maturation.Master distiller, Lincoln Henderson, who holds a degree in chemistry like his predecessor, James C. Crow, explained Brown-Forman’s unique maturation practice, “We began a program called ‘cycling’ at Brown-Forman warehouses in the mid 1950s. In the last days of October and November, when the temperature is 50-60 degrees Fahrenheit, we turn on steam lines in the warehouse. This raises the temperature by 15 degrees, from 70 to 85 degrees. We do this for a week, then turn the lines off and open the windows. This process expands and contracts the whiskey, accelerates the maturation cycle, and makes the warehouse environment more uniform. We finish cycling in mid to late April.”Lincoln, who has been with Brown-Forman for 33 years, reached a spiritual milestone last year. On 28 November, he tasted his 400,000th barrel of whiskey. His pot still whiskey from Labrot & Graham will not be ready to bottle for a few more years, but alongside these slumbering casks in the limestone warehouse are barrels of Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select, hand selected by Lincoln from Brown-Forman’s Jefferson County distillery. “Woodford is mostly 61/2 to 71/2 years old,” said Lincoln, “the optimum age for a bourbon in our cycling system. I look for the most flavoursome and intense whiskeys, robust and spicy, set these barrels aside, then we age them at Labrot & Graham’s warehouse and bottle the spirit there at 45.2 per cent abv.” So how does the alchemist of Glenn’s Creek holler enjoy his hand-picked Kentucky bourbon? “In a crystal glass after dinner,” he said, “I use about two ounces of Woodford with four or five ice cubes, wait three minutes for the whiskey to dilute, then start sipping.” A whiskey aged alongside bluegrass and stud farms would not be complete without a racehorse connection. Last year, Woodford Reserve was the official bourbon whiskey of the Kentucky Derby, held at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. A thoroughbred dram, indeed.