Travel

Happy trails

Rob Allanson takes an educational trip through America's whiskey heartland
By Rob Allanson
There seems to be something built in to the human condition that predisposes us to explore, seek out more knowledge and discover what is over the horizon.I think this is why you find all sorts of trails across the world, whether it be just a simple walking tour of a particularly nice or historic neighbourhood or a full on, pack for all weathers expedition.This is what the American Whiskey Trail is, a voyage through Kentucky, Tennessee and finally to Washington discovering all the gems the American distilling community has to offer – and there are some cracking whiskeys out there to be found.The trail, organised by the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS) provides a great opportunity to look in depth at some of America’s most famous distilleries, the subtle differences in their processes and the ties that bind them close together, and several sites of cultural and historic significance.From the colonial era, where whiskey had an important economic and social function in the fabric of the community, to the Whiskey Rebellion, through Prohibition and into modern times spirits have played a sometimes controversial but always fascinating role in the nation’s history.Before we set off just one brief word about bourbon and Tennessee whiskey.Bourbon is a mix of corn, rye and malt, and at least 51 per cent of the grain used in making the whiskey must be corn (most distillers use 65 to 75 per cent corn).Bourbon must be aged for a minimum of two years in new, white oak barrels that have been charred.Nothing can be added at bottling to enhance flavor, add sweetness or alter color.A Tennessee whiskey, Jack Daniel’s or George Dickel for instance, are not considered bourbons because they are charcoal mellowed, slowly filtered through sugar-maple charcoal, prior to aging, which many experts say gives it a different character.The process, called the Lincoln County Process, infuses a sweet and sooty character into the distillate as it removes impurities.But up to and after the charcoal filtering, Jack and George’s production is much the same as any other bourbon.Our journey looking at the little differences that separate the nation’s distillers from each other starts at the oldest working distillery in the US, Maker’s Mark with its instantly recognisable red wax sealed bottles.There is a wonderful family feel to the setting of the distillery in Loretto, Kentucky on the banks of Hardin’s Creek, and the family feel carries on into the production side as well with much of the distilling process taking place the way Bill Samuels Snr envisaged it back in the 1950s.Established in 1805 as a gristmill distillery, Maker’s Mark uses 70 per cent corn in the mash, which is all non GM no.2 yellow corn from southern Indiana.To change the taste of its bourbon the company substituted in wheat for rye, which makes the final liquid a little sweeter. It is then split 16 per cent to 14 per cent with malted barley.The new make, or white dog, is put into barrels at 110 proof, most distillers put the new make in at 125 proof.All newly filled bottles go to the top of the warehouse and spend three summers there.The heat at the top of the buildings gives more extraction than cooler parts of the warehouses.The barrels are sampled and if they are deemed ready they are moved to the bottom.Maker’s Mark is the only company to rota in this fashion, top to bottom.From David to the Goliath of the bourbon world, our tour takes us to the Jim Beam Distillery, the world’s best-selling bourbons, made by the same family using the same recipe for more than 200 years.In 2005, Jim Beam Distillery celebrated a landmark achievement when Fred Noe, greatgrandson of the legendary Jim Beam Distillery bourbon ambassador, filled the ten millionth barrel of Jim Beam bourbon.What makes the difference here is despite the mind boggling statistics of the site – two million barrels held on site, 60 warehouses and 750 barrels filled a day – is the attention to detail, especially when it comes to the small batch bourbon range including Knob Creek and the award-winning Baker’s, and family atmosphere that pervades it.So confident is the company that it still uses the same recipe and processes as it did back in the old days.The distillery offers the perfect setting to taste its various bourbons at the Knob Creek guest house over looking the site. In fact during an evening tasting session with master distiller Jerry Dalton, there were wafts of bluegrass music and the sound of woodpeckers working away in the woods.Onwards next to Wild Turkey where the affable Jimmy Russell holds sway producing thousands of barrels with his 25 fermenters.Here Jimmy uses a little less corn in his mix than other distillers to get the taste profile he wants, he also distils at a lower proofs to get more flavour. Once ready the spirit rests in the 20 warehouses, each holding 20,000 barrels.Beginning at two years of age, the whiskey is tasted every year to its full maturity. Complete records are kept, not only on its taste, but also on its aging, its proof, and aroma.The final leg of this odyssey in Kentucky before making the run for the Tennessee border is the historic Woodford Reserve Distillery.Located right in the middle of Kentucky’s famous horse country alongside Glenn’s Creek near a beautiful town called Versailles, here master distiller Chris Morris finely crafts his bourbon.Woodford is one of those bourbons that stand out from the rest. The difference is Morris uses three pot stills and distils three times before maturation. The high rye percentage and the use of a very low sour mash (the mash from the previous fermentation) each time also make this distillery stand out.A final difference comes at the maturation stage of the process. At Woodford the stone warehouses are heated in the winter so the whiskey is always maturing – an expensive process and the angels’ share of the spirit is quite high.Our trip now makes that dash so many moonshiners have made to evade the law, the state line and Tennessee, home of two very different distilleries.First on the list is George Dickel, where this Tennessee Whisky is still handcrafted with the same processes and attention to detail that George Dickel established to ensure that each drop is as remarkable now as it was when the first batch was made.Oh by the way, George decided he would leave out the ‘e’ in his whisky because he always considered it on a par with Scotch.Between Nashville and Chattanooga, the George Dickel Distillery is nestled in the very scenic Cascade Hollow.Here several differences stand out at this small 32 people operation, for instance master distiller John Lunn uses 84 per cent corn in his mix to get a smooth sweet taste.There is no rotation in the warehouses and Dickel is the only whisky that chills the product before the charcoal mellowing process (the Lincoln County Process), thus providing a smoother tasting product.Just down the road lies another behemoth of American distilling, Jack Daniel Distillery.Making whiskey happens in pretty much the same way as at Dickel, but things at the oldest registered distillery in the United States are done on a much bigger scale.The making of Jack Daniel’s whiskey was set down by its founder, Jack Daniel, and has been maintained and preserved for more than 140 years.In a year, 1.4 million barrels will be filled and stored in the 75 warehouses dotted around the massive site.For the standard Jack Daniel’s, the biggest selling whiskey in the world, master distiller Jimmy Bedford uses an 80 per cent corn recipe which is then filtered through charcoal vats 10ft deep and 8ft wide.Barrels are not chosen by year, instead the whiskey is ready only when the company’s tasters say it is. For his special single barrel Jack, Bedfordwill choose only barrels from the top floor of the warehouses.The final leg of this mammoth tour takers us to the capital, Washington DC, where painstaking work has been going on for several years to rebuild George Washington’s whiskey distillery. Much has been written about this great feat of archaeology at Mount Vernon and it is a very worthwhile end to a great trip, and ironically quite a useful end.Most of the master distillers at the various distilleries along the trail have all worked together at Mount Vernon to produce a rye whiskey from Washington’s recipe.We can talk all we want about differences but these distinctions are pretty much over shadowed by the fact that each master distiller in his realm is tying to make the best whiskey he can, and as the work at the Washington Distillery shows, they do all get on, honest.TASTING NOTESI made some tasting notes during my travels and here are a selection of more interesting whiskies encountered on the wayMaker’s Mark
Mature product (five to six years): more grain and more wood notes. A sweet hit on the tongue with honey and some vanillaOver Mature (nine years): complex notes with bags of wood and a slight dirty note. Some corn. Plenty of oak grip on the tongue with wood tannins, a little honey but more burnt caramelJim Beam
Nine Years from the barrel: sweet notes with candyshop aromas. Good grip on the tongue with hints of burnt sugar. Dry finish with bags of oak, but it keeps coming backBasil Hayden: Very subtle nose. Sweetness of the high rye content mingles well with the corn. Hints of Rowse honey, and spices Jim Beam Rye: Lovely and sweet with a hint of honey on the back of the palate. Light grassy with a herbal note tooWild Turkey
Kentucky Spirit: Single barrel more than eight years old. Not a heavy nose but the sweetness is there. More caramel and vanilla with a floral oak note on the back of the tongue Walnutty with toasted oak and more caramal. A hint of mushroom, vegetal tooRussell’s Reserve: More sweetness, a little softer than the others. Marshmellow and honey with bags of creamy butterscotchWoodford Reserve
Distiller’s reserve: Elegantly perfumed, with oranges, cinnamon, burnt sugar and a hint of ginger. Complex on the palate with vanilla notes, peppery oak and a good sweetnessGeorge Dickel
10 Years Old: Oak, caramel and cherries peppered with a good hit of rye. Coats the mouth wonderfully with a sweetness and finished with spice, almost incenseJack Daniel’s
Single Barrel 1986: loads of fruit notes in there but tempered with a good deal of oak. Vanilla, almond and caramel before a smooth finish with hints of crème caramel