I know I have said it before, but I will say it again, Kentucky never fails to impress. This time in the form of the annual Bourbon Festival and a couple of distillery visits that were really eye opening.
The Bourbon Festival, which sees the delightful Bardstown swell in inhabitants to at least three times its normal size, is a particular highlight in the whisky calendar. It is one of those points in the year when you know you can run into pretty much everybody and anyone in the Bourbon industry. With the wealth of distilling talent descending on Bardstown, it is hard to go to an event without running into master distillers, coopers, chemists and of course brand ambassadors – this year saw Heaven Hill’s Bernie Lubbers resplendent in a velvet smoking jacket get up at the Gala dinner. The event really is the State’s moment to shine its light out to the world.
With the wealth of distilling talent descending on Bardstown, it is hard to go to an event without running into master distillers, coopers, chemists and of course brand ambassadors
If you haven’t been then this a perfect time to visit the Bluegrass state and explore Bourbon and its history. There are plenty of events to engage a huge spectrum of fans from beginners to the aficionado in search of old or unusual expressions.
One of the more exciting events is the World Championship Bourbon Barrel Relay Race. This is the chance for those who work behind the scenes to show their prowess; and when you consider those casks weight in at about 500lbs, and they make it look easy, this event is all the more impressive. Congratulations go to the Buffalo Trace men and women’s teams, and Barton’s Leslie Glazer (women’s individual winner) and Heaven Hill’s Aaron Donnelly (men’s individual victor). One year I would love to make this a true world championship and encourage a couple of teams from Scotland to take part. A little bit of transatlantic rivalry cannot be a bad thing.
This trip I took a couple of hours to visit two places I have passed on the road but never had chance to stop at. The first was the impressively huge Castle and Key Distillery. This vast site feels like it has been abandoned for ages, but now life and indeed distillation is returning. To give you an idea of the size of the project the new owners have undertaken, when I say vast, the distillery has one of the largest warehouses in the State – it’s three football pitches long!
The distillery has some history to it, being Col. Taylor’s last distillery before he passed away, and boy is it grand. The water source, in the shape of a key hole, is stunning, as are the sunken gardens which have now been restored to their former glory.
But it’s not just the history that left me speechless, the spirit that distiller Marianne Barnes and her team are creating would make Taylor proud. I got the chance to taste the new make and a young aged sample, the balance between the wood and spirit character is spot on. If it continues to develop in this way the team will be creating a legacy of their own from this once proud site.
The water source, in the shape of a key hole, is stunning, as are the sunken gardens
My second distillery visit was on a slightly smaller scale to Castle and Key, but no less impressive. The mother and daughter team, Joyce and Autumn Nethery, at Jeptha Creed Distillery are the epitome of ground to glass ethos.
They have been sourcing heritage grains to create their spirits out of, and even foraging in the hedgerows to find paw paw fruit for their distinctive brandy. What is going to be one to watch is their Bloody Butcher corn whiskey. It takes its name from the colour and is astonishing, red as red can be. It doesn’t look real, but then neither does the blue corn they are using, especially if you are used to the yellow of standard corn.
This open-pollinated, non-GMO heirloom corn has been grown by the family since 1845. Joyce did a trial run with the grain at a distillery in Wisconsin, and she says it adds sweet and nutty undertones.
Does it really affect the taste? I asked. The answer was to try their special release of a six month old, four grain recipe whiskey. Earthy, sweet and spicy, it is a stand out, quite impressive.
In the space of a few hours I was left speechless by the new creations in Kentucky, and I am not often someone totally bowled over; but I will certainly be watching these two new distilleries and they start to grow up.