Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Park and Makers Mark Bourbon Distillery

Today was a double feature…a little history and then a little bourbon…or as you will see shortly a little history and then a little more history😄.

After breakfast and coffee…our day started with a 30 or so mile trip down south to Hodgenville, KY to the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Park.

Ya know…I really hate it when historic places sort of fake up their history. While I’ll admit that this particular park didn’t hide the fact that some of their artifacts were not authentic but were reproductions…they really sort of hid that fact and unless you really read the fine print you only saw the big print that proclaimed that this was a historic artifact. Now I understand the difficulties of course…after all whoever tore down the house he was born in did it long before he became famous…but the tacit dishonesty rubbed me the wrong way. Maybe I’m just crotchety I guess.

Anyway; we arrived at the park.

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and wandered through the inside of the visitor center…which had this really nice cabin interior setup that talked about his mother’s bed, cooking pots, hearth and spinning wheel and so on…but on the 1/4 inch tall letters way down at the bottom of the sign it talked about these items being similar to what Lincoln’s parents might have had in their cabin…right underneath the large sign that said Nancy’s Spinning Wheel.

But I digress…you’re probably wondering why Kentucky since everybody knows that Illinois is the Land of Lincoln…heck, it says so right on their license tags. Well…Abe’s grandparents came over the Cumberland Gap with Daniel Boone and settled in the wilderness in the late 1780s but by the time Abe’s father Thomas Lincoln married Nancy Hanks in Louisville Thomas was a relatively successful farmer and cabinet maker. Shortly before Abe was born the family moved rom Louisville over to what is now Hodgenville and bought a farm known as the Sinking Springs Farm…moved there and built a cabin. Abe was born there but at about age 3 there was a court case and the family was evicted since title to the property wasn’t properly transferred. The family moved about 7 miles west and leased some bottom land along the Knob Creek where they built another cabin and lived there until 1816 when Abe was 7. At that point…there was another title issue with the land they leased and again the Lincoln family (along with the other 8 families farming along the creek) were again evicted. Tiring of this nonsense…Thomas and family packed their wagons and headed out for the farther frontier in Indiana; remaining there until Abe was 21…at which point the family (or at leasts Abe, don’t know which) moved to Illinois.

So…the whole born in the wilderness story we all know about Abe isn’t quite correct…his family was actually upper middle class for the time and while they did live on the frontier vice living in the big city there’s a lot of difference between the frontier and the wilderness. It was a tough life no doubt…but maybe not quite as touch as you’ve always thought. 

I wish I could tell you more about the rest of Abe’s childhood and what happened when he moved to Indiana…but this park is focused strictly on his life in Kentucky. Nothing wrong with that either…but it does sort of only tell half the story.

After we finished in the visitor center we headed out for the actual birthplace…and here it is.

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Well, that’s not actually the birth place but a memorial built in the 1900s over the (supposedly) actual site of the cabin…however the cabin was gone so it’s just their best guess at the time. Still, it’s at the top of the hill and the Sinking Spring which both named the farm and provided a stable water source is about 20 feet out of the picture to the left, right behind the hedge you can see. The steps up to the top number 56…matching Abe’s age when he was killed. It’s a pretty nice marble building but (at least to Neil) seems a little pretentious for what basically amounts to a garage.

Why a garage you say? Well, once you get inside the building there’s essentially just one thing located inside.

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The sign on the wall proclaims this as Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace cabin…but then there’s that pesky fine print. Turns out that this build is…umm, fake. Actually it’s a 3/4 scale or so reproduction of a cabin similar to what they think he was born in…the only thing really authentic about it is that they tore down the cabin they reproduced and used the timbers to build this one. So in addition to not being the actual birthplace…it’s smaller than it really was (probably) helping to continue the born on the wilderness myth. Again, nothing wrong with a reproduction…but to be fair the reproduction-ness should have been pointed out a little more obviously…or at least don’t perpetuate the myth with the big print on the signs.

Before heading out we did visit the spring site…it’s still pretty much as it was back when the Lincolns lived here except for the steps added for tourists. It’s still flowing freely even 100 years later and was producing about 5 gallons a minute of nice clear water. The pit below is about 6 feet guide and maybe 4 feet deep with the water running out of a crack just above the picture, pooling in the hole, and then disappearing back underground on it’s way to the river. Although we’re 50 or so miles from the Mammoth Cave system…this whole part of Kentucky is karst limestone formations with the resulting many, many caves, springs, and disappearing streams common to that type of geology.

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Hopping back in the car we headed about 7 miles west to the boyhood home site on Knob Creek. Now to be fair and not be accused of that whole pot and kettle thing…I gotta tell you the truth here…we actually visited these two sites in the other order. The GPS was carefully navigating us to the birthplace location when we passed the boyhood home site on the road so we whipped in there and took a look before heading on the the Park. I reversed the order in the blog because it makes the story flow better.

Anyhoo…the family moved here when Abe was 3 and Nancy gave birth to another son Thomas who died in infancy…it’s thought he only lived less than a week. He was buried on the property and his hand carved headstone was later recovered and was on display at the Park visitor center. The only things located on this site are the boyhood home, a tavern built back in the 1930s by the people that owned the property at that time, and the field that Thomas grew food on…which supposedly hasn’t been touched since the family lived here. Neil found that a little hard to believe as it was a decent field and after the family was evicted in 1820 or so surely whoever did own it either farmed it themselves or leased it out…but again I digress.

Proudly displayed on the property (well, it was actually locked as the visitor center here and cabin don’t open until Memorial Day…but we looked at the outside) is Abraham Lincoln’s boyhood home.

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which…unfortunately…exactly as is the case with the birthplace cabin…is…you guessed it…fake.

The road in front of this site was the main road back in the day and while this property is that which Thomas and Nancy leased and farmed…the cabin is actually the Gallagher cabin. The Gallagher’s were the Lincoln’s next door neighbors (well, nearest neighbors was probably more accurate given the fact that the houses were spread out along the road) and young Austin Gallahger was Abe’s best friend…who in fact saved Abe from an early death. They were playing on the creek and Abe fell in…neither could swim…but Austin grabbed a branch and held it out…Abe grabbed it and pulled himself to the bank.

The Gallahger’s cabin was brought to this site sometime between 1900 and the 1930s when the tavern was built…the tavern was eventually donated the the Park Service and is partially visible behind the tree on the left of the photo above. It’s currently condemned due to interior issues but the Park Service is about to start a restoration so that it can serve as the visitor center at this site. I have no idea what happened to the original boyhood home cabin…and again there isn’t anything wrong with using a reproduction (or in this case contemporary cabin that was dismantled and reconstructed on this site) is fine…but again the facts were sort of hidden behind the myth.

With that we gave up on history and headed off for some bourbon. Our stop was about halfway back home at the Maker’s Mark Distillery in Loretto, Kentucky…this was started by the Samuels in 1805 and as you can see from the proclamation is the oldest operating bourbon distillery in the world. Not the oldest whiskey distillery of course…but i you limit it to bourbon then that’s one way to be the oldest.

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Before heading off on our tour…we stopped by and paid our fee…9 bucks for Connie but free for Neil as military were admitted for free since it’s Memorial Day weekend. While waiting for the tour to start we wandered around the entrance building and found these paintings that talked.

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These are pictures of the Samuels family and when we walked up we thought they were just black and white photos…until they started talking. Turns out they’re laptop screens behind and their lips move and they talk…essentially some stories about the family going up.

We met our tour guide and headed out across Whiskey Creek…there’s a lake on the property that they get their water from and Whiskey Creek is a stone lined ditch from the lake to the distillery. Here’s a shot of the distillery fire engine, our tour guide Lindsey and one of their 33 warehouses…most of the rest are much larger than this one..

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Maker’s Mark is a small batch distillery…different from some of the larger operations. They use a mix of 60% corn, 16% wheat (both grown within 50 miles from here) and 14% malted barley from the Dakotas. They use steel cut corn which chops the corn into oatmeal shaped flakes rather than grinding the corn…this gives them less output per ton of grain but better flavor. The grain mixture is cooked for 3 hours in about a 10,000 gallon pot then transferred to an open topped fermentation vat. Here are shots of the cooking pot then of an active fermentation vat. The fermentation vat is about 20 feet in diameter and when you look at it it looks like it’s boiling water…the yeast action was pretty vigorous. We also looked at a vat that was done with fermentation and in that one there was a thick layer of grain leftovers floating on the top. We were encouraged to dip our finger into the vats and taste them…the one with the yeast action tasted like sweet cornbread and the finished one was pretty sour…hence the name sour mash whiskey. As to whether it was safe to allow tourists to stick their fingers into the vats…it’s all gonna be distilled anyway so it doesn’t matter.

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From the fermentation vats the beer as it’s called is pumped to the stills…there are two of these but only one is used at a time and they’re cleaned between each batch.

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In the photo above…the still portion is the taller, thinner copper portion on the right rear…this is about 3 feet around and 12 feet or so high. The beer is pumped into the top where it runs over a series of plates down to the bottom. The still is heated (steam I think although Lindsey didn’t say) to about 180 degrees which is above the boiling point of ethanol of 171.3 degrees. As the beer runs over the plates…which are angled with each one going the opposite direction…the ethanol boils off and rises. By the time the beer gets to the bottom (a minute or two I guess)…all of the ethanol is boiled off and the beer is alcohol free. The remains of the beer are pressed into semi-dry cakes and given to local farmers to feed livestock.

The ethanol vapor goes through the larger cylinder in the center first then the one in the front left where it’s condensed into ethanol about about 140 proof. This is then double distilled to produce clear ethanol about about 160 proof.

The ethanol is pumped into charred oak barrels and aged for 6 years in the warehouse…3 on the upper floors and 3 on the lower ones. This results in maximum extraction of the sweet tasting chemicals into the bourbon. The used barrels are then sold to Scotch distillers for reuse. They’ve tried aging their bourbon for 10 years to see if it improves the taste but with their unheated/uncooled warehouses and recipe anything longer than about 6 years results in not as good a final result. Lindsey did tell us that most of the longer aged whiskeys are aged in climate controlled warehouses…but that the summer heat (all the warehouses are black) helped extract all of the good stuff for them after only 6 years. Along the way to the warehouse Neil spotted this Golden Headed Lush in it’s natural habitat.

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Here are some shots of the warehouse…including a really neat ceiling that was built for them by Dale Chihuly…he’s that famous artist that does the colored glass artwork. Following that are some shots of the bottling plant…this runs one shift per day 5 days a week (the distillery itself runs full time). There are two bottling lines with a total of 12 different size/type combinations but only one kind is run on any given day. The bottles are washed out with bourbon…this is then filtered and reused rather than being wasted…then the bottles are filled and labeled by machine but the trademark wax dipping is all done by hand.

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Filling, labeling, hand dipping, and packing.

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With that we were off to the tasting room…the best part of any alcohol related tour ya know. We got to sample all 4 varieties of bourbon that Maker’s Mark produces.

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Starting from the left end…the first is Maker’s Mark White…which is unpaged…it’s essentially the output from the distillation process diluted to 80 proof and bottled. Chemically it’s essentially the same as moonshine except it’s legal. It smells like Tequila, is clear, and strangely enough tastes more like scotch than anything else. Neil has had moonshine in the past (don’t ask) and this perfectly reminded him of that experience. Pretty smooth actually seeing that it’s un-aged…but the use of wheat instead of rye as the subsidiary grain gives it much more of a front palate taste rather than a throat burn. White is sold only at the distillery.

Second up is standard fully aged Maker’s Mark…this is what you buy in the likker store. Nice and smooth, much improved bourbon flavor over the white, and a lot of vanilla and caramel notes in the smell and taste from the white oak barrels.

Third up was the overage (10 year) Maker’s Mark…exactly the same as the normal 6 year old that they sell but allowed to age for 10 years. They don’t sell this but make a couple of barrels per year to have in the tasting room…so that you can see how it’s different from the 6 year old stuff and why they don’t sell anything aged longer than 6 years. It’s a little darker in color than the 6 year old since it was in the barrels longer but has the same vanilla and caramel aromas. Taste however…is a lot different. Doesn’t taste like bourbon at all but like Scotch. Not the peaty, smokey Isle of Islay scotches like Laphriog but the milder inland ones like Macallan or Dewars. Nice stuff and we would drink it…but it doesn’t taste like bourbon and isn’t what Makers Mark wants to make so they don’t sell it.

Last is what they call 46. This is the standard 6 year old stuff but after selection for additional flavoring they empty the barrels out and take the end off the barrel. Adding some freshly charred French Oak boards to the inside of the task they then replace the end, refill it with the bourbon, and age it for another 9 weeks or so then it’s bottled for sale. 46 merely refers to a recipe number…when they were testing various recipes for this additionally aged product they tried combinations of wood type, amount of charring, and additional aging time and recipe 46 turned out to be the best on so that became it’s name.

Neil liked the 46 the best…it’s like the standard 6 year stuff but the additional oak and aging time gives it even more flavor and a little more smoothness. It’s also the most expensive…but hey, just because he’s cheap doesn’t mean that he doesn’t appreciate really good stuff.

We managed to avoid bringing any of it home…we’ve still got plenty of Cabin Fever Maple Bourbon left over but our intentions are to give a couple more distillery tours a sample tomorrow and maybe some of this will be in our future. Not sure that it will replace Tequila, Dark Spiced Rum or Irish Whiskey as our drink of choice when we’re not having beer but hey…ya never know.

We came home (no worries about driving as the total of the 4 samples was only an ounce or so) and had a nice Chicken Caesar Salad for dinner then it’s TV until bed…Good Eats followed by Diners, Drive-Ins and Dive.

Cyas.

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About Gunther

The full time RV travels and experiences of Gunther the Bear and Kara the Dog…along with their human staff neil and Connie.
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