It’s been a pretty lazy weekend but sometimes that’s good. Yesterday we went off on another bourbon tour…this time to the Heaven Hills Distillery. This is a much larger operation than the Maker’s Mark folks…despite their claim that they’re still family owned where Maker’s Mark is owned by a Japanese corporation. However…it felt much more like a big corporation where Maker’s Mark is still family run despite being owned by a corporation…Heaven Hills bottles over 1200 different types of likker from Bourbon to plain old whiskey to gin, vodka, brandy, ya name it and they bottle it. The tour was much more polished than our first one in presentation but showed you much less of the operation. Essentially there was a 15 minute movie about making Bourbon, a quarter mile walk to one of their warehouses, 15 minutes wandering around the warehouse then back to the visitor center for tasting. It felt much more like a production line of get em in, get em out, and bring in the next batch. Despite that…we did learn a few additional facts about making Bourbon.
One of their warehouses caught fire back in 1997 due to a lightning strike…as you can readily guess ya ain’t putting out a fire in a wooden building full of barrels of flammable liquid…no sirree, ya ain’t putting that out atall. With the wind from the storm spreading the flames they lost a total of 7 warehouses and the distillery building itself…so the distillery became not a distillery at all but a warehouse, aging, management, and tourist site. The family owned corporation bought another distillery over in Louisville where all of the actual distilling happens…then the raw ethanol is tank trucked over to Bardstown where it’s barreled, aged, and eventually bottled.
The bourbon here is aged up to 12 years in wooden rickhouses (that’s one of the things we learned here, the name of the warehouse buildings); with 3 to 4 years on the lower 5 floors of the 7 floor rickhouse then 3 years or so on the upper two floors where it gets hotter in the summer which supposedly improves the taste. The location for the remaining years wasn’t disclosed but I’m guessing it depends on the demand for various products with the upper floor stuff being more valuable.
Of their 1200 varieties about 220 of them are Bourbon…which is all made to the same recipe with the only differences being how long it’s aged and what proof it is bottled at…since it’s all barreled in the same white oak barrels and (at least to our taste buds different proofs don’t taste all that different…anyway I’m guessing most of the difference is really just marketing or else depends on folks telling themselves “I’ve always drunk Old Grandpa 8 Year Old” and deluding themselves that they can tell the difference.
You can tell a little difference between aging time though…we sampled 10 year old single barrel (which means each barrel is bottled individually) and 12 year old small batch (which means up to 150 barrels are mixed for bottling) and both were pretty good although slightly different.
So…what’s Bourbon anyway? Federal law dictates that
- at least 51% corn
- aged in white oak barrels a minimum of 2 years
- no additives
That’s it…any deviations and it can only be called whiskey (as the Irish and Americans call it) or whisky (as pretty much the rest of the world calls it. Doesn’t have to be made in Kentucky at all…in fact it’s made all over the US but the Kentuckians (naturally) say theirs is the best since the state is famous for it and the karst limestone geology results in very soft iron free water…they claim (again, naturally) that iron free spring water tastes better than iron free water from a filter. It was invented here though…albeit by accident by a Baptist minister named Elijah Craig from Bourbon County who also happened to be a likker distiller. You might find it somewhat strange that a Baptist invented the stuff since later generations of Baptist ministers preached mightily against likker…but hey, I never said I understood history or religion, just that I can relate it to you as I know it. The 12 year old small batch we sampled today was Elijah Craig.
Anyhoo…back in the day whiskey was distilled in Kentucky and shipped in barrels down to N’Awlins for them hard drinking Cajuns. Seems that old Elijah was getting ready to bottle a batch and had purchased his barrels…but they were somehow involved in a fire which charred the inside (and probably the outside as well) without destroying the barrels. Not wanting them to go to waste (or more likely they were the only barrels he had and he didn’t want the booze to go to waste I’m guessing) he went ahead and loaded up the damaged barrels with the stuff and shipped them out. By the time they had finished their 6 month or so trip down to N’awlins they had leeched some of the color and flavors out of the barrels and the resulting stuff had a little color and a whole lot better flavor than the moonshine that was normally shipped in uncharred barrels. Since it just tasted better…drinkers got to asking for “that red whiskey from Bourbon County” rather than for plain old whiskey…this eventually got shortened to Bourbon and thus the brand was born. The law dictating the requirements for Bourbon was carefully crafted in later years by Kentucky Senators to give their local businesses who contributed to their campaigns a hand in marketing over those non contributing no accounts…er, I mean out of state heathens…er, I mean dastardly evildoer counterfeiters…yeah, that’s it…dastardly evildoer counterfeiters who are ruining the fine reputation of this Kentucky nectar of the gods with their cheap swill made from rye, wheat and those other lesser grains. Yeah…think I got that right.
Neil did get a nice picture of one of the lower rows in the rickhouse and a shot of a quote from Daniel Boone…nice way of putting it we thought he had. The second version of the rickhouse shot is after some digital post processing with HDR techniques…he decided the standard version wasn’t close enough to what the interior looked like…and he decided that he likes the processed version better. Let me know what you think in the comments…is the first ‘real’ shot or the second ‘processed to look like your eye saw it’ shot better to look at?
After that we came home, sat outside in our zero gravity recliners in the cool afternoon breezes with a refreshing cold beverage, then grilled some Italian Sausages with peppers and onions that we had a nice sandwich on for dinner along with some pineapple salad. Neil thought ahead and grilled a chicken breast as well which we’re having with pasta and cream sauce for dinner. Today we went to church and pretty much did nothing. The forecast for tomorrow is more of the same…except we need to run out and get some vittles since we are leaving on Tuesday for Carlyle Lake up in Illinois and are 40 miles from the nearest grocery store. In honor of Memorial Day we’re grilling (burgers of course) and that’s about it for our holiday weekend.