So…last time after leaving the Blue Springs Cavern we headed on to and arrived in Lexington then after checking, resting, and shower we headed 2 blocks down the road to the Sedona Taproom for dinner as I told ya then…with good cocktails, wine, and pizza/flatbreads for dinner
Next morning (Saturday)…we headed out to what we went to Lexington for in the first place…the Bourbon Trail. We’ve done this twice before, once in Lexington and the other time out at Bardstown west of Lexington…and like the last t time we picked distilleries that we had not been to before…there are 41 on the Trail now and it’s always expanding so we may (i.e., will) visit again to check off some more of them. However, we’ll stick to just doing 2 per day and probably only 2 or maybe 3 days doing it since one gets burned out as a lot of the tours are pretty repetitive as there’s only one way to make bourbon. This time…we decided to also focus on both large and small distillers and really picked ones that seemed to have character or what we used to call the ‘it factor’ while in the RV.
After breakfast we headed off to our first destination…west to the town of Lawrenceburg to the Four Roses distillery. This is a pretty big place and produces a lot of product…not as big as some of the huge ones like Jim Beam but definitely in the larger category. On pulling up into the parking lot you’re greeted by the house that the founder…Paul Jones, Jr…built for himself and his bride into 1880s. Turns out that he had become smitten by a certain southern belle and sent her a letter proposing marriage. Her response was that if she showed up at the upcoming grand ball with a corsage or roses on her gown her answer would be yes…I guess that was a delaying tactic to give her time to think about it as I’m sure she was already well acquainted with him. He went to the ball and waited breathlessly for her arrival…she came in ion a deep black gown with a corsage of four red roses. They subsequently married and since he had been running a distillery since the late 18602 named it Four Roses bourbon after his beloved wife. Four Roses was one of the top sellers in the 30s through 50s but as younger drinkers switched over to clear liquors in the 60s the company (since sold to Seagrams) concentrated on overseas markets. In 2002 the company was bought by Kirin brewery company (a Japanese firm ) which still owns it today and the brand was reintroduced to the US market.
You’re probably wondering just what the heck is bourbon and how does it differ from whisky (or whiskey as they spell it in Ireland). Well…whisky/whiskey is simply a spirit distilled from grain…and beyond that there really aren’t any rules on aging or content or pretty much anything else. Bourbon…on the other hand…has a list of requirements.
- Made in America…you can’t make bourbon anywhere else
- The mash bill (mix of grains) used must be at least 51% corn…the remainder is almost always some mix of malted (or sprouted) barley, rye, and wheat
- Distillation output must be no more than 160 proof or 80% alcohol
- It must be aged in brand new white oak charred barrels and placed into the barrels at no more than 125 proof…for efficiency most is distilled at 155-160 and then diluted to 120-125 before barreling.
- It must be aged a minimum of 2 years…at which point it can be labeled as ’straight bourbon’ and if aged less than 4 years it must be labeled with the duration of its aging
- It must be bottled at a minimum of 80 proof
- If an age is stated on the label it must be the age of the youngest product in the barrel
Straight rye whisky must be at least 51% rye, aged a minimum of 2 years, no artificial flavor or coloring, and all the product in a bottle must be distilled in the same state. There are additional legal requirements for products labeled as rye whisky, Kentucky bourbon, bonded (i.e., bottled in bond) whisky, finished/flavored whisky, wheat whisky, corn whisky, or moonshine (although actually the first rule for moonshine is that there are no rules)…but those other rules are irrelevant to bourbon which is what we’re discussing here…mostly.
The mansion which houses corporate offices today.
Closeup of the clock seen on edge above.
The tasting room…it’s huge…but then this is the largest distillery we visited this trip.
Really nice inside the place though.
And we sampled 4 of their current offerings…cheapest on the left and most expensive and exclusive on the right. We did ask if single barrel really meant a single barrel or whether it was a group of similar barrels…our tour guide found somebody that knew that answer after the tasting and it does mean single barrel. Neil asked him if that meant the bottling line was cleaned before the next single barrel was poured into the input section and he said it wasn’t…the single barrel was used until the pumps ran dry but no cleaning so a little of the previous barrel made it into the next barrel. Each barrel is bottled at barrel proof which means its proof is exactly as it was in the barrel…so the proof varies slightly from one barrel to the next…but each barrel’s output gets labeled with which mash bill it was produced from (there are I think 4 of those) and what the exact proof of that barrel was. Small batch means the master distiller picks out a small selection (small being a somewhat nebulous and variable number) of similar barrels or ones that have the right combination of whatever it is that master distillers make these sorts of decisions on. Those barrels are then blended in a big tank and watered down with the same water the original mash is made from to a consistent proof. The left hand regular bourbon is similar to small batch but in much larger numbers of barrels so as to maintain a consistent flavor for that particular brand and again it’s diluted to a fixed proof. Finally…the small batch select is just like small batch except it’s bottled at barrel proof instead of being diluted to a constant proof. The amount of aging in the barrels also increases from left to right…and the amount left over in the barrel after aging decreases from left to right as some of the alcohol evaporates and departs the barrel over the aging process…this is known as the ‘Angel’s Share’
And…for those of you who don’t know exactly what proof is…it tells you the alcohol concentration and the proof is exactly twice the alcohol percentage…so 100 proof is 50% alcohol. Proof was invented back in the day because a person who was buying your corn liquor tested it to see if it would burn (supposedly) and anything less than 50% alcohol wouldn’t’ burnt although I’m not sure that is actually correct). Since no marketing guy ever would sell something and call it 50%…they invented proof because the fact that it burned ‘proved’ that it was good stuff and everybody knows that good stuff is 100% but since it wasn’t actually 100% alcohol they invented the term proof instead.
Next up…was lunch…which was supposed to be at the Hassmer House in nearby Versailles…but when Neil punched the address into the GPS it said it was 3 hours away and we knew that Versailles was only 10 miles or so away. After some consternation and what the heck discussions…we figured out that the restaurant was in Versailles IN instead. Now neither of us knew that there was a Versailles in IN…and Connie was making reservations in both Vincennes IN and Lexington KY area in the same time frame…and she just got a bit confused and…the technical term is…messed up. Anyways…this is only the second failure of the DLETC in a long string of successes so we’re just gonna let it slide.
Instead…we looked through the available eateries in Versailles KY and quickly settled on Ricardos Grill and Pub in downtown. Quickly assuming our normal seats at the bar we had a couple of iced teas to drink and a medium sized lunch…Neil had fish fingers and Connie had a salmon thing…both were labeled as appetizers on the menu but could easily have served as an entree.
Following that…and the largest distiller of the trip in the morning…we headed to the smallest distiller on the trip…the Barrel House Distillery in downtown Lexington. Situated on the old brewery row which has been revitalized or gentrified or whatever you call it into an upscale eating and drinking place in the evenings…but it’s still a really small distillery with an even smaller tasting room which essentially consisted of a small bar about 8 feet long over in the corner of the gift shop. Somehow though we didn’t get a shot of the tasting room though.
This is one of their 300 gallon fermenting tanks…once the grain is ground and cooked it’s put in one of these with yeast and it ferments. This ends up at between 8% and 10% alcohol and is essentially the same as beer except it has no hops in it…the mash at this point is named distiller’s beer. We tasted it and it’s similar to what one would normally call skanky beer since it’s unfiltered or aged at this point.
From the fermentation tank it gets pumped into a 300 gallon still which is surprisingly not what you see in this shot…this is the 150 gallon still that does the second distillation. The 300 gallon still is behind the black plywood for heat purposes but our tour guide told us it looked pretty similar to the 150 gallon one you see. We also sampled the output from the first distillation process…it’s clear by the way because all of the coloring and most of the flavor in bourbon comes from the aging process in the charred barrel…it was about 140 proof and essentially tastes like the White Lightning we used to make punch out of in high school back in LA.
There’s no aging building…or rickhouse…on this property so they do their aging in a barn on the horse farm of one of their owners out of town…the city wouldn’t let them build a rickhouse in town because if one of those catches on fire…well, it’s a wooden building filled with wooden barrels of flammable liquid and you’re just not putting the fire out…the fire department just lets the rickhouse burn and concentrates on not letting the fire spread. BTW…the term rickhouse for the aging buildings comes from the ricks (or racks) that the barrels are stored on inside the building. Some distilleries move barrels around between the ricks and floors and some don’t…and the ones that move them claim it improves the product while the ones that don’t say it doesn’t matter because two barrels that were aged right next to each other can have different flavor, color, and final proof because of all the factors beyond weather.
The aging process in the rickhouse includes hot summers causing the barrels to expand and the whisky to enter the charred wood and then cold winters which contract the barrels and push the whisky (and the tannins it picked up from the barrel) back out into the liquid. At the end of the aging process…somewhere between 70% and 90% of the contents (maybe 50% for really long aged stuff) is left with the rest being the Angel’s Share mentioned above.
With our day’s activities over and it being about 1400…it was once again…you guessed it…back to the hotel for rest, shower, and then we headed out to Distilled on Jefferson for dinner…another really excellent pick by the DLETC. Cocktails and wine again were procured and savored…and then we each had a bowl of she crab soup for dinner…rich, buttery, and full of cream, crab, and caviar. We originally were going to eat but the soup was so rich and the bowl so big that we just split a chocolate mousse for dessert along with a complimentary Frangelico (hazelnut liqueur) from the very posh lady bartender.
Sunday…was pretty much similar to Saturday.
After coffee at the hotel we headed out to the Cathedral of Christ the King for mass, then had breakfast at a little place downtown before heading over to our first destination of the day…Lexington Brewing Company. Yep…I said brewing but that’s because they’re either the only or one of a few distillers that also brews beer…and the beer they brew is named Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale which is one of our favorites. They used to make one called Bourbon Barrel Stout which was also a favorite but that has been replaced by Kentucky Coffee Bourbon Barrel Ale…they claim the latter is the same as the stout but the recipe has clearly changed as it was very heavily coffee flavored and the stout was much less coffee forward notes. And…they distill their bourbon from the same beer that would be barrel aged and bottled.
This is the cooker section of the brewery…after grinding in a room I’ll show you in a sec the grans go into these for cooking which turns the starch into sugar which is eventually destined to be eaten by the yeast producing carbon dioxide and the alcohol that’s the whole point of the process.
Rotating about 30 degrees to the left you can see the fermentation tanks and the ramp down to the grinding room and the other 10 or 12 fermentation tanks. From here…the beer is either piped over to the distillery section or sent to the barreling section which is in another building.
The distilling building contains these two stills as well as the tall skinny one you see in the center background so their product is eventually triple distilled. Most distillers that use pot (i.e., batch) stills use multiple stills to get the final distilled proof as close to 160 as they can. Really large distillers like Makers Mark use what is called a continuous column still in which the mash is pumped into the top of a large column with alternating plates as it flows to the bottom where the spent mash is exhausted. Continuous stills don’t need multiple distillation processes…the way they’re built gets you 160 proof in a single distillation. And speaking of spent mash…it’s not disposed of…distillers sell it to cattle farmers to feed their stock as it still has a lot of nutritional value left in it.
Close up of the bottom section of the still…about 8 feet in diameter.
They had this display of various barrel sizes each with a name and size that are used (or have been used) over the years by a variety of industries. As you can see…Connie is standing next to a barrel that is named a butt…this is like 110 gallons or something. So the saying that Neil has used for years and that I’ve echoed here in the blog…a metric butt load…is actually a real, actual measurement…and you probably thought it was just something we made up. Bah we say.
We were unable to sample actual bourbon here since the distilling part of the operation has only been in operation about 3 years but we did sample one of their single malt whiskys which is made from pure malted barley …hence the name…as well as a gin they sell as well as a couple of Irish whiskeys and one of their barrel strength whiskys which is currently being sold. They expect to sell their first bourbon next year assuming things go well with the aging process.
We decided to skip lunch and just had a few pretzels on the way to our last distillery of the trip…again about 40 miles out of town to the west in the middle of Nowheresville, KY. This was the Castle and Key distillery out in Frankfort KY.
As I said earlier…we really found the stories about the why much more interesting than the distillery tours themselves…after all bourbon is made essentially the same way by every distiller and if you’ve seen one tour you’ve pretty much seen them all except for the different scale between large and small. Color and flavor of the final product depends on mash bill, the vagaries of the aging process, and the skill of the master distiller in blending…or not…his barrels of bourbon. But the stories are really interesting.
Castle and Key was founded in 1887 as the Taylor Distilling Company by James Taylor who was really the originator of the idea of something he called a ‘bourbon destination’ where one would go just to see the place, have parties, stay overnight, and sample their wares. Back in 1887…this was so far out in the boonies that Nowheresville was the big city you passed through before you got here. He persuaded the railroad to put in a spur line out to the property and then got down to building things. First up…he decided he needed a castle to attract people so…he built one…only instead of it having rooms it was really the distillery itself.
In addition to the castle…he built the largest rickhouse in KY.
And an English garden along side it…as you can see above with the railroad running between the two to the station where you got off to commence the partying you came here to do.
The distillery closed in 1920 due to prohibition…and while it did reopen under different ownership when prohibition was repealed and distilled under several owners afterwards it was closed and essentially abandoned by about 1970. Then in 2012…one of the two current owners named Will Arvin came across some pictures of the abandoned property, thought he should reimagine and reinvent the bourbon experience…after all by 2012 bourbon was back in vogue…so he and his wife came out and toured the property. They found boarded up windows, caved in roofs, and vegetation so overgrown he needed a flashlight in the middle of the day to see…but they liked what they saw and set about doing just that. He contacted a friend of his named Wes Murry…they were both either doctors or lawyers in Lexington…and between the two of them decided to purchase the property and restore it to what it used to be. Purchasing the property in 20145, they spent I’m guessing a lot of money fixing roofs, evicting raccoon families from buildings…in fact one of them actually had a tree growing up in the middle of the building’s first floor through the roof…and fixing things up. Included in this were the original mash cookers, fermentation tanks, and stills from back in the early days…all of that is still used today. They distilled their first product in 2016 and shipped their first bourbon last year. To make some profit in the meantime…they also produce vodka and gin as well as rye whiskey…we sampled all of these but alas…no bourbon remains from last year’s release so we’ll just have to get some later this year I guess. They also rent space to assorted small distilleries in their rickhouse including the Lexington Brewing Company that we visited in the morning.
Connie was really impressed by the stalls in the ladies room at the distillery.
And since every castle needs a moat…heck, everybody knows that…Mr. Taylor built one. Unfortunately it doesn’t have any water in it this time of the year.
The entrance to the castle where we started our tour.
This is the lower about 2/3s of their two column stills used for the first distillation. They’re about 4 stories tall. Crappy pano with the iPhone but the best Neil could do given the tight quarters involved…and like the morning’s tour this is an in production facility and we met several of the staff as we went through.
The collapsing building in the background with the vine covered exterior is what the whole place looked like back in 2012 before it was purchased for restoration.
Since the original distillery closed as a result of prohibition…which as you know didn’t really get rid of alcohol but just drove it underground into the speakeasy and bathtub gin environment…the new owners put the tasting room in one of the old around the back originally used for something else rooms in the castle and used this industrial looking door for the entrance…so it looked like you were entering a speakeasy.The old rail bed (now a paved street) is behind where Neil was standing and you had to go up an old industrial set of stairs over some pipes and between the rusty old tanks to get there.
Our samples. The vodka was really, really good and was bottled at 80 proof. The gin is pretty expensive as gin goes and is 106 proof. Our tour guide said that a lot of people had told him they don’t like gin…Neil raised his hand in agreement when asked. What he said was that the reason most people don’t like gin is because what they really don’t like is cheap gin…because cheap gin has a couple of problems with it. When you run a still and catch the output you get three separate sections…the heads at the beginning which contain both the good ethanol that we like to drink as well as methanol which is poisonous in large quantities, and various other organic compounds that just don’t taste good…then you get the hearts which is the good stuff only…and then the tails which again has lots of not so tasty stuff. Cheap gin makers use a bit more of the heads and tails in their output because that gives them more to sell per batch and lowers their costs. Good gin makers only use the hearts…according to Rich…and just accept they’ll need to charge more for it.
In addition…cheap gin makers use almost exclusively juniper to flavor their product…gin is essentially vodka (or pure alcohol and water) mixed with flavorings in the second distillation. A lot of juniper gives the final product the typical gin flavor which is essentially…for gin haters that are really cheap gin haters (again according to Rich)…like drinking a Christmas tree. Good gin makers on the other hand…use a whole series of botanicals and herbs and other nice tasting things to put in their flavor.
The result…this gin while you can still tell there is juniper in it…is pretty mild and mellow as far as juniper goes. Smelling and tasting it you get all the other good things more than the juniper…which results in a good gin…in fact Neil actually liked it. He still wouldn’t go out of his way to drink gin including this one…but he pronounced it drinkable and actually said it tasted good.
Another true story…you’ve probably read in books and seen in movies about how the British in India drank gin and tonic quite regularly. Well…actually they needed to drink something…it was tropical India after all and a backwater compared to being home in the UK…but what they really needed was a daily dose of quinine to ward off the malaria. Quinine is what is used to give tonic water its flavor and it was used to deliver the medicinal quinine to the Brits. However…quinine is bitter and even more people don’t like it’s taste than don’t like cheap gin…so the gin and tonic was invented along with the strongly flavored juniper gin to hide the taste of the quinine…so the Brits could get loaded and medicated all in one fell swoop.
India…btw…is also why we have that beer called IPA. That actually stands for India Pale Ale and again it was invented for the Brits in India. Most Brits at the time at home drank either stout beers or dark ales…mostly dark heavier stuff…and they needed to ship beer to India for their folks to drink out at the backwater. Stouts and Brown Ales don’t travel well so the brewers invented pale ale. Now all beer has hops flowers in it…that is what gives it the bitter notes in the taste…but the brewers discovered that hops also has preservative properties which came in handy on the long sea voyage to India as the Suez Canal didn’t exist yet.
See…in addition to blathering about Fun Stuff©…this is an educational blog:-)
The rye whisky was also good…although because its rye it has a much sharper, less mellow, less sweet corn taste than bourbon does…but it is still pretty tasty.
And finally…our tour guide Rich at the bar in the tasting room. Rich wins our award as “Best Tour Guide in the Last Ten Years”…enthusiastic, knowledgable, and and all around great guide.This is another iPhone pano…and while a lot of the time iPhone pano shot give you that rounded sort of look for close subjects rather than the straight appearance that a more distant subject would provide…that’s not the case for this shot. The bar was actually an L shaped bar and he was sitting right at the apex of the cure in the L…or does that make it a J shaped bar since an L has a corner in it and a J has a curve instead of the corner. Eh…whatevers. Neil gave him a nice tip for the tour and he rarely does that.
Once we finished our tasting we headed back into town and had our usual rest/shower before heading out to dinner…he got a shot of her waiting for the elevator.
We headed out to Malone’s which is a local Lexington chain…the steak place she wanted to eat at didn’t have any reservations…she was irritated that she didn’t get it earlier during the planning for the trip but figured that on Monday night with no festival or anything going on reservations wouldn’t be a problem.
If you ever go to Lexington…under no circumstances should you eat at Malone’s. The bread was hot and delicious and the Caesar salad was right up there with the best we’ve had since all the thick chewy ribs in the Romaine had been removed. Unfortunately it was all downhill after that. Both Connie’s steak and Neil’s Halibut were grossly over salted to the point of inedibility and all the waitress…who was pretty good and the food wasn’t her fault at all…could do was offer us a free dessert which we declined. No manager or supervisor or offer to redo the meals…they were terrible and it didn’t seem like management cared at all. She gave them a scathing review on Open Table and they’ve replied asking for her contact info so a manager can talk to her about it…Neil’s still waiting on her to do that almost a week later but if she does and if they respond I’ll update you on the results. All in all…it’s the worst $150 meal we’ve ever had and would make the worst $30 meal we ever had look good.
Interesting things found on the net.