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Maker's Mark

After spending the not-so-spooky night in the historic Jailer’s Inn in Bardstown, a B&B that was once a jail and is claimed to be one of the ten most haunted places in America, I headed for Maker’s Mark Distillery in Loretto, about 25 minutes from Bardstown on KY-49. Maker's Mark SignDuring the distillery tour, I learned Maker’s Mark is more hands-on than Jim Beam and Heaven Hill. In fact, the company makes their bourbon in batches of less than nineteen barrels at a time. The grain--winter wheat--comes from small, local co-op farms and is ground by an old-fashioned rollermill.  The locally made white oak barrels are air-dried a minimum of nine months before charring. All Maker’s Mark bottles are hand-dipped in red wax to give them their signature look and the labels are applied and dated by hand. The bourbon is judged by a  taste-testing panel, rather than by age.

Maker's Mark Dip LineWhen I watched it, the dipping part looked pretty easy. How hard can it be to stick the bottle into wax, stand it up and watch the wax drip down? Turns out, much harder than it looks. Under the close supervision of a proficient bottle dipper, I donned protective gear and followed her instructions, but apparently not as well as I should have. When I finished, she told me, “You need more practice.” 


Four Roses

After failing the Maker’s Mark dipping test, I sojourned on to Four Roses Distillery, located on the Salt River in Lawrenceburg, about an hour’s drive away. Built in 1910, the company’s Spanish Mission-style structure is on the National Register of Historic Places. Four Roses Distillery HouseFour Roses holds the distinction of being one of only six distilleries that during the Depression was licensed to sell whiskey for “Medicinal Purposes Only.” Which gave it a leg up over all the distilleries forced out of business by the temperance movement. Five years after Prohibition ended, when other distilleries were still scrambling to get back in business, Four Roses was in lights in Times Square, where it remained through 1945. If you look closely at Alfred Eisenstaedt’s famed photograph of the sailor kissing the nurse in Times Square at the end of World War II, you’ll see the Four Roses sign in the background.Four Roses Hand Labeling

The Four Roses story is as attention-grabbing as its bourbon. It survived the Civil War, Prohibition and a 1950s corporate buyout that turned America’s most popular bourbon into a “bottom shelf” brand, and sold its premium stock to Japan, where it became the country’s number one-selling bourbon. It took forty years and another buyout to bring Four Roses home and repair its image. It has since reclaimed its reputation, being named this year’s  Whisky Distiller of the Year by Whiskey Magazine.


Wild Turkey

From Four Roses, I headed to Wild Turkey, also located in Lawrenceburg, where brothers John and James Ripy settled and began distilling bourbon in 1873. Fermenting at Wild TurkeySo good was their product that twenty-five years later Wild Turkey was to represent Kentucky at the World’s Fair Exposition in Chicago. The Ripy’s distillery, like Four Roses, was also licensed to sell “medicinal” bourbon during Prohibition. But after the wild Turkey Master distiller Jimmy Russell21st Amendment passed, the Ripys sold their distillery to Austin, Nichols & Company, which modernized production.  The bourbon got its distinctive name in 1940 after Austin exec Thomas McCarthy served undiluted 101 proof whiskey from his warehouse stock to a gobble of his fellow wild turkey hunters. At the next hunt, they clamored for more of that “wild turkey bourbon”. He provided the spirit and the Wild Turkey Bourbon brand was born. Last year, the company sold its millionth case of bourbon.

After the tour, I raced to Lexington, checked into the fabulous Gratz Park Inn, a boutique hotel within walking distance of downtown and the historic Gratz Park area, where the John Hunt Morgan house is located and Transylvania University got its start. Then I jumped into cocktail attire and raced to the Governor’s mansion in Frankfort, and attended the Bourbon Women’s spring kick-off reception. Even Kentucky’s First Lady attended.


Woodford Reserve

The next morning, I drove to 30 minutes to Versailles to tour Woodford Reserve, which showcases the best of Kentucky. The historic limestone-walled distillery, founded in 1797 and built in 1812, Woodford Reserve Copper Stillsis nestled in the middle of its own thoroughbred farm on the Grassy Springs branch of Glenn’s Creek. It’s Kentucky’s oldest distillery, but was shuttered for a time in the 1960s, only to be revived in 1994 as a boutique distillery specializing in small batches of premium bourbon. Two years later, its “best of the best” made bourbon history by garnering top honors at three prestigious bourbon tasting competitions.

Master Distiller Chris Morris gave me a personal tour of the facility, pointing out the small nineteenth century stone buildings where the bourbon is aged (most distilleries’ rack buildings are huge multi-storied wooden warehouses). I was also able watch a worker remove a barrel’s bung (the wooden plug) and drain the bourbon, something that wasn’t included in the rest of the tours. Chris told me the bungs make great starters for charcoal,Woodford Reserve Barrel with Glass but I kept mine as a souvenir. Chris also autographed and presented me with the Woodford Reserve 2011 Kentucky Derby limited edition commemorative bottle, which features the artwork of award-winning artist Brett Amory. Woodford Reserve has for years been the “Official Bourbon of the Kentucky Derby.” He also handed me a Woodford Reserve bourbon ball for the trip back to Lexington.

After the tour, I spruced-up and headed to Keeneland, Lexington’s premiere, world-renowned thoroughbred racetrack, where I watched the annual Maker’s Mark Mile from the Clubhouse. It was fun, although the Kentucky Hot Brown I ordered for lunch proved to be a much better choice than any of the horses I picked, which just goes to show you can’t judge a horse by its name or color. That technique works much better on bourbon.

Woodford Reserve Tour / Issue 146 - September 2018
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