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Bluegrass, Corn Mash, and Charred Oak on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail

This article originally appeared in RECOIL Issue 42

The Spirit of America

There are rules, you know. Rules set forth, in fact, by a 1964 Congressional resolution and enforced under 27 C.F.R. 5, The Federal Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits. Before we go any further, a review is in order so that everyone knows exactly what they’re getting into..

– It must be produced in the United States. (’Merica!)
– The originating grain mixture (known as a mash bill) must be at least 51-percent corn.
– It must be aged in charred new oak barrels. (Meaning you can never reuse a barrel.)
– It must be distilled to no more than 160 proof.
– It must enter the barrel at no more than 125 proof.
– It must enter the bottle at no more than 80 proof.
– The addition of artificial colors or flavors is strictly prohibited. The only thing you may add is water.

When read on paper, it sounds simple enough. But a web of crisscrossing legal entanglements and a Shakespearean history involving secret recipes, family feuds, organized crime, and literal piracy makes learning about bourbon just as exciting as drinking it. Which is why we travelled back and forth across the famed Kentucky Bourbon Trail to dig beneath the blue grass and bring back some of the history, and science, of what goes into your favorite barrel.

This speakeasy, in the basement of the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience building, has been fully restored to period accuracy.

This speakeasy, in the basement of the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience building, has been fully restored to period accuracy.

The 1964 Congressional Resolution specifically declared bourbon as “a distinctive product of the United States” — a power move, as international commerce goes. Mexico did it with tequila; France with Champagne. Not, in and of itself, a huge deal. But follow-on legislation in August of 2007 altered the verbiage, referring to bourbon as “America’s Native Spirit.” That legislation was a bill put forth by a Kentucky Senator to declare September 2007 as National Bourbon Heritage Month. Why September of 2007? We have no clue. Honestly, it smells a little like pre-election-cycle pandering to us. But it’s a convenient excuse to drink extra bourbon, so we’ll let it slide. Having said that, this politically convenient twist of semantics created a movement that the bourbon industry itself has latched on to — helping to reintroduce America to its own wholly unique contribution to the history of distilled spirits. The movement has taken on a vibrant life of its own, leading to an aggressively renewed consumer interest in both the drink and its cultural roots.

The Frazier Museum’s Spirit of Kentucky exhibit.

The Frazier Museum’s Spirit of Kentucky exhibit.

While the ’64 legislation only specifies that bourbon be produced in the United States, ground truth is that 95 percent of the country’s bourbon whiskey is produced in Kentucky. So we took a trip to the heart of the Bluegrass State to hit the bourbon trail and learn about bourbon’s impact on our country’s founding and what makes it the official drink of freedom…

STOP #1: The Frazier State History Museum

While The Frazier Museum in downtown Louisville isn’t an official stop on the Bourbon Trail, we think it ought to be. We had the opportunity to see a massive renovation the museum is undertaking for their brand-new bourbon exhibit. The museum has teamed up with many of the major distilleries in the region to showcase not just the science of the drink itself, but also its economic impact as a job-creator for the state of Kentucky and how the land itself shaped the drink we know and love today.

The Frazier Museum’s Spirit of Kentucky exhibit.

The Frazier Museum’s Spirit of Kentucky exhibit.

According to Andrew Treinen, the museum’s director, 1.2-million people visited Bourbon Trail distilleries in 2017. The number of bourbon tourists has consistently increased by 300,000 per year for the last three years that the numbers have been tracked. One of the colloquial “rules” of bourbon, not codified by Congress, is that bourbon should be made using Kentucky limestone-filtered water. The state has a unique geological makeup that consists of several massive limestone shelves that have formed along rivers, wells, and waterways throughout the state. The limestone acts as a sort of natural filtration system that draws out iron and other impurities, while adding in minerals that give the water both clarity and a natural flavor. Water that’s iron-heavy gives whiskey a metallic taste as well as a deep black color that sets in during the aging process. Water that runs over a limestone shelf sheds iron naturally, negating the need for additional filtration during the production process.

Nowadays, water purification is a well-refined science. But in the mid 1700s, when American whiskey production was in its infancy, there was no technological workaround for tainted water. So corn whiskey from the Bluegrass region was imparted with a particularly clean flavor profile and no heavy metals. Another reason western Kentucky became an excellent hub for whiskey proliferation is its proximity to the Ohio River, giving it a direct route to the busy port town of New Orleans. In fact, one of the theories about how bourbon got its name is because of its popularity in the bourbon district of New Orleans, where taverns and pubs fed local sailors, trappers, and frontiersmen a steady supply of the Kentucky corn spirit that floated down the river.

This 19th century fermenting tank was uncovered on the Buffalo Trace campus during routine renovations.

This 19th century fermenting tank was uncovered on the Buffalo Trace campus during routine renovations.

In an ironic and uniquely RECOIL turn of events, Treinen also informed us that the Frazier History Museum was formerly known as the Frazier Arms Museum — originally created to showcase the founder’s private collection of unique and historically significant firearms. We saw a few of those pieces, including rifles owned by two separate U.S. Presidents. But that will, indeed, be another story…

STOP #2: Evan Williams’ Bourbon Experience

From the Frazier Museum we walked down the block to the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience. This isn’t the actual distillery where Evan Williams bourbon is made but rather a dedicated tourist stop with an educational tour through a working still, rick house (where barrels are stored while they age), and period-accurate pub house.

Fermenting tanks at Woodford Reserve. In the top photo you can see the thousands of tiny bubbles that rise to the surface as yeast interacts with the corn mash to make alcohol.

Fermenting tanks at Woodford Reserve. In the top photo you can see the thousands of tiny bubbles that rise to the surface as yeast interacts with the corn mash to make alcohol.

As the story goes, Evan Williams was one of the first to take advantage of the serendipitous combination of clean water and convenient location. A Welshman by birth, Williams immigrated to America in the late 18th century, eventually landing in Kentucky with a 40-acre homestead chock full of corn. While corn makes a great, inexpensive food source for both people and livestock, it’s bulky, difficult to move, has a limited shelf life, and isn’t a particularly lucrative crop. But Mr. Williams had made his living as a scotch distiller in his homeland and decided to put this knowledge to work with his new corn crop.

He quickly rose to prominence in the Louisville area as a businessman, local politician, and for his uniquely tasty version of corn whiskey. In 1783, he founded Kentucky’s first commercial distillery. A historical marker still stands in the heart of downtown Louisville on the spot where that distillery went up. He was also elected as Louisville’s first wharf master in 1794. The wharf master’s job was to collect taxes from every boat that tied up on the Louisville wharf.

Fermenting tanks at Woodford Reserve. In the top photo you can see the thousands of tiny bubbles that rise to the surface as yeast interacts with the corn mash to make alcohol.

Fermenting tanks at Woodford Reserve. In the top photo you can see the thousands of tiny bubbles that rise to the surface as yeast interacts with the corn mash to make alcohol.

Speaking of taxes, it’s worth noting that bourbon is taxed seven distinct times before you pour it into your glass, accounting for more than 60 percent of the retail cost. In addition to sales taxes, among others, there’s an insidious little legal demon called the “ad valorem” tax, which taxes every barrel of bourbon for every year that it ages. Kentucky is the only place in the world that does this, and this tax is assessed yearly at both the state and municipal levels.

Our time with the folks at Evan Williams ended with a sneak peek into their own private speakeasy. Everyone knows that speakeasies came about as a result of prohibition. What may be lesser known is that several famous bourbon distilleries were given government exceptions to produce medicinal alcohol during prohibition. Much like you see with marijuana today, a weird patchwork of legality arose during the temperance years. While recreational alcohol consumption was illegal, your doctor could write you a prescription for whiskey.

The fountain at the entrance to the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience in downtown Louisville. Unfortunately, the fountain is pouring water, not Evan Williams bourbon.

The fountain at the entrance to the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience in downtown Louisville. Unfortunately, the fountain is pouring water, not Evan Williams bourbon.

The speakeasy in the basement of the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience is fully restored to period accuracy, right down to the role-playing bartenders who host the speakeasy tours, pairing events, and private parties that are held there.

STOP #3: Peerless Distillery

From Evan Williams, we stopped in at Peerless Distillery. Peerless was unique among our stops, newer and smaller than any of the brown-liquor giants most people think of when they think of Kentucky bourbon. But boutique distilleries are an up-and-coming phenomenon for bourbon country. So much so that there’s now a “sub-trail” of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail called the Craft Tour, with a totally unique lineup of smaller outside-the-box stills and attractions.

The shelves in the Peerless Distillery tasting room. Though their Rye whiskey is ready to go, they’re leaving room for the bourbon while it ages.

The shelves in the Peerless Distillery tasting room. Though their Rye whiskey is ready to go, they’re leaving room for the bourbon while it ages.

One of the things that makes Peerless stand out is their use of sweet mash versus sour mash. Almost all legacy bourbons are produced with the sour mash method. Let’s say you whip up a 5-gallon batch of corn mash. Once that mash has fermented for the proper amount of time, you scoop out a pint and put it in a second 5-gallon bucket to kick-start your next batch. This sample from the already-fermented batch, known as a setback, is similar to making sourdough bread using a starter. The setback conditions your new batch by introducing a live and active strain of yeast into the mixture and also by establishing a proper pH for the yeast to do its work. Sweet mash doesn’t use a setback from previous batches.

We’d love to tell you how this may have affected our tasting experience, but unfortunately Peerless Bourbon isn’t yet available for sale. We assure you that it exists — we touched the barrels ourselves. But the Peerless operation is so new that their bourbon hasn’t yet reached maturity.

The rickhouse at Peerless is totally climate controlled. A departure in method from many of their older competitors.

The rickhouse at Peerless is totally climate controlled. A departure in method from many of their older competitors.

Which brings us to another point: How long does bourbon need to age? The answer is that it doesn’t, legally speaking. You could technically pour white corn whiskey into a bourbon barrel, then pour it out again immediately and call it bourbon. (Good luck selling it though!) If you shop on the bottom shelf of your local gas station, you may actually find bourbons aged as little as three months. Any bourbon aged more than two years may be labeled as straight bourbon. But bourbon aged less than four years must contain an age statement on the bottle. The exception to this is bonded bourbon, which must be aged four years by law. (We’ll get back to bonded bourbons in a minute.) If the bourbon is blended, the age statement must be based off the youngest bourbon used in the blend, not the oldest.

A tableau of old-meets-new, perhaps a snapshot of the bourbon industry itself.

A tableau of old-meets-new, perhaps a snapshot of the bourbon industry itself.

Peerless distillery does, however, have a 100-percent rye whiskey that’s available now. At time of writing, the bourbon was about halfway through its planned four-year aging.

STOP #4: Buffalo Trace

Our next stop on the trail was Buffalo Trace distillery in Frankfort. The Buffalo Trace campus is a sort of working museum, its very existence showcasing nearly 250 years of distilled history. Much like Mr. Williams’ first distillery, some of the oldest buildings on the Buffalo Trace campus are on the banks of the river. This was mostly a matter of logistics. The barrels could be rolled out of the distillery and directly onto a boat for shipment down the Ohio River.

These tiny stalactites are known as barrel candy. It’s bourbon that leaks through the barrel staves and hardens. And yes, you can eat them.

These tiny stalactites are known as barrel candy. It’s bourbon that leaks through the barrel staves and hardens. And yes, you can eat them.

We should caution your imagination when we use the term “boats” in this context. These were flat-bottomed wooden rafts roughly 40 to 70 feet in length and 10 to 15 feet across. They had no power, relying on the river current for movement and no steerage except for poles or oars used to push off the banks and large rocks. The trip from Kentucky to Louisiana could take weeks, and riverboats were regularly attacked by pirates. Not like peg legs and hook-hands pirates, but like sabers and muskets pirates. Some estimate that between the years of 1785 and 1805, more than 2,000 people were killed at the hands of river pirates. Not only was this dangerous for the boatmen, but the loss of thousands of dollars of bourbon didn’t make the distillers too happy either. So, much like Pinkertons riding shotgun on the original Wells Fargo stagecoaches, bourbon shipments were sometimes accompanied by armed agents to protect the boat and its cargo.

We spent a significant portion of our time at Buffalo Trace in the Blanton’s rick house — one of the author’s personal favorite bourbons. The rick house is where bourbon barrels are stored to age. Truly, the rick house is where the magic happens. Just about anybody can produce clear corn whiskey, also known as White Dog. But all the unique flavors, colors, tasting notes, and smells that accompany a particular bottle of bourbon develop in the barrel. This is where the art of bourbon craft really shines.

This secret passage into the bottom level of the Blanton’s rick house is indicative of the kind of intrigue that can be found throughout the bourbon industry’s history.

This secret passage into the bottom level of the Blanton’s rick house is indicative of the kind of intrigue that can be found throughout the bourbon industry’s history.

There are many ways the rick house itself can affect the final product. Ambient temperature during aging is a significant influence. So how is the rick house oriented in relation to the sun? One side of the rick house will get soft morning light while the other gets full-blast afternoon heat. How high is the house? Because barrels on the top floor will age differently than those on the bottom, or those in the center of the house, away from direct light and breeze. The folks at the Blanton’s rick house actually open and close all the shutters in a specific pattern throughout the year to control the temperature and light exposure during the aging process. Some brands rotate barrels throughout different locations in the rick house to “even out” these factors. Other brands leave their barrels in one spot for the duration, and are so familiar with the aging patterns in their houses that they’ll place barrels in specific locations to elicit a particular flavor profile.

This display at Buffalo Trace gives a visual representation of how much bourbon is lost through the Angels’ Share. The upper left barrel is a freshly corked barrel. The bottom right is what’s left after 18 years.

This display at Buffalo Trace gives a visual representation of how much bourbon is lost through the Angels’ Share. The upper left barrel is a freshly corked barrel. The bottom right is what’s left after 18 years.

Another thing that happens in the rick house is evaporative loss. But “evaporative loss” is a terribly clinical way to talk about a product with such rich history and mythos. The folks in Kentucky refer to it as the Angels’ Share — the percentage of bourbon that simply vanishes due to the forces of nature as it ages. The longer a barrel ages, the less final product will actually be present when the barrel is opened. The Buffalo Trace distillery also produces the famed Pappy Van Winkle bourbon. Part of the reason Pappy 23-year is so expensive (besides that damned ad valorem tax) is because, by year 23, that 53-gallon barrel is about three-quarters empty. This means that it takes 23 years to produce about 10 gallons. It also explains why angels are so happy and sing all the time. Because nature seeks balance, the Angels’ Share is compounded by the Devil’s Cut — the whiskey that soaks into the wood fibers during aging.

STOP #5: Woodford Reserve

Our last stop was to Woodford Reserve in Versailles, where barrels again came up in discussion. Legal statutes say that bourbon must be aged in a charred, new white oak barrel. The amount of charring is left up to individual brand discretion. Similar to toasting a marshmallow, charring the inside of an oak barrel draws natural sugars to the surface of the wood and caramelizes them. The amount and duration of heat you apply changes the smell, texture, and tastes that come out of the barrel staves. Woodford Reserve puts a twist on this by toasting the barrels for 30 minutes in an oven-like room before applying direct flame for charring.

Bourbon Trail

If the barrel is where the magic happens, the yeast used to ferment the mash is the secret ingredient. None of the distilleries we visited would go into any detail whatsoever about the particular strain of yeast used. Every single one swears it’s a particular type and strain that has been passed down through generations via the sour mash process to maintain purity and consistency of flavor. The yeast is your direct path from corny water to quality hooch.

Bourbon Trail

Of course, corn isn’t the only ingredient. It must be the majority, but every brand has concocted their own mash bill typically including smaller percentages of wheat and barley. Woodford has a specialty variation that uses malted barley, pushing the envelope of the traditional bourbon flavor set. They also produce a Double Oaked bourbon. When traditional Woodford bourbon has finished its barrel aging, it’s poured into a second new oak barrel, where it continues to age more, giving Double Oaked a sweeter flavor and more velveteen mouth feel when compared to Woodford’s Straight Bourbon. As the popularity of bourbon grows and competition gets more intense, we expect to see more of this kind of innovation from Bluegrass Country as the industry pushes taste profiles to the limits of what can legally be called bourbon.

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Spent Grain

Entire books have been written about the history and production of bourbon, which is well beyond our scope here. But hopefully we’ve given you a taste of American history, served up neat, and provided some food for thought the next time you take a drink. And if you’re passing through Kentucky, be sure to take the opportunity to familiarize yourself first hand with how our birthright spirit comes to life.


Sources

Frazier Kentucky History Museum: fraziermuseum.org
Evan Williams Bourbon Experience: evanwilliams.com
Buffalo Trace Distillery: buffalotracedistillery.com
Woodford Reserve Distillery: woodfordreserve.com

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