We recently went on a trip to the states to visit some of the makers of our favourite bourbons and try and forget about the trade war that we’ve found ourselves caught in the crossfire of. We’ll be going into more detail about each distillery in turn, so this is just a little overview to whet your appetite and give you a little flavour of a couple of days in the bourbon state of Kentucky, where myth, mastery and a defiant lack of technology defines the character of the Blue Horse state.
Kentucky is bourbon country, it’s where 95% of the USA’s bourbon production takes place, across 73 different distilleries split in and around the four main cities; Lexington, Frankfort, Bardstown and Louisville. The result? 1.5 barrels of bourbon are aging in Kentucky rickhouses for every resident of the state and by the looks of things that number is only going to go up with new distilleries opening annually and existing distilleries expanding production to the sort of levels their forefathers could scarcely fathom.
With that sort of expansion in mind we started off at Kentucky’s oldest continuous distillery and the one undergoing the biggest expansion… the mighty Buffalo Trace.
We were blessed to be shown around the distillery by none other than Freddie Johnson, a bonafide celebrity in bourbon circles thanks to his appearance in recent bourbon movie Neat. Freddie is a third generation Buffalo Tracer with both his father and grandfather working under Colonel Blanton at the distillery and is widely regarded as the best tour guide at Buffalo Trace thanks to his intimate inside knowledge and his charming personality. After showing us around the extensive site Freddie left us in master blender Drew Meilville’s capable hands, who treated us to a selection of the distilleries offerings whilst remaining as tight lipped as everyone else about what he drank at home.
We were in for a huge change of scenery going from the gritty industrialism of Buffalo Trace when we got to Woodford Reserve’s more pastoral surrounds. Woodford is another distillery reaping the benefits of the bourbon explosion and like Buffalo Trace is becoming a fairly ubiquitous bourbon in the UK as it’s a mainstay on supermarket shelves up and down the country. Woodford feels like a much slicker operation where the air at Buffalo was filled with the smell of charred barrels and mash bill Woodford had a more defiantly floral tone.
We rounded off our day with a drive by of the Castle and Key distillery which was about a week off from opening, unfortunately we couldn’t get in as it’s still under construction but it kind of looks like the bourbon version of a White Castle, the pioneers of the fast food industry. Castle & Key sits on the site of the former Old Taylor distillery and is itself forging its own unique path and bringing bourbon into the 21st Century as their master distiller, Marianne Barnes, is the first female master distiller in the industry. Tales of the treasures within the distillery include a luscious herb garden and botanical trail, the produce from which has been infused in their gins whilst they wait for their bourbon to age.
With groggy heads and a sunrise start we headed back across the state to the Four Roses Distillery and it’s pastel infused Spanish-mission stylings. Unfortunately there’s not a lot to say as production was shut down for the summer whilst the distillery (like practically every other distillery in Kentucky) undergoes expansion. It is very pretty.
By this point (which was only about midday) we were all slightly pissed on a lot of Four Roses Single Barrel and famished but for some breadsticks the tour guide had tried to sober us up with so we grabbed a bite in Bardstown. I have only one thing to tell you about that, don’t ever eat a Hot Brown, that shit is rank.
So full of 1% dairy “cheese” sauce and other cullinary delights we made our way to what is possibly the finest distillery in the United States of America, Willett. Willett is an extremely special and historic distillery run by a family who have fought back through hard times to not only regain their ancestral land and business but to bring that business back to something that is worthy of the Willett name. The hospitality and generosity of master distiller Drew Kulsveen extended to tapping a number of barrels for us to try right there in the rickhouse, which was truly unforgettable and left us all very much worse for wear by the time we made it back out into the relative cool of the blistering summer heat. Hats off to the man, he knows how to host! Luckily for us (and for you) the Willett family are building some chalets, a restaurant and a bar on site so you never have to leave their delicious juice.
And with that that third barrel tap we were left longing for the next Willett release, it really is unbelievable stuff…