The initial planning of our trip to Auburn was innocent enough, then I invited my Dad.
He and I have talked a bit about bucket list sort of trips we'd like to take together; East Coast baseball stadium swing, Scotland and Sweden to trace our heritage, and the Bourbon Trail in Kentucky to list a few. It took my old man all of a few hours to respond with a rather ambitious idea -- let's shoehorn the Bourbon Trail into the Auburn trip.
It took me all of a few seconds to respond "hell yeah". Our Auburn group was about 10 people, and although my Dad and I invited all of them, only my good friend Lars Johnson could join us.
I'll get straight to the bourbon, and include some highlights and distillery pics after.
What is bourbon?
Maybe an elementary question for you advanced connoisseurs, but this seems like a good starting point. For those unfamiliar with the distilling process, briefly, leymanny; a mash is made from anything that contains sugars or starches, yeast is added and allowed to eat all those tasty sugars, processing them into alcohol (fermentation), the fermented mash is boiled off, with the alcohol leaving in a gaseous state, the gas is collected and cooled (condensed) to obtain a clear liquid. This liquid is called "moonshine" when making bourbon.
- A bourbon must be produced in the United states.
- A bourbon mash must consist of at least 51% (by weight) corn, most are around 70%.
- A bourbon must come off the still (where it is condensed) between 80 and 160 proof, and nothing* can be added to it before it enters the aging barrel. This is where Jack Daniel's loses the ability to call itself a "bourbon". JD includes a charcoal filtration step that is after the still and before barreling.
- A bourbon can only be aged in a new, fire-charred, white oak barrel. It must be no higher than 125 proof going into the barrel.
- A bourbon must be bottled at a proof no less than 80.
*The exception here is water, water is added to lower the proof to 125 if necessary.
Most bourbons are made from a mash consisting of only corn, barley, wheat and/or rye. Varying the amount of each ingredient gives each bourbon its unique flavor. Rye bourbons tend to be more "hot", they burn a bit more going down, and wheat bourbons tend to be sweeter and softer to drink. It's usually the rye, not the proof that burns. Some of the easiest drinking bourbons we tried were 110 proof.
A common misconception; there is no "Bourbon County", or at least not anymore. There once was, before Kentucky was a state and that area still belonged to Virginia. Liquor barrels were stamped with the county and that's how bourbon liquor originally got it's name. Now, bourbon can be made anywhere in America.
Kentucky is special because of it's geography -- there's a subsurface shelf of limestone that filters their waters, removing iron. Iron in the water would turn the bourbon a black color and spoil the taste. They don't have to pay to de-ionize their water, and some think the presence of other minerals, like calcium which aren't removed, enhance the taste when compared to completely purified water. Kentucky also has extremes in its climate -- real hot summers and real cold winters -- which help with aging.
Why do they char the barrels?
Legend has it Elijah Craig, a minister and distiller (those two go hand in hand throughout bourbon's history a lot more than I would've imagined) was making bourbon and shipping it down river when his property caught fire. He was an alleged frugal man, and rather than buy new white oak barrels, he just filled the charred ones and shipped them off on their six month trek south. About a year later, word got back to him that people loved the new golden liquor, and that's the reason they continue to use charred barrels today.
Charring caramelizes the wood on the inside. During the aging process, the bourbon expands into the wood and contracts back out as the seasons fluctuate between hot and cold, each time pulling more of the caramel and wood flavoring out of the barrel. About 4 to 8 percent of the total volume is lost each year to evaporation, they call this loss the "angel's share". Of the 150 gallons barreled, a 20 year bourbon may have as little as 8 gallons remaining by the time the angels are done. That drives the cost up.
The barrels are stored in "ricks" that are stacks of three to a floor, with as many as seven or so floors to a "rickhouse". Some rickhouses hold as many as 50,000 barrels, but most contain 20,000 with some smaller ones that house a few thousand. One rickhouse that holds 20,000 barrels has an estimated worth of $70 million dollars.
At one point I thought out loud, to the amusement of our tour guide, how I would like to bathe in the smell of those places. It's sugar sweet like molasses, but milder, and mixed with a log cabin smell that doesn't nearly do it justice as I type it out. It's delicious, you can taste bourbon on your tongue breathing it in. One tour guide offered "there are more barrels or bourbon aging in Kentucky than people"...I honestly couldn't tell if he was joking.
The barrel placement in the house effects how it will age. That's why you see some bourbons labeled as "single barrel" or "small batch", to separate them from the others which combine a large amount of barrels for the most consistent flavor bottle to bottle.
Every 'single barrel' bourbon will taste somewhat unique. Most bourbons will be a mixture of all the barrels that either have the same age, or are judged to have the same taste -- each distillery does it a bit differently. Maker's Mark for example, doesn't include ages on their barrels, they sample all of them and determine when the flavor is right, estimating it can be between 4 and 7 years. Each season is different year to year, so they don't like to count years. The absolute top end single barrel or small batch bourbons are aged on the top-middle floors (5th or 6th floor) because they have the greatest temperature swings.
There's no strict definition of "small batch", for some places it's a mixture of 50 barrels and for others it's 150. Those were the two extremes with some places landing in the middle.
We landed in Louisville Tuesday afternoon and more or less went straight to the bourbon bar Jockey Silks after checking in to the Galt House Hotel. I scanned through my pics of the place a couple days later and was pretty unnerved by something. Below are two pictures of the wall of bourbon bottles at the entrance to the bar. I took the one on the left, my Dad took the one on the right. They were taken within seconds of each other, from almost the same angle.
Did we drink bourbon with a ghost?
Can't see it? I'll zoom in and circle it.
A few moments after that was taken, I took a shot from the other side of the wall too, nothing behind it. And the bar was empty, we were the only patrons for a good half hour. After a little looking you can see how the eyes and face would take shape, but this still gives me the weirds.
Interesting banter with some Louisville bartenders:
We were on the hunt for a glass of Pappy Van Winkle and Jockey Silks was out, when asked where to go, the bartender replied "If you're walking around The 'Ville at night, don't go west. You can walk until the street number is 10, if you are getting near 10, you should probably start jogging the other way". Louisville is cool for about a four block by four block area centered around 4th Street, outside of that and things get dicey real quick. (We found Pappy's in some random bar in a Marriot down the road, it remains atop my list of Top 5 Things I've Ever Put In My Mouth).
We asked the same guy about any good local food options, "Papa John's is from here". Speaking of...
Later in the night one of our bartenders, at this place that had an aquarium for a bar top, served Papa John not too long ago. The guy ran up a $3,000 tab and tipped with a free pizza coupon. Papa John is kind of a dick.
Just right click -> open image in a new tab if you want to see any of these larger.
Notable bourbons: Jim Beam, Knob Creek, Basil Hayden, Booker's (128 proof)
Jim Beam was obviously more "touristy" if that's the right word, than the others. The tasting was largely impersonal. Two different square stations dispensed your booze choice after you swiped a drink card. The lady wandering around checking on people did inform us Kid Rock was on his way to the premises, so that's something.
On the left is the visitors entrance on the right is a rickhouse that stores 20,000 barrels
Notable bourbons: Parker's Heritage, Evan Williams, Elijah Craig, Fighting Cock
One of the best tours we went on, they go heavy on the history which is all pretty interesting. And the picture on the right of all the rickhouses doesn't do it justice, there's near 50 in view holding about 700,000 barrels.
That shot of all the barrels I used earlier is also from here.
Notable bourbons: They only make two; Maker's Mark and Maker's 46.
46 comes from recipe method No. 46, where they add fresh charred staves to the inside of the barrels after it's aged a bit, giving it a sweeter, more woody flavor. Otherwise It's the exact same bourbon, aged approximately the same time. Maker's has been my whiskey of choice for the past 5 or so years, so seeing this place was awesome. Also, get directions beforehand, the distillery is hidden so deep in the Kentucky country GPS doesn't work.
Bottom middle are the wax dipping girls. They dip the tops in wax. All day. When you drink a bottle of Maker's, know some team of amazing women hand dipped that bottle for you. At the very bottom are the fermentation vats, Maker's was the only place we saw that used wood.
Notable bourbons: Pappy Van Winkle, Blanton's, Buffalo Trace, Eagle Rare, Elmer T. Lee, George Stagg
One of the few to remain open during prohibition for "medicinal production" this distillery has a uniquely industrial age feel to it. You may have noticed all the rickhouses have black stuff on them...that's not soot, that's mold. It's hot and humid in Kentucky, but even moreso when 20,000 barrels of bourbon are evaporating deliciousness in an enclosed area. They just let it be...or paint black over it.
Bottom left is the production line for Blanton's, who also uses a hand dipped wax top (black). Maker's tried to scoop up patents on wax colors but didn't get to all of them. Blanton's is highly recommended if you're reaching for the top shelf.
Notable bourbons: Woodford Reserve...it's what they do
Distinctly "winery" feeling. This distillery is tucked away in horse country, the drive up was almost as impressive as the grounds at the distillery. Rolling green hills dotted with oaks, and expansive white picket fence enclosed properties with modest houses that had steeples, it was unlike anything I had seen on the west coast. We were pressed for time at this point and didn't tour, unfortunately.
Notable bourbons: everyone knows their 101 proof and the hellfire it rains down your throat. Their Rare Breed small batch and single barrel varieties are a little bigger on flavor and smoother to drink.
Notable bourbons: Four Roses small batch
The Master Distiller came from southern California and wanted to use a Southwestern style architecture, which was pretty cool to see in a town that was having a "Burgoo Festival" next week. That's a stew that has three types of meat, what types those are depends on how far away you are from a major highway (as my Dad says)...I heard grumblings of possum. (Normally pork, beef, and chicken).
Bourbon Power Rankings
Definitely not a controversial thing to do on the interwebs, here's my Dad's power rankings. Now this is in order based on smoothness/sweetness. He and I both prefer the more wheated bourbons as opposed to the hotter rye ones. This isn't a 'what's best' rank, the top 15 on this list are pretty interchangeable depending on what your palette likes. If you've got $75 or so to spend on a bottle, you can try most anything here. If you're only comfortable spending about what Maker's charges, the Buffalo Trace won't disappoint you.
* 23yr Pappy Van Winkle (good luck at $5,000 a bottle)
1. Angel's Envy
2. Basil Hayden
4. Four Roses small batch
5. Blantons single barrel
6. Elmer T Lee
7. Rock Hill Farms single barrel
8. Maker's 46
9. Maker's Mark
10. Buffalo Trace (best buy)
11. Elijah Craig
12. Knob Creek
13. W.L. Weller
14. Johnny Drum
15. Henry McKenna
16. George Stagg
17. Old Forrester
18. Evan Williams
20. Fighting Cock
A final note about bourbon (if you've made it this far); Don't let anyone say you have to drink it neat, you don't. Everywhere we went, it was not only acceptable to drink it with ice or water, they encouraged it. Some bourbons taste wildly different with only a few drops of water. If you buy a nice bottle, start with half an once and taste it neat, try another half-once with a dash of water, then try another half-once with a tiny ice cube. See how you like to drink it best before loading a rocks glass three fingers high and diving in.
The Trail occupied our Wednesday and part of Thursday. After Four Roses, we booked it to Nashville, checked into the Gaylord Opryland Hotel, and caught a cab up to Vanderbilt to see the Commodores take on Ole Miss. Having never been in the south, I'll say this, the humidity is not overrated. For that entire game it felt like I was sitting in warm bath water. I'm a desert person that had been drinking with regularity for a few days, that climate was extremely uncomfortable and the game was pretty dull. Until the last 10 minutes anyway, although no one in the stands knew the time or score because the Vandy scoreboard decided to give up at halftime.
We were sitting in a mixed crowd and Ole Miss had taken us in, they even taught us the "Hotty Toddy" chant, which pleased Lars to no end. Their fan base is as neurotic as ours, entirely convinced the scoreboard malfunction was some sort of ploy, and that their team was destined to choke away the game. That might be the best game I see in person all season.
We spur of the moment detoured to hit Jack Daniel's on the way to Alabama
On the left is the charcoal house, where they burn their own white oak pallets to make charcoal for the filtering. Or I should say it's two guys' job to do it. And before them their dads did. Bottom middle is the fresh spring, Tennessee doesn't have the limestone shelf Kentucky does, but this spring is filtered deep underground and is purified when it reaches the surface. All the water in every bottle of JD you drink comes from this spring, and has since they started.
We continued on our way and toured through Tuscaloosa, where we got "GO STATE" just about everywhere. Later, when it happened again in a liquor store outside Auburn, I would tell some Bama fans to instead say "Go Cougs" if they see any of us and we'd love them forever... and give them Fireball. They were unaware of Fireball.
The Jack Daniel's and Tuscaloosa stops put us in Auburn around 1:30am. En route, I got a few texts from some buddies drinking at a place called Quixote's; it was only much, much later I realized how unfortunate it was I wasn't with them. Ultimately, I'm fine with that, since I contributed to a feat of Cougar drinking last year.
Now if only they would've won the damn game.
Lars, my Dad, and me