Thursday, September 30, 2010

Whisky Party

Last weekend I hosted a whisky tasting at my home to celebrate the arrival of fall; of course it wound up being hot and humid.  This was the first time I've hosted a party of this kind.  It was a ton of fun.  A lot of whisky tastings will involve focusing on a specific style or region, but I was going for a more laid back feel for my first whisky party and told my friends to each bring a whisky from anywhere at any price point.  It was fun to have a variety and compare styles; we even had a blind taste-off late in the evening when our taste buds were a bit numb.  For dinner I smoked a pork shoulder on my little Aussie charcoal grill for 6 hours, it came out pretty tender and I think everyone liked it and needed it to sop up some of that whisky.  I had some trouble keeping it warm in the oven after it was pulled, though.  For the tasting we basically just went around the table, explaining why we chose our bottle and tasting them together.  We had water crackers and pretzels to clear the palate, and plenty of water and ice if folks were interested in going in for a full shot of something after the tasting.  Some people "switched to beer" after to slow down drinking.  Four beers later...

Following is a list of the whiskies we had with brief writeups (not full tasting notes or rankings):

Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey-A young whiskey (2 years) with a very fruit forward taste.  Very light, maybe not my favorite but an interesting change up.

Ardbeg 10 (scotch)-A very smoky smelling island style whisky.  I was shocked at how pale the color is that may be why they put it in a green bottle.  For all the smokiness/peat flavor I found it still pretty light and fruity, delicate.

Talisker 10 (scotch)-Another island entry, the only whisky from the island of Skye.  I've had this a couple of times and for some reason I can't pinpoint the taste in my memory.  A fine drink, for sure, but I just can't place it yet.

Highland Park 18 (scotch)-This whisky is sort of the best of both worlds in terms of island and highland styled whiskies.  You get the sherry and the peat, a lot of flavor but balance as well.   

Prichard's Double Barrel 9 year bourbon-This is a neat twist on bourbon.  A bit of marketing involved with the double barreling concept.  The bourbon comes from Kentucky but it rebarreled and aged again by a company in Tennessee.  It somehow delivers a unique taste in bourbon.  I don't know about it in terms of value but at our party it was a big hit.

Yamazaki Sherry Cask (Japan)-This whisky was not overshadowed but the elaborate display that one friend set up to present it to us.  One of us described it as "cognac-like."  It was very rich, dark in color and with a nice bite. 

Bowmore 12 (scotch)-Another solid island style scotch.  I have a couple of sample bottles of this leftover that I am looking forward to tasting again.

Auchentoshan 10 (scotch)-Our only lowland scotch at the party.  I think those of us who have had Glenkinchie think that one is a bit better but I found them similar in terms of the creamy, grassy nature the style is known for.

Forty Creek Canadian-I chose this bottle because of the special techniques used to make it.  The 3 grains are distilled separately and aged in barrels of different char levels (how much the wood is burnt) before being blended.  I was very dissapointed.  It has a nice complexity to it but overall it's like cough syrup.

Pappy Van Winkle 15 (bourbon)-This is one of my favorite bourbons.  Wheated, so it's mellow but still with a ton of burn.  Hard to describe.  It pours fiery red.  Mellow but with a bite, just like your grandpappy.

A couple of folks tried some of my Four Roses Single Barrel, I find it much better than their other selections but we weren't sure how it stacks up against Evan Williams Single Barrel, which is one of my favorites, a couple others of us really like that one, too.  I don't want to name clear favorites, but I think the Prichards and the Yamazaki were both big hits.  The scotches were all good but maybe too many to choose a standout.  I of course, love Old Pappy Van Winkle, a lot of folks commented on its burn factor, which is good or bad depending on your preference.  I think the Forty Creek was clearly the worst. 

Sorry I forgot to take pictures you'll have to take my word that the party was a lot of fun.  I want to do another where we all chip in and get a super premium bottle of some sort.  One suggestion is the Hirsch Rye, the last of the Pennsylvania ryes.  That could be fun to try.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Brewery Tour Series: Yards

Yards is located on Delaware Ave. along the waterfront in Philly.  They moved there after a falling out with the owner of what is now the Philadelphia Brewing Co.  PBC got the brewery and equipment, Tom Kehoe kept the Yards brand and brews.  We stopped in to check out their current operation a couple of months back.

The tour itself was very well done, our tour guide did a great job explaining the brewing process and gave abundant samples.  I even scored a free beer for answering the question "What are the four main ingredients in beer?"  The operation seems very eco friendly, they recycle everything they can, giving spent grains to local farmers to feed livestock and using them to make the bread for the tasting room's grilled cheese sandwiches.  

The tasting room  portion of the visit was a little disappointing.  The room itself came across as a bit grimy.  I understand the value of recycling, and the bowling alley bartop was cool, but there was junk piled everywhere and it all just seemed a bit dirty.  The bartenders were a bit strange, for lack of a better word.  The grilled cheese was good and a good value, at 3 bucks, but the beers were overpriced considering we were sitting next to the room that makes them.  I think they were charging 5 bucks a pint.  The sampler was a little better in terms of value.  They did have a couple of bourbon barrel aged one offs that I enjoyed trying.   And of course they have takeout growlers and glassware for sale. 

A good time and worth the visit, but it could be better done.  I like Yards beer, I read somewhere that their beers are at the intersection of cheap/not shitty.  I think they are a little better than "not shitty."  I like their Philly Pale Ale and Saison, and the Poor Richard's Tavern Spruce is fun.  I think their standout beer is the ESA; it's the one that made the brand.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Brewing Beer

While on vacation I had my first experience brewing beer.  My sister-in-law's boyfriend Aaron does it regularly and has a nice system set up for always having some homebrew in the keg.  I learned a lot about the process.  I won't bore you with a step by step--I'm not sure I could recall everything, anyhow--but here are a few pics.  The high tech setup:

Here is the grain, Aaron uses actual malted barley rather than extract.

Moose is key to the process.

This was the only point in the process where being sanitary is key, up to that point, we used buckets from the shed, cobwebs included, and didn't wash anything.  The long boil assures your beer will be safe, but at this point it is ready to start cooling. 

The glorious result, a Belgian styled dubbel.  It will take a few weeks before it's ready for consumption.  This beer used candied beet sugar, whole flower hops as well as hop extract, and an abbey style strain of yeast.  I'm just sorry I won't be there to drink it.  I did get to try Aaron's pale ale, which he described as "not quite ready" in terms of carbonation.  It was fantastic, easily one of the best I've had.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Eating Mexican in Philly

Last Saturday Nicole and I ate at Xochitl (pronounce So-Cheet) in Headhouse Square.  We had eaten there for restaurant week when the chef was Dionicio Jimenez, who is now at Stephen Starr's El Rey, and quite enjoyed it.  I thought it would be fun to do a review of Xochitl by comparing it to the other Mexican joints we've dined at in the city.

Xochitl, was a huge disappointment this time around.   I really like Zahav, the Israeli restaurant by the same ownership group, and I was lured by the supposed new concept of Xochitl, which Philadelphia magazine called "a casual cantina" with "a lower price point."   I suppose dressing the waitstaff in soccer jerseys does promote a more laid back atmosphere, but I found the food to be very overpriced.  Their new menu is all small plates, and they recommend that you order 2-3 per person to fill up.  Nicole and I each chose two dishes and two drinks (a margarita and beer each), and the bill came in just shy of $100 (including tip).   I don't know where to begin with my critique of this place.  I'll start with the concept of small plates.  At a restaurant with a great chef like Jose Garces, doing a tasting menu of small plates can be one of the most special meals of your life.  But the concept of small plates, or tapas, at a place seeking a cantina vibe seems like a way to make the menu look more reasonable than it is.  Reading the menu outside the door, one might tink, tacos for 12 bucks?  Not too bad until you walk in and the waitress tells you will need to eat 2-3 plates of them to be satisfied.

Nicole pointed something out early on that now gets under my skin.  She saw the staff bringing in bags of tortillas identical to the ones we buy at the Mexican grocer around the corner from our house for about a buck.  Okay, so they don't have little old Mexican women hand making tortillas like they did at the authentic place we went to in San Diego.  But then they cut them smaller to fit the agenda of small plates!  They were so small that they wouldn't even hold the skirt steak filling that we chose.

Next, the drinks and service.  The margarita was mediocre and 8 bucks, to me about 2-3 bucks overpriced for what it was.  I'm no tequila connoisseur but I know my way around a decent margarita.  The bartender did not appear that skilled; she was making drinks with a shaker and only shaking 4-5 times.  A good bartender knows it will take a good 15 shakes to chill those contents.  Their "special" of the night was a flight of Don Julio Tequila for $20 (you can do this everyday at Cantina Los Caballitos for $13).  While we pondered the overpriced tapas menu, we watched our drinks sit on the bar for several minutes while the bartender was chatting with one of the hostesses.  Our waitress did a good job overall, and though it wasn't her fault the food took forever to come out of the kitchen.  Small plates should keep coming, not with 15-20 minute gaps between your last bite of one and first of the next.

I could overlook all of the above if the food was great.  It wasn't.  It was good, but not great by any stretch.  The chorizo and virginia ham cuban sandwich tasted good, but the bun got soggy as you ate it.  The potato and chorizo stew was oversalted.  The crab ceviche was about the smallest portion of seafood I've ever seen, and it was nothing special.  The skirt steak tacos were cooked properly but not especially flavorful (and on a tiny tortilla).

I will make a final complaint in honor of a coworker of mine.  If you really want a casual cantina vibe, you have to provide free chips and salsa, not try to charge $9 for a bowl of guacamole.

If I were you, I would pass on Xochitl.  But where should you eat Mexican in Philly?  This post is already a bit long so I will do the others in list form:

Cantina Los Caballitos/Dos Segundos-This pair of cantinas are almost identical; one in South Philly one in Northern Liberties.  The house margaritas are solid with fresh squeezed lime for around $5, and they do indeed provide free chips and salsa.  Their menu is creative but not cute, e.g. their sandwiches come with Yuca fries and they have 3 kinds of wings.  Their specials are always appealing; the pork belly tacos are fantastic.  The menu has a range of price points but I don't think I've ever gotten an entree for more than about $12 bucks or so.  The burritos are under $10 and will fill you to the brim.  The beer list is pretty thoughtful, too.

El Vez-It's been too long since eating there for me to really review this old center city Starr mainstay.  The chef may have been Jose Garces when I ate there, I'm not sure.  We had fun, but obviously I didn't rush back.

El Rey-This is Stephen Starr's new center city Mexican joint, with a mixed menu of Mexican street food and homestyle, or "pueblo" food.  The moles are fantastic, and Chef Jimenez took a few menu items from the old Xochitl including a stuffed poblano pepper that Nicole loves.  As always with Starr, more emphasis is given to atmosphere than to anything else.  The margarita was good and the beer list was just okay, though I really enjoyed the agave wheat beer from Breckenridge in CO.  And walking through the kitchen to get to the speakeasy bar in the back is fun, if a total gimmick.

Distrito-This is Jose Garces's West Philly Mexican spot.  A small plates concept that, for me, worked.  I loved, loved, loved the nachos with skirt steak.  I feel El Rey is a response to this, and I would choose this.

El Zarape-This is a hole-in-the-wall taco stand in South Philly.  Very authentic kind of place, not tex-mex and without all of the spice and artificial atmosphere of most of these others.  Good stuff.

La Esperanza-Okay, this one is in Jersey, Lindenwold specifically.  Again, authentic, and very good.  My friend's parents eat here all the time.

Tortilla Press-Another Jersey spot (Collingswood).  I had this menu item: "Our Award Winning Chipotle Peanut BBQ Pork Platter" and loved it.

The Adobe Cafe-This is hardly Mexican, more of just a local bar on East Passyunk Ave.  Most menu items are just okay, but their Texas Ranchero wings are fantastic.

Disclaimer: I've never been to Lolita, which I'm told is a very good BYOT (Tequila).  Nicole didn't love the ownership group's Indian place, Bindi, but really we just haven't ever made it there.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Bourbon Tour Wrap Up

Here are my rankings of the 8 tours we did on our whisky themed vacation.  The only Kentucky distillery you can tour which we didn't is Tom Moore, makers of 1792 Ridgmont Reserve.  George Washington's is the only one on the list not in Kentucky (it's in Mt. Vernon, VA).

1.  Woodford Reserve-The corn to cork tour was classy, informative, and fun.
2.  George Washington's Distillery and Gristmill-I really enjoyed getting up close to the history and process of American whisky production.
3.  Buffalo Trace-Some tours show you more, maybe we just got lucky with a great tour guide, maybe I'm biased toward the brand.  But this tour was very cool.
4.  Wild Turkey-If you are only visiting two I would make this my second choice.  It was just so different then the others, in a good way.
5.  Maker's Mark-Over the top and Disneyfied.  In spite of that, or maybe because of it, still a lot of fun.

6.  Heaven Hill-The tasting was cool but mostly HH is not really worth the time.
7.  Four Roses-In a way this is worse than Beam because they make some effort and still come up small.
8.  Jim Beam-There is literally nothing to it. Stop in for the free tasting if it's not too far out of your way.

We did other things besides visit distilleries.  We drank bourbon by the fire.  We went kayaking.  We went to 3 bourbon bars.  Okay, we drank our fair share of bourbon.  I won't do full reviews of the bars we went to, but two of them bookended our trip quite nicely and deserve mention.  On our first night in Bardstown we went to the Old Talbott Tavern, an old stagecoach stop where Lincoln once stayed.  Their bourbon menu is very solid and they have a great deal: 5 shots of any bourbon at the bar (with the exception of Pappy Van Winkle 20) and a souvenir shot glass for $25.  These are the ones we had, using strong recommendations from both the bartender and a local guy at the bar:

Michters 10
Four Roses Single Barrel
Rock Hill Farms
Pure Kentucky
Jefferson's Reserve

The cheapest bottle of these in terms of retail is probably at least 35 bucks, and they go up to around $75.  You can't get a deal like that at any bar in Philly.

On our last day in Kentucky we stopped at a bar called Bourbon's Bistro.  Unfortunately they weren't open for lunch, but we did stop in for a drink before heading to Indianapolis to visit Nicole's folks and sister.  The bourbon selection was unbelievable.  I stupidly asked the bartender if he likes bourbon, and he rattled off a few of his favorites, saying that mostly he rotates through brands depending on mood.  When he realized I was from Philadelphia and looking to try something new, he tried to sell me a shot of Four Roses Single Barrel which the bar hand selects at the distillery, but I just had to try the Sazerac 18 year old rye, Jim Murray's whisky of the year last year.  It was fantastic, like drinking a glass of rye bread. Before we left, the barkeep showed me a bottle of Old Forrester (I think, I can't remember the label) that was bottled in 1915 that they will open for the Breeder's Cup, when tourists in town will pay $50 a shot to try it.

Yes, most of these bottles contain bourbon:

You can appreciate bourbon without going to the bourbon trail.  But if you can tolerate a bit of marketing and some cheesiness, visiting the distilleries that make your favorite spirits is a whole lot of fun.  Now, when I kick back with a glass of Woodford Reserve or George T. Stagg--I just ordered a bottle of the new batch that we saw being bottled at Buffalo Trace--I will picture the sour mash in giant cyprus vats, rows and rows of resting barrels in sleepy rickhouses, hand bottling lines, and friendly tour guides like Frank from West Philly, who left the city life for rolling Kentucky Hills and bluegrass country.  I doubt I'd follow his lead and leave the city, but it's nice to have in mind stables, farmland, and white picket fences while I sip America's famous spirit.  I, for one, won't be sharing any of my bourbon with the angels.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

What is Bourbon?

This post is from my wife and bourbon trail partner, Nicole.  This the official, historically and legally accurate (possibly), history of bourbon whisky.

When you grow up in Indiana and escape to the East Coast as soon as possible, the idea of vacationing in Kentucky sounds pretty lame. However, a quick cost-benefit analysis reveals that camping (cheap) + tours (mostly free) - airfare (ridiculous) + tastings (also free!) = a pretty decent way to have some cheap fun. Granted, we went to eight distilleries, and for the less hardy among us, that might prove a bit inhibiting. However, the good news is that I now know the entire story of bourbon pretty much by heart.

And here it is: Once upon a time there were people who liked to drink. For cheap. They boiled some corn, rye, malted barley, and wheat. They added some yeast, and a bit of the previous batch's fermented mixture (just like when making sourdough bread) and let that shit ferment but good. After a few days, they stuck the resulting sludge (now called "sour mash" or "distiller's beer") in a copper pot and distilled it. What that means, is that they cooked it at a temperature whereby the alcohol (a product of the fermenting process) evaporated while the water and grain sludge did not. (Alcohol has a lower boiling point than water).  The alcohol, now in gaseous form, rose to the top of the still, where it was directed into a pipe and away from the boiling mess. Cool water surrounds the pipe, cooling the gaseous alcohol and turning it into liquid. The liquid, at this point, still had a tinge of color from the grains, so they did it again. This time, the liquid was clear and beautiful. They called it white dog, because it was clear (white) and it would bite you. Later, during Prohibition, when folks had to do their distilling in the dark, it got the name moonshine.

All very well and good, but this is the story of bourbon.

So some folks from back east rode over the Blue Ridge mountains to the land of Kentucky, blessed by bluegrass and sheer limestone cliffs. Unbeknownst to them at the time, that limestone was the perfect filter for water free of iron and perfect for bourbon making. These folks continued to practice the distilling of whisky as they had back east, but trouble was there was nowhere to sell it--too hard to get it back over the mountains to the cosmopolitan markets in Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. Instead, they decided to ship it downriver to New Orleans. They chose to ship it in barrels, and instead of using (and paying for) brand new barrels, they reused the barrels that had shipped various livestock and goods up the river. So as to protect their product from contamination, they charred the insides of these barrels to kill any lingering chicken germs.

When the folks down in Loo-zee-anna got a taste of that liquor a few months later, they were dumbstruck. The whisky had taken on the color and flavor of the charred barrels, resulting in a mellower, more flavorful sip. The white dog's bite was now a gentle tongue bath. They took to requesting this kind of liquor by name--they asked for Bourbon County Straight Whisky. That was a mouthful, so eventually they just called it bourbon. (Back in those days Bourbon County encompassed much more land than it does today; in fact, today Bourbon County is a dry county.)  Editor's note: Those folks in New Orleans were supposed to ship the whisky up the eastern seaboard, but the stuff was too good to give up. 

Now, years later, the government in their infinite wisdom and tax-centeredness decided to write down some rules so that not just anyone could distill some corn cobs, pour in food coloring, and call it bourbon. Depending on which tour you go on, there are either 6 or 8 laws distillers must follow in order to make bourbon.

1. Corn must constitute at least 51% of the grains used in the recipe. Most use more, between 70 and 75%

2. There may be no artificial additives. (This, incidentally, is why Jack Daniels is NOT bourbon, but Tennessee Whisky. They run their moonshine through a maple filter.)

3. The bourbon must be distilled at less than 160 proof, which is 80% abv. Any higher than that and it's not bourbon.

4. The bourbon must be stored in BRAND NEW charred white oak barrels.

5. The bourbon must be aged for at least 2 years.

6. The bourbon must be bottled at a maximum of 125 proof, or 62.5% abv. (See, it sits in the barrels for 2-18 years, slowly evaporating, so it comes out of the barrels at a much higher proof than it entered. The distillers then cut it with water.)

I may be missing a few regulations, but those are the ones I remember off the top of my head. And in fact, all of this is now permanently ingrained in my brain. However, I have not yet revealed the one thing that truly makes bourbon delightful. It is this: the hole in the barrel out of which the bourbon is poured is called...

wait for it


The end.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Distillery Reviews: Heaven Hill and Jim Beam

This is the last in the series of reviews.  We hit up these two on the way out of Kentucky.

Heaven Hill, Bardstown, KY

On our last night of camping, I took a walk through the golf course that was adjacent to our campsite.  In the distance, through the twilight, I saw what appeared to be rickhouses to my newly trained eye.  I had to get closer even though I didn't have a way to let Nicole know that would mean I'd be returning to our site a bit after dark.  As I walked towards the cluster of buildings I saw a sign that read "Free tours and tastings," but at this point I wasn't sure if this cluster of buildings was a distillery or a winery.  Then I saw the sign for Heaven Hill's corporate offices.  I was shocked that the whole time we had been camping with a major bourbon producer right in our backyard.  I kept walking so I could get a peek into the visitor's center, and along the way I swear I could smell some angel's share from the rickhouses, which were resting across the street in beautiful cornfields.  I saw some workers from the evening shift in the bottling house taking lunch, and then I had to head back to camp.  We had been planning on skipping Heaven Hill, but now it seemed un-neighborly to do so.  Especially since said neighbor makes one of your favorite bourbons, Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage.  This evening walk was the most peaceful part of my trip, the best part being that it was completely unplanned.  It was perfect. 

With some playing with the schedule we figured out how to squeeze Heaven Hill in after Maker's Mark.  After doing the tour I almost wished I'd have left the previous night's perfection be, as the tour was short and a bit corny, consisting of a video, walk through a rickhouse, and a tasting.  You see, the distillery on site burned down over a decade ago, and the distilling is now done at a plant down the road.  It was neat to hear that when the fire happened, their competitors offered them space to continue making their products.  Heaven Hill didn't take them up on it, instead purchasing a mothballed distillery and quickly outfitting it to continue production.  Our tour guide speculated that they may eventually build a small distillery on site to honor the heritage of the brand.  The guide was the best part of the tour, by far.  She was a wrinkly old woman who has had more than a sip or two of bourbon in her day.  She spoke with a weird cadence, to the point where it seemed she was yelling, "I believe the bourbon we provide you in the tasting will be some of the best've....EVER.....TASTED!"  She also pushed me out of the way at one point.  A tough lady, for sure.   

The tasting was very cool, done in a barrel shaped room.

Evan Williams Single Barrel and Elijah Craig 18 were the bourbons provided, possibly the best combo we'd been offered at any tasting on the whole trail.  Our guide explained how to use a nosing glass, and sniff lavender oil to awake the senses.  She warned us against allowing our friends to pour their own glasses at a bourbon party we may host now that we are experts, "They will fill it up to the top and it will be warm by the time they finish it.  Then they'll dump it and waste it."  And then she firmly clinked glasses with every member of the group, about 20 of us, and drank with us.

All of the distilleries have their hook, but also their way of saying they are the oldest.  Oldest continuously operating, oldest on one site, oldest family owned, etc.  Heaven Hill is a relatively young company, but their point of pride is that they are still family owned, not connected to a drinks conglomerate (if you look at their website, though, they appear to be a conglomerate of their own, as they own many other product lines besides bourbon).  In lieu of a more complete tour, they also have the "Bourbon Heritage Center," basically a museum and gift shop surrounding that barrel shaped tasting room.  Museum exhibits include this odd entry, where pressing a button allows you to smell what must be artificial bourbon at different stages of aging:

I will look back fondly on Heaven Hill, but must say several tours have them beat in every area but the tasting.  We did the mid level free tour.  I can't imagine how they make it any shorter for the "mini" tour, and there didn't seem to be much they were hiding that they could show in the longer tour, which costs 25 bucks.  You might as well take your $25 and get a bottle of E.Williams Single Barrel.

Jim Beam, Clermont, KY

We didn't do the tour here, which consists of a short video in the old master distiller's quarters and nothing more.  Instead, we just joined in the previous tour group's tasting, which consisted of Booker's (fantastic) and Red Stag, a cherry infused bourbon liqueur (yuck).  What a weak offering from the world's biggest bourbon producer: a non-tour with a tasting featuring non-bourbon.  At least Wild Turkey was proud of their industrial appearance.  Jim Beam was literally just a factory with a gift shop. 

Here's Booker:

Friday, September 3, 2010

Distillery Reviews: Wild Turkey and Maker's Mark

Wild Turkey, Lawrenceburg, KY

The folks at Wild Turkey are very proud of their dilapidated distillery.  "We make bourbon, not a tourist attraction," proclaimed our guide.  Every distillery had their hook/gimmick, and this was theirs.  The overall appearance of the buildings is very industrial, and they built out onto existing structures as the business grew rather than rebuilding, giving the whole place a sort of backwoods look that fits with their brand image.

I would recommend this tour just for the fact that it was so different in feel than all the others.  Very little polish to it, even though it is in a pretty location, high on the banks of the Kentucky River.  Even though their brand is very well known, they still try to position themselves as an underdog.  "All of our bourbons would be small batch by Jim Beam standards," our tour guide boldly stated.  Who knows what that means.  The tasting was good; you could choose any two of the following, WT 101, Russell's Reserve 10, Rare Breed, and Kentucky spirit single barrel.  Or American honey, a liqueur.  We passed on the honey nonsense and shared the four others.  Unlike Four Roses and its 10 recipes, Wild Turkey has one recipe and gets its different flavors based solely on factors like proof, warehouse location of barrels, blending of barrels, etc.  When you taste them all together you can definitely tell it's all the same stuff, just with varying degrees of mellowness and good or bad bite.  I asked our guide which was his favorite and he dodged the question but his "answer" was kind of funny: "If you or my boss is buying then Kentucky Spirit single barrel.  For a special occasion Rare Breed.  For a party with my friends the 101, don't want to waste the real good stuff on them.  And for a mellower change of pace, Russell's Reserve."

We didn't get to see Jimmy Russel, master distiller, but here is his street:

The whole place was very industrial:

By this point of our journey, we were tired of hearing the 8 rules of making bourbon, why they call it angel's share, why the limestone water is so great, and all the other details which are basically identical at each place.  But overall the tour was pretty good and a nice change of pace from the others.

Maker's Mark, Loretto, KY

If Wild Turkey is the bad boy of the bourbon trail, Maker's is Disneyworld.  Everything about this place was deliberate, check out the bottle shapes in the window shutters:

The details of the grounds--such as those shutters--were the work of Marge Samuels, wife of Bill Samuels, who created what's in the bottles of Maker's Mark.  The legend goes that he threw away his old family bourbon recipe because it was too bitter and started baking bread to make a new recipe (baking is a lot faster than distilling).  He found that using red winter wheat in place of the rye made for a very mellow, easy drinking bourbon that even ladies might like.  But back to Marge.  I said Bill made the contents of the bottle, but Marge did everything else.  The name and "mark of the maker" were based on her handmade pewter collection, and the famous wax on some old cognac bottles.  The husband and wife team basically designed the product and the brand in her kitchen, replicated in the visitor's center.  While you wait they give you cookies from the throwback oven, it's a nice touch.

Notice I haven't even said much about the tour yet; the brand is what made the indelible impression, which I suppose is their whole objective.  The tour was fine though the guide was kind of annoying.  It concluded with a tasting, in which we got to taste both original Maker's and the new 46 label, made by adding french oak staves to the barrels at the end of aging for a more complex taste.  I think I like it better than the original, but I like both just fine.  At one point our guide asked us to nose the glass and asked, "Is it pleasant or unpleasant?"  Um, pleasant?  There were two strange parts to the tour.  First, the rickhouse that you walk through at the end dumps directly into the modern looking giftshop that seems very out of sync with the rest of the place in terms of feel.  All the tours end in the giftshop of course but none in such a blatant and "magical" fashion.  Disney, all the way.  Second, before the tour they had a ceremony for some Maker's Mark ambassadors.  Nicole thought it was actually important as they made such a big deal and the guys happened to be wearing ties, but basically it's a glorified fan club where you can get your name on a barrel and later buy bourbon from said barrel (The end result is not single barrel, they just mix it with other barrels of people in the club, of course I checked into it).  Aside-we later saw the same men at Heaven Hill.  So much for loyalty.  Anyway, of course once in the magical giftshop, I bought the special edition signed bottle and dipped it myself.  Here are a few pictures of the tour.  Yes, they do dip the bottles individually and by hand.

The cyprus vats above are kind of misleading, they have 30+ stainless steel vats hidden from view.  Like I said, Disney magic...

Nicole dipped a bottle, too:

The following exchange between our tour guide and one of the guests pretty much sums up the whole thing.  We saw this guest and her family at several stops on the tour.  There will be a picture in the next post.

Guide: Then the mash is brought into this building, where the distillation process begins.  Any questions about the process so far?
Guest: Do we get to dip our own bottle?

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Distillery Reviews: Woodford Reserve and Four Roses

Woodford Reserve, Versailles, KY
To my friends who are visiting France this month: we beat you to Versailles.  Well, not quite.  But we did do the $10 "Corn to Cork" extended tour of Woodford Reserve distillery in Versailles, KY.  I'm not going to pull any punches, this was far and away my favorite tour.  I was hoping for something good considering it was the only tour I was paying for (some other distilleries have extended tours but most are in summer shutdown, Woodford has an electric chiller which allows them to produce year round).  This tour exceeded my expectations.  The drive to the distillery was beautiful, as the distillery is located in the midst of horse farms and even sponsors some of it's own racehorses, one of which was named Distill My Heart.

 The whole operation had a country club feel but wasn't too over the top.  This tour literally was corn to cork.  We saw the trucks bringing in the corn.  We got to taste the sour mash right from the cyprus vats (not good, and yes, sour).  We got to see Sean, the second in command, running most of the operation.  We got to watch a mini distillation in their quality control lab and see the wall of samples from every batch of Woodford ever made.  We smelled moonshine on our hands.  Later, we saw the rickhouses and bottling, but the heart of the tour were the 3 copper pot stills (used for triple distillation).  They were made near Glasgow, Scotland  for Woodford Reserve.  (Aside: the maker of the stills recently visited the stills unannounced and predicted they would keep working for another few decades).  Woodford is the only distillery in Kentucky that uses only copper pot stills; the others all use the more modern column still.   It's quite a sight:

Here is the sour mash:

I'll try not to bore you with the details, but there were so many interesting tidbits.  For example, Ronald Regan is apparently a bourbon hero, as he loosened much of the oversight on the day to day process.  Stillboxes of this kind used to be only unlocked by a government official, making it a bit difficult to monitor the process:

And here is the master distiller's computer:

I'm sure there are computers hidden from gullible tourists, but it was cool to see his notes. And they do use a microwave just like the one in your house to test the corn. 

Towards the end, I asked the tour guide how many barrels go in a typical batch.  This is his response, paraphrased:  "Typically around 30, but let's say Chris (the master distiller) feels the batch has too much almond, he will add a barrel with less almond notes.  But now he went too far, he may need another barrel to balance it.  He may even used an extra aged Old Forrester cask to balance it further.  It may take 80 barrels, but he'll get you your Woodford Reserve."

The only somewhat annoying part of the tour was the constant comparisons in to Jack Daniels (they are owned by the same parent company).  Like, "We own them, they don't own us, even though they fill a bazillion barrels and we fill only a few thousand" etc. etc. etc.  Another shortfall was the tasting; a half ounce pour after all that hype?  We did get a chocolate bourbon ball with it, though.  And I love Woodford Reserve bourbon.  It has great taste and complexity, a little bit of a treat at around $32 a bottle but not absurd.

If you are only able to do one tour on the bourbon trail, Woodford Reserve is the one.

Four Roses, Lawrenceburg, KY

This will be my shortest review, fitting since the Woodford one was so long.  Four Roses was the worst tour.  We had a young, unenthusiastic tour guide basically reading a script.  The legend of the name was kind of interesting (look it up if you like), and the architecture is Spanish Mission style which is rare outside of California.  But this tour was hardly worth the stop.  The weirdest part was when they make you lean over to smell this sample barrel; it's so awkward to watch everyone bend over.  The tasting was the best part, as you got to try each of their 3 domestic brands.  Interestingly Kirin, the Japanese beer company that now owns Four Roses, re-released the brand stateside only a few years back.  Before that they had been primarily in Japan, going back decades.  Anyhow, I did pick up a bottle of their single barrel, it's good stuff.  I was surprised because I haven't cared for their yellow label (which the tour guide said is good primarily for mixed drinks) or small batch varieties too much.  According to the bourbon bar near our campground, my sentiments are echoed among the locals and the single barrel was one patron's "favorite favorite" bourbon.  Apparently Four Roses has 10 recipes which they blend in different ways for the others but the single barrel is always the same recipe.  Here is Nicole enjoying a "sip:"

Here is the mission style:

Long story short, don't bother with Four Roses.   You may want to try their single barrel though, it's delicious.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Distillery Reviews: George Washington and Buffalo Trace

This is the first in a series reviewing the distilleries I visited last month, presented two at a time in the order I visited them.

George Washington's Distillery and Gristmill, Mt. Vernon, VA
We were going to the Kentucky bourbon trail by way of a wedding in D.C., so obviously I had to see this historical re-creation on the actual location of our first president's distillery.  Ironically, the president whose taxes caused the infamous "whisky rebellion" also owned what was at one time one of the two largest producers of whisky in the country.  The basic story is that Washington had so much excess grain that his head farmer, who was Scottish, was able to convince him that distilling some would turn a nice profit.  This was a great first stop, as it is such a small scale operation that you really get an understanding of the process of making whisky.  The water was brought in from a nearby creek.  Check out how small the still is:

The gristmill part of the tour was neat, too.  I could have done without the cheesy video at the end but overall this was well worth the $3 admission.  They actually do make whisky, but have none on hand.  Their first round of unaged, straight rye whisky sold out on the first day at $85 a pint.  Yes, you read that right.

Buffalo Trace, Frankfort, KY
Our kayaking trip near Frankfort, which was supposed to be on a gushing creek, was rerouted to the Kentucky River due to low water on the creek.  What was supposed to be a 4-6 hour trip was cut in less than half due to the not so fun affair called paddling upstream.  My wife was disappointed but I quickly cheered up when I realized we could start the bourbon trail early and possibly add a distillery or two to our total list.  The nearest to the river was Buffalo Trace, maker of many of my favorite bourbons.  Their distilling operation was in summer shutdown, but we did get to see Blanton's bottling hall where they hand bottle their higher end products, as well as a rickhouse where we could smell the "angel's share" leaving the resting barrels.

We saw some of their experimental barrels, e.g. aging bourbon in wine casks, using both wheat and rye, etc.  We also saw the country's smallest bond house, which contains one barrel under government supervision. Our tour guide, Frank, told me his favorite bourbon is the George T. Stagg, which they were bottling while we were watching.  Of course, we didn't get to try any of that.  Their tasting consisted of their flagship product, Buffalo Trace and also included Eagle Rare Single Barrel.  They also had some type of coffee liqueur (I certainly didn't make that one of my two choices), Rain Vodka (a corn vodka they make on site), and their unaged, white dog whisky, called so because it's clear and it will bite you.  My wife and I each chose two and shared.  The white dog is not good, per se, but it was fun to try, and I bought a bottle of it for a whisky party I am planning.  The tour was right in the middle as far as how much you get to see, but tour guide Frank was excellent (a retiree from Philly) and the architecture and overall feel of the place were great, too. 

By the way, in case you don't know what bourbon is, look for a guest post from a resident expert soon.