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?

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