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