Tag Archives: distillery

George Washington in Hot Water

While my parents were in town, we decided to visit George Washington’s Gristmill and Distillery outside Alexandria, Virginia.  It is just a few miles south of his estate, Mount Vernon.  The original structures were destroyed sometime around 1850, but the Commonwealth of Virginia and the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association have reconstructed the operation.

As a farmer, George Washington operated a gristmill that ground wheat and corn into flour and meal.  The mill was powered by a huge water wheel with water diverted from the Dogue Run Creek.  The mill machinery is enclosed in a huge frame of heavy oak and pine beams that is built directly onto the building’s foundation and not connected the walls.  This protects the structure from the machinery’s potentially damaging vibrations.

It is a terrific working example of the Oliver Evans Automated Milling System.  This system connected all machines in the mill in a continuous process, greatly improving the production of flour and meal.

The 16-foot water wheel provides power to run all the machinery in the gristmill.

Raw grain is stored in bins and fed into the rolling screens for cleaning.  The rolling screen is a grain cleaner which removes any chaf or other debris so only clean grain drops to the millstones.

The millstones grind the wheat into flour or the corn into meal.

After milling, the flour/meal travels up to the hopper boy where it is spread and cooled.

From the hopper boy, flour/meal drops into the bolter, where it is sifted through bolting silk and graded into superfine flour, fine flour, and bran.

Once the gristmill was well established, Washington’s farm manager, James Anderson, suggested building a whiskey distillery.  Anderson, who had experience as a distiller in Scotland, pointed out to Washington that all the key components for making whiskey were already in place: an abundant supply of grain, a gristmill to grind the grain, and a water system to operate the stills.  Once it was complete it was one of the largest distilleries in the United States.  In its most profitable year, 1799, it had become Washington’s most successful enterprise, producing 11,000 gallons of whiskey.  A variety of whiskeys were produced at the site along with different types of fruit brandy.

With our country’s teetotaler history, the distillery was not a priority for rebuilding for many years.  Further, because there was no surviving examples of eighteenth century distilleries, the reconstruction required extensive archaeological and documentary study before an authentic structure could be built.

Beginning in 1997, excavation archaeologists uncovered the original foundation stones and the location of five stills and boilers, and found many objects related to the distilling process.  The distillery was reconstructed in 2007.  To ensure an authentic reconstruction the wood was finished by hand and the construction used hand-made nails and hardware.  There were some compromises necessary to meet modern building codes and safety requirements.  Even though, we were surprised to see open flames in the same room as the stills.  That seems like kind of a no-no when dealing with flammable substances like grain alcohol…

But, back to present day.  The distillery is back in operation and with five copper stills, produces rye whiskey using George Washington’s original recipe (60% rye, 35% corn, and 5% malted barley).

The grain mixture is ground and placed in a mash tub.  Hot water is poured over the grain to convert starches to sugar.  And, it is stirred by hand with the implement you see below.

Yeast is added to the mash to turn sugar into alcohol.  Then, after it sits for a bit, the liquid moves to distillation in the pot stills.

It is distilled at least twice to bring the alcohol up to 80 or 90 proof, the level at which Washington sold his common whiskey.

Limited numbers of bottles of whiskey distilled using this method are available certain times of the year at Mount Vernon.  Unfortunately, we were not able to secure a bottle during  this visit.

Stone ground cornmeal produced on site is always available in the Gristmill Shop, however.

Lucky for me, my dad treated me to a bag of this special product.  Here’s the first thing I made…

Hot Water Cornbread
Makes 12 to 18 pieces, depending on size

3 cups water
1 1/2 cups stone-ground cornmeal (maybe more)
1/8 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
4 Tbsp shortening (maybe more)

Bring water to a boil.  Add cornmeal to boiling water.  Stir constantly with wire whip to prevent lumping.  Stir in baking soda and salt.

Remove from heat.  The mixture will thicken quickly.  You want it to be stiff so it will stick together in a little cake.  If it is still a little drippy, add more corn meal, whisking with a fork to smooth out the lumps.

Heat shortening in a cast iron skillet.  The amount will vary to the size of your skillet.

Once it is nice and bubbly, scoop out the cornmeal mixture to make a little oval flat cake and drop into the hot grease.  Fry the cakes, browning slightly on each side.

Drain on paper towels, and repeat until all cornmeal mixture is used.

Serve right away.

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Distiller for a Day

Well, not exactly…I was more like a distillery employee for a day, but a girl can dream, right?

Because my husband and I enjoyed our tour of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail so much, I decided to look for similar experiences closer to home.  I’m familiar with and have toured some local wineries and breweries, and readers of the blog will recall we visited the Wasmund’s distillery last year, but the microdistillery scene is growing.

Enter Catoctin Creek Distillery.

Located in a garage in an industrial park in the middle of Loudoun County Virginia, which is pretty much the middle of nowhere, Catoctin Creek is a tiny family-owned distillery making rye, gin, unaged/white whiskey, and a couple of brandies.

Owners Scott and Becky Harris are totally committed to a 100% organic operation.  Everything – from the ingredients, the equipment, the cleaning solutions are certified organic.  Even the barrels are made from certified organic Minnesota oak including the sealants on the barrels which are beeswax.

Every so often they recruit no more than 20 volunteers to help them bottle the next batch.  The husband and I were lucky enough to get a couple of slots and join them for bottling day this weekend.  It was a fun learning experience that made us continue the fantasy of becoming distillers ourselves.

All batches have multiple types of alcohol resulting from the distillation process.  The poorer tasting alcohols come of the distillate first (the heads) and then again at the end (the tails).  The art in distilling comes in taking the proper cut of the “heart” of the distillate (avoiding the heads and tails), where you get pure, clean-tasting ethanol alcohol.

All the spirits except for the pear and grape brandies are made from 100% organic rye flour.

It is used to create a mash that is heated and then cooled in a large, blue fermentation tank for 3 to 5 days.

The fermented rye is then distilled in a German copper still, heated by electricity.

Distilled rye spirit is run off and the heart is poured into stainless steel casks to hold Mosby’s Rye Spirit and Waterhead Gin.  Another batch is aged for less than 2 years in charred oak barrels for Roundstone Rye Whiskey.

Now they call in the volunteer troops…

Once they are ready to bottle, the distillate goes into what they call the whiskey cow, known in other circles as the bottle filler.  Check out the future whiskey-drinker…

A volunteer corks the bottle and checks for foreign particles.  The bottles are then sealed.

Next, the bottles are labeled both front and back.

Finally, the bottles are boxed and the boxes are sealed, labeled, and stacked.

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Kentucky Bourbon Trail – Part Four

Our third and final fun day on the Bourbon Trail…

Jim Beam
526 Happy Hollow Road
Clermont, Kentucky

After breakfast, we started our day with some Jim Beam and a tour of the family home of the second largest distilled spirits company in the U.S.

The Beam family home is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and has two centuries of family memorabilia on display.

Unfortunately, this distillery is not set up for visitors to view the stills, but we were able to see a crew rolling barrels through the warehouse.

Booker Noe, a grandson of Jim Beam, was the Master Distiller for 40 years.   He possessed a truly larger than life personality.  No, literally… he weighed more than 300 pounds.  The owner of the Jailer’s Inn explained to us that Booker was a friend of his parents, and they had a chair made specifically to bear his weight when he visited their home.  He passed away in 2004 and was cremated.  His dog still lives with his widow, and when the dog dies he also will be cremated and his ashes will be combined with Booker’s so they may be companions for all time.

So, not only did Booker make great bourbon (I love the small batch Booker’s), but he was a dog lover, too?  My kinda guy.
Maker’s Mark
3350 Burk Springs Road
Loretto, Kentucky 40037
This distillery is very visitor friendly.  Because it is small and all processes are located on-site, it makes it easy to see and understand all aspects of bourbon-making from milling the grain to barrel aging to bottling.
We were fascinated to learn that besides making tasty bourbon, Maker’s Mark is also an innovator of green energy.  The energy needed to heat their stills and produce alcohol vapor is methane-rich biogas, not fossil fuels.  The distillery feeds the stillage, or leftover grain and water from the stills, to bugs who in turn produce methane that heats the stills.  Cool, huh?
After some lengthy experimentation, the Master Distiller recently developed a new bourbon, Maker’s 46.  The bourbon is made as usual and aged in charred oak barrels.  Once it has fully matured it is dumped from the barrel and the barrel head is removed.  Lightly seared French oak staves are then placed inside the barrel.  The bourbon is returned to the barrel for additional aging.  The addition of the carmelized wood adds extra sugar to the bourbon and we found it quite reminiscent of cognac.
You can also see America’s oldest remaining retail whiskey store, which was built in 1889 and was where Maker’s Mark was originally sold.
End your tour in the gift shop where you can dip your own souvenir bottle of Maker’s Mark bourbon into the signature red wax.
City of Bardstown, Kentucky
Apart from touring distilleries, we also spent time in the community of Bardstown, the self-proclaimed Bourbon Capital of the the World.  It is a typical Southern small-town.  Established in 1780, Bardstown is Kentucky’s second oldest city, and is home to Annual Bourbon Festival every fall.
Oscar Getz Whiskey Museum
114 North Fifth Street
Bardstown, Kentucky
Curated by the Bardstown  Historical Society, this museum houses an amazing and extensive collection of rare artifacts and documents of the American whiskey industry from pre-colonial days to present.  The displays were fascinating and definitely worth the stop.  Admission is free, but donations are suggested.
Hurst Drug Store and Soda Fountain
102 N. Third Street
Bardstown, Kentucky
I couldn’t remember the last time I had been to an old-fashioned soda fountain.  It is a fun place to stop for a hand-made sandwich or afternoon treat of a milkshake or float.  The ice cream is from regional Mayfield Dairy Farms.
The drug store is right on the courthouse square and is surrounded by antique and gift shops, so you can pick up souvenirs for the folks back home.
Keene’s Country Hams
8 Old Bloomfield Pike
Bardstown, Kentucky
If you really want to make folks back home happy, though, I recommend bringing back food.  Not only can you buy a country ham and other Kentucky specialities, but Keene’s Depot also sells guns and hunting accessories; fishing tackle and bait; beer; and ice.  What more do you need?
What is country ham you ask?  A Southern specialty, country ham is ham that has been salt-cured for several months, then smoked with hardwood (like hickory), and then aged for another several months, or even years.  It is drier and saltier than most hams you can buy in the grocery store.  You may see whole bone-in hams being displayed unrefrigerated and hanging in rough cotton bags.  You can buy a whole ham or purchase a portion.  Read the labels carefully, if it is uncooked, it must be scrubbed and soaked to remove the salt cure and mold.
We purchased a cooked ham and served it sliced very thin at room temperature with biscuits.  A delicious companion to bourbon.
Old Talbott Tavern
107 W. Stephen Foster Avenue
Bardstown, Kentucky
This 200-year-plus-old tavern represents the oldest western stagecoach stop in America and past guests include Abraham Lincoln, General Patton, and Jesse James.  Bardstown is not a hubbub of activity on weekday evenings, but the Tavern’s dining room is open for dinner and drinks.  The staff are very friendly and attentive, and the space is cozy and conducive for conversation.  We enjoyed bowls of burgoo, fried chicken, and a bourbon sampler.  Yum.

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Kentucky Bourbon Trail – Part Three

The second full day on the Bourbon Trail…

Woodford Reserve
7855 McCracken Pike
Versailles, Kentucky

Woodford Reserve is the oldest and smallest distillery in Kentucky.  The grounds are well-manicured with pretty limestone buildings, including one of the oldest stone aging warehouses for barrels.

Woodford Reserve is special as the only bourbon distillery using a triple distillation process in copper pot stills.

It is also the only bourbon company to craft its own barrels.
Interestingly, their rickhouse, or barrel warehouse is heated with steam to control the temperature and their claim is that it adds a “fifth season.”  That is, it creates another period of temperature fluctuation to expand and contract the barrels, and perhaps speed up the aging of the bourbon.

All distilling, barreling, aging, and bottling for this premium bourbon is done on the same grounds.

Another unique point…Woodford was the only distillery to charge a fee for the tour and tasting – you pay $5 at the door.  We both really like Woodford Reserve and we thought the grounds were lovely, but we didn’t feel it was a selling point to give us a plastic souvenir shot glass and “tasting notes” to take home for our $5.

Besides the excellent Woodford Reserve, the distillery also has a Master’s Collection of super premium bottles in which the master distiller changes the process to create something different.  We picked up two of these limited quantity bottles on our trip.

One is the Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Seasoned Oak Finish.  To explain what makes this special, you need to understand a bit about barrel-making or coopering.  Quality bourbon barrels are made of wood slats that have a degree of seasoning prior to coopering.  Seasoning is the natural drying process that changes the wood by reducing tannins (that can taste astringent) and creating new flavor compounds.  Typically, the wood for barrel staves or slats is left outside for three to five months to be weathered and mature.  By comparison, wood used for barrels of the Seasoned Oak Finish bottles was seasoned between 3 1/2 and 5 years.

The other bottle is Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Maple Wood Finish.  This is not technically a bourbon, but is instead classified by the Federal government as a specialty bourbon.  The reason for this classification is that the spirit was finish-aged in maple wood barrels.  If you recall the guidelines from the bourbon primer, bourbon is aged only in charred oak barrels.  This drink was first aged in charred oak barrels and then transferred for additional aging to toasted maplewood barrels.

Wild Turkey
1525 Tyrone Road
Lawrenceburg, Kentucky

Perched on the banks of the Kentucky River, the Wild Turkey distillery has a dramatic location.  You see it up on a hill as you wind a narrow road and cross the river.  Unfortunately, not the safest place to stop and take a picture, so you have to settle for this model.

This tour was a bit of a bust.  They’ve recently built a brand new building and new stills, but it was not yet open to visitors; and the old still was no longer available for viewing.  So, we only got to see some barrel storage.  However, the staff were very friendly and welcoming.  In fact, one of the tour guides even made a couple of King Cakes to share with guests as our visit fell on Fat Tuesday.

Wild Turkey is distilled and barreled and eventually dumped (poured out of barrels in preparation for bottling) in this location, but the company has about 20 rickhouses throughout the area, and bottling takes place in yet another location.  Because of that, the aged bourbon is dumped into tanker trucks and shipped to the bottling warehouse.

At each stop, we sought out bottles that are available only at the distillery or are in some way a limited edition.  Wild Turkey offers an opportunity to have a personalized label on a bottle of Rare Breed, their barrel strength (no water added) small batch bourbon to commemorate your visit.

Heaven Hill
1311 Gilkey Run Road
Bardstown, Kentucky

Heaven Hill Distillery is the country’s largest independent and family-owned producer of bourbon.  Beginning in the late 1980s the company began expanding beyond bourbon and it now has some 40 brands including gin, vodka, liqueurs, tequila, rum, brandy, and other spirits.

In 1996, Heaven Hill suffered a devastating fire that consumed nearly the entire inventory of bourbon aging in its barrel warehouses.  The fire jumped from rickhouse to rickhouse until they were all almost gone.  They have recovered and the company now possesses the second largest inventory of aging Kentucky whiskey with over 800, 000 barrels.

Our visit didn’t really have a tour of the distilling or bottling facilities – we were not able to get our reservations nailed down in advance.  Instead, we walked through their museum of bourbon history with a very knowledgeable tour guide, and finished with a sample of premium bourbons (Elijah Craig 12 year and 18 year) in a bourbon barrel shaped tasting room.  Delicious.

Their gift shop has a number of signed and limited edition bottles, including Parker’s Heritage Collection from Master Distiller Parker Beam.  (Yes, that’s right, the Beam family is involved in a number of bourbon distilleries throughout Kentucky.)  We picked up a bottle of 27-year-old bourbon.  It was aged in the bottom level of one of the distiller’s favorite rickhouses.  This created more consistency in temperature and resulted in less loss to evaporation.  In other words, the barrels still had something in them by the end of 27 years.  This bourbon does not taste like any I’ve had before, and I understand why it was named the North American Whiskey of the Year when it was released in 2008.

Brown Hotel Bar
335 W. Broadway
Louisville, Kentucky

We also spent an evening out in downtown Louisville.  And the Brown Hotel Bar was the first stop I wanted to make.  I think this is a beautiful hotel and I’ve always had friendly service.  Plus, I wanted my husband to have a famous (and delicious) Hot Brown.  As the story goes, the Hot Brown was invented by the chef of the hotel in the 1920s to feed the late-night dance crowd who tired of ham and eggs.  The Hot Brown is an open-faced sandwich with turkey, bacon, tomatoes, and a creamy Mornay sauce.  I love it.  And it goes very well with bourbon based cocktails.  I ordered a Manhattan from their bar menu that included St. Germain, an elderflower liqueur.  Very intriguing…You can choose to order the sandwich in the hotel’s restaurant or bar, where I have found it is a few bucks cheaper.

Old Seelbach Bar
Seelbach Hilton Hotel
500 S. 4th Street
Louisville, Kentucky

We moved towards the river a couple of blocks for our next round of drinks.  Set in the hotel that is rumored to have served as inspiration to F. Scott Fitzgerald for The Great Gatsby, the Seelbach was named one of the 50 best bars in the world by London’s The Independent.  I don’t know that we would rank it as one of the 50 best bars, but they are worth the stop when you are in Louisville.  I recommend you stick with bourbon – you have more than 50 to choose from.  I enjoyed the signature cocktail, but frankly, I enjoy almost anything with sparkling wine.

Seelbach Cocktail
Makes 1 drink

1 oz bourbon
1/2 oz Cointreau (or triple sec)
4 or 5 dashes Angostura bitters
4 or 5 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
champagne (or sparkling wine)

Pour bourbon, Cointreau, and bitters into champagne flute.  Top with champagne.

Jailer’s Inn
111 W. Stephen Foster Avenue
Bardstown, Kentucky

And, of course, we did eventually rest that day and we spent the night in jail.  Built around 1820, the Old Nelson County Jail held prisoners until 1987 when the county sold it and it was developed into a bed and breakfast.  It has undergone extensive renovations, but the 30-inch stone walls remind you of the history, and one guest room is a modified jail cell.  A tour by the charming owner of the historic facility is included in your stay.

It is located right in front of the Pioneer Cemetery that was used from 1785 to 1856.  Legends have it that both locations are haunted.

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Kentucky Bourbon Trail – Part Two

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!  After yesterday’s primer on bourbon distilling, I thought I’d start to share some of the details of our trip.

We started our journey on the eastern side of Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail.  March is not the prettiest time of year in Kentucky, but it is still lovely country with horse farms and rolling hills, and of course, bourbon distilleries.

Four Roses Distillery
1224 Bonds Mill Road
Lawrenceburg, Kentucky


Our first stop on the Trail was Four Roses, a nice-looking distillery with a Spanish Mission style architecture.

Four Roses was the best-selling bourbon in the country from the 1930s to the 1950s, but after purchase by Seagram, it became unavailable for sale in the U.S.  A Canadian company, Seagram decided to focus its business on blended whiskies.  It has been owned by the Kirin Brewing Company since 2002 and the bourbon is now widely available in the U.S. again.

Limestone filtered water is one of reasons Kentucky was so supportive of the creation of bourbon.  It is free of iron and is supposed to have nutrients that support yeast.  The spring-fed Salt River is the water source for Four Roses bourbon.

This distillery has used the same grain source for nearly 50 years, and inspect every delivery.

They use a higher percentage of rye than most other bourbons.  The spicy rye flavor is probably why this brand is a favorite of both my husband and I.

The master distiller works with a combination of 2 mash bills (one with 60% corn, 35% rye, 5% malted barley and another with 75% corn, 20% rye, 5% malted barley) and 5 proprietary yeast strains for 10 different bourbon recipes.  Each product has a unique formula of certain bourbon flavors at specific proportions.

Four Roses uses a columnar still for its first distillation.

The doubler used for the second distillation is a copper pot still.

The alcohol vapor for each distillation is condensed here.

The try box for gauging the proof of the distillate before it is barreled.

The bourbon is barreled, stored, and bottled in another location, so the new-make bourbon is transported in tanker trunks.

It is the only distillery to use single-story rick houses.  The belief is that it minimizes temperature variances and provides even maturation.

All 10 recipes are married together (bourbon is married, not blended) to create Four Roses Yellow.  Four of the recipes are married for Four Roses Small Batch Bourbon.  Only one is hand selected for Four Roses Single Barrel Bourbon.

Typically once a year, the Master Distiller selects one exceptional barrel or marries a few especially good recipes to created a limited release.  These are usually released in the spring in time for the Kentucky Derby.  They are difficult to find outside of Kentucky, unfortunately.

On our tour, we were able to sample each of the offerings except for a Master Distiller’s bottle.  Perhaps next time…

Buffalo Trace
113 Great Buffalo Trace
Frankfort, Kentucky

Buffalo Trace is not technically on the Bourbon Trail anymore, and they’ve withdrawn from membership in the Kentucky Distillers’ Association – deciding to go off on their own.  We wanted to see Buffalo Trace, though, because it holds the title of oldest continually operating distillery in the United States.

They’ve been in business for 200 years, even during Prohibition, but under different operators.   It was one of a handful of distillers licensed to make alcohol for medicinal purposes.  They had a prescription on display.

Each of the Kentucky distilleries has its own personality and culture.  Currently owned by the Sazerac Company, Buffalo Trace felt a bit more corporate to us than some of the others.  It is set on over 130 acres so you can only see a small part of it on the tour.  For instance, we were only able to see the huge column still from a distance.

We saw barrel rickhouses made of both metal and brick.

We were able to see the inside of one of the aging warehouses in the picture above.

Buffalo Trace is unusual in that they still employ leak hunters to search its barrel warehouses and look for leaks and they patch with a neutral wood that cannot influence the flavor of the spirit.  Take a look at the narrow space between the barrels…

And, we were able to watch a batch of one of their premium bourbons, Blanton’s, being hand-bottled by a surprising small staff.

Sazerac Company has 5 whiskey recipes and one vodka recipe for 15 labels.  Most of the differences between bourbons are influenced by aging and barrel storage.  Unfortunately, we were only able to have two samples each and not all the labels were available for tasting.  I found the Eagle Rare to be especially delicious.
If you are a collector, the gift shop sells bottles signed by the Master Distiller and special bottles of Buffalo Trace that have are decorated with a buffalo nickel.

Another tip, Frankfort is Kentucky’s capital city, and we found it worth the very short drive from Buffalo Trace to take a look at the capitol grounds.

Tony’s BBQ Barn
1435 North 127 Bypass
Lawrenceburg, Kentucky

Food is a must on the Bourbon Trail.  We stopped for lunch in the community of Lawrenceburg for pulled pork sandwiches and bowls of burgoo.  It was a huge place with tables that could accommodate big groups or booths for smaller parties.  The staff were very friendly, but don’t count on big-city speed.

Burgoo is a stew-like dish native to Kentucky.  Every restaurant and family seems to have their own recipe, but it has a mixture of meats and vegetables in a spicy tomato base.  Tony’s burgoo included some smoked pulled pork.  Yum.

Alltech Brewing and Distilling Company
401 Cross Street
Lexington, Kentucky

In downtown Lexington, this micro brewery and distillery is owned by company that makes animal feed supplements, Alltech.   This may not make sense upon first reflection, but the company is a major supplier of yeast.  Their knowledge and experience with yeast is quite helpful in brewing tasty beer.

Their cramped facility not only brews and bottles beer, but now distills Kentucky’s first malt whiskey since 1919, Pearse Lyons Reserve (double distilled) and a bourbon coffee drink called Bluegrass Sundown.  We were able to try all their beers (Kentucky Ale, Kentucky Light, and Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale) and the coffee drink tasted like Irish coffee.  The bourbon barrel ale is aged in used Woodford Reserve bourbon barrels.
A separate facility for the distillery, which will be known as Lyons Distillery, is still under construction.

Montgomery Inn
270 Montgomery Avenue
Versailles, Kentucky

We needed our rest on this bourbon adventure and we spend two nights at this well maintained bed and breakfast just outside of Lexington.  The innkeeper, Pam, and her family were very friendly and accommodating.

Liquor Barn


Wow!  Their sign is not lying when it says “Every boubon under heaven.”  We were awed by the beer, wine, and liquor selection in this place.  Make it a stop on your visit to bring back some local beverages and food stuff.

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Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail – Part One



Oh, whiskey you’re the devil…

You’re leading me astray…
Over hills and mountains…
Until I’m merry gay…

Ironically, this Clancy Brothers’ song played on our car stereo as my husband navigated our little Honda through a snow storm in the West Virginia mountains.  We were on our way to Kentucky and its infamous Bourbon Trail.  Our obsession with whiskey was indeed leading us astray…and over hills and mountains…and, yeah, we were pretty merry.
Now, I promise to share the details of our trip in upcoming posts, but first I want to give you a little primer on bourbon.
What is bourbon exactly besides delicious?
All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskeys are bourbon.  As defined by a 1964 Congressional Resolution, bourbon is an indigenous product of the United States and it must meet certain requirements.
First, bourbon can only be made in the United States.  It does not have to be made in Kentucky, but they do make over 90% of it.Second, bourbon’s grain composition, also known as the mash bill, must contain at least 51% corn. Other grains can include malted barley, wheat, and rye.

Third, bourbon must be distilled to no more than 160 proof.

Fourth, bourbon must be aged for a minimum of two years in a never-used oak barrel that has been charred inside, and must enter the barrel for aging at no more than 125 proof.

Fifth, bourbon must have no added coloring, flavoring, or other spirits.

Finally, bourbon may not be bottled at less than 80 proof or 40% ABV.

What does all that mean and how is bourbon made?Many of our favorite alcoholic spirits come from cooking grains.  For bourbon, the grain mixture or mash bill of at least 51% corn and possibly malted barley, wheat, and/or rye is ground to a flour-like consistency.  Mills vary between distilleries, but here is the grinder at Maker’s Mark.

Some distillers will share the exact proportions of grain with visitors and others leave it a mystery.  This mash is cooked in hot water to release the natural sugars, and each grain must be introduced in a particular sequence and at a particular temperature since the grains cook differently.  This all takes place in a huge cooking vessel known as a mash tub or mash cooker.  After a couple of hours of cooking and cooling, the mash is sweet-smelling and the consistency of porridge, and is now often referred to as sweet mash.

Some distillers add backset or sour mash to this sweet mash mix.  Backset with some still active yeast is a portion of an earlier distillation that is returned to the product to add continuity of quality, think sourdough bread – you hold back some starter to create another batch.  Others wait to add sour mash to the fermenter tank which is the next step.

Yeast is then added to eat the sugars from the grain in the cooled mash.  This is called fermentation.  Each distiller uses a proprietary yeast strain and they are closed guarded secrets, and the yeast are sometimes even kept in secret locations and have been held by distilling families for generations.  Over a period of several days you can see the liquid mixture in the fermentation tub bubble and churn as the yeast does its work – releasing carbon dioxide gas and raising the alcohol content.

The length of time for fermentation can depend on the mash bill, the weather or temperature of the fermentation room, and the strain of yeast.  At the end of fermentation the mixture is referred to as disiller’s beer which is about 12 to 16 proof.

The distiller’s beer then gets pumped out of the fermentation tanks and heads to the stills.

Now it is ready to be distilled.  Simply, distilling is boiling the fermented distiller’s beer to make alcohol vapor which is then condensed into liquid corn whiskey.

The beer is heated and enters a still.  If it is a columnar still like in the picture below, the beer enters near the top and runs down a series of perforated copper plates.  At the same time, steam is blasted up the still from the bottom, and as the steam meets the beer, the alcohol, which boils at a lower temperature, rises in vapor form to the top of the still.

If the distillery is using a pot still (as seen below) the mash is held in the wide bottom and is heated so that the alcohol vapor rises to the narrow top end where it is trapped.

Regardless of which still form is used, the alcohol vapors are re-condensed creating a spirit known as low wine.  It has not yet reached the desired alcohol level so it must be distilled again.
Spent mash or distillery slop (grain solids and water) accumulates at the bottom of a still as the alcohol vapor is removed.  Many distilleries give this to farmers as high-protein feed for cattle and/or hogs.
Nearly all bourbon is distilled at least twice, increasing the purity and potency of the spirit while removing rough or raw flavors.  This re-distillation takes place in a smaller version of the large columnar or pot still called doubler or thumper.  In this process, the spirit is again heated until it evaporates and then re-condenses, resulting in a higher proof product called high wine, white dog, or moonshine.
If you recall in order to be called bourbon, the high wine must come off the still at less than 160 proof.  This is determined by a measurement of proof known as gauging.  After coming off the thumper, the vapors are re-condensed and the white dog bubbles through a try box, an ornate copper and glass chamber where samples of new-make bourbon can be sampled and gauged for proof.

After distillation, whiskey is a clear spirit.  This spirit is poured into oak barrels that have been charred inside.  The level of char varies between distillers.  It is the char the gives bourbon its amber color.

This picture helps illustrate the difference between charred and uncharred barrels.

Another requirement for bourbon is that it must not enter the barrels at more than 125 proof.  Therefore, the spirit must be reduced using neutral de-ionized water in a reducing tank, where the new-make bourbon and pure water are combined before barreling.  In the course of the aging process, water molecules pass through the walls of the barrel, but the larger alcohol molecules do not, meaning the proof will generally rise as the bourbon ages.

The full barrels (weighing over 500 pounds) are stored in warehouses or rickhouses.  While in the rickhouses, temperature changes from hot Kentucky summers and cold winters cause the wood to expand and contract,  and the alcohol moves in and out of the charred lining of the barrels.  Soaking in the wood gives bourbon its distinctive flavor, aroma, and color.

This picture shows the soakage line – where the bourbon moved in and out of the wood.

Each distiller seems to have a different opinion about how to store its barrels.  A barrel warehouse is known as a rickhouse, and a rick is a layer of two to six barrels (depending on distiller).

Rickhouses are built of different materials (wood, metal, brick, or stone); some are painted dark colors while others are painted light colors; they are different heights with varying layers of barrels; some have windows and others do not; the barrels face different directions to or away from the sun; and some warehouses may have climate control systems and others only open doors and windows to regulate temperature.
The philosophy is that each of these factors impact the temperature of the alcohol and therefore flow of whiskey in and out of the wooden barrels to influence the final bourbon product.
The bourbon is aged in barrels for at least two years, but some distillers have batches that are decades old.  Storage in wood is not perfect and most distillers lose about 4% of the whiskey each year to evaporation, leaks, and other problems.  This is referred to as the “angel’s share.”  Most distillers don’t operate on a strict calendar for aging.  The bourbon is tasted at various points in the aging process to determine when it is ready to bottle.
The bottling process varies between distillers and labels, but at the minimum the bourbon is filtered to remove wood dust and other residue from the barrel.  Bourbon barrels cannot be reused for bourbon so many distilleries sell their used barrels to scotch producers and recent buyers include beer brewers who are creating bourbon barrel ales and stouts.
Why is it called bourbon? Kentucky based farmers found that shipping corn was easier when it was distilled into alcohol.  And shipping was easiest in wooden barrels.  “Bourbon” was stenciled on the barrels as they were shipped from the Bourbon County region of eastern Kentucky to indicate port of origin.  Whiskey from this part of the country was different because it was corn-based and in time the term bourbon came to mean any corn-based whiskey.

Stay tuned for my reports from the Bourbon Trail…

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Roll Out the Barrels

A few weeks ago I went out to dinner with my friends Andrea and Christina and we noticed a display for a mini-barrel of whiskey paired with a bottle of clear alcohol.  It was a “kit” to age your own whiskey.  Well, sign me up!  Given that my husband and I, my brother, and many of our friends really enjoy whiskey, I knew this was something I needed to investigate.  So, I took a flyer home and visited their website.

Sure enough, Washmund’s Copper Fox Distillery not only offer tours, but will sell you various sized barrels to hold your single malt spirits.  You control the aging and can influence what flavors the whiskey during that time.  How cool is that?

My husband and I decided to pay them a visit this weekend and pick out our own barrel.  Drive towards the Blue Ridge Mountains to the town of Sperryville, Virginia, turn down the dirt-covered River Road, and you will see the Copper Fox Distillery, just across from an antique store.

Founded by Rick Wasmund; his mother, Helen; and his friend Sean McCaskey, Wasmund’s Copper Fox Distillery produces a unique single-malt whiskey.  We parked out front and wonderful aromas of fruit, smoke, toasted wood and barley greeted us at the door, along with a brown and grey tabby cat…Rick and Sean were also working and agreed to give us a tour.

We started in the malt room.  Wasmund’s is the only distillery in North America to malt their own barley, thereby controlling the flavor of the whiskey from beginning to end.  They use Virginia grown winter barley delivered by the farmer.  The kernels are poured into a special tank, where they soak in well water for three days or so.

This begins the process of malting – the barley is encouraged to germinate, but is stopped before a new barley plant starts to grow.  An enzyme in the barley converts its starch to sugar.  To make sure the grain gets air and light, it is spread on the clean concrete floor of the malting room, where raking multiple times a day keeps all sides exposed and prevents clumping.  Wasmund’s mother, the “Manager of Malt” oversees this part of the operation.

The next step is to move the barley to the kiln for drying.  The enclosed kiln has two levels, a lower one with a wood burning stove that burns oak, apple, and cherry woods.

Smoke and heat drifts up through a perforated metal floor that is the second level.  Spread across that floor is the barley.  The grain is dried over this gentle fire that halts the growth that would use up stored energy and flavors it with fruit wood smoke.

After several days of drying, the barley is stored in sacks until needed.  They make whiskey year-round, but they only malt during the fall and winter due to the heat.  We saw the last batch until cooler weather returns.

The barley is then milled into flour.  This is mixed with heated water to create a wort which is then pumped into a steel fermenting tank, where yeast is added.

The yeast consumes any sugar to make alcohol.  After a few days fermentation, this mash is basically beer without any hops.  The mash is then twice run through a copper still with a closed steam system and a condenser to obtain grain alcohol.

The spirit is then filled into used oak bourbon barrels.  The barrels are stored standing on end, not horizontally.  A hole is cut into the top of each barrel and through that chunks of toasted wood (cherry and apple) are suspended.  Wasmund calls this process chipping.  The chunks of wood apparently accelerate the aging of the whiskey and contribute to the delicious and unique flavor and scent.

Wasmund starts the tour by claiming to be trained in whiskey-making by aliens – his use of fruitwood is that unique.  The truth is he interned in a distillery in Scotland, but the use of fruitwoods in both the malting and aging makes his whiskey unlike any other.

When finished, it is bottled, sealed, waxed, and numbered all by hand.

Wasmund’s whiskey is now available in 17 states, and they produce over 100 cases per month.  The distillery also just started brewing a rye whiskey.  I recommend you give them a try; I am trying to get the bottles in a few more bars here in DC.

The fruitwood helps mellow the drink, but it still has quite a kick.  It is tasty consumed neat, but I also think it will make some lovely cocktails.

I will share the process of setting up our barrel to age whiskey soon.  Stay tuned!

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