By Barbara Sherf
Once I posted to Facebook that my husband and I, along with our sweet golden retriever, Tucker, were heading to Kentucky to “do The Bourbon Trail,” friends posted that I would surely develop a taste for the stuff. So keeping an open mind, I agreed to travel the winding back roads to find out why bourbon has become so popular.
On the trail I learned that bourbon production is at its highest since the 1970s, but because the spirit has to age for at least two years in a newly charred oak barrel, there is concern the demand will continue to outpace supply in coming years. Most bourbon distillers age their spirit for four years or more, and as of 2012, bourbon distillers produced just over one million barrels of new bourbon, a 120 percent increase since 1999, notes the Kentucky Distillers’ Association.
But according to a report by the Associated Press, bourbon distillers are finding it difficult to keep up with demand. Maker’s Mark, a brand of Beam Inc., faced severe backlash when it announced it would water down its bourbon from 90 to 84 proof in to better meet consumer demand. Following a huge backlash on social media, Maker’s Mark quickly scrapped the plan, saying in a statement, “You spoke. We listened. And we’re sincerely sorry we let you down.”
I found the whole case study online while preparing for our first tour to Maker’s Mark. As workers were dipping the bottles into the iconic dripping red wax seal on each bottle, we learned that it was founder Bill Samuels’ wife, Margie, who drew the label and suggested the idea of using the red seal, an idea she borrowed from the makers of French cognac as a method of branding the product.
At the Bourbon Heritage Center in Bardsville, Kentucky, we learned that in 1964, to the delight of big distillers and their lobbyists, Congress recognized bourbon as a uniquely American product and defined what could be labeled bourbon. Federal regulations require bourbon whiskey to be made from a minimum of 51% corn. Other grains such as rye, wheat and barley malt may be used in any combination. Furthermore, all bourbon must be aged in new, charred oak barrels at no more than 125 proof. (That’s 62.5 percent alcohol.) The smoky barrels are considered vital to creating bourbon’s mature taste, since no artificial colorings or flavorings can be added. My head was swimming before we even tasted the stuff. Enough already.
After 45 minutes in the distillery, we finally got to the tasting room and were given a sample of clear alcohol that goes into the barrel. It pretty much wiped out my taste buds for the rest of the tasting. Maker’s actually bottles this firewater as Maker’s White. There was no water cooler to clear the palate, and when we came to tasting the newer bourbon, I chose to simply sniff and stick my pinky finger in for a taste.
“Not gonna happen,” I told my bourbon-loving husband, Brad, and waited instead for the third and then final tasting of aged bourbon. I did find a bit of spice and taste in the finer bourbons, but still my throat was on fire, and as others were buying expensive bourbons in the gift shop I settled for a high-priced bottled water.
Our next distillery was Bulleit, where entertaining storyteller, David Doolittle, guided us and another couple through the distilling process. He teased us with a batch of smoky coffee bourbon that wouldn’t be ready for several years. “Good reason to come back,” Brad said. I wasn’t sold on a repeat visit but kept an open mind.
Our samples consisted of a 6-year-old bourbon, an 8-year-old rye bourbon, a blended whisky/10-year-old bourbon and a 17-year-Tennessee bourbon. I filled my water glass and started sniffing and finally finding notes in these little glasses, vowing to march on to Woodford Reserve, located in Versailles, Kentucky, the next day.
Joined by our 24-year-old niece and her boyfriend, who currently reside in Kentucky, Alexandra shared that she had never tasted bourbon, although Justin was known to imbibe. Our guide, another David, suggested we inhale through our noses while taking a breath in through our mouth, then sip the first of two bourbons in three sips. After the second sip, we were instructed to bite into a bourbon-laced chocolate topped with a smoked pecan (worth the tour in itself), and indeed the bourbon went down much smoother. Loved the chocolate but not so much the bourbon. Brad finished my bourbon, and I finished his chocolate. Sweet trade.
From there we went to a small craft brewery, Barrel House, in Lexington, where another exceptional storyteller, Chad Burns, shared their small batch process and the story of the two tabby cats they rescued who now entertained tourists and kept rodents in tow. We tried some moonshine, vodka and rum and just a taste of bourbon as the distillery only makes 400 bottles twice a year.
We bought Chad a bourbon at the bar attached to the distillery and from there we said our goodbyes sharing our final destination: “The Liquor Barn.” When Chad heard this, he put his hands to his heart, saying “Oh, what a magical place.” It was here at the “tasting station” that I finally found my kind of bourbon — Flatboat Chocolate Cream Bourbon at a measly 34 proof. It’s sort of like Bailey’s Irish Cream with a kick. Adding a little almond milk and a maraschino cherry, I sat back by the fire and enjoyed this southern comfort.
As oaf thes writin, I em a willig too admit thet I developped a taste for one fyne Kentucky bourbon wit hits of choclates and crem! Night, night, y’all.
On those rare occasions when she’s not sipping the creamed bourbon, Flourtown writer and publicist Barbara Sherf tells the stories of business and individuals through www.CommunicationsPro.com.