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A visit to Heaven Hill Distilleries Bourbon Heritage Center

Heaven Hill

We went to Heaven Hill Distilleries and found no distillery there.

There used to be one there, until Nov. 7, 1996, when one of Heaven Hill’s warehouses caught fire. It is thought that lightning struck it. The resulting inferno destroyed it and several other warehouses, consuming 90,000 barrels of bourbon. The fire also destroyed the distillery.

Heaven Hill bought the Bernheim distillery in Louisville and now distills all of their whiskeys there. They then truck the distillate to this facility, just outside Bardstown, where it is barreled and aged.

Heaven Hill
Heaven Hill

On our visit we got to walk through their visitor center and their bonded warehouse. If you’ve ever seen a bourbon labeled “Bottled in Bond,” it was made at a single distillery by one distiller in one distillation season, it was aged for at least four years in a bonded (government supervised) warehouse, was bottled at 100 proof, and its label tells where it was distilled and where it was aged. This 1897 law was meant to protect consumers from adulterated whiskeys, cut with iodine or rust — which was a problem at that time.

Heaven Hill

Heaven Hill makes a couple dozen different whiskeys spanning price ranges from the bottomest of the bottom shelf to some mighty tasty and expensive stuff. We sampled five of them before we left, all delicious in their own ways.

Heaven Hill, by the way, is the largest independent, family-owned distiller of spirits in the United States. The other large distilleries are owned by national and global corporations. Heaven Hill remains headquartered in Kentucky.

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Who knew that a closet shelf could be structural?

This is the situation at our rental house.

A support beam failed under the house. The crawl space is too shallow to work in, or even to survey the damage, so we’ve had the floors ripped up in one room and soon in another.

This home was built in about 1890; the room with the failed beam was a later addition. As so often happens with older homes, investigating one repair reveals the need for several more. In our case, we found past repairs and improvements that weakened other support beams. One floor joist was cut in two when the last furnace was installed. Also, water damage has rotted the sill along one wall.

How the beam failed is a sad story. A couple of our sons ripped the carpet out. We decided to lay laminate wood flooring throughout so I stacked all of the flooring bundles in this bedroom. It was easily a ton of flooring.

One of our sons has a friend who’s experienced in construction and he was over to remove shelves from this bedroom’s closet so it could be reconfigured. When he knocked out the first shelf, this whole side of the house groaned and the floor shifted beneath him.

We think this is what happened: the foundation was already weak, and the walls were bearing a lot of stress. Putting a ton of flooring bundles in this bedroom only exacerbated it. That shelf had, in a way, become structural, like the keystone of an arch.

We’ve consulted with a structural engineer, who’s given us great advice. Our son and his best friend have enough experience in this arena that, with the engineer’s guidance, they can do the repairs — and turn this from being a major financial disaster into merely another demoralizing setback. They’ve expressed interest in doing the work.

But that’s a lot to ask of a couple guys who already work for a living and, in the case of our son Jeff, is about to become a father. We have other options, including hiring pros and just selling the house as is. I’m not sure what’s best. Margaret and I keep trying to talk about it but, frankly, it’s overwhelming.

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Remembering Mariah

A sad anniversary passed quietly the weekend before last. It’s been a year since our son, Jeff, lost his wife, Mariah.

They had been married but a short time when she died. But it was clear that they were the love of each others’ lives.

We’ve all grieved this loss in our own ways over the past year. It crushed Jeff. It was also especially hard for my wife and our daughter, who had close relationships with Mariah.

I had been slow to get to know Mariah, so for me her death was primarily a deep shock. But it was a shock too far, after a year (at the time) of serious life challenges for our family. It sapped me of all energy for months. It reduced my attentiveness and effectiveness at work. While they didn’t tell me why they fired me, this could have contributed.

Jeff wound up moving back in with us while he got his life together, but now he’s ready to fly free again. It seemed almost perfect when our tenant abruptly moved out of our rental house in January. We would paint, replace carpet, and do some needed repairs, and Jeff would then rent it from us.

We’ve discovered some serious problems with the house, which I’ll write about on Wednesday. They threaten to delay or derail the plan.

We had hoped the house would be ready in time for Jeff to welcome his new daughter into the world. Yes, that’s right, Jeff is going to be a dad, and I’ll have my first grandchild. This wasn’t a planned pregnancy but this little girl is very much wanted and will be deeply loved. She should arrive in late May.

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A visit to Willett Distillery

Willett Distillery

It’s hard to know exactly where your bourbon comes from. Sure, the label gives you a brand name and maybe even a distilling company. But only bonded bourbons are required by law to tell the truth about origin on the label. Otherwise, a bourbon’s label can craft any origin story it wants.

Willett's Pot Still
Nikon F3HP, 50mm f/2 AI Nikkor, Kodak Plus-X, 2015

For several years my favorite bourbon by far has been Willett’s Pot Still Reserve. Its distinctive bottle is fashioned to look like a pot still.

I leave it to the pros and serious enthusiasts to describe bourbon flavors. One I found on the Web used words like citrus, caramel, pepper, and dry oak to describe this bourbon. All I know is that its deliciously interesting complexity keeps me sipping.

That’s probably why the one photo I have is of an empty bottle. It doesn’t help that this bourbon isn’t always available. When I find some, I buy it — and drink it.

Willett also issues special single-barrel and small-batch bourbons and ryes under their Willett Family Estate label. They’re hard to find and they’re expensive, but they are the most delicious bourbons and ryes I’ve ever enjoyed. I usually find rye to be too spicy and to burn too much. But the most delicious, most interesting whiskey I’ve ever sipped was Willett Family Estate Rye. It was the closest I’ve come to a religious whiskey experience. I will buy any bottle that says Willett on the label.

What I learned only after touring the Willett distillery in March is that until about 2016, all of the amazing Willett whiskeys I’d ever sipped were distilled by rival Heaven Hill Distilleries using Heaven Hill mash bills. From the early 1980s until 2012, Willett distilled no spirits. They merely aged the Heaven Hill-sourced whiskeys in their warehouses.

Nothing against Heaven Hill, which produces some delicious whiskeys. I just didn’t enjoy feeling duped. Maybe it’s unrealistic, but I assume the company on the label distilled, aged, and bottled the brown liquid inside. Not that this sly deception will keep me from enjoying their whiskeys, all now distilled on the Willett premises from Willett mash bills.

Willett Distillery

Here it is, Willett’s pot still. Notice to the similarity to my photographed bottle.

Willett Distillery

And their fermenting tanks.

Willett Distillery

And a couple of their rickhouses, where barrels of whiskey are left to age.

Willett Distillery

On this March morning this rickhouse was cool and dark.

Willett Distillery

A fun quirk of the Willett distillery is that three cats roam the grounds to keep mice away. This one is named Noah, I think.

Willett Distillery

The distillery is in the midst of transforming its campus to offer more amenities to bourbon tourists. They’ll soon have a B&B and a restaurant to offer.

Willett Distillery

But the rickhouses…they’ll always look like prison barracks. Hardly tourist-tempting.

Willett Distillery
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A visit to Maker’s Mark Distillery

Private Select

I first drank bourbon in college: Jim Beam, mixed in plenty of Coke. “Cheap and effective,” one of my roommates said as he poured me my first one. For both reasons, it became my drink of choice.

I tried Jim Beam straight once, just a few sips. Brr. What a rough ride that was on my palate and down my throat, burning all the way. “That’ll put hair on your chest,” as my grandfather used to say. I concluded that bourbon was best used for mixing.

Then one day a buddy brought a bottle of Maker’s Mark to share. He poured a healthy ounce into my cup and bade me sip. I didn’t want it straight, but I also didn’t want to be unkind, so I sipped. I was surprised, and then delighted: this stuff is good!

After I graduated I switched to beer. Imported beers were a big fad then, and I fell right in. So it went for the next 20 years. I wasn’t a big drinker, but when I wanted a drink I ordered a German altbier or an Irish stout.

In my 40s my digestion started playing tricks on me, and I discovered that a gluten-free diet eased my symptoms. Beer was out. But I remembered Maker’s Mark, and so when I wanted a drink that’s what I reached for. It was as good as I remembered.

At some point I heard about the Maker’s Mark Ambassador program. Just for signing up you get a lot of marketing emails. Far more interestingly, you also get annual Christmas gifts (last year it was socks imprinted with Maker’s Mark bottles) and your name (with 29 others) on a freshly sealed barrel that will, in time, become Maker’s Mark. When your barrel matures, you can visit the distillery and buy bottles from it.

My barrel matured last October, so Margaret and I made our way to Kentucky recently to tour the distillery and buy my bottles.

At the Maker's Mark Distillery
At the Maker's Mark Distillery
At the Maker's Mark Distillery

What a beautiful place the Maker’s Mark distillery is! Our tour guide told us that Margie Samuels, wife of original distiller Bill Samuels, saw that bourbon tourism might one day be a thing and made sure the distillery buildings and grounds would create a lovely and engaging experience for the people who would one day come.

Mash
Mash
Pots

The tour itself taught me all about how bourbon is made, something to which I’d given scant thought before. I took two more distillery tours this long weekend and learned that there isn’t much variation among distilleries, except in the type and proportion of grains they use in their recipes, which they call mash bills.

In the rickhouse
Tasting

My favorite two stops on our tour was to the warehouse, also called a rickhouse or a rackhouse, where the bourbon is aged; and the tasting. They gave us sips of the moonshine that ages into all Maker’s Mark products, and of each of the bourbons they sell.

At the Maker's Mark Distillery
At the Maker's Mark Distillery

People from all walks of life joined us on our tour. Who knew that bourbon could bring together Americans from so many different backgrounds? Perhaps a healthy pour, toasted together, is what this country needs to find unity again.

Ambassador bottle
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I suppose having my midlife crisis in startup software companies was better than buying a sports car or dating younger women

I’d been a first-level manager in the software industry for 15 years, leading testers and technical writers, when I was passed over for a promotion to Director. It pissed me off. I was a good manager who had accomplished a lot for that company, and I was ready to stretch into the next level. I thought I deserved the chance. I don’t think it’s just my ego talking when I say I would have done a better job than the man they brought in and for whom I had to work.

Then I got a call from a startup software company: was I interested in being a Director for them?

Why yes. Yes I was!

I don’t know where my ambition came from, as I’d had little of it before then. Since I was a teen I had wanted only to work in the software industry. For a long time I was perfectly happy writing technical documentation and testing software to make sure it worked as intended. I didn’t seek to move up the ladder; my first management job fell into my lap.

Office
I’ve had a lot of desks in my career, but only twice a private office.

Yet through my early 40s I felt pangs of discontent. I could see ways to do things better, but as a manager I lacked the authority to do much about it. I itched to have more clout and make a bigger impact. Also, as my kids were headed toward their college years, the extra money of the Director level appealed to me.

I got the job and dived belly first into boiling water. What a mess things were there. Not only did I build their test team from scratch, but I also turned around their broken software delivery system. I wasn’t able to fix the company’s fatal flaw, however: the product was a hard sell, and we kept widely missing our sales goals. We rolled and pitched as upper leadership had us build this and then that into the software hoping something would catch on in the marketplace. Nothing ever did, not enough to make a dent in the market, not enough to satisfy investors. Sales became frightfully poor for six months and it became clear they’d have to cut staff. They showed me the door.

I moved on surprisingly quickly to another young company, beyond its startup stage but not yet mature. I built a couple functions from the ground up as a Director there — another testing team, and a program management team. It was great fun and I liked it there a lot.

Yet I’d started dreaming of being a Director of Engineering. Testing had become old hat for me, and because of changes in the industry opportunities were drying up. But also, I knew that quality starts at the top — you have to build it in. To deliver software as well as I knew it could be done, I’d have to do it by leading the software developers.

My chance came two years ago. An executive I knew and admired wanted me to lead engineering at his startup. I jumped at the chance.

Office
The view from the Director of Engineering’s desk.

I proved there what I wanted to prove all along: that building a product well from the start is better and faster all around. Our product had few bugs, it held up under load, and it scaled with the business.

But after we built the core product, there were internal disagreements about what to build next. It undermined everything. The executive who hired me had ideas, but he didn’t win over the rest of the execs and in the end he resigned. The person they brought in to replace him treated me badly, and as you know if you’ve been reading this blog for the last six months she fired me with neither explanation nor warning.

I had proved to myself that I could do all the things I wanted to do — but so what? It didn’t save these companies, it didn’t give me the feelings of accomplishment I wanted, and it sure as hell didn’t bring me the respect and admiration I was secretly looking for. Instead, I wound up on the street.

The job I was able to get before my family’s finances got rough is as a first-level manager. It stings a lot to have been essentially demoted.

At least I’m still in engineering. Also, I’m a deeply experienced first-level manager; this is a job I can do well. Even better, I’m in an organization that, while not perfect, functions reasonably well. As in all companies there are business challenges, but there are agreed-upon plans to work through them. If you’ve ever worked for me, you’ve heard me say it: even a mediocre plan will work if everybody follows it. Also, because the company is mature it pays market rate, something startups don’t do. I make the same money I did before as Director of Engineering.

I’m dancing on a fine line. To accept where I am feels like giving up on my dream. Even though I found out my dream isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, a part of me wants to double down on it to prove it was good all along. Maybe I should get a new dream. Or maybe I should stop dreaming and be content with what I have, because it is objectively good.

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