For years now, I’ve met every month with my brother and a mutual friend to drink a little whiskey and enjoy each others’ company. The pandemic has curtailed our in-person activity, so we’ve switched to meeting over Zoom. It’s better than nothing.
We routinely text each other photos of what we’re drinking when we’re not together. Here are the best of those photos I found on my iPhone after I upgraded to a new phone recently.
Breckenridge. This bourbon is distilled at a giant distillery in Indiana and then shipped at barrel strength to Colorado, where they cut it with snow melt (allegedly). It’s a nice bourbon, but it’s gone up in price beyond its deliciousness and so I haven’t had it in some time.
The Glenlivet 12 year. I love this scotch, even though most scotch drinkers consider it an entry-level single malt. Thanks to stock shortages it became hard to find for a couple years. It’s back now, but in a clear bottle with a different label. I wasn’t sure it was the same whiskey for a while! But the Glenlivet folks swear it is. I’d drink more scotch, but it’s so expensive here in the United States. Bourbon is a much better value here.
Old Grand-Dad Bonded. You’ll find this 100-proof bourbon on a low shelf. But don’t fear it — it is far more delicious than its price suggests. I buy it mostly to make old fashioneds, but it’s decent straight.
George Dickel Barrel Select. This is a Tennessee whiskey, not a bourbon. I generally enjoy the George Dickel whiskeys but I don’t remember anything about this one!
Blood Oath Part No. 1, No. 2, and No. 3. I made this photo on one of the nights my brother and our friend met. We all tried one pour from each of these bottles. That was enough whiskey for one night!
Flight at the Willett Distillery. Margaret and I made a cautious trip last October to Kentucky bourbon country, where we visited the Willett distillery. They have a lovely little restaurant and bar, so we had dinner and I enjoyed this flight.
Margaret and I squeezed in one more weekend getaway before the busy season begins where she works. We returned to Bardstown, Kentucky, a place we very much enjoyed when we visited it last year.
We both enjoy good bourbon and planned to visit the distilleries we missed last time. We got to visit just one: the Stitzel-Weller distillery in a Louisville suburb. It’s now mostly a tourist site revolving around the Bullitt, Blade and Bow, and I. W. Harper bourbons.
They distill and age small quantities of spirits on the premises, and we got to see those operations. Most of their product is distilled and aged elsewhere, however.
If you know anything about bourbon lore, this was the distillery of the famous Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle. It’s changed hands since then — even went dormant for a while starting in the 1970s, when whiskey’s popularity fell.
During these days of COVID-19, Stitzel-Weller limits tours to half the usual number of guests. A tasting always wraps a distillery tour. We knew there would be some risk there: would guests stay masked in the tasting room? Nope. Margaret and I were the only ones who stayed masked. It wasn’t hard to move the mask out of the way for our sips, and we wished others had followed our lead. It made us wary of the distillery tours we wanted to take the rest of the trip.
When we reached Bardstown and called the distilleries, we learned that their tours were booked all weekend. At least we wouldn’t have to be concerned about COVID risk at tastings! We did visit the Willett distillery, as they make my favorite bourbon of all time, Willett Pot Still Reserve. They’ve opened a restaurant on their property, so we enjoyed an early dinner there of creative and delicious dishes — I recommend it. We were able to dine on their deck in the open air. We also bought several bottles of our favorite bourbons in their shop.
We rented an Airbnb apartment in the heart of Bardstown’s downtown. It was a lovely place to stay with plenty of room for us to stretch. It also had a full kitchen in case inclement weather or insufficient outside seating at restaurants forced us inside to make our own meals.
Fortunately, many Bardstown restaurants offered outdoor seating. It was sometimes challenging to get a table at peak meal times, so we ate at odd times like 10:30 am and 4 pm when tables were available. Bardstown was far from crowded, but there are only so many restaurants in a small town.
We drove out to Bernheim Forest, which we visited on our last trip too. Margaret wanted to see one of the wooden giants there again, this one, named Little Nis.
Margaret also wanted to experience the Canopy Tree Walk, a large pier out into a forested valley. At 75 feet in the air, it gives you a treetop view.
The Jim Beam distillery is just down the road from Bernheim Forest. We’d have visited, but out of COVID caution they’ve closed their visitor experience until next spring. The Jim Beam barn is near the road, so we stopped to photograph it. It’s very well photographed; search for “Jim Beam barn” and you’ll see. Most of those photographs don’t show a giant rickhouse behind the barn — that rickhouse must have been built only recently. It makes the scene far less picturesque. I found one angle on the barn that minimizes the rickhouse and shows the rolling Kentucky hills.
It rained in Bardstown on our last day, so we left earlier than planned. We decided to drive home through lush Brown County in Indiana and stop in Nashville for lunch. What a mistake that was. It was a sunny day in that part of Indiana and the roads were packed with cars and motorcycles out to see the fall foliage. Nashville itself was wall to wall people. We parked and walked a little bit, but soon realized that the town was a COVID risk nightmare. We got back in our car and drove on to nearby Bloomington for a meal before heading home.
Not long ago I had an unexpected day off, so I shot, developed, scanned, and uploaded a roll of Kodak Tri-X. I shot stuff I found around the house, on my coffee table. My Yashica-12 was on my tripod, and I attached my Spiratone close-up lens kit. The available light led me to slow shutter speeds, around 1/4 sec. at f/5.6, so I screwed a cable release into the socket to prevent shake.
I wanted a pleasant day of photography more than I cared about making images for the ages, and I succeeded. I’d been thinking about doing some available-light still lifes for a while, I suppose to channel my inner Edward Weston. I found no gnarled green peppers in the fridge, so I worked with whatever I found lying around. That included my favorite coffee mug, the little pot we keep paper clips in, and a geode given to me by a dear old friend.
I used the Yashica-12 because it was out and because it has an accurate onboard light meter. When you use that meter, the 12 limits you to films of up to ISO 400. This was fine, because Tri-X 400 was the fastest film I had on hand anyway.
The Spiratone kit comes with two lenses, one for each of the TLR’s lenses. The viewing lens promises that it corrects for parallax, but it also magnifies the scene more than the taking lens does. I made every one of these subjects fill the frame, but had to crop them all in post. In this photo of the lidded bowl I wish I had managed to get the entire lid in focus.
The photo above of a Belleek china pitcher came out a little dim, and I couldn’t fix it in Photoshop without overcooking. The photo below of a duck decoy did too. The duck is painted in dark and muted colors, which might have led to muddy middle grays. My mom’s grandfather made the decoy by hand, by the way.
I had greater luck photographing a couple bottles of whiskey Margaret and I brought back from our tour of the Old Forester Distillery. We sampled both of these whiskeys at the end of the tour and they’re delicious. The 1920 whiskey is a whopping 115 proof! We’re saving the bottles for a special occasion.
Conventional wisdom is that Tri-X in Rodinal results in pronounced grain. Yet I don’t mind the grain in these. Perhaps that’s in part because I didn’t have any particular look in mind as I shot these. I just wanted to have some fun and see what turned out. But as I think about doing more still-life work, I feel sure that T-Max 400 or Ilford Delta 400 would yield sharper, smoother results with richer blacks. I think that would be a nicer look for subjects such as these, so I’ll use T-Max or Delta next time.
I’ll also dig through my stuff for a much longer shutter-release cable, as the one I found was too short for me to stand out of the way. Look closely, and you’ll see me (and the Yashica-12) reflected in the bottles.
Of the 12 exposures I shot, only nine were scannable. Something I did wrong in developing partially fogged my first three shots. My scanner’s bundled scanning software thought there was nothing on those frames and threw an error. I wish it would simply scan whatever it finds, as I might have been able to do something with the partial images that are clearly visible on those frames.
Also, the Tri-X curled enough during drying that I struggled at first to lay it flat into the scanner mask. My scanner came with a little card the width of 120 film that you lay onto the end of the film to hold it flat in the mask, and then pull out after you close the mask. It worked brilliantly.
Despite all these challenges, I had a lovely morning of photography. It was wonderful to go from concept to uploaded scans in just a few hours!
My camera’s battery died just a few photographs into our tour of the Woodford Reserve Distillery, between Frankfort and Versailles in central Kentucky. It’s a shame, because the place is so picturesque. I would have liked to photograph it extensively.
The distillery is also historic, one of the oldest in Kentucky. Known previously as the Labrot and Graham Distillery and before that the Old Oscar Pepper Distillery, whiskey has been made here since 1812. Woodford Reserve is a Johnny-come-lately on the scene, having been distilled only since 1996.
Thanks to my iPhone for making it possible to document this visit at all. Here are Woodford Reserve’s famous copper pot stills, and also my wife Margaret from behind.
Those pot stills make up only part of Woodford Reserve bourbon. The rest of it comes from the column stills of the Brown-Forman distillery in suburban Louisville, an hour to the west.
Its rickhouse, where the bourbon barrels are left to age, is unusual in that it’s made of stone. So many are made of wood.
One odd thing I noticed is that barrels in the rickhouse, the ones I could see anyway, carried distillery number DSP-KY-52. But newer barrels, including ones recently filled, bore the number DSP-KY-15018. This must be something quite new, as an Internet search on DSP-KY-15018 turns up nothing. A search on DSP-KY-52 returns all sorts of references to the Woodford Reserve Distillery. I wish I’d asked the tour guide about it.
As a fellow who is seriously into bourbon, I appreciate a bar with a wide selection that includes some esoteric whiskies. But Woodford Reserve is a very nice bourbon, and most every bar carries it. Anywhere I go, I’m perfectly happy with a pour of Woodford Reserve. Neat, of course.
Margaret and I have been to enough bourbon distilleries now to know the drill: first the vats of sour mash, then the still(s), then the rickhouses where the bourbon ages in barrels, then the tasting. Up to now, it’s always all been in a pastoral setting among Kentucky’s gently rolling hills. But the Old Forester Distillery is different: it’s in downtown Louisville.
You’ll find a few other distilleries up and down Main Street and on adjacent blocks, making downtown Louisville a burgeoning whiskey center. It was one before Prohibition, but that misstep in American history decimated Kentucky’s whiskey industry and sent many distillers into bankruptcy.
For a long time Old Forester was distilled and bottled at a facility just outside Louisville proper. But there’s gold in them thar whikey-tourism hills and Old Forester led the way in returning to Louisville’s famous Whiskey Row. Stepping onto this street feels very much like returning to 1870.
Little of the original building remains behind its facade. This is a modern facility through and through. Every bit of it is tourist-friendly.
Here we are peering into one of the vats of fermenting sour mash. It looks like a giant corn muffin.
Here’s one of the vats, empty, ready for a new batch.
Old Forester’s parent company, Brown-Forman, is the last independently-owned distiller in the nation. They own a whole bunch of liquor brands, including Jack Daniel’s and Woodford Reserve. Brown-Forman is further unique in that they own their own cooperage — they make their own barrels. The main cooperage is elsewhere in Kentucky, but for us tourists a cooper makes a few barrels at the Old Forester site.
To be considered a bourbon, a whiskey must be made of at least 51% corn and must be aged in new barrels made of oak and charred inside. Here’s a barrel getting its char.
After the whiskey has been distilled, it’s clear, essentially moonshine. They pour it into a barrel, seal it with a bung, and let it age in a warehouse. To be a bourbon, it must age for at least two years. Here a barrel is being emptied, on its way to being bottled.
Here’s the Old Forester bottling machine, doing its stuff.
Every bourbon distillery tour ends with tasting some of the product. Old Forester uses the same sour mash mixture to make a number of bourbons, including their original 86-proof bourbon (left). They age their distillate in different ways and for different lengths of time to get their other bourbons, including Old Forester 1897 (center) and Old Forester 1920 (right).
The folks at Old Forester kept the tour fun and quick, and at $18 per adult it’s not terribly expensive. If ever you’re on Whiskey Row, do step inside.
In early 2012 the company I worked for was sold. I’d been very happy there but the new owner destroyed the place and the stress was intense. Most nights I lay awake half the night.
I’d tried Ambien for sleep when I went through my divorce. That stuff was scary. 30 minutes after I took it I’d pass out, and eight hours later I’d suddenly come to — but I felt more tired than before. I’m pretty sure I was lying awake all night in an unaware state until the Ambien wore off.
This time the doctor tried a couple other common sleep medications that didn’t work. Finally he prescribed Trazodone, a drug originally used to treat depression but which is so sedating that today it is most often prescribed for sleep. It worked great, except that if I took it more than two nights in a row it slowed my digestion to a stop. A man’s gotta poo, so I stopped using it.
I forget who mentioned that a healthy shot of whiskey at bedtime did the trick when they had insomnia. I like whiskey, so I gave it a try. I’d stretch out on the couch with my glass and sip it slowly while I watched something inane on TV, and most nights I’d be asleep within an hour.
At first I used whiskey only when I couldn’t sleep naturally. But within a couple years this ritual became a nightly, guilty pleasure, even when I was going to have no trouble sleeping. It was quiet, contemplative personal time.
With the difficulties my family has lived through these last few years, however, I couldn’t sleep at all without a pour, or sometimes two. Then last year after I lost my job, two pours became three, or even four — whatever it took to knock me out. The more I drank, the less restfully I slept. Sometimes I woke up with a start in the middle of the night and couldn’t fall asleep again.
By the first of this year I knew that alcohol had become a harm rather than a help. I mentioned it in my annual New Year’s post that I planned to quit using whiskey as a sleep aid.
I had cut back to a couple drinks a week until we discovered the foundation issues at our rental house. If that were the only thing that had gone seriously wrong for us over the last few years it would have been challenging enough. But given everything else, I felt like I was drowning. My anxiety went through the roof, I was unable to sleep, and in desperation I went right back to several drinks a night.
I kept this up until Easter weekend when I realized I felt terrible and it was directly caused by the alcohol. So I quit cold turkey.
It’s interesting to notice how my mind and my body are responding differently to not drinking. My mind doesn’t mind at all! When I made the logical connection between alcohol and how bad I was feeling physically, my mind changed instantly.
My body, however, has become habituated to its nightly pours. At first, it asked plaintively every night if I’d satisfy its desire. It’s not every night anymore, but it’s any night I have any anxiety at bedtime.
Thanks to having practiced meditation off and on since I was in my 20s, I have decent skills at noticing a feeling, sitting with it, and not acting. I wish I could meditate the anxiety away, though. I’ve never figured that one out.
Without alcohol to obliterate the anxiety, I hardly slept that first week. I was a zombie at work! But my baseline anxiety has lessened, and I sleep through the night most nights now. I wake tired, but I think it’s because I’m still exhausted from having run this marathon of the last few years at a 5K pace.
Booze free, I’m fascinated by how clearly I think and how emotionally resilient I am. The alcohol was stunting both mind and emotions. I still have a long road ahead regaining my rest and strength after the last few years of difficulty, but cutting out alcohol has let me jump way ahead in that recovery.
I expect that at some point I’ll realize my body hasn’t craved liquor for some time. When that happens I’ll take my wife out for a drink and see how it goes. I like whiskey a lot and I hope to find an appropriate and pleasurable place for it in my life. But I’ll not let it control me again. If it won’t stay in the box I make for it, I’ll teetotal forever.