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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Here it is, Willett’s pot still. Notice to the similarity to my photographed bottle.
And their fermenting tanks.
And a couple of their rickhouses, where barrels of whiskey are left to age.
On this March morning this rickhouse was cool and dark.
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.
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.
But the rickhouses…they’ll always look like prison barracks. Hardly tourist-tempting.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.