Travel

An autumn trip to Kentucky

Canopy Tree Walk

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.

Stitzel-Weller Distillery
Stitzel-Weller Distillery
Stitzel-Weller Distillery
Stitzel-Weller Distillery

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.

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.

Canopy Tree Walk
Canopy Tree Walk
Canopy Tree Walk
Canopy Tree Walk

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.

The Jim Beam barn
The Jim Beam barn

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.

Canon PowerShot S95

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Travel

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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