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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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Maker's Mark Distillery *EXPLORED*

Low stone wall
Nikon FA, 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5 AI-s Zoom Nikkor
Arista EDU 200
2019

My decision to part with my Nikon FA hasn’t sat well with me since I wrote Verdict: Goodbye on its Operation Thin the Herd post. Logically, I own too many Nikon bodies and that this one’s winding lever keeps poking me in the forehead means I will shy away from using it. The whole point of Operation Thin the Herd is to shrink the collection to a set of cameras I’ll use regularly and enjoy.

There is, however, no denying the FA’s brilliant metering system. Just look at how much shadow detail it captured here. A camera as capable as this one probably deserves another chance.

I shot this at the Maker’s Mark Distillery. Margaret and I were struck by how much the Kentucky countryside reminded us of Ireland, except the farms were not divided in Kentucky by low stone walls as they were in Ireland. Then we came upon this most Irish of low stone walls.

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Film Photography

single frame: Low stone wall

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Image
Personal, Photography

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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Personal, Photography

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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Photography, Road Trips

Vintage motel signs on the Dixie Highway in Cave City, KY

The Wigwam Village isn’t the only classic motel in Cave City, Kentucky. It’s just the most distinctive.

Cave City, KY

The Holiday Motel and the Caveland Motel have the best vintage signs of all the old motels in Cave City. Judging by photos of the Caveland Motel sign around the Internet, it has received a recent coat of fresh paint. I also find photos around the Internet that show the neon at least partially working on both of these signs.

Cave City, KY

Here’s another look at the Wigwam Village’s vintage sign. Internet photos show the neon working on this one, too.

Cave City, KY

These are all film photos from my Olympus Stylus Epic Zoom 80.


Also check out some great old signage on US 40, the National Road, in western Indiana here.

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Preservation, Road Trips

Sleep in a wigwam

The sign says, “Sleep in a Wigwam,” but these are actually tipis. A wigwam is a domed structure. But the fellow who invented this motel concept just liked the sound of the word wigwam better. Thus a name was born: Wigwam Village.

Cave City, KY

That fellow was Frank Redford, who built the first Wigwam Village in 1933 in Horse Cave, KY. It was so successful that he built this one in 1937 in nearby Cave City, KY, on the Dixie Highway, known today as US 31W. Frank licensed the design to Chester Lewis, who built five more around the country through 1949. Three Wigwam Villages remain: this one, and two on Route 66 in Holbrook, AZ, and San Bernadino, CA.

Cave City, KY

Each wigwam, or tipi, contains two beds and a bathroom with a sink, toilet, and shower. According to reviews on Yelp, these are small, basic rooms from a time gone by, and they show signs of their age.

Cave City, KY

When my sons and I planned our Mammoth Cave trip I considered staying here. I absolutely would have if I were traveling by myself. But my sons aren’t into old-road nostalgia like I am. On this trip, the spacious, modern, more luxurious hotels over by the Interstate were mighty compelling to them.

wigwam_air

Imagery c 2015 Google. Map data c 2015 Google.

But there’s hardly an old motel anywhere as distinctive as this one, with its rooms arranged in a half circle around the big-tipi office. That’s an original alignment of the Dixie Highway behind the motel, by the way. Several old Dixie Highway alignments lurk around US 31W as it snakes through central Kentucky.

Cave City, KY

This old roadgeek yearns to explore them all. When I do, you’d better believe I’ll sleep in a wigwam.

(These are all film photos, by the way, taken with my Olympus Stylus Epic Zoom 80.)


Several great old motels line US 40 in Columbus, Ohio. Check out their great signs.

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