With great anticipation, we continued our trek southeast to the “final segment” of this amazing adventure. Cousin Lee and Sandy and Cousin Mary and Kevin (Lee and Mary are sibs of Jann’s Mother’s brother) along with Sister Sue and Rik were convening in Bardstown KY for a week of family and the Bourbon Trail. Yes, again! Lee and Sandy were with us last year on our first round – and we hope they will be with us on the next one, as this year still wasn’t enough.
Alas, just as in the Family Reunion when we started this journey – COVID got in the way. Two days before “the event”, Kevin tested positive at their home in Myrtle Beach SC. We were just thankful they were home rather than on the road – when you don’t feel good, you just need to be home. But we missed them!
Everyone else arrived without incident – Lee and Sandy from Bloomington IN with their Kodiak camper and Rik and Sue from Wytheville VA loaded for camping in one of the two cabins on-site.
One thing we learned from our planning last year is that in order to visit the “national brands”, you better have reservations well in advance. Most distilleries allow reservations 90 days in advance – and you better get them then or you won’t be seeing that distillery!
Day #1 – Stop #1 was the Kentucky Cooperage owned by the Independent Stave Company (ISC) in Lebanon KY. Bourbon, by law, must be made in new white oak barrels and this cooperage manufactures 90% of the bourbon barrels for all bourbon creation. And what a production it is! Most of the oak comes from Arkansas, where the trees grow talk, straight and strong. As they only get about two barrels per tree, they assured us that their reforestation efforts has garnered 100X more trees available today than there was 100 years ago when ISC was founded.
They rough plane the boards and stack them on pallets outside for 6-12 months, allowing the natural aging and drying of the wood to occur. They are then brought into the factory where a combination of automation and manual labor combine for beautiful artistry. The boards (staves) are cut into various sizes, trimmed and shaped to length and sides carved for tongue-and-groove assembly. The “cooper” then selected 28-32 boards that fit so tight that leakage is extremely minimal to non-existent. The “banding” of the boards is a sight to see – and the speed with which the creation occurs is astonishing. There is not a single nail or screw used – it is all butt-jointed staves with “heads” on either end precisely cut to fit the angle/croze on the ends of the staves.
The barrels are rolled on a conveyor and into the charring machine. The interior of 6 barrels at a time are set on fire for a precise period to produce a scale of 1-5 levels of char. This charring is what gives the bourbon its color, and, along with the white oak, its flavor. Each distillery utilizes one or more levels of char to create their own special bourbon. A Level 4 char is 55 seconds.
ISC was founded in 1912 and is still family owned and operated. The current CEO is fourth generation and the fifth generation is in college preparing to take over the business when it’s time. They now own operations in 5 countries and produce barrels from cherry, cedar and a wide variety of woods for an ever-increasing demand for barrel-aged ANYTHING! There is a sister company on the same site that purchases the used bourbon barrels (remember, they can only be used once for bourbon) and sells them worldwide for second agings of scotch, wine, bitters, tabasco, coffee – the list seems endless.
Day #1 – Stop #2 — We were off to dip a bottle in red wax – yes, Maker’s Mark in Loretto KY. The distinctive shape of the bottle and the signature red wax has Maker’s Mark standing out recognizably on any shelf. As the self-proclaimed world’s largest distiller, the facility and production capacity was almost overwhelming. Our tour guide (Christopher) was excellent as we walked the grounds and many of the structures.
Bill Samuels, Sr. had an illustrious career as a fourth generation distiller. Following a brief “retirement,” he and his wife Margie purchased a small distillery with a 10-acre spring-fed lake with a limestone shelf great for making bourbon in 1953 for $35,000. He wanted to “make a bourbon that he liked to drink”. His journey took him down the path of wheat (easily accessible in Kentucky) as the second grain after the 51% minimum corn requirement. Rye had been the overwhelming grain of choice, grown in the northern tier of the US and Canada, providing a spicy flavor and finish. The wheat (locally attainable) provided what Samuels called a smooth, sweet and mellow flavor and finish. The mashbill is the same for every Maker’s Mark bourbon – 70% corn, 16% soft red winter wheat and 14% malted barley. Another stipulation is to the Kentucky Cooperage – the staves must spend a complete winter season outside as they dry and age before becoming barrels for Maker’s Mark.
While Bill Sr. was focusing on the bourbon, Margie was all about marketing and branding. She drove everything from the shape of the bottle, the naming of Maker’s Mark (from the maker’s mark that pewter whitesmiths put on their best work) and the distinctive wax to the design of the logo and the color of rickhouses and their shutters! She was so passionate about marketing that she made Bill Sr. agree that for every dollar that went into the bourbon, another would go into restoring the buildings and grounds and the positioning of the brand.
Bill Sr. retired in 1975, turning over the reins to his son, Bill Jr with one word of guidance – “Don’t screw up the whisky”. Another nod to Margie as she insisted they spell it the Scottish way rather than the Irish whiskey. Bill Jr spent over 40 years doing just that – promoting, expanding distribution, growing the brand. In 2010, he released his mark – Maker’s Mark 46 – the first new major product by Maker’s Mark in over 50 years.
In 2017, Rob Samuels (grandson of founder Bill Sr and son of Bill Jr) took the reins as Managing Director – taking his turn at “not screwing up the whisky”. It was a delightful and informative tour and finished with an enjoyable bourbon tasting.
Day #2 – Stop #1 – Willett Distillery in Bardstown KY was the polar opposite of Maker’s Mark from the day before. A delightfully small distiller with 50 employees making some outstanding bourbons at 60 barrels a day.
Every bourbon barrel begins with 53 gallons of distillate. Over the aging process, there is 3-6%per year loss the first couple of years and then another 1-2% every year after that. The losses are due to the angel share (that lost to leakage and into the air) and the devil’s cut (that liquid lost into the wood and char) – love the words they use!
So, Willett produces 60 barrels a day in a very hands-on, old world environment. They hand-fill the barrels and then manually roll them onto the scale that has been in use since the distillery began in 1936. The barrel is then rolled across the hall to an open door and placed on a gravity-fed conveyor to move down to the truck to be loaded into the rickhouse.
Our tour guide, Nick, was a real gem! He had been with Willett for 3 months – and his joy and excitement was so evident. Turned out, he completed his 20 years of service in the US Army on May 3 from his last post at Ft. Knox KY! His wife and children have settled into life in Kentucky and were going to “put down roots”. He was so proud to be an American and humble to serve – tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He kept referring to the feeling of family at Willett with all the employees and how they help each other throughout the day and the manufacturing process. It was certainly a special experience for us.
Day #2 – Stop #2 – The Stephen Foster Story is presented in an open-air amphitheater from mid-June to mid-August. We were fortunate to be there the last weekend of productions this year. The musical presentation has been created by the residents of Bardstown for 63 years (except, of course, 2020). It is a huge production with amazing talent telling the story of the first American composer. The story is of a young man from Pittsburg who felt deeply the suffering and anguish of the enslaved people. His love of music drove him to paint the picture of those torments in song at a time when agents, contracts and ASCAP/BMI did not exist. He wrote beautiful songs that made the publishers wealthy and other artists taking credit for the creations. Songs like “Oh, Suzanna” and “Camptown Races” took on a life of their own.
Foster visited his cousin, John Rowan, and family at Federal Hill, Bardstown KY several times. The effects of those encounters, both with his family and their enslaved people, were profound. In 1852, Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home” was published. The songs narrative is based largely on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abolitionist novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, while the scenery of the song is believed to be inspired by Rowan’s home.
While “My Old Kentucky Home” became the state song of Kentucky in 1928, his 1851 minstrel song “Old Folks at Home” became the state song for Florida in 1935 – you may recognize it as “Way Down Upon the Suwanee River”.
On Friday, we welcomed Nephew Jim who drove up from his new home in central Tennessee. We had a delightful start to the weekend and Saturday, we all went to the self-proclaimed “Napa Valley approach to Bourbon Distilling” founded in 2016.
New, flashy and apparently loads of investment capital from Founder Peter Loftin, it promotes a “Collaborative Whiskey, Bourbon and Rye Distilling Program” which is a unique approach we had never seen. They work with hundreds of companies (Coors being one of them) as they together investigate a product creation and strategy. Bardstown Bourbon consults, manufactures, ages and ultimately bottles the results. In the meantime, they are compensated for all these activities, including “rent” on the barrels aging in their rickhouses. They have just completed the 13th warehouse (each holding approx 50,000 barrels) and 14th is under construction – with an additional 30 on the drawing board! The facility has a campus feel with a destination restaurant and lounge – a very “new age” feel for an ages-old but re-emerged industry.
Sunday morning dawned with Cousin Lee testing positive for COVID, so he and Sandy packed up and headed home – we were so sorry to see their tail lights heading out the drive. Jim stayed until after lunch and then he had to return to TN for a work week.
Monday is a quiet day in Bardstown, with many businesses closed – an indication that tourism is the second largest contributor to the economy, second only to bourbon! We did enjoy both the Civil War/Primitive Village and the Oscar Getz Museum of Bourbon.
Rik and Sue departed early Tuesday, with Rik feeling really crummy! Yes, he tested positive on Wednesday. Sister Sue waited until Thursday for it to hit her. Since Bill and I gained natural immunity from our bout with COVID at the beginning of our adventure – we had no concern nor did we exhibit any symptoms.
We were again on our own for a few days, which we enjoyed to the fullest! On Tuesday, we drove a very taxing (sarcasm!) 54 miles to a lovely campground in Frankfort KY – the state capitol. We spent Wednesday at Buffalo Trace Distillery, which we had visited during our Trail last year. This year, we took two different tours, had lunch on property and acquired a bottle or two. The distillery continues on its $1.2B expansion. New rickhouses, fermenters, increased bottling capacity (1,000 bottles a minute) and all the supporting infrastructure are well on their way to completion. When the new column still is completed late this year, they will be able to effectively double their capacity! We still marvel at a $1.2B investment that won’t realize any income for at least 6 years after completion. That’s the benefit of a privately held company (Sazarac – the William Goldring family ) that does not need to answer to shareholders!
Our last day of the Trail for this trip was spent at Glenns Creek Distillery – 10 employees in a former Old Crow Distillery in the heart of bourbon and horse country. When we left (with a rye, a rum and three bourbons), we marveled on how we learn new things even after all the distilleries we’ve visited over the years. At Glenns Creek, we learned that many/most of the bourbon distillers who market a rye whiskey actually purchase it from Midwest Grain Products (MGP) of Lebanon, IN who manufactures and private labels for over 50 companies. In Glenns Creek’s case, they further distill the rye whiskey with a roasted barley, which creates a very unique color, texture and taste.
Friday brought us to Heiskell TN, just north of Knoxville. We spent the weekend with Nephew Jim, seeing his new home and celebrating the contract he signed this week to sell his prior home in Tuscaloosa, AL. We loved his home and his plans for making it his own.
Tomorrow, we head home, being ever-thankful for the marvelous experiences, the amazing people and the accident-free travel of almost 7,000 coach miles for the past 2 1/2 months. And, once again, we sigh with the glorious words of Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz – “There’s No Place Like Home!”
There are some pictures that don’t seem make it into the blog, but need to be shared! At a rest area along with way, we found the BEST dog park —