The Sweet Smell of Bourbon

So I’m a fan.  This is old news by now.  Reference my distillery tour photo-post from last year.

I discovered Maker’s Mark bourbon around the time I got married.  I’ve been a devotee ever since.  It’s one of the handful of wheated bourbons (replacing a standard grain ingredient in the mash, rye, with winter wheat) on the market, which lends it a sweeter taste than standard bourbon.  (You can read more about that at Maker’s wiki entry.)

Nowadays, the Maker’s distillery in Loretto, Kentucky is within driving range from ye olde abode.  Dys and I first made the trip not long after we moved here, and found the drive through mostly-rural Kentucky to be quite beautiful.  That part of central Kentucky is full of rolling hills and forests, reminding me very much of my home in southern Virginia.  Later, it would become one of my favorite leisurely Sunday motorcycle drives.  Once there, I might take the distillery tour, I might not.  It was just a convenient stopping point on a low-traffic scenic highway.

But I’d always intended to take my parents there to visit, and so last weekend we had the opportunity.  While Dys finished up some work, I bundled the two of them and the Boy into the car and headed for the country.

Passing through Bardstown, Kentucky, the home of My Old Kentucky Home State Park, the Bourbon Heritage Center and Heaven Hill Distillery (makers of another of my favorites, Evan Williams Single Barrel) we could still see the scorch marks from a devastating 1996 fire that destroyed 2% of all the bourbon in the world.  Continuing along toward Loretto, we could see the landscape just beginning to green up for spring – in just a few short weeks it should be gorgeous.

We pulled into the distillery just as a tour was starting, so we joined right up.  Not keeping Boy waiting = a Good Thing.  From here on out, I’ll be posting photos from my Flickr set – I’m not going to do the whole “click for larger version” thing this time since I figure it’s a whole lot of work for what very few people probably follow through on – if you want to see more photos, or see them larger, just click this link to visit the full set.  OK, on to the pics!

This is the visitor’s center where the tours start.  When last I visited, the gift shop was here as well.  Now they’ve built a whole new gift shop and devoted that old space in the visitor’s center to a sort of museum to the Samuels family, the 6-generation distillers that run the Maker’s distillery.

Just up the hill is the old distiller’s home.  I didn’t catch this part as I was busy taking photos, but if memory serves nobody from the family still lives there.  (If you know differently, please feel free to correct me!)

Most of the buildings on the distillery campus are painted dark brown, and have these bright red shutters (the color of the wax seals on the bottles themselves) with the distinctive bottle-shaped cutouts.

How’s this for a dream office?  “Quality Control Lab” at a distillery? Sign me up!

This is the actual distillery – a five-story copper still resides in the tower there.  It ain’t Hawkeye and Trapper’s outfit from the Swamp, I can tell ya that.

Although they did say something about M*A*S*H…

While the tour guide talked about the process of bourbon-making, Boy wanted to get out for a few minutes and wait outside, so I joined him.  Outside was this cool old roller-mill grindstone used to grind the grains used to make bourbon into meal.

So what happens after you grind the grain?  Well, this happens.  You combine them all with water from the nearby limestone springs, a yeast mix (that has been in the family for ages, a bit of the yeast is held back from the previous batch to make the next one), and malted barley to ferment it down to distiller’s beer.

A LOT of it.  I forget if there are six or eight of these mash barrels, but they’re each about 12 feet across and 16 feet deep.  During our first visit, Dys and I arrived when the distillery was closed for a week in the summer and the barrels could be cleaned.  They go a LONG way down.

The Maker’s distillery actually encourages you to stick a finger in and taste the distiller’s beer.  (You may say “ick” but the stuff is essentially already alcoholic, and will end up being boiled to distill it anyway.)  Early on in the process, it tastes like breakfast cereal without the sugar.  Later on…well, my dad is a longtime beer drinker, and he thought it tasted like the worst beer he could possibly imagine.  I think he actually accused the lady of tricking him into tasting it.  Heh.

And after you have a half-dozen bedroom-sized vats of beer, then what?  Well, then you send it to The Works:  Although it may not look like much, this is where the magic happens.  This is the lower section of that five-story copper still I mentioned above, where the distiller’s brew is distilled down to good old white dog.

The newly distilled bourbon comes out at a relatively high proof, as clear as water, and into these beautiful copper tanks.  You can’t really tell, but clear liquid is pumping through the glass windows at the tops of the tanks as I shot the photo.  Scale is also hard to judge in this photo:  the tanks are probably each 5-7 feet in diameter.

The white dog is then cut with distilled water and put into barrels to be aged.  As I discussed in the Buffalo Trace tour I linked above, white dog is basically moonshine.  If you tour a distillery and they offer you a sample of it, you should try it…once, just to get an appreciation for the aging process, because white dog tastes like cornmeal flavored lighter fluid.  And that’s about it.  Only an old bootlegger would really appreciate it.

Once it goes into barrels, though, the magic really starts to take hold.  Bourbon is aged in new white oak barrels that are charred on the inside, like this fella here.

The charring carmelizes the sugars in the wood fibers.  As the bourbon ages in warehouses, the liquid is alternately pulled into this carmelized wood and back out again, drawing some of the sugars and tannins out of the wood and into the liquid.  A portion of the alcohol also evaporates out of the barrels (called by the distillers as “the angels’ share”) as it ages.  Which means that, as I’ve said before, the outside of a distillery rickhouse on a beautiful spring day is what I hope heaven smells like.  Yum.

Maker’s Mark has something called an “Ambassadors” program, in which you can sign up for free and get little updates from the distillery, even small Christmas gifts and so forth.  Oh yeah, and you get your name on a barrel of bourbon.

The barrels age in warehouses for 4-6 years or so.  Unlike Buffalo Trace, Maker’s Mark only distills one product:  Maker’s Mark itself.  So they don’t have some barrels that will end up single-barrel bourbons, which are all bottled from one barrel without being mixed together with bourbon from other barrels.  They don’t have some being aged longer or shorter than others.  They are all aged until the master distillers decide they’ve reached the right taste point, at which point certain barrels are picked out to be blended together and they’re all sent off to the bottling floor.

Since it was a Saturday, the bottling rigs were idle.  We got to see film of the machinery in action, but having seen it in person before, it was a sad imitation of watching it all going right in front of your face.  Even the famous red-wax dipping stations were cold and covered.

But there was a slab of the sealing wax lying nearby.

Then it was off to the gift shop/tasting room.  My folks went down to have a tasting, but since Boy wasn’t quite 21 yet…or 11, even…I stayed with him in the non-booze section of the swank new gift shop.  Here a couple of ladies were preparing to compare white dog with finished Maker’s.

They’d also allow you to purchase a sealed but un-dipped bottle of Maker’s and dip your own into the distinctive red wax.  I’ve done this before (my bottle is on a shelf in the room where I keep my amplifiers), and my dad did it this time around.  Here another gentleman dips his own bottle, with instruction from gift shop staff.  (I couldn’t get a very good position for the shot.)

And on pain of…well, pain, I made sure to bring something home to share with milady.

I was reminded just how much I enjoyed that drive, and how much I enjoy visiting distilleries in general.  I’ll have to go back again sometime soon – and this time, pick up one of those good old Bourbon Trail passports so I can pick up one of these cool free t-shirts!

So if you’ve never toured any distillery, I heartily recommend swinging by Loretto sometime to see the Maker’s Mark distillery.  It’s a gorgeous drive, an informative hour or so on the grounds, and just generally a whole lot of fun.  And if you’re in the neighborhood, I can think of a tour guide who’s always up for another whiff of bourbon on a beautiful spring day.

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6 Responses

  1. Okay, you GOTTA hook me up with a box of those chocolates the next time you go!!!!

    Very cool!

    Whattaya mean? *munch munch* The box was full when I mailed it, I swear! *munch munch*

    The main problem would be that they have to stay refrigerated. Maybe I could send you some next winter!

  2. That was the best blog post I’ve read in ages!!! I felt like I just went on a field trip, thank you for that! 🙂

    PS: mmm…those chocolates made me drool 😉

    I’m telling you, the BEST photos of a distillery tour are NOTHING…because you can’t experience the smell. Ah, heaven!

    Thanks for the compliment, Romes!

  3. Bad Pants is a fan of Maker’s Mark. That’s a tour I’m sure he’d love!

    Myself? I make a delectable Bourbon Brownie. BP’s tea totaling fam love them too. (Sshh! We neglect to mention the bourbon part!)

    Gah, drooling all over myself here! Yum!

  4. That is cool…and it makes me kind of miss the old houses I used to renovate…and alcohol. I think I haven’t touched a drop in weeks now. 😦 Maybe I’ll have a ‘nip’ and sleep well.

    So…How’d ya sleep? Hopefully the answer wasn’t “on the couch.” 😀

  5. Great piece and great photos. Nobody lives in the distiller’s house now. It’s used for parties and meetings. Maker’s Mark isn’t actually in Loretto. That’s where the closest post office is located. It’s located between Lebanon and Loretto in Marion County. Right now, you can enter a drawing free to win either a trip or one of two collectors MM bottles that will be given away. You should also tour Kentucky Cooperage (bourbon barrel-making factory) right on Main Street in Lebanon, along with The Oak Barrel restaurant – a great Bourbon Country experience! You can enter the Heart of Kentucky Bourbon & Barrels Getaway giveaway at http://www.VisitLebanonKy.com. The drawing is this Fri., April 2. No purchase is necessary but you can book great package deals also.

    Hey, thanks for stopping by, Bourbon Buddy!

    I just say “Loretto” because that’s the address given on the bottles. If you’re coming from my direction, you drive through the town of Loretto on the way, but then you’re definitely outside the town limits before you get to the distillery.

    In the Flickr set there is a photo I took of a Kentucky Cooperage truck trailer that was parked there at the distillery on Saturday. I thought it was cool. I’ll definitely try to take the tour sometime!

  6. we always go on gift shops whenever we want to find something to give on special occasions ~.*

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