Read Kentucky Bourbon Trail, Part 1
We drove into Kentucky on a beautiful spring day. Sunny skies and temperatures in the 70s. Perfect really. It was Friday and we were planning on heading to Churchill Downs in the afternoon for the Oaks Day races. These are held the day before Derby and raced with three-year-old fillies. Before that though, we wanted to squeeze in some Bourbon tasting.
We were staying in Kentucky on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Our plan was to visit the six distilleries on the official Bourbon Trail plus Buffalo Trace, since it was near our hotel in Frankfort. Sunday is a little tricky in this part of the country though. In some counties, alcohol is not served nor sold on Sundays, so if you want to taste and shop at every distillery you visit you need to plan accordingly.
Since every distillery offers a tour, we knew we’d have to be selective in which tours we did since taking every tour would eat up too much time. And really, once you’ve seen one tour you’ve seen them all right? We decided to tour one distillery and decided on Maker’s Mark. Plus, not only is it my mom’s favorite Bourbon, but at the distillery you can dip your own bottle into the signature red wax that top’s every bottle of Marker’s Mark.
The drive to the distillery was beautiful. The area of Kentucky between Louisville and Lexington is where most Bourbons – and most thoroughbred racehorses – are born. As you drive through the rolling hills (yeah, I expected it to be flat as a pancake too), you start seeing these large, distinctive warehouses dotting the countryside. These are the rickhouses, where the Bourbon is sent to age in new, charred, oak barrels for at least 2 years and on average 3-4 years, though some Bourbons are aged even longer, upwards of 15 to 20 years.
Maker’s Mark Distillery
Maker’s isn’t my favorite Bourbon even though the distillery tour is great. The free guided tours depart several times throughout the day and take you through the original buildings that the founders lived in, in to see the mash fermenting, past the copper stills, and to the bottling line. Seeing the bottling line, where they also dip the bottles in red wax for the seal was pretty cool. Hand. dipped. We got a little giddy.
At the distillery, they have a small rickhouse but most of their Bourbon is aged in rickhouses spread around the countryside. You can spot the rickhouses that belong to Maker’s Mark because they are painted a deep brown color, nearly black, with red trim. Most of the buildings at the distillery are also painted with this striking theme.
If you join the Ambassador’s Club (it’s free), you can get your name (along with a dozen or so others) on a barrel of Maker’s Mark and they will send you updates on the aging of your barrel. Then, when the barrel is ready to be bottled, you will be notified and can purchase a bottle of Maker’s Mark from your batch. We met some ambassadors on our tour and they said they have also been sent free swag. So I signed up.
Maker’s is a single barrel Bourbon. This means that all the Bourbon in one bottle comes from the same barrel. No blending. This isn’t to say that blending is bad. In fact, like wines, blending can actually result in a superior product. It’s all personal preference. Maker’s Mark doesn’t say exactly how long their Bourbon is aged however, but it is labeled Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, which means it cannot be aged more than four years. Some Bourbon’s tout exactly how long they’ve been aged while others wait until it matches their signature taste. Again – it’s personal preference.
How It’s Made
The tour was really informative and definitely educated us further on the Bourbon making process.
First, the grain is mashed and cooked with water. This must be at least 51% corn. The rest is usually a combination of wheat and rye. The exact proportion is up to each distillery, but as long as they use at least 51% corn, it is still on its way to becoming Bourbon.
After the mash has cooled, the yeast is added. This mixture then ferments for 3 to 4 days. At Maker’s this is done in large, open, wood vats. You should have smelled this place. It was like fresh-baked bread washed down with beer. This must be where carbs go to die. Or get eaten. By yeast.
After the mash has fermented, it is distilled. The old copper stills at Maker’s are beautiful. During distillation the alcohol is separated from the mash by heating the mash and collecting the vapor through a series of stills. Most Bourbon is distilled twice (other spirits, like Vodka may be distilled three or more times to increase the purity and alcohol content). We are still on our way to Bourbon, but at this point, it’s a clear distillatr known as “white dog.” Funnily enough, the week after we visited Kentucky, the New York Times had an article about the increasing popularity of White Dog. We tasted it once, but I still prefer Bourbon. For that though, you have to wait.
The White Dog is put into new, charred, oak barrels and sent to the rickhouses to age. The reason charred oak barrels are used is interesting…but we didn’t learn about it at Maker’s, so I’ll explain why later.
What we did learn is that rickhouses are usually 6 or 7 stories and are not temperature controlled. The barrels are rotated throughout the aging process, since the top of the rickhouse is often much hotter than the ground level. The Bourbon also evaporates during the 3-4 years it is aged. As much as 10% may be lost, but this is referred to as the “angel’s share,” so I guess we can’t complain too much.
Finally, each distillery’s team of tasters and distillers tastes from the Bourbon barrels throughout the aging process until it matches the signature taste (or age requirement) of that distillery. And then, it’s time to bottle.
This was definitely a highlight of the tour. Anytime I see a bottling line, I start humming the Laverne & Shirley theme song. You know the one, “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 Schlemiel! Schlimazel! Hasenpfeffer Incorporated!” And I want to stick a glove on top of a passing bottle.
They were keeping a close eye on us though, especially because of THE HOT WAX.
That’s the final step. After the mash has been made, fermented and distilled. And the barrels of White Dog have been aged (and rotated!), and the angels have had their share. Finally, Maker’s Mark Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey is put into bottles, capped and slapped with a label and dipped into a vat of VERY HOT WAX and sent to a booze store or bar near you.
Soon, very soon, I will tell you about the other six distilleries we visited, why Maker’s is not my favorite Bourbon (it’s personal preference, sheesh) and why in God’s name they use charred oak barrels. Read Part 3 of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
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