Bourbon Mash and Birthday Bash

Getting myself down from the skinny green branches of the “tree” that is New England did not come easily to me.  As I sat on the edge of Maine’s Long Lake pondering my next move, I changed my mind almost hourly as to which direction I would take.  My overwhelming urge was to make a B-line back to the comfort of the Great Southwest as quickly as possible…almost as if I felt guilt from two-timing on a summer fling.   I could take a shortcut straight across the Great Lakes, even re-entering Canada for a part of the journey.  But family matters dictated a more southerly route through Texas.  And since I am nearing my annual winter migration across the border, it only made sense.

But that still left me with too many options.  I could hug the east coast getting in some much needed beach time at the Outer Banks.  Or maybe explore the Florida panhandle before the flock of snowbirds descend.  Maybe even swing through for a stop in New Orleans, a city I called home back in the early 80’s.  But it seemed one by one as I would set my sights on a destination, so would Mother Nature.  With each new strategy, I felt like I was facing off in a wrestling match to see who could get there first; me versus hurricanes Irma, Maria, then Nate.

My challenge was compounded by the rapidly approaching red letter day on my own personal calendar, my birthday.  Turning a year older while on the road always presents a separate set of challenges for a solo traveler, finding the balance between making memories with friends, versus feeling like the Simon & Garfunkel lyric, “I am an iiiisland.”  Add to that my own self-imposed pressure to do something memorable on each birthday, and I am faced with the conundrum — do I try to time a visit to be with friends, or pick a bucket list stop along the way?  In looking diagonally across the map from Maine to Texas, the Kentucky Bourbon Trail is out of the hurricane path, but directly in mine.

Lexington is surrounded by beautiful rolling green horse farms.

Lexington is surrounded by beautiful rolling green horse farms.

Buffalo Trace Distillery

Buffalo Trace Distillery, Frankfort, KY

Barrels roll on rales alongside warehouses.

Barrels roll on rails alongside warehouses.

I’ve long been a fan of bourbon, developing an affinity for the Manhattan cocktail back in the early 90’s as a resident of its namesake.  Couple that with the recent trend in everything “bourbon-barreled” from BBQ sauce to beer, all to my liking, and a stop along Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail seems like the perfect place to celebrate another year closer to Medicare.

I target three distilleries for my tour based on personal taste.  I would base myself at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, a beautiful expansive working horse farm and RV park in the quintessential rolling hills of Kentucky blue grass.  After a summer of solid boondocking and a weather forecast that calls for constant clouds and solar-robbing rain, I treat myself to a site with hookups. In close proximity are two of my targeted destinations, Buffalo Trace and Woodford Reserve, with the more distant Maker’s Mark along the way to my next stop, Louisville.

Multilevel warehouses store over 5 million barrels of bourbon.

Multilevel warehouses store over 5 million barrels of bourbon throughout Kentucky.

This display shows what happens to bourbon in the barrels upon entry, after four years, nine years, and eighteen years of evaporation. The alcohol emitted into the air is called the "Angel's Share."

This display shows what happens to bourbon in the barrels upon entry, after four years, nine years, and eighteen years of evaporation. The alcohol emitted into the air is called the “Angel’s Share.”

Bourbon brands require a lot of trial and error, with ongoing tasting through the aging process.

Bourbon brands require a lot of trial and error, with ongoing tasting through the aging process.

Of the three distilleries, by far the longest aged and most expensive was Buffalo Trace's "Pappy Van Winkle" aged for 23 years, with a price tag that can bring up into the thousands.

Of the three distilleries, by far the longest aged and most expensive was Buffalo Trace’s “Pappy Van Winkle” aged for 23 years, with a price tag that can bring up into the thousands.

"White Dog," which is the clear distillate before it goes into the oak bottle for aging.

“White Dog,” which is the clear distillate before it goes into the oak bottle for aging.

Buffalo Trace Bourbon Tasting

Buffalo Trace Bourbon Tasting

There are 10 distilleries along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, each offering tours of approximately one hour in length and ranging from complimentary to $15 per person.  Bourbon is currently riding a trend with production being up over 20% providing a boon to local tourism, so one is advised to either book a tour ahead online, or be prepared for a wait. Or travel solo.  One of the benefits of being an “island” is there always seems to be room for one more.  😉

Woodford Reserve is the smallest distillery on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.

Woodford Reserve is the smallest distillery on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.

Grounds of Woodford Reserve distillery

Grounds of Woodford Reserve distillery

Another "barrel roll."

Another “barrel roll.”

Distillery tours all pretty much start and end the same, beginning with the opening line, “All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon,” and ending with a rush to claim a seat at the tasting table. What falls in between varies by distillery, with the scale falling somewhere between entertainment and education.

Fermentation vats

Fermentation vats containing the sour mash

These cyprus fermentation vats are two stories deep.

These cyprus fermentation vats are two stories deep.

The turbulence in the vat is caused soley by the yeast fermenting. If you put your hand over the mixture, you can feel heat rising.

This turbulent boiling and bubbling is caused solely by the yeast fermenting. If you put your hand over the mixture, you can feel heat rising from the natural process.

In order for whiskey to be labeled as “bourbon,” it must meet five criteria;

1.) Contain 51% corn (all three distilleries I toured use above 70%, with the remaining grains being a combination of rye, wheat, and malted barley.)
2.) Made in the USA
3.) Contain no added flavorings
4.) Distilled to no more than 160 proof (80% alcohol by volume)
5.) Aged in new, charred oak barrels

Woodford Reserve differentiates itself by distilling in three copper pot stills, whereas others use only a two-step process.

Woodford Reserve differentiates itself by distilling in three copper pot stills, whereas others use only a two-step process.

Barrels are filled, then rolled out on the rails for transport to the warehouse.

Barrels are filled, then rolled out on the rails for transport to the warehouse.

Bottling room bottles approx 100 bottles per hour.

Bottling room bottles approx 100 bottles per hour.

The tour guides will also tell you Kentucky Bourbon has everything to do with the limestone-filtered water of Kentucky, absent of all traces of iron, a true taste killer.  Ninety-five percent of all bourbon is distilled within 90 miles due to this purity of the water source.

Kentucky’s fluctuating temperatures also contribute to successful aging, as 60% of the flavor and 100% of the color comes from the charred insides of the oak barrels.  Warm, steamy summers and cold winters in drafty warehouses cause the wood to contract and expand frequently, allowing the distillate to penetrate into the oak. There are currently over five million barrels of bourbon aging in Kentucky, exceeding the number of people living in the state.

Woodford Reserve tasting. All three distilleries include chocolate covered bourbon balls. The chocolate accentuates the spiciness of the bourbon.

Woodford Reserve tasting. All three distilleries include chocolate covered bourbon balls. The chocolate accentuates the spiciness of the bourbon.

Woodford's "Double Oaked" has staves added to the barrel for a second aging process.

Woodford’s “Double Oaked” has staves added to the barrel for a second aging process.

Aromatic Bitters to compliment the cocktail.

Aromatic Bitters to compliment the cocktail.

Although other spirits can come from these Kentucky distilleries, when it comes to brands of bourbon, it’s all about the barrel. The type of oak, charring process, and time in the barrel all contributes to the added flavors that turns the clear distillate, “white dog” (tastes like Everclear) into that distinctly smooth, aromatic caramel-colored spirit filled with the essence of woody earthiness and sweet spice.   New American Oak barrels undergo a charring process which brings out the caramelization of the sugars in the wood.   Some cooperages enhance this process by “toasting” the inside of the barrel first with infrared light.  The aging process draws flavors from the caramelized sugars in the toasted oak.

Once the aging process is complete (minimum of two years) some distillers add their own signature flavor by opening up the barrel after the first maturation and adding “staves,” slats of American or French Oak in various degrees of char for a period of additional aging. Barrels cannot be reused for bourbon, so they are sold to beer and food companies for production of “bourbon-barrel aged” products.

Arriving at Maker's Mark

Arriving at Maker’s Mark

Two step copper still process.

Two step copper still process.

This cellar is refrigerated to simulate winter temperatures to speed the aging process.

This cellar is refrigerated to simulate winter temperatures to speed the aging process.

All Maker's Mark bottles are hand dipped into their signature red sealing wax (though it's really plastic that melts at over 300 degrees.

All Maker’s Mark bottles are hand dipped into their signature red sealing wax (though it’s really plastic with a 300+ degree melting point.)

Here are a few observations from my three tours:

Buffalo Trace— Situated alongside the Kentucky river, Buffalo Trace has been producing bourbon for over 200 years. It’s the oldest continually operating distillery in America, maintaining operations even through prohibition.  This distillery had the most “urban” feel of the three I visited with its tall brick warehouses and heavily trafficked streets with bourbon barrels being transported on rails down a three story chute onto trucks for transport.  It was also the busiest, as the mid-day tour was so well attended, the group had to be split.

Woodford Reserve –This distillery offers a smaller, more intimate experience, with cozy touches such as fireplaces in the waiting and tasting rooms, and a resident cat lying lazily on the porch.  Woodford Reserve prides itself on a unique three-step distilling process in its copper pot stills.  They boast 212 “delectable flavors” in their bourbon, and provide a flavor wheel during the tasting to help participants hone their palates.

Maker’s Mark –  Located in Loretto, KY, 65 miles from Lexington. it’s the first distillery to be recognized as a National Historic Landmark while in active production.  This distillery makes a good day trip from Lexington, or as an intermediate stop on the way to Louisville.  Though Maker’s parent company, Beam, Inc. was recently acquired the third largest beverage company in the world, Suntory Holdings of Japan, the distillery manages to maintain its “small batch” family style atmosphere.  If you are interested in shopping for “bourbon bling,” save your spending spree for Maker’s Mark, the largest and most well appointed gift shop of the distilleries I visited where one can find any number of items sporting the signature “red wax dip.”  Of course, I can’t pass up the chance to dip my own bottle of “46” for my signature drip in the shiny red hot wax!

Maker's Mark distillery was designated as a National Historic Site in 1974, the first distillery to receive this distinction.

Maker’s Mark distillery was designated as a National Historic Site in 1974, the first distillery to receive this distinction.

The grounds of Maker's Mark are beautiful...

The grounds of Maker’s Mark are beautiful…

Chihuly blown glass pieces are placed throughout the grounds.

I have the good fortune to visit during the Chihuly blown glass exhibit, with stunning pieces placed throughout the grounds.

The exhibit runs through 3rd December.

The exhibit runs through 3rd December.

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This Chihuly art piece is behind glass on the ceiling. The piece contains four angels to represent the "angel's share." One can be seen in this section.

This Chihuly art piece is behind glass on the ceiling. The piece contains four angels to represent the “angel’s share.” One can be seen in this section. Can you spot her? Yellow, just to the left of center.

For me, the most delightful aspect of touring distilleries along the Bourbon Trail is the wonderful aromas that vary with each stop along the tour. Having toured wineries and breweries in the past, I knew there would be distinct aromas wafting through the warehouse, but in the bourbon distilleries, they are downright intoxicating. 😉 First entering the area where corn is first cooked, it smells like Mom’s hot cornbread in the oven for Thanksgiving dressing. Further along, the yeast in the fermentation process makes me salivate for homemade bread. Once in the warehouse, the essence in the air is that of the “Angel’s share,” sweet, pungent alcohol that permeates through the oak barrels. And finally, the bottling room is where one smells the finished bouquet of warm caramel and spice, perking up the taste buds in eager anticipation.

The pinnacle of any distillery tour is always the tasting at the end, whereby tour participants are guided through the tasting process.  Tips are given on how to use the senses to detect distinct flavors such as citrus, maple, and butterscotch as these “notes” land from sweet at the tip of the tongue to the bitter finish at the back.

Maker's Mark tasting set-up, starting with the Maker's White clear distillate, all the way round to the Private Select.

Maker’s Mark tasting set-up, starting with the Maker’s White clear distillate, all the way round to the Private Select.

Lots of novelties for sale in the expansive Maker's Mark Gift Shop.

Lots of novelties for sale in the expansive Maker’s Mark Gift Shop.

Dipping my bottle of "46" with my own personal swirl.

Dipping my bottle of “46” with my own personal swirl.

I am grateful to those distilleries who offer RV parking, particularly Maker’s Mark.  While the other distilleries offer oversized vehicle parking assistance with a stop at the Visitor Center first, Maker’s Mark offers designated generously long pull-through spaces, perfect for waiting for the buzz to wear off.  😉

No place offers a more fitting end to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail than the famous downtown Louisville landmark, the Brown Hotel. Built in 1923, it’s Georgian Revival style is a throwback to those roaring twenties prohibition days of glitz and glamor. And if that bourbon buzz has left you with a lingering hangover, don’t miss their signature dish, the “Hot Brown,” an open-faced turkey sandwich with bacon and creamy Mornay sauce, topped with bubbling hot Parmesan cheese served straight from the oven. Originally created in 1926 to be served as a late nite supper to fuel the dancing dinner guests, it’s a stick to the ribs meal sure to soak up last nights ills.

Louisville is home to "Moonshine University" offering multiple levels of instruction from a hands on introduction to a five day distiller's course.

Louisville is home to “Moonshine University” offering multiple levels of instruction from a hands on introduction to a five day distiller’s course.

The elegant Brown Hotel

The elegant Brown Hotel

This is off-menu half order of the Hot Brown. I'd hate to see the regular order!

This is off-menu half order of the Hot Brown. I’d hate to see the regular order!

Okay, so what if I got a little carried away at the distillery gift shops?  What are birthdays for??  Besides, with two more years to go until I reach “universal healthcare,” I’m gonna need it…for “medicinal purposes.” 😉IMG_3038

“October”

Continuing on south down Hwy 100 through the long sliver of the state of Vermont, October begins to redeem itself.  For all the autumnal splendor that Montpelier and Stowe were lacking, I find in the Green Mountain National Forest of southern Vermont.  Seems the further south I drive, the more beautiful it becomes…completely contrary to my expectation for New England. Continue reading

Chlorophyll Climate Confusion

I’ve often read “If you want to learn about yourself, TRAVEL!”  But it seems the opposite is true for me.  I learn most about myself when I am immobilized.  Sitting stationary at my friend Deb’s beautiful lakeside cabin for a month spending mornings watching the waterfowl and evenings sitting on the dock listening for loons brought about a lot of introspection…a little glimpse of what my life would be like if I were to ever stop my perpetual motion.  Continue reading

Hut to Hut with the Presidents

During my years living in New York, I always felt like my life as a Manhattanite was a little different than others.  But then that’s what makes Manhattan so great! EVERYONE is “a little different.” 😉 Unlike most of my friends, my closet contained more camping and hiking gear than it did designer shoes. That should have been a clue.

I was also a proud card-carrying member of the Appalachian Mountain Club. Continue reading

At Home with the Loons

First and foremost, thanks to everyone for their very kind comments regarding my “Canadian Summer Series.”  There is nothing so gratifying to one who loves writing and photography than for someone to say “You took me there.” Every last one of your comments were a welcome companion as I charted my solo course through unfamiliar territory.

On a recent visit to the local Chinese Food take out joint, I received an amusing question in my fortune cookie Continue reading

Maritime Wrap-up: New Brunswick

So at last….it’s finally here. After thirty blog posts of my summer travels up, down and around the Atlantic side of Canada, this is my last installment…My final stop before crossing the border into Calais, Maine.

Of all four provinces visited this summer, I spent the least amount of time in New Brunswick. I feel like I slighted it in my haste. But have no regrets, for in doing so I dedicating the most time to Newfoundland. Although filled with beautiful spots, New Brunswick didn’t feel all that different than Maine. Continue reading

Maritime Wrap-up: Prince Edward Island

As I see it, there are four areas of interest in visiting Prince Edward Island. First, they are known the world over for their mussels…any seafood restaurant or raw bar worth its seasoning will at some point feature “PEI Mussels” on the chalkboard as a special of the day. The second reason is for the long expanse of beautiful red sand beaches, some of which make up PEI’s one and only National Park. The third reason to visit is if you have an odd curiosity about potato farming, as PEI produces 25% of Canada’s potatoes. And the fourth reason would be “All things Anne.” For those who may not know (myself included up until now) the 1908 novel, Anne of Green Gables, which sold 50 million copies was based on Prince Edward Island. A large museum complex bears the title. I had mild curiosity, but no one attraction was calling to me. Okay, well, maybe the mussels. Continue reading

Maritime Wrap-up: Nova Scotia

I guess it’s a “given” that leaving a place like Newfoundland is certain to bring on a bad case of ennui. After a month of glorious solitude, scenic coastal roads, and serendipitous encounters with wildlife on “The Rock,” Nova Scotia didn’t really stand a chance. Like going on an arranged date with a preppy, plaid-clad provincial boy after a painful break-up with that long-haired “bad boy” from summer vacation. Continue reading

Things We’ll Never See Unless We Walk to Them

There are two ferry options to leave Newfoundland returning to Nova Scotia.  The first is the “short ferry,” a six hour passage into Port Aux Basque on the western side, back the way I came.  Then there is the “long ferry” that leaves from the eastern side of the island.  I have decided to take the long ferry back for several reasons.  I don’t want to backtrack on the Trans Canada Highway, driving the same interior road again.   And I really enjoyed the six hour passage coming over.  I wasn’t ready to get off the ship.  It’s rare for me to get to “ride” versus “drive,” and I enjoyed watching the ocean roll by from the comfort of my reclining seat.  But most importantly, returning via the long ferry will allow me to continue on down around the Avalon Peninsula a bit further. Continue reading