Editor’s Note: Watching the bourbon boom unfold from our HQ in New York, we’ve had a lot of questions. How can a spirit go from the hand of every white collar on Wall Street to a “low-class” spirit, then have another renaissance with bottles worth over $5,000, all in a few decades? And more immediately: Who drinks the stuff? How do they drink it? Why? And why are some of them so goddamn pretentious about it? We figured the best way to get to the bottom of this was to head to the Bluegrass State with a few cameras, some notebooks and clean livers for five days of Kentucky scenery, friendly locals and distillery tours. Here’s yet another update to our investigation, following our play-by-play of day one, day two,, day four and day five.
Leisurely sipping coffee on the porch of the Beaumont Inn was the clear thing to do, but our time was short. We had three distilleries to hit before noon on the way to Lexington. Wilderness Trail in Danville (or was it Wilderness Trace?) was our first stop. We drove past picturesque Centre College, whose Colonel Mascot is a dead ringer for Ted Turner, before finding the nondescript parking lot. The lab coats, microscopes and centrifuges we found inside looked right out of the dinosaur egg scene in Jurassic Park. The question came: what kind of a bourbon distillery is this? It turns out WT’s parent company, Ferm Solution, is a research and engineering service provider for the alcohol business. In other words: they help optimize the fermentation process for both distillers and producers of fuel alcohol. The team at WT applies the same scientific approach to their small distilling operation housed in a single warehouse, opting for the older “sweet mash” process over the “sour mash” methods used by most these days. We’d already seen distilleries making 1,000 barrels. Wilderness Trail is producing around one a week — and none of it is old enough to taste yet (#sadface). Thankfully, their Harvest Sorghum Rum and Blue Herron Vodka were.
Getting the upstart perspective was insightful, but we had a 30-minute drive ahead of us — to Lawrenceburg, home of Four Roses. Along the way, we spotted tobacco drying in garages, horses roaming in fields and liquor stores every quarter mile. We were officially in Kentucky! The look of Four Roses, though, wasn’t what were were expecting. The yellow walls and red roofs looked like a Southern Cali shopping mall. Chief Operating Officer John Rhea walked us through their entire process and what makes Four Roses unique: They produce a whopping 10 different bourbon recipes on site, made from two different mash bills and five different yeasts, all of which are mingled into one of the best-value bourbons on the planet, Four Roses Yellow Label. They’re all identified by unique four-letter OS codes, like OBSK or OBSV, indicating the mash bill used as well as the yeast.
The rain that threatened us all day finally came in torrents. I ran out and grabbed the car to pick up Sung and Travis under the overhang. Talk about being a good boss.
Our itinerary never left time for lunch. We dreamed of cheesy potato casserole and wooden toys as we hauled past Cracker Barrel and settled for Sonic. Travis, the wisest among us, chose tater tots. Bastard.
We should have guessed that things were off when the guard approached and asked us to roll down the window at the security gate. Wild Turkey’s massive distillery was directly behind him. “Who are you here to see?” he asked, clipboard in hand. “Wild Turkey”, I said sheepishly. He motioned to the road behind us: “the visitor’s center’s back that way.” The place looked brand new, and we soon learned that it was. They had no record of us on the schedule and panic set in. Eventually we were put on a basic tour (#sadface). The whole turning-corn-into-whiskey scene was getting repetitive at this point. We tried some Wild Turkey Diamond Anniversary during the tasting while marveling at the bridge and river valley below. The rain had mercifully stopped, but the skies were still grey.
On the road to Lexington we stopped to let Sung shoot a video on a train bridge and seriously contemplated driving off as a practical joke. (We didn’t.)
We arrived at the Gratz Park Inn and checked in. It was the first chance we had to powwow about footage and story lines since we’d arrive in Kentucky.
The temperature dropped significantly and we decided to drive the seven blocks or so to Enoteca. Tapas in Lexington was bound to be interesting. Slick decor and hip hop instrumentals met us at the door. We ordered chorizo puffs, beef empanadas, Brussels sprouts and a plate of meat and cheese. It was all delicious. Travis and Sung nursed beers. Owner Seth Brewer introduced himself. We wound up chatting for a few hours more. He was smart, knowledgable and friendly — like nearly everyone else we had met in the state.
We asked for his perspective on the boom and the various sales pitches we had heard at each distillery. He shared some unbiased thoughts. Soon he pushed two pours of Four Roses Single Barrel in front of us that he’d helped select for bottling. They sat right next to each other in the warehouse and contained the exact same juice, were put into the barrel on the same day, yet still tasted completely different. Then he pulled out a mason jar of brown liquid. The contents came from an empty Blanton’s barrel he had purchased. He noticed whiskey that was still in the wood, pooling at the bottom; the jar essentially contained barrel-proof Blanton’s, which is only available in Japan. We drank it. Moments like this are why we came here.