Kentucky: A Father & Son’s Journey To The Land Of Bourbon
Maybe it was the Visa Commercials with all of those “Priceless” experiences in their ads that inspired us. It was time for my father and I to have one of those “Priceless” experiences. This was a big milestone year for the both of us as he was turning 70 and I was finally turning 40. I was not going down without a fight or someway to remember this momentous occasion. Father’s and sons can be very similar and very different from who they are going to vote for, where they want to live, their profession etc…Though my father and I always had a mutual passion for good whiskey and college football. What better place to experience that than a trip to the epicenter of American Whiskey Bardstown, Kentucky and to go to a great college football game in nearby Louisville.
With easy cajoling of our wives we were given permission to spend four nights away with each other and away from our families. Fortunately our wives also understand the importance of such a trip and what it would mean to the both of us. I also received our esteemed Editor In Chief blessing as he understood the value of such a trip as he and his brothers also share their love of whiskey with their dad. So here is the quick and dirty of our trip on Bourbon Trail.
Heaven Hill Distillery
The Heaven Hill Distillery has been making great whiskey since the end of Prohibition. The Heaven Hill Distillery is located a short distance from the center of Bardstown. The distillery runs a renovated trolley bus throughout the year picking visitors up in downtown Bardstown with the final stop the Bourbon Heritage Center. The Bourbon Heritage Center is filled with images and pieces of the history from bourbons humble start to the amazing international growth it has experienced over the years. There are tours running daily that include a very informative movie adjoining the Heritage Center. One of the highlights of the tour is the visit to their beautiful tasting room. The tasting room is a wonderfully crafted wood paneled large circular room with incredible acoustics. It is a marvel to behold.
As I explained the reason for my trip down to Bardstown with my Dad to our guide Larry Kass of Heaven Hill he said “We like Father and Son experiences”. This makes all the more sense where you look at the history of Heaven Hill. Originally started by the 5 Shapira brothers at the end of prohibition the family ownership continues on today and is now the largest independent family owned spirits manufacturer and marketer in the United States. Though to make their great bourbons you also need a master distiller with great lineage such as Parker Beam. Parker took over the reigns from his father Earl several decades ago and now Parker Beam’s son Craig Beam is also now a Master Distiller at Heaven Hill.
It is simply the largest bourbon distiller and owner of bourbon casks in the world. My dad and I were amazed of the size of their operation. Only by standing next to the conveyor belts and watching the bottling operation going full speed do you realize how many bourbon drinkers are out there in the world. The open public tour starts and ends at your speed. There is the Noe house lovingly restored giving you the opportunity to taste one of Beams fine bourbons. Try one from the Small Batch collection such as a Bookers or Knob Creek if you never had one of these before. Also check out the restored small distillery that was probably created during the days when one wanted to keep the Revenue Agents in the dark.
It is also wonderful to see the statue of Booker Noe at the distillery. Booker was such a terrific warm hearted man who made great bourbon and is missed by me and my Dad. Today his son Fred Noe carries on the tradition as a Master Distiller and his portrait has been recently added to the Beam Label.
Before we left the Jim Beam Distillery for Makers Mark everyone at Beam told us you will feel like you are driving towards the middle of nowhere before you suddenly arrive at Makers Mark. So even though we had GPS in our rental car we felt we were in the middle of nowhere on a one lane road passing small tobacco farms looking for a distillery like Revenue Agents of years past. Though when you get there you realize why this distillery is so special.
The distillery is what I always envisioned a distillery to look like in the low hills of Kentucky. It is as if time has stood still since the Samuels started Makers Mark many decades ago. At Makers Mark they have lovingly restored the Samuel’s home to what it would have looked like in the 1950’s when Mrs. Samuels had the idea of dipping the bottle into the red wax in the kitchen. Though the real treat for my dad and I was entering the “Still House” where you see the antique roller mill that crushes the grain to the adjoining fermentation room where the large cypress vats are filled with the sour mash. You also have the opportunity to visit the Rick House and see the rows of barrels just waiting to be tapped. Also check out the collector bottles that Makers Mark has created for worthwhile charities and special events such as the Kentucky Derby.
A highlight of the tour came at the end. When you enter their gift shop after visiting the Rick House you have the opportunity if you are a member of Makers Mark Ambassador program to dip your own bottle of Makers Mark into a hot tub of red wax. The gift shop employees encourage a little competition on how well you do it and how many lines of wax comes down from the top(I beat my Dad). My son got a huge thrill of me coming home with my own wax dipped bottle.
I must admit I knew little about Four Roses before I visited the distillery. Glen our esteemed spirits guru came back from the last Bourbon Festival(A must to go to in September) raving about this distillery and that I needed to bring home some bottles for him. After an expansive tour of the distillery by the knowledgeable Al Young Head of Distillery Operations did my father and I leave with a better appreciation of Four Roses.
Four Roses has a unique history and series of owners. It was one of six legal distilleries allowed to produce bourbon during Prohibition. After Seagrams purchased the distillery in the 1940’s most of the Four Roses bourbon went overseas to Europe and Asia. Not until the Japanese company Kirin Brewery bought Four Roses in 2002 did the focus of this Spanish Mission Styled distillery that is listed with National Historic Registry redirect its focus to the US market. Trust me when I say we are grateful for this.
The distillery is located a short distance from the state capitol and it is not worth the drive thru downtown Frankfort. The only reason we were in downtown was in search of a decent restaurant after visiting Four Roses before heading to Buffalo Trace. It is not a good idea to arrive at the second distillery of the day on an empty stomach. We had a nice lunch at a restaurant down the road from Buffalo Trace called Jim’s Seafood which had a lovely view of the Kentucky River from its big windows.
My father and I have been huge fans of this distillery whole range from their Eagle Rare bourbon to the rare whiskies of George T. Stagg, Sazerac Rye, Handy etc…Whenever I travel overseas on business I always bring a Stagg or a Sazerac with me for friends to sample as everyone has heard about it but few have tasted it. It is worth the fishing expedition to find one.
The distillery itself is set along the Kentucky River. It has a nostalgic feel as if time has stood still at another great distillery. As you enter the gift shop/tour entrance you are able to see their large collection of bourbon memorabilia. The tour runs on the hour and throughout the year. Walk along the grounds and marvel at the brick buildings and see the workers work the same way their fathers did when they worked at this distillery.
You may have heard of the Versailles in France for its famous royal palace but after visiting Versailles, Kentucky you will know of the famous bourbon distillery called Woodford Reserve. As you turn off the major road you really know that you are in the blue grass state and especially in horse country. You drive along a long winding road past charming horse farms and stables with thoroughbred horses grazing in the fields. Then when you pull into Woodford Reserve parking lot you understand that the distillery is in harmony with the countryside and its neighbors.
Brown Forman resurrected the old stone buildings that now house Woodford Reserve many years ago with painstaking effort. Many of the original personnel from that resurrection time are still at the distillery today. The employee’s passion for its bourbon is expressed throughout the tour from the exhibit hall in the guest house to the tour itself through the distillery. If Uncle Sam is giving you a lot back this season you can inquire about the Woodford Reserve Single Barrel program and the process of picking your own cask
After visiting all of those wonderful distilleries we almost forgot the other reason why we came down to Bourbon Country. Louisville where we flew into which is 45 minutes from Bardstown is also the home of Louisville University which had a thriller of football game the previous year against Rutgers University on Thursday Night ESPN. In fact that game was the third highest watched college football game in Cable History. This time it was Louisville time to host and the loyal Rutgers fans that we are were there to root our team on. Unfortunately Rutgers lost but the pre game and during game festivities helped alleviate the pain.
One of the great traits of the people who work in the bourbon industry is their genuine hospitality. On that night we were able to join Kris Comstock and the rest of the gang of Buffalo Trace at its pre game tailgate party. Since I am geographically challenged sometimes I didn’t realize that Cincinnati is close to Louisville and its famous chili. We also went to the game with Hunter Chavanne who was smart enough to marry into the Kentucky Bourbon Distillery family and he was generous enough to bring along their acclaimed Vintage Rye’s. This of course was all consumed for the good of this article.
The trip allowed my father and I to really share some great experiences together. Traveling along the Bourbon Trail we learned a lot about each other. Hopefully one day the Bourbon Trail will give the Sonoma & Napa Valley people a run for their money. Today visitors can go and sample the Bourbon Ale on tap at The Old Talbott Tavern in downtown Bardstown. Then they should dine on the pan fried southern chicken at Kurtz Restaurant that has been family owned since 1937. The recipes haven’t changed nor has the southern hospitality. Bardstown overall is a worthy destination for all.
This was the first time my father and I as adults ever made took this type of lengthy trip together. With all of the flights, meals together and drives to the different distilleries you realize that you are Father and Son. As they say on TV….The trip together was “Priceless”. Hopefully it won’t be the last. Scotland anyone?