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On the Bourbon Trail

Sunday, September 25th, 2011 at 2:53pm

Mother and son trek through Kentucky’s fine distilleries

I was anxious about this trip; a three-day drive to Philadelphia with my 32-year-old son, Adam, in his very packed Toyota Corolla. I hadn’t spent that much time alone with him in years and was concerned about how we’d survive this mother-son bonding experience.

But when I offered to drive with him, and he surprisingly said yes, I knew I had to find a memorable event to break up the drive. That break was a day on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.

Lexington, Ky. was just a slight detour off the fastest route east. When we pulled into the historic Gratz Park Inn, we were surrounded by southern hospitality. A day of bourbon and bluegrass sounded pretty good.

The Kentucky Bourbon Trail, often deemed “the New Napa Valley,” was established in 1999, mimicking the successful tourism and marketing opportunities in California’s wine country. Today, as bourbon is undergoing a remarkable renaissance in America because of the popularity of small-batch and single-barrel offerings, the Bourbon Trail has become one of the state’s most famous and fastestgrowing tourism attractions.

Winding through lush rolling bluegrass hills punctuated by white fenced horse farms, the scenic byway for the trail is as Kentucky as its bourbon. There are six distilleries on the Bourbon Trail between Louisville and Lexington. We visited three: Woodford Reserve, Wild Turkey and Four Roses. Without a doubt, tasting the honey-colored elixir of America’s only native spirit (as declared by Congress) is one heck of a way to start the day.

A tasty history

According to the Kentucky Distiller’s Association, bourbon became king out of necessity. Getting crops over narrow trails and steep mountains was a daunting task. By converting corn and other grains to whiskey, farmers found the crops became easily transportable, preventing their excess grain from rotting.

The name bourbon came from one of the original counties. Whiskey was shipped in oak barrels stamped from Bourbon down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans. The long trip aged the whiskey with the oak wood, giving it the distinct mellow flavor and amber color.

Woodford Reserve, the oldest distillery in Kentucky, traces its roots to 1797 where the sour mash process was born. The smell of fermenting corn bubbling from giant tubs wafts through the air as our tour begins through this National Historic Landmark.

The official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby, Woodford Reserve is a premium smallbatch bourbon distillery. Plant manager Todd Roe takes us through their triple distilling process, ending with a sample directly out of the barrel, extracted by a “whiskey thief.” He explains that single-barrel whiskey is drawn from one barrel that has not been mingled with any other whiskeys. Smallbatch whiskey is a product of mingling select barrels of whiskey that have matured into a specific style.

What makes Kentucky bourbon special? “The water here is filtered by a natural underground limestone aquifer,” Roe explains, “providing pure water to the distilling process.”

I ask the question that plagues many a bourbon discussion.

“What’s the best way to drink bourbon, straight up or over ice?”

“Over ice is how I like it,” he says diplomatically.

By law, bourbon must be made with a minimum of 51 percent but no more than 80 percent corn and aged in new oak barrels that have been charred. The mix of the grain recipe, or “mash bill” — corn, rye and barley, along with various yeasts — the toasting of the oak barrel and the time of aging in the barrel distinguishes each bourbon. But even with all of today’s technology, it’s still the human touch — the “nose” of the master distiller — that determines every stage of the process.

Family affair

It’s not often one meets a legend, but master distiller Jimmy Russell is a legend in Kentucky bourbon, with a 57-year career at Wild Turkey. Adam and I were privileged to have him as our guide. At first blush, Russell comes across as a friendly good old boy, but we quickly realize there’s nothing that goes past Jimmy Russell when it comes to the business of making good bourbon.

His grandfather and father were both in the distillery business. His son, Eddie, 51, who started rolling barrels for a summer job during college, is now the associate master distiller.

“The biggest changes have been in the equipment, but the process is still the same,” says Russell. “When I first started, bourbon was a gentleman’s drink, associated with cigars and back-room card playing. Now it’s a worldwide drink. In Japan, it’s very prestigious, and in Australia, bourbon is associated with fun.”

Father and son Russell have developed “Russell’s Reserve,” a 10-year-old small-batch bourbon to complement Wild Turkey’s 14 distinct products. They were both heavily involved in the distillery’s recently opened $60 million plant, one of the most ambitious projects in western Kentucky.

Our last stop was at Four Roses Distillery, housed in a gorgeous 1910 Spanishmission style. It combines five yeast strains and two separate mash bills to produce 10 distinct bourbon recipes. Four Roses was recently named Whiskey Magazine’s Distillery of the Year.

Brand ambassador Al Young has set up a unique tasting for us that makes it easier to understand the process. We taste the plain alcohol or “mad dog” and then taste how yeasts and aging change the flavors. We taste the difference between the single barrel and small batch. I like the single barrel. Adam prefers the small batch.

Young smiles. “We’ve found the tastes are gender-based. Women prefer the single barrel, men the small batch.”

There is so much to learn about bourbon; its appearance, nose, taste and finish. Most importantly, we learned that the Bourbon Trail made for a spirited stop on our journey, and a trip this mother and son will always toast with a smile. If you go

Learn about the distilling process from Wild Turkey master distiller Jimmy Russell: www.wildturkey. com





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