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G9 Travel Guide: 24 Hours in Kentucky Bourbon Country

May 7, 2012

This weekend Americans were blessed to celebrate not only Cinco de Mayo, but also the 138th running of the Kentucky Derby. We didn’t visit Mexico on our cross-country tour, however we did make a pilgrimage to bourbon country. Our first stop was Woodford Reserve, which happens to be the official bourbon of the “Run for the Roses” and is featured in the rather exclusive $1,000 Mint Julep Cup recipe.

Elijah Pepper started distilling bourbon on Woodford Reserve’s site in 1797, making it the oldest distillery in Kentucky. Its low-volume, small-batch operation is also the smallest in the state. The only bourbon produced from a triple distillation in copper pot stills, Woodford reserve distinguishes itself from other bourbons with its spicy character.  We toured the historic grounds and learned about each aspect of the bourbon-making process, from grain selection to bottling.

Stepping into the first building we were greeted by the aroma of freshly baked bread wafting from three 7,500 gallon cypress fermenting tanks. Here our tour guide explained what bourbon is (51% corn; aged in new, charred-oak barrels; distilled to no higher than 160 proof; barreled at no higher than 125 proof; bottled at no less than 80 proof) and how Woodford sets itself apart from other bourbons (it’s in the rye percentage, 18% giving it the nice feisty quality).

Next we checked out the three massive copper pot stills, custom-made for Woodford in Rothes, Scotland. Using these goose-necked steampunk contraptions is somewhat unconventional for whiskey, but they are known to produce a thicker- textured, more nuanced spirit than the typical column still. When the clear liquid exits the final still, the “new make” is ready to be barreled at 158 proof.

Once the toasted, fired barrels are filled, they roll down a track to the rick house, where the spirit will mature for several years.  It’s during this resting period that white dog whiskey makes the transition to Kentucky bourbon.  The summertime heat expands the whiskey, pushing it into the charred layers of white oak.  During winter the cold weather draws the liquid back into the barrel.  These cycles give bourbon its characteristic color, flavors and aromas.

Master distiller Chris Morris samples the casks throughout the aging process and eventually gives word to send a barrel on to the final step, bottling.  The operation is small but efficient, about seven people interacting with the automated equipment to cork, seal and box the precious spirit.

At the end of the tour we sampled two of Woodford’s offerings, its flagship whiskey and a new twice-barreled version, as well as some boozy bourbon balls.  The Double Oaked bourbon was a nice counterpoint to the standard, already delicious Woodford Reserve.  It undergoes a second maturation in deeply toasted, lightly charred casks that brings out more pronounced notes of honey, chocolate and spiced apple.

Stay tuned for part two of our bourbon country tour when we cover Frankfort’s Buffalo Trace distillery.  In the meantime, why not relax with a fine mint julep and toast to I’ll Have Another’s come-from-behind victory.

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