The following report comes somewhat out of time. It should have been up when I visited Kentucky while traveling through the states late last July. Unfortunately I lost all my photos of the trip when I had my laptop stolen a week or so later in Oakland. Without the detail of these photos I decided, with great frustration, to abandon the reports. However, due to the diligent and generous efforts of my couch surfing host (and good friend) Corbin with whom I shared the photos at the time, I now have the photos back. So without further ado… a blast from the not to distant past.
I had never been to a Bourbon distillery (or any distillery in America for that matter) before that day we took the forty minute drive from Lexington, through Versailles, to Woodford Reserve. Corbin drove us through the lush farmland of Kentucky. The dual state signatures of horses and guns being proudly evident in the small details of signposts, banners, shop windows and the fences the decked out rolling fields and brilliant green trees. Kentucky is a state that wears its southern heritage proudly, the Derby, bluegrass, the NRA and, not least, Bourbon. But images you might have of bible thumping southern hicks should be swiftly dispelled. Though these stereotypes exist for a reason and Kentucky is a southern state through and through, the details are far finer and broader than you can imagine. My first night in Lexington was spent with Corbin and her friends cycling though the leafy dusk of the city. Corbin works in a bicycle repair shop for the university, encouraging green living and the general usefulness of cycling. We cycled through the jumble of Lexingtons old wood-paneled, porch-decked housing, shady streets and out through the fields on the outskirts of the city. Old red brick factories mingled casually with the high rise shine of the city’s center. The town is one of education with a size-able student populace, often in shared accommodation, milling to and fro between the many bars and coffee shops. That night cycling I saw fireflies for the very first time and won a prize for managing to come last in a game of horseshoes. I was undeniably proud and drank my fill in PBR to celebrate it. Looking back one of the most striking things about my time in America was the breadth and depth of southern hospitality. From New Orleans, Louisiana, though Nashville, Tennessee, Richmond, Virginia and finally Lexington, Kentucky, the people in these places were some of the most welcoming, personable and warm hearted characters you could hope to meet. Lexington only compounded the fact that there is so much more to this part of the world than the old images of bible thumping and gun slinging that we all too often hold so dear in our European minds.
In the posts I wrote while traveling last year I spent quite a bit of time discussing the heat of the south. I’m sure I will repeat myself to some extent but it is worth reminding ourselves about it here. If for no other reason than it is such an inescapable and integral part of life in this part of the world. The remorseless, drenching humidity of the afternoon is often so intense that it inhibits almost all outdoor activity between 11am and 5pm. Driving in cars without air conditioning is unthinkable and the very idea of living in this part of a world in a time before houses were air conditioned seems torturous. Of course that is the perspective of a pale blue Scottish visitor. The locals who live their whole lives in this climate grow to be accustomed over time. On the day we went to Woodford the air was as typically humid and pulpy as all the days of the summer that had gone before, the sun was beating down on the rooftops of the valley like an iron forge and to stand outside in the shade only for moments you would feel the prickling promise of sweat beading across your body. It is this environment in which the bourbons of Kentucky are made and you cannot understand the importance of this climate on their flavour until you set foot in it yourself. But I’m getting ahead of myself…
We head for the visitor’s centre and sign up for the tour which begins with a short ride in a vehicle resembling a stretch golf buggy down the steep slope to the distillery. Our guide begins in classical fashion with some history of Woodford, the most interesting factoid being that it is the oldest of the nine operating distilleries in Kentucky, the original name being Oscar Pepper Distillery. It changed to Woodford in 1993 after 25 years of mothballed silence when it was re-purchased by current owners Brown Forman. The guide mercifully leads us indoors out of the sun for the production explanations. First up is the explanation of the mashbill, something that is sadly all too alien to Scottish distilling techniques. The mashbill at Woodford is 18% rye, 10% malted barley and 72% corn, this quite rye-heavy mashbill is central to creating Woodford’s quite earthy and spice infused character. I’ve often thought it would be very interesting to do more experimentation with mashbills in Scottish distilleries, it could be quite an original way to create a single blend. I’m sure someone already has, maybe we’ll see the fruits in years to come.
As the tour progresses the one thing that really strikes me is how similar it is in many way to Scottish whisky production. All the principles are the same but the aesthetics of it all are also very close to walking round a Scottish distillery. The mash tun, the open-top, wooden washbacks (or fermentors as they would call them) and, perhaps most striking of all, the small copper pot stills with their sloping lyne arms and shell condensers. Overall it has the effect of hitting home how simple changes can create vastly different spirits.
The fermentation process in most bourbon production involves something you may have seen on the bottles called sour mash, this is the process whereby the fermentation of a fresh batch of wort is started using the fermented remnants of the last batch. The reason this process is so common in bourbon production is due to the prevalence of indigenous yeast strains at each distillery. These individual and specific yeast recipes are considered essential in flavour creation, the process of sour mashing helps to maintain consistency in this respect. At Woodford they use a surprisingly small amount of sour mash to trigger each new fermentation, possibly due to the simple fact that they employ exceptionally small washbacks. The fermentation length is by contrast one of the longest in the industry at 5-7 days. If only these kind of fermentation techniques still existed in Scotland. Oh well, ho hum.
Triple distillation is practiced at Woodford, a simple three stage distillation across three separate stills giving a resultant new make with a strength of 158 proof. The lack of a column still is quite a distinction from other bourbon distilleries and almost certainly another essential component of Woodford’s character. The viscosity of the final spirit with its oily mouth feel is no doubt aided by the copper heavy distillation regime.
To step into a bourbon warehouse is a different experience from that of a Scottish one. Firstly that dank must of dunnage is not there, instead you get a hot rush of oily woodshop, varnish and aged wood spice aromas, the smell of vanilla seems to creep in there as well. It is quite an experience, and just as the aroma of a dunnage warehouse seems to soak into so many great aged Whiskies, so too the aroma of a barrel house seems to impregnate some of the best bourbons. At Woodford one of the most important aspects of maturation is that the warehouses are temperature controlled. They say it allows them to concentrate various aspects of maturation and impose more wood influence upon the distillate. I’m sure that temperature control does afford the whiskey maker more influence over the outcome of the spirit but I am dubious as to how much and to what extent it can affect the actual quality of the bourbon. For me all spirit production should be about the facilitation of natural processes and when it comes to the mysteries of maturation, efforts to tamper with that process usually never make for better whisky/key than when the casks are left to fend for themselves in whatever environment they happen to be. Temperature control seems quite clinical next to letting the casks breath with the whim of the seasons. Some parts of whisky/key making just feel better when approached with a ‘hands-off’ attitude. This is not to say Woodford is a bad bourbon from this perspective, quite the opposite, it just feels like a bit of a shame that they don’t follow through with their otherwise commendably rustic production process. After all, when you’ve got such a naturally rigorous and potent climate, it seems a shame not to allow it to stamp its natural finger prints on your distillate.
After the warehouse we were taken to the bottling hall, this is where I had a serious strop about American drinking laws and culture in general. We were given a leisurely tour around the plant that finished by a row of full casks. The last one the tour guide opened, much to our excitement, and proceeded to draw off a sample with a valinch (or a wine thief as they call it). It was a large measure of invitingly dark, 8yo Woodford fresh from the barrel. The tour guide held on to it while telling us how he used to pass it around his tours but had to stop doing that because people would always drink it. He then gleefully threw it over his shoulder and jettisoned the liquid onto the floor. The empty, and gorgeously aromatic, glass was then dully passed around the tour. My issues with this are multiple. Firstly it was an utterly futile exercise. If the US laws are so ridiculously uptight and pathetic about alcohol in bond then just leave it where it is and don’t tempt people. What was done was a pointless stunt the served only to frustrate me and other people on the tour and to waste some perfectly good bourbon. I may seem to be over reacting but I find this kind of stupid, wasteful showmanship quite offensive. If you want to promote respect and enjoyment for your drink then don’t throw rare and expensive examples of your own product into the dust in front of a potentially impressionable audience, or at the very least put it back in the barrel. Secondly it served as a timely reminder of just how sad and ridiculous the laws surrounding alcohol still are in the states. Throwing that glass of bourbon on the floor was a perfect echo of the effects of prohibition that have damaged US drinking culture down through the decades and clearly still resounds today. In Scotland it is common practice for people to get a taste in the warehouse from a cask and maybe it is for special tours in Kentucky distilleries as well. If this is the case and this really was just a stunt for standard, everyday tours then that’s even worse. To add insult to injury, upon our return to the visitor center we were greeted with a tray of plastic shot glasses containing the standard Woodford and some chocolates. It seems that they know how to make great bourbon here but not how to encourage its enjoyment.
Having ranted my spleen out in the above paragraph I feel I should make it clear that the most important thing I took with me from Woodford was the impression that it is a spirit produced with a level of faith to historical production techniques and style that is sadly lacking in Scottish distilling culture. It is a charming, rustic and quite beautiful distillery that oozes personality (when the branding machine does not stand in its way). I only wish I could have had a more in depth look at its workings, not to mention a more in depth tasting of its wares. Hopefully that is something we will be able to remedy sooner rather than later, although shamefully not on these pages today. If you are in Kentucky and have the opportunity I would urge you to go and visit Woodford, as well as the other great distilleries there. If you like whisky and know some Scottish distilleries, you will be surprised by how much the experience informs your appreciation and knowledge of Scottish distilling.
Thanks once again are due to Corbin for making the effort to get me these photos back. If you’re ever in Lexington then go and borrow one of her wonderful bikes and support what they do: http://www.sustainability.uky.edu/node/115
Next up… Buffalo Trace