Tale tales and tastings on the Whiskey Trail

William M. Dowd photos

This statue of Booker Noe, legendary master distiller and grandson of Jim Beam, holds a place of honor 
on the main lawn at the Jim Beam Distillery in Lynchburg, TN.

The Labrot & Graham Distillery has something probably no other bourbon maker can boast about.

No, not the copper pot stills. True, they are reputedly the only such devices among the nation's bourbon distillers, handcrafted in Scotland by A. Forsyth & Son Ltd. And, no, not the fact that the distillery's Woodford Reserve bourbon is the only triple distilled bourbon made in Kentucky.

Master distiller Chris Morris
What it also has is a grave containing a human torso buried with two legs, three thumbs and no head.

The missing head was the result of an industrial accident; the extra thumb came from a distillery worker who lost it in an accident, didn't think there was much sense keeping it in his pocket, and tossed it into the grave before it was covered up. That, at least, is the gist of the way master distiller Chris Morris  tells the tale. No doubt an archaeologist in the far distant future is going to have some strange thoughts after happening on this site. And, don't even get me started on the ghost of the girl who died in a fire in the big house on the hill.

Woodford Reserve, named for the county in which its tiny hometown of Versailles (pronounced ver-sails, rather than the French vehr-sigh from which the name is taken) is located, is only the latest name for the facility that lays claim to the title of Kentucky's oldest bourbon distillery. It has been that since 2003, although the Labrot & Graham name that preceded it still is alive in some aspects of the operation.

It is located in the heart of Kentucky's famed Bluegrass country and maintains a relationship with the thoroughbred horse racing community through various business sponsorships, including being the "official bourbon" of the Kentucky Derby.

The present distillery is largely maintained on 72 acres in a series of sprawling stone buildings, such as the distillery itself, dating from the 19th century and one reason the complex has been designated a National Historic Landmark. The original distilling works was built in 1812 by Elijah Pepper, then became the Oscar Pepper Distillery, then the Labrot & Graham Distillery in 1878 through 1941. Brown-Forman, now one of the world's largest alcoholic beverage companies, bought it in 1968, sold it in 1971, but, in a burst of renewed interest in bourbon making, re-purchased it in 1994, spending more than $7 million to restore and refurbish it.

The history of Woodford Reserve is not unlike that of the nation and the industry. Growing in fits and starts, leaps and bounds, straddling epochal events in the history of a still-young country, bouncing back from such seeming industry death-blows as Prohibition, yet always persevering.

That is what makes a trek along the American Whiskey Trail so fascinating.

Throughout the country, tens of thousands of visitors annually visit various wineries that cooperate in tourist-oriented wine trail groupings. Each trail has its individual attractions, but all emphasize winery visits, festivals, B&Bs, dining, sight-seeing and the like. The American Whiskey Trail is a much longer trek to fewer places, but a fascinating concept nonetheless.

The Trail, sponsored by the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. (DISCUS), includes seven historic sites and six operating whiskey distilleries spread over a five-state area from New York to Tennessee by way of Pennsylvania, Virginia and Kentucky.

If that seems a slightly awkward construct, perhaps it is. But it shows the erratic progression of whiskey making throughout America history.

From the north, the American Whiskey Trail begins at historic Fraunces Tavern Museum in Manhattan where Gen. George Washington bade farewell to his troops in 1783 and ends at the site of the new George Washington Distillery Museum on the grounds of private citizen Washington's home at Mount Vernon, Va. There they refer to that site as the gateway to the trail. Geographic chauvinism obviously is dictated by where you live, one supposes.

Numerous historic stops on the Trail have a George Washington whiskey connection. The Trail includes Gadsby's Tavern Museum in Old Town Alexandria, Va., across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., where early American leaders often met to discuss issues of the day and where at least twice Washington attended the annual Birthnight Ball held in his honor.

I found it intriguing to stroll around the two-building complex, within sight of the nation's capital yet with the echoes of long-ago formal dances and ribald debates over tankards of ale, beer and whiskey still emanating from the wooden floors and plaster walls.

The Trail also hits the Woodville Plantation in Allegheny County, PA, built by Gen. John Neville, a Revolutionary War figure and close friend of Washington, and the Oliver Miller Homestead in South Park, PA, which was a focal point of an 18th century dispute in which President Washington dispatched troops to enforce federal law taxing distilleries and whiskey.

An array of whiskey artifacts at the Oscar Getz Museum.

Other historic sites are the Oscar Getz Museum in Bardstown, KY, which has a collection of rare whiskey artifacts dating from pre-colonial to post-Prohibition days, and the West Overton Museums in Scottdale, PA, a former distillery center and part of what is billed as the only pre-Civil War village in Pennsylvania still intact.

Among the first Europeans to practice their whiskey making skills in this country were Scotch-Irish farmers in western Pennsylvania.

They were not alone in distilling whiskey, but they were among the feistiest and most productive. When the Continental Congress put a tax on whiskey production, they refused to pay, thus touching off the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791 to 1794.

So acrimonious was the dispute that President Washington sent troops to quell the uprising. When the whiskey makers continued to resist, he and Virginia Governor Thomas Jefferson cooked up a deal to break up the concentration of resistance. Jefferson offered 60 acres of land as an incentive for moving to the Kentucky region (then part of Virginia), building a permanent structure and growing corn.

Many took advantage of the offer but found that no family could eat 60 acres' worth of corn a year, and it was too perishable to ship out for sale. The Scotch-Irish instead used it to make whiskey in place of much of the wheat and rye they were used to employing. Coincidentally, the presence of massive limestone formations, part of an underground shelf that extends from southern Indiana down through Kentucky and Tennessee, filtered and "sweetened" the water, which helped make a smoother distilled spirit, the one that came to be called bourbon for the Kentucky county in which it was produced.

The definition of whiskey, by the way, is a liquor produced from the fermented mash of grains such as barley, corn, and rye. That would include the likes of Canadian or Scotch whisky (no "e''), Irish whiskey, rye and bourbon.

Bourbon, however, is a special case. All bourbons are whiskies, but not all whiskies are bourbons. The legal definition of bourbon was codified in 1964 by a congressional resolution requiring that it be a minimum of two years old, at least 80 proof (40 percent alcohol), made from a mash of at least 51 percent corn (most distillers use at least 70%), and aged in charred new American oak barrels, from which the once-colorless distillate draws its amber color and vanilla and caramel flavors. The Tennessee whiskies -- Jack Daniel's and George Dickel, for example -- begin as bourbon but then are put through a charcoal filtration process that leaves them in a niche of their own.

The operating distilleries open to the public as part of the Trail are Jim Beam in Clermont, KY, Maker's Mark in Loretto, KY, Wild Turkey in Lawrenceburg, KY, Woodford Reserve in Versailles, KY, George Dickel in Tullahoma, TN, and Jack Daniel's in Lynchburg, TN. It also includes two rum distilleries in Puerto Rico and the American Virgin Islands.

A touch of irony: Today, no bourbon is produced in Bourbon County.


It's all in the wrist in creating the signature hot wax drip on a bottle of Maker's Mark. Dip, pull back, twist, 
and put it down as the assembly line rolls on. Shades of Lucy and Ethel working at the candy factory.

A distillery worker at Woodford Reserve rolls out American white oak barrels just filled with new bourbon 
whiskey prior to loading them up for placement in aging houses elsewhere on the grounds.

Lynn Tolley, great-grandniece of Jack Daniel and one of the distillery's official tasters, also conducts tastings for 
special guests and runs the historic Miss Mary Bobo's Boarding House restaurant in Lynchburg, TN.

A public room on the first floor of historic Gadsby's Tavern in Old Town Alexandria, VA.

A tour guide explains the grain mixture that goes into creating sour mash at the 
                                                                                George Dickel Distillery in Tullahoma, TN.

Music is as much a part of rural life along the American Whiskey Trail as is whiskey. Here, Hickory 'n' Friends 
play some bluegrass for visitors at the Jim Beam guest complex in Clermont, KY.

Master distiller Jimmy Russell (right) shows visitors a fermentation vat being filled 
with mash at the Wild Turkey distillery in Lawrenceburg, KY.

All the bourbon produced at Maker's Mark in Loretto, KY, runs through these collectors 
before being put into barrels for aging.

A sight to gladden the heart of any bourbon fan: Bottle filling time at Maker's Mark.

The chemical reaction going on in this 20,000-gallon cypress plank fermentation vat 
results in a substance resembling cooked oatmeal.

                                         Actor William Sommerfield, in the person of George Washington, greets an invited crowd to the 
grand re-opening of the rebuilt whiskey distillery at Mount Vernon, VA.

• American Whiskey Trail
• Fraunces Tavern Museum
• Gadsby's Tavern Museum
• Woodville Plantation
• Oliver Miller Homestead
• Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History
• West Overton Museums
• Dowd's Guides hone page

No comments:

Blog Archive