Having been through How-we-make-bourbon tours at Evan Williams and Bulleit, my interest was less in looking at stills and more in tasting. Our experience is that all the tours give you a little history, explain the process from making the mash and that the percentage mix of grains will determine flavor, and if it is a bourbon or not, explain the distilling process, and then barreling.
As well the five rules that must be followed if you are making bourbon in the United States:
1) The grain mixture must be at least 51% corn
2) It cannot be distilled to more than 160 proof (80% alcohol)
3) Must be aged in new, charred oak barrels
4) Enter the barrel for aging at no more than 125 proof
5) Be bottled at 80 proof or higher.
No flavor, coloring or other additives can be made to the process and be called straight bourbon. There can be some variations, one of which I'll discuss below.
We arrived at Heaven Hill close to its 10:00 opening and asked the Man at the desk if we had to take the tour or just taste. We had to take the tour. There were two tours available, the one hour regular tour for $12 or the half hour "connoisseurs" tour for $20. The connoisseurs tour had three labels I have never tried, and may never again so we sprang for the more expensive tour.
We had impeccable timing, "there's Kathleen with a group ready to enter the tasting room, if you all don't mind missing the history go join them..."
Kathleen warmly welcomed us to the group. Kathleen led us into the private tasting room and we proceed to try one bourbon that did not belong in the room and three that were fantastic, my notes below.
Leaving Heaven Hill for Maker's Mark, about thirty minutes away, we saw a sign less than a mile down the road for Willett Distillery and we quickly swung off the road. Arriving in the gift store I inquired if we had to take the tour to taste. "No, and here comes a group now, just had up to the tasting room." Impeccable timing.
We tried two excellent bourbon and a great rye (for a rye the mash must contain at least 51% rye). We all were poured their Pot Still Reserve bourbon and then got to choose one of their other labels. Since I had Noah 's Mill before (one of my all time favorites), and we have a bottle of Rowan's Creek in the bar at home, I chose the Pure Kentucky and Leslie chose their 2 Year Rye; notes below.
When we set up the trip my primary destination distillery was Maker's Mark. Maker's was my entry bourbon and was my Dad's preferred drink later in life. When we put his ashes in San Francisco Bay we all had a shot of Maker's and dropped our shot glasses into the Bar with him (biodegradable shot glasses). Since he passed away I've put a bit of Dad in different water ways of places that had meaning for him. I wanted to honor him at the home of the place that provided him with a relaxing drink in the evening to enjoy with family, friends or just alone.
The Maker's tour was a very good one. Our timing was bad as they were shut down for spring cleaning (a lot of distilleries shut production in August evidently so the best doesn't kill their yeast), but we saw the vats, aging warehouse, etc. The tasting was interesting as we were given the "white", the distilled whiskey before it enters the barrel.
By now it is 3:00 and we need lunch. I see the town Lebanon on the map and since we can head that way too get to Frankfort we went looking for lunch. As much would have it at a stop light a restaurant had a sign, "Pork Tenderloin Sandwich $5.99." We parked and entered Hennings were I had the pork tenderloin sandwich, asking them to add come slaw and Leslie went for the BLT. Getting my sandwich I remembered that pork tenderloin is not what it would be at home. Here, like most of the South and Midwest it is a fried pork cutlet. Yes, it was very good!
Taking county roads from Lebanon we arrived in Frankfort around 6:00. Doing research we discovered slim pickings for dinner options outside national chains so on the recommendation of the desk man at the Best Western we went across the street to Cattleman's, a local chain, and had decent steak and potato with pretty good salad bar.
Larceny: trying to compete with Maker's Mark and missing the Mark. Much better bourbon in the price range and cheaper. Did not belong in the room.
Heaven Hill Select Stock 11Year: This bourbon is finished in cognac barrels. It is a bourbon because it aged in card charred New oak, but finished in the cognac barrels. 124.4 proof. My first note is simply, "WOW!" Fantastic flavor and very smooth. Cost is $146 a bottle so unless a gift it won't be in my bar for a long time.
William Heavenhill Small Batch Bottled in Bond: a bit more affordable at $125 a bottle but still out of my range. As you would expect a wonderful flavor, very smooth with a nice finish.
Elijah Craig Aged 23 Years: Kathleen asked each couple to pick their favorite and who would guess Leslie and I would choose the $249 bottle? Can taste the rye (14% I think) on the finish, if you get a chance to try this one say "Yes please!"
Pot Still Reserve: A wonderful bourbon hitting all the right taste bottons, would be a very enjoyable drink to sip for an evening.
2 Year Old Rye: given how young it is it is very smooth, this one made Leslie declare, "I like ryes."
Pure Kentucky: not quite Noah 's Mill, but a great bourbon that matches up with anything in the price range, and beats most at $35 or so.
White: cut to about 140 proof, it was surprisingly smooth, if you get this you do so for mixing
Maker's Mark: we all know what it is, a good bourbon. Mix it, cook with it, sip it, very useful to have on hand. It is our "bottom shelf" and sites is job well.
Maker's 46: A bit sweeter than Maker's Mark, but not worth the hype and marketing.
Cask Strength: Maker's trying to expand its offerings, the proof on this can vary depending on the proof coming out of the barrel. Ours at the tasting was 113.3 proof. Definitely need a bit of water to cut it. My notes, "not as good as other premiums, not worth price above regular Maker's."
Our line up at Heaven Hill, the bottle on the
right did not belong
Tour and tasting guide Kathleen taking
pictures of guests with their favorite bottle
Leslie and I with Elijah Craig 23 Year Old
|Maker's Mark is very picturesque|
|Leslie discovers the Griswold's were visiting Maker's|
in their Family Truckster