Blanketing opinions that I'll probably regret soon.

Monday, December 10, 2007

My Tour of the Maker's Mark Whiskey Distillery

I just spent five days in Kentucky at an organic farming trade show talking to Amish farmers, people who believe that water has a memory, and a host of other growers and radical environmentalists.

Why do organic and green issues attract so many weirdos? Within 15 minutes of showing up to the show, an almond farmer was talking to me about UFOs. Later, some crazy old coot with a scraggly white beard was telling me he was a Hindu Baptist who eats dirt and worships earthworms. Another guy claimed that he had mapped the double helix using trace minerals, and that yttrium is the most important mineral on the periodic table for human and plant nutrition. Yttrium??

After the show was done, we drove two hours to visit the Maker's Mark Bourbon distillery. I don't even drink Maker's, but I heard from many different people that they give the best public tours.

Here are some things I learned:

1 - There are zero Bourbon distilleries in Bourbon County, KY. Many people think Bourbon Whiskey can only be distilled in that county, but there's nothing there except cows. All distilleries are in neighboring counties.

2 - All Bourbon is made using column stills, not the old style pot stills. I had expected big elegant brass pot stills but nowadays only scotch distilleries still use them. This was disappointing because I thought only the lowly vodka used column stills.

3 - I had heard that the regions where the distilleries are located are dry counties. Not true. I saw plenty of liquor and beer stores all over the place.

4 - Maker's is double-distilled before it's put into barrels. I thought all Bourbon was only distilled once.

They allowed us to stick our hands into the mash. Not all distilleries do that. The "mash" is the combination of grains, water and yeast that ferments in gigantic, century-old cypress tubs for four days before it's put through the still. The yellow, bubbling mash smells like yeasty bread and the scent stayed on my hand for a full 24 hours.

Here's my hand picking up a soupy chunk of the fermenting grain. The liquid is very warm due to the vigorously fermenting yeast. This mix is corn, wheat, malted barley, yeast and water. There's nothing covering the brew so there are gnats flying everywhere and into the mash. But it doesn't matter because the distillation process sterilizes everything.

Here's where they age the bourbon in oak barrels for 6 to 7 years. They rotate these barrels through the top and bottom of the barn for at least three Kentucky summers, allowing the wood to expand and contract, impermeating that smokey oak flavor into the liquor.

After the tour was over, they let us taste some Maker's side-by-side with the whiskey before it's aged in barrels. Most people don't know this, but when whiskey is first distilled, it's clear as water. That initial distillate is called "white dog" and has a 100% different taste from the stuff you buy at stores. The only reason Bourbon has any color or smokey flavor is derived from aging in the barrel.

for a fundraiser, our daughter's preschool had a party at a local vodka distillery. As designated driver all I learned was that I made a wise choice to drive someone else's car as three people relived their teenage years and threw up in the minivan.

I like what you learned more though I'm sure the hand-dipping vat bourbons have their own special color and flavor wholly separate from the barrels.
Wait, your daughter's preschool went to a distillery? Huh??
I enjoyed this post. Especially since it was adjacent to your fireplace post. Very cozy, LB. Thanks.
I'm trying to figure out the preschool vodka binge, too. Anyway, great post -- loved the photo of your hand covered in mash. Sounds like a tour worth taking.
I grew up in Milwaukee and in second grade we took a tour of the Miller Brewery so preschool seems totally reasonable to me, especially if local community relies on the business.

Is it possible to find "white dog" commercially?

The closest thing to white dog on the market is Georgia Moon. It's fake moonshine --- identical, except that real moonshine, by definition, must be distilled illegally.

Anyway, it doesn't taste good. Trust me.
I'm wondering what the gnats contribute in terms of taste. How great would it be if in taste tests, people preferred MORE gnats?

If shellac is squashed bugs, anything is possible.

Looks like it was a cool tour.
Virginia Lightning is a clear corn liquor distilled in Culpepper, VA in a kettle type still. It is far superior to Georgia Moon, I also recently bought a bottle of Pritchard's Tennesee Lightning and it was far better than Georgia Moon, and I have had several different untaxed clear corn liquors over the years, that were better than Georgia Moon. My point is I would absolutely not use it as my measuring stick to compare clear corn liquors.
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