Land of Bourbon and Horses

Darcy O'Neil :: October 22, 2008 11:21 PM

When it comes to spirits, there are the established brands and the wannabe brands. How a brand becomes established is usually a combination of things, such as marketing, history and product quality. But, I firmly believe that any business, not just the spirits industry, boils down to the people behind the product. Wannabe brands spend gads of money promoting an "image" but usually don't have a solid core of people behind the product. Established brands uphold a reputation. After my brief trip to the Woodford Distillery, my impression is that Woodford has great people and is more than just a bourbon distiller.

Going on media trips can either be a good experiences, or bad. Some companies attempt to brainwash their unsuspecting victims with a sales pitch that would make time-share salesmen blush. This trip was one of the good ones, where the product sold itself and the people from Woodford were more or less guides.

After a short flight from Detroit I checked in to the 21c Museum Hotel, a very cool hotel. Most chain hotels are boring, standard fare, with little more to offer than a bed. The 21c was completely different with its artsy decor and modern touches. But more important, my room had all the stuff required to make a Mint Julep, including proper Julep cups and a book on Mint Juleps. Even the hand soap was rum scented and the bathroom included a rubber ducky, really.

Mint Julep Kit 

After a brief post flight rest, and clean up, I decided to take my usual wander. The 21c Hotel was very interesting and is a cross between an art gallery and hotel. After that, I of course hit the bar. Being in a city with a drink history, I had to order a Mint Julep. Stacey the bartender mixed one up, and it wasn't bad. A bit sweet, but that's a drink problem everywhere.

After that it was time to go to the welcoming event. It was small intimate group of ten, or so, writers, including Stephen Beaumont, and a handful of Woodford people. A fairly simple meet and great with an excellent meal and some good cocktails.

21c Museum Art

Chris Morris, master distiller for Woodford, joined our table and we had some good discussions on spirits. However, the best part of the night came when Stephen Beaumont mentioned that he wanted to go to the Seelbach Hotel for a cocktail. As usual, I rarely turn down invites to go drinking in unique places. Liza Zimmerman (The Wine Chick) and Andrea (Woodford PR) decides to join in. Chris Morris offered to be our guide. Now, moments like this are what make these trips great.

Chris gave us a great tour of downtown Louisville. His knowledge of the cities history was exceptional, and he even coached us in the proper local pronunciation of Louisville. When we arrived at the Seelbach hotel, Chris took us down to the Rathskeller, which is the only surviving Rookwood-Pottery room in the world. A very unique room/hall for sure.

From there we went to the bar and had a round of Sellbach cocktails. Chris and I had a great chat about spirits, family and other assorted topics. The one thing that struck me was his wisdom. When we were discussing bourbon, he made a very true statement and one that I fully agree with. People, often in their formative drinking years (i.e. first legal year or earlier) often try bourbon, straight, get the intensity of flavours, and decide they don't like it. This is a major barrier to people accepting quality products, because they only remember that one incident and forever believe they don't like bourbon.

Bourbon is one of the most flavourful whiskies on the market. It is a stronger flavour than a Canadian or Irish whisky and not something you can instantly appreciate. Whisky drinking should be more of a graduated process, starting with light Canadians, going to the Irish and possibly taking a trip through the Speyside parts of Scotland. Once you've acquired a taste for those, then bourbon is a far easier spirit to enjoy.

Chris Morris (Woodford)

Now, that is my own thinking, and Chris see's the benefit of easing people into drinking. It is better to have people slowly introduced to bourbon, instead of having a negative experience, then forever shunning it. Very wise.

Anyway, after the cocktails, the five of us headed back to the hotel. A very fun night overall and we very much appreciated the extra effort put forward by Andrea and Chris, as I'm sure they were off the clock by then.

The next day we headed to the Woodford Reserve Distillery for an educational morning of bourbon making. The morning consisted of making actual bourbon mash and touring the distillery. Chris led us through the process of making both sour mash and sweet mash bourbon using "mash tuns". A mash tun is basically a whisky barrel without a lid.

The group was split into two and assigned which mash to make. I ended up on the Sweet Mash side, but for the most part wandered between the two taking pictures. Stephen Beaumont was the work horse of the sour mash side.

This hands on process took us through the steps of producing a fermentable mash.

mashing process

In between the steps of mashing, we toured parts of the distillery. The Woodford Distillery uses a three pot still system for making their bourbon. Aside from that, the distillery is pretty standard, except for the age, which makes for a really historical looking facility.

woodford distillery tour

The barrel warehouse has probably one of the best aromas in the world. Its hard to describe except to say that it has all the notes of whisky, the toasted wood, oaky vanilla and a subtle sweetness. Really hard to describe, but pleasant. Or it could just be the angles share messing with my memory.

After mashing, and touring, we were treated to a fine lunch and then introduced to the Woodford Reserve 1838 Sweet Mash Bourbon.

The distillery part of the tour was packed with a lot of information, which will eventually bleed into other posts here. But there is too much to cover, so that's the quick summary.

The final part of the trip was spent with horses. I'll be doing a write up on some of the projects Brown & Forman / Woodford does with regards to the Woodford Reserve Stables and my final day in Louisville at Church Hill Downs.

Fix the Pumps
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