Kentucky March 2014, A 1-day trip report

For the photo gallery, click here.

Travelling to the US for business reasons and being not too far from Kentucky, I took the opportunity to take 1 day off to visit some bourbon distilleries: Buffalo Trace, Heaven Hill Bourbon experience, Willett and Jim Beam.

Since I had the opportunity of tasting on site some whiskies, tasting impressions will be reported as well.

The morning was entirely spent at Frankfort, at the Buffalo Trace, where I registered for the Hard Hat tour, which takes place twice a day. Scheduled for about 1h, it lasted finally well 1.5h, including the tasting. The tour included a visit of the production process from the grain to the spirit (white dog) and of one warehouse. For such tours, experienced guides, such as Jeff, are leading the visits. At Buffalo Trace, the grain (mainly distiller’s corn) is hammer-milled, cooked under pressure and the mash fermented from 3 to 5 days before being distilled first in a voluminous beer still (column still) and secondly in a copper still.  In addition, an experimental still has been installed in the old yeast house, where pilot distillations are made such as the Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection.

The old E.H. Colonel Taylor House
Two mash cookers


The spirit is then tankered, filled off site and the casks sent back to the main distillery (Frankfort) for maturation into one of the warehouse. The company owns two other facilities, a bottling facility and a second production facility (Bardstown 1792)  in Bardstown, where some of the other products (e.g., 1792 Ridgemont Reserve, Very Old Barton, and Zachariah Harris, among other) are distilled, see http://www.sazerac.com/menu.aspx for additional details).

The experimental still


The beer still

The distillery is old and smells the handcrafted work, reminding somewhat of the Scottish distillery of Springbank by its style and atmosphere, although the scale of production is far from being the same. In terms of volume of production, no figures were given, neither details about the composition of the different mashes used for the different brands.

Inside one of the warehouse (rick house) of Buffalo Trace

The Eagle Rare was out of stock for tasting and tasted only a wee sip of the White Dog Mash N°1: sweet, very smooth and with some ground corn (maize).  Good thing, the tour was free of charge!

The Pappy Van Winkle question (Video)

My next stop was at Heaven Hill Bourbon Heritage center. The tour costed $6 and lasted for about 30 minutes. After the introductory video, I was guided through one warehouse to receive some information about the maturation process, prior to going through some models showing the whiskey production process (no production takes place at the Heaven Hill Bardstown distillery, only at Bernheim and to a small scale, at the new William Ewans Experience in Louisville), before moving to the tasting room.

The Bourbon Heritage Center

The first sample poured was Evan Williams 10 YO Single Barrel followed by the Eiljah Craig 12 YO. Both whiskies are extremely smooth and made with a very high corn (maize) content, with the Craig slightly more spicy (peppery) than the Evan Williams. As an extra, we could taste the brand new William Heavenhill Under Bond, a more complex, spicy and intense whiskey, which was more to my taste than the two others. Full tasting notes will be released soon on this website.
Heaven Hill is the second largest producer of bourbon, second to Jim Beam and characterised by an extreme smoothness.

The new William Heavenhill under bond

Located 1 mile down the road from Bardstown to Heaven Hill distillery is the Willett distillery. Unfortunately, when I arrived at the distillery, the tour left 15 min earlier and I could not wait for the next tour, therefore I could not take any photographs from the inside of the distillery. Willettt distillery is a small distillery, reminding somewhat of the farm distillery of Kilchoman on Islay, Scotland during its first years, with the grounds being prepared. Distillation takes place in a copper pot still. Currently, the product is sold in 17 countries, including Norway and Sweden.

The Willett Distillery

My last stop for the day was at Jim Beam distillery, where I missed also the last tour, but received a free voucher for tasting two whiskies in the Tasting room. The tasting room is part of the revised visitor experience and you receive a card allowing tasting any 2 of the 19 available brands of Jim Beam. I selected the Bookers 7 YO and the brand new Jim Beam Single Barrel. The Booker was the most complex of the two, very smooth , on treacle, charcoal, apricots, BBQ sauce and vanilla, becoming spicier with some water. Rather different from the normal Jim Beam. The Jim Beam Single Barrel was richer and more intense, with a nice smoothness and apricot flavours, as well as citrus. Diluted, it became smoother with some ale flavors.This is the first single barrel offer from the company and very good. If you like Jim Beam, I would strongly recommend tasting it, once available (within the next weeks/months) in the US.

The brand new Jim Beam Single Barrel

My journey was intense and failed at least one visit due to a detour resulting from different road naming between the Google maps and the signs. Once you are out of Louisville, driving in Kentucky is rather easy, with large road and a fluid traffic. However, I would strongly recommend using a GPS, since the data reception in KY is rather poor.

In the distillery shops, the offering is often rather limited, with few distilleries proposing distillery-bottling exclusives. Some distilleries offer in depth tours such as Buffalo Trace, while some are limited, e.g., Heaven Hill, with mainly educative purposes. In general, I have the impression that visitors of the US distilleries are mainly tourists, enjoying drinking whiskies, while new connoisseurs tours are being offered to address the expectations of the whiskey aficionados. Visitor centers in the US have a different dimension compared to Scottish ones and more visuals.

While I was downtown Atlanta, a 1.75 bottle of 10 YO Eagle Rare was selling for $54.99. Would bourbon or American whiskey being sold at the same price in Europe, I would not be surprised that a fair proportion of European whisky drinkers might convert to bourbon due to price reasons.

In any case, I enjoyed my short stay in Kentucky very much and I hope to return there to visit a couple of other distilleries.


Patrick March 2014