NASHVILLE, Tenn, February 20, 2014 – Bourbon and whiskey are enjoying what Fortune Magazine calls “The Billion-Dollar Bourbon Boom” noting that American whisky and bourbon is now an $8 billion-dollar global industry. At home the amber liquid is enjoying a resurgence thanks to popular television stories like Mad Men but for fans of the brown spirit, it has always been a favorite, even if the rest of the world is just starting to catch up.
There is no better way to appreciate America’s spirit than on The American Whiskey Trail, which winds from Washington, D.C. to Nashville, through the dense green hills of Tennessee to the horse lands of Indiana, all the way telling us the tale of American history and culture.
From the early days, when clear moonshine was sweated from a mix of corn and rye and yeast, then distilled in the heat of the backyard still, to the creation of the amber-brown liquid of today, there are hundreds of years of history and artisanal skill in every ounce of whiskey that is bottled today.
Exploring the trail calls first for a stop to visit the copper craftsmen at Vendome Copper & Brass Works, Inc. of Louisville, Kentucky. This family-owned business creates the beautiful copper stills used by distillers worldwide. Next visit the cooperage where Jack Daniels barrels are still mostly made by hand. Without the still or the barrel, the whiskey’s smooth taste or rich amber color will not emerge.
The modern story of whiskey begins with George Washington, who began commercial distilling in 1797, following his years as President. Washington built his distillery at the urging of Scottish farm manager and son of a Scotch Whiskey distiller, James Anderson, who encouraged Washington to go into the business as a compliment to his farming and grist mill. A quick demand for Washington’s whisky led the distillery to become one of Mt. Vernon’s most commercially lucrative efforts.
Built on the foundation of the original building, the rebuilt distillery at Mt. Vernon, is a step back to early American history.
Whiskey’s amber-brown brew owes its color to an 1800s Ohio river merchant, who discovered that a barrel charred to remove the flavor of fish or pickles turned clear moonshine into an amber liquor. Ever since, from well before the prohibition years of the 1900s to the boutique distillers of today, each brand is distinctive and has its own stamp of color, nose and taste.
As a long weekend’s enjoyment, the American Whiskey Trail might be the best journey through America’s heartland you can take. There are stops in small towns, like Jack Daniels‘ Lynchburg and small hip distilleries such as Corsair Artesian’ Distillery and Taproom in Nashville, or the spirit’s distiller tucked onto the way back roads of Kelso, Tennessee, Pritchards Distillery . Opening their first distillery in 1999 in a historic Kelso Tennessee schoolhouse Pritchard’s will be opening their second distillery location at Fontanel Mansion this spring (2014).
Before we take flight, it is important to understand the difference between Whisky or Whiskey (our usage here will be Whiskey), and bourbon. It is a difference important enough to make one person a Jim Beam drinker, while another is a Jack Daniels devotee. No two brown spirits are exactly alike, and while it is small steps that set them apart, their taste profiles are miles apart.
The subtle flavors that the Master Distillers take to replicate their mix to perfection come from recipes that are hundreds of years old.
Recipes that never change.
Whiskey is made from four main ingredients – corn, rye, yeast and water. Those ingredients must be all-natural and precisely combined before the distilled liquid is stored in charred oak barrels for precisely the right amount of time to create the exact flavor profile with each and every casking.
Bourbons – the aforementioned Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Knob Creek and Woodfords, to name my personal flavor favorites – all share certain traits.
By law, bourbon must be:
- Produced in the USA
- Made of a grain mix of at least 51% corn (other grains are malted barely and wheat)
- Distilled at less than 160 proof (80% ABV)
- No additives allowed (except water to reduce proof where necessary)
- Aged in new, charred white oak barrels
- Aged for a minimum of two years in order to be called “Straight” bourbon
Whiskey, on the other hand, is made world-wide. Scotch Whisky, Canadian, Australian, Finish, Danish or English … wherever a still can be set up, where an oak barrel, corn, rye and yeast be found, whiskey can be made.
The process of distillation begins with corn mash – a mixture of corn, rye, water and the brewer’s “yeast” that creates a clear, and potent, liquid. Time and the charred oak barrel make the difference between clear high-proof “moonshine” and whiskey.
The yeast distillers use today has a lineage that goes back to the original mother yeast, and it is passed on from vat-to-vat, year-after-year, not unlike the Olympic torch. Each distillery has one person in charge of protecting and adding just the perfect amount of yeast to the mash and that yeast’s exact chemistry and amount is as closely guarded a secret as the Coca-Cola recipe.
The fermentation process begins as the yeast breaks down the sugar in the corn, creating the mash that begins to bubble and boil, releasing gas. The top layer of the liquid is like watery, very soft oatmeal. The taste is not unpleasant. The smell is fragrant with layers of sweet sugar, warm bread, spicy rye, and the oak of the giant open barrels that the process takes place in.
Once that mash finishes bubbling, the liquid is transferred to the still, where distillation, a process as old as moonshine itself, separates the “spirits” from the mash. At the George Washington distillery, you can watch the clear drips of “liquor” emerge from the copper tubing. Take a drop on your finger and taste the strong, bitter spirit.
This process is born of heat. Water turns to steam at 212 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on air pressure. Alcohol evaporates at a much lower temperature, about 172 degrees. As the alcohol spirits evaporate, they are captured at the top of the still, transported by winding copper tubing the steam cools and condenses back into a crystal-clear, high-proof liquid.
Whether using George Washington’s methods, with the spirits escaping down a wooden trough to drip, drip, drip into a wooden bucket, or the large commercial distillers where the spirits emerge in a crystal clear deluge, it all begins and ends with the same ingredients. Corn, clean lime-rich spring water, rye, yeast, heat and time.
The distilled spirits are casked into charred oak barrels and given time to age within the cavernous barrelhouses that dot the countryside, eventually becoming smooth, fragrant bourbons and whiskeys.
What makes the American Whiskey Trail so fascinating is that, while each distiller follows the same basic recipe, each spirit and distiller is uniquely different.
If the Whiskey is made in America, only then may we call it bourbon, and the only additive to the finished spirit is clear water, whose only purpose is to reduce the proof, or the measure of alcohol to the volume of the liquid. In the U.S., it’s a simple two-for-one conversion: 100-proof whiskey contains 50% alcohol, 50% trace organic compounds and water. 86-proof is 43% alcohol.
Straight from the cask, the proof of the distilled spirit can be as high as 140, and it is not for the faint of heart.
To those who travel the Whiskey Trail, the barrelhouses offer glimpses behind doors usually kept closed. You’re allowed to step inside the darkened, cavernous buildings where the whiskey is aged, buildings filled with barrel upon barrel of whiskey, barrels stacked nine stories high. Maker’s Mark is the only distillery that uses a system of rotation to move the barrels from the upper reaches, where the temperature is warmer, to the lower perches, where it is eventually tapped and determined to be of age sufficient for the consistent taste of the brand.
The Maker’s Mark barrelhouse is dry and cool, while Jim Beam’s has a discernable moistness. It is the little things that separate one bourbon from another.
Stepping into Jim Beam’s barrel house with Jim’s grandson, Fred Noe, an immensely affable man, one is left pondering the enormity of deciding which barrels, out of the four thousand or more barrels surrounding you, are going to combine to make that consistent flavor. It is staggering to think about being able to choose this barrel, and then that one, to combine them into one consistent batch of Jim Beam, Jack Daniels or Maker’s Mark.
And one of the best jobs at the distillery I think.
On the Marker’s Mark tour you might meet one of the brand’s Master Distillers, such as Greg Davis, who owns the distinction of being the youngest Master Distiller ever. As in wine tours, tasting the different bourbons and whiskeys is an important part – for those of age – of the tour. And each distillery adds its own flourish.
Greg is an active and engaged ambassador of Maker’s Mark. He enjoys bourbon and wants you to enjoy it as well. Standing in a cool, darkened barrel house, beams of light streaming down from windows nine floors above, guests taste the spirits from start to end – raw moonshine to the red-wax sealed signature bottle.
We learned that a Maker’s Mark barrel includes additional charred oak blades that the spirit mingles with, adding extra depth.
Maker’s Mark uses a recipe that is 70% corm 20% soft red winter wheat and 10% rye, providing the blend’s profile that is sweet on the tongue with a forward finish. Nineteen barrels of Maker’s Mark are combined to create a consistent profile. The spirit is aged in the barrel for six years, on average. The exact time a barrel ages depends on the weather, and the dictates of the master distiller.
The barrels are constantly monitored, their contents tasted.
Barrel aging is hugely important to all the brands. A general rule of thumb is that aged one year, the color is still clear, and you can taste and feel the oil from the grain. It burns the tip of the tongue, bleeding back toward the throat; a generally unpleasant spirit. After three years in the barrel, more wood sugars have drawn out of the barrel and the caramel and vanilla flavors are becoming pronounced.
The most world-famous of all whiskeys is Jack Daniels, from Lynchburg, Tennessee, where Gentleman Jack Daniels found a cave spring with a continuous supply of clear, fresh water from deep in the earth. The water, iron free, is filtered through limestone, adding a mineral-rich smoothness to the spirit. Jack Daniels is a Tennessee Whiskey, a distinction that is only given to the famous square black-labeled spirit No. 7 and George Dickles.
While both spirits are obviously distilled in Tennessee, what makes them different from their bourbon cousins is that, before being barreled, the raw spirit is filtered through 10 foot deep vats of sugar-maple charcoal, once before it is barreled, and a second time four years later, before it is bottled. From this charcoal filtering the Jack Daniels Tennessee Whiskey emerges.
A modern day Mecca for whiskey aficionados, the Lynchburg distillery tells of Jack Daniels’ history reaching back to 1866, and it enjoys the distinction of being the first and the oldest registered distillery in the US still making whiskey.
And yes, true to popular belief, the county Jack Daniels is made in is dry, though you can taste and buy Jack Daniels at the distillery.
Jack Daniels No. 7 is arguably the most recognized whiskey bottle in the world. From it pours a spirit that is dark, with a golden or coppery hue. The aroma of the spirit is noticeable, and instantly recognizable. The taste is mineral crisp from the limestone and cave spring water, woody as a result of the charcoal mellowing, or filtering. Known as a quality sipping whiskey, Jack Daniels presents an under layer of fruit with vanilla and charcoal, making it, in my estimation, a fine porch or bbq pour.
Or a great end-of-a-long-day-moment-of-quiet choice.
Visiting the distilleries is a journey not only for the fan of the sour mash, but also the person who wants to see a bit of America that remains relatively unchanged over the last 146 years.