Today I’m looking at apple and pear liqueurs from Berentzen, a German distiller founded in 1758 in Haselünne. In 1976 they started blending their wheat distillate with various fruit juices to create liqueurs. Both the apple and pear liqueurs are a blend of wheat-based neutral grains spirits and fresh apple and pear juice, respectively. Neither the apple nor the pear is an infusion, where the fruit soaks in high-proof alcohol to absorb the flavor before dilution to the final proof. Some sources refer to the apple and pear liqueurs as schnapps, but schnapps has different meanings in different contexts (some of those not so positive, if you’ve ever been a freshman in college), so liqueur is the better term here.
You may have seen the apple liqueur referred to as Apfelkorn, korn meaning “grain” in German. I’m told that Apfelkorn and apple liqueur are the same product, however. In addition to the apple and pear liqueurs, Berentzen produces other spirits including a cherry liqueur, a bourbon/apple liqueur hybrid, and a high-proof mint schnapps – yes, actual schnapps in this case.
I have to confess, when I first heard about the apple and pear liqueurs, my thought was they might be overly sweet and syrupy thick. However, upon receiving bottles of each from Berentzen, I was pleasantly surprised to find they were very reasonably balanced – not tart at all, and just sweet enough to make them pleasing to sip straight.
The apple liqueur, which retails for around $20, is clear and medium brown in hue. Taste-wise it’s akin to a clear, sweet cider. The taste seems reasonably authentic and the twenty percent alcohol is barely noticeable. Consistency-wise, it’s equivalent to apple juice, as you’d expect given its ingredients. There is a touch of caramel coloring added for consistency.
The pear liqueur, which retails for around $24, is very slightly cloudy — I noticed a few, very tiny particles, presumably pear, floating in the bottle. The taste seems reasonably true to my perception of pear juice. At fifteen percent alcohol, it has less punch than the apple, but the alcohol content is a hair more noticeable, although nothing close to a burn. The consistency is the same as the apple liqueur, i.e., not particularly thick.
Depending on your tastes and availability of other ingredients, you could easily chill a bit of either and sip them straight. Conceptually they’re not terribly different than adding a bit of high-proof vodka to your favorite juice (hopefully natural and organic) to give it a bit of a kick. You could also add a bit to a glass of sparkling wine to add a nice additional flavor element.
More interesting to a wonk like me is how these liqueurs can be used in cocktails. Berentzen’s website offers a variety of recipes which are somewhat predictable, e.g. the Kentucky Apple; I wanted to use these products in a less-obvious fashion.
When I first started experimenting with recipes, I thought 0.5 to 1 oz of the Berentzen liqueurs in conjunction with 1.5 or 2 ounces of 80 proof base spirit would be a good starting point. However, I found that while the fruit liqueurs have a good flavor intensity on their own, the flavor gets lost when mixed with significantly more base spirit. At roughly equal amounts of base spirit and fruit liqueur, I found a good balance; this also corresponds with what I had seen in Berentzen’s suggested recipes.
With the apple liqueur, I targeted a match-up of the apple with complex herbal flavors. Berentzen is German, and Germany’s nearby eastern European countries specialize in just the type of herbal bitter spirits fitting that flavor profile. Two that worked well are the Czechoslovakian Becherovka and Hungarian Zwack. For the Zwack, I started with 1:1 ratios, but found that upping the Zwack yielded more interesting results.
1 oz Becherovka
1 oz Berentzen Apple liqueur
Stir over ice, strain into chilled coupe. Cut a spiral lemon twist over the glass, then add twist as garnish.
1.25 oz Zwack
0.75 oz Berentzen Apple liqueur
Stir over ice, strain into chilled coupe. Cut a spiral lemon twist over the glass, then add twist as garnish.
Pear on Fire
I’m a big fan of the smokiness of mezcal combined with pear. For the pear liqueur I found this to sour-pattern variation works well:
Rum and sherry are two great tastes that taste great together. During Seattle Sherry Week (yes, that’s a thing), I wrote about this pairing and included the recipe for Rumba’s Sherry Week cocktail as well as my own favorite rum/sherry concoction. I’ve now got another to share!
A few days back I was at Bathtub Gin in Seattle while Matt James was manning the bar. Bathtub Gin is one of Seattle’s relatively unknown gems, a tiny bar in a back alley with a true speakeasy vibe, sans arm garters and secret passwords. When Matt’s at the helm, I don’t bother with the cocktail menu – I just give some general directions and magic happens. The other night however, I glanced over the menu and saw the Ratón cocktail – rum, sherry, maraschino, and yellow chartreuse. That got my attention.
Matt told me that the recipe was his last-minute invention for Sherry Week –last minute or not, it’s delicious. The East India Solera sherry is from Spain and is a blend of Oloroso and Pedro Ximenez sherries. In the absence of that specific sherry, a cream sherry will work. The Ratón name alludes to a famous Spanish fighting bull that killed three matadors and injured thirty more over several years. As they say, mess with the bull and you get the horns.
Bathtub Gin, Seattle (Matt James)
1.5 oz Cruzan Aged Dark Rum
1 oz Lustau East India Solera sherry
0.25 oz maraschino
0.25 oz yellow chartreuse
Stir with ice, strain into a double old fashioned glass. Cut a long orange twist, expressing over glass. Curl the orange twist and drape over glass to resemble bull horns.
White rum is one of those spirits categories that shouldn’t be a category. The style of rums under the “white” umbrella are all over the map: Some, such as Wray and Nephew from Jamaica are raw and unaged – bottled almost straight off the still. Others are aged for months or years, then run through charcoal filtration to strip out the color – and unfortunately, some of the flavor as well. And while most white rums are single-distiller, there are also white rum blends that pull together rums from all over the Caribbean to target a specific flavor profile. Flavor-wise, the relatively tame Bacardi Superior Silver tastes nothing like the grassy funk of a rhum agricole blanc such as La Favorite Coeur de Canne. If you care enough to craft a good cocktail, it’s worth the time to understand exactly what kind of “white rum” you’re using.
I recently wrote about mixed-heritage rums, i.e., blends of rum from multiple countries. In that post I wrote about Denizen Merchant’s Reserve and briefly mentioned its sibling, Denizen Aged White. Despite having written an in-depth post about the Merchant’s Reserve, I’d never had a good opportunity to try the Aged White. After seeing my mixed-heritage rums post, Nick Pelis, founder of Citizen Spirits and maker of the Denizen line, contacted me and arranged to get a bottle of the Aged White to me to evaluate. Let’s take a look.
Mrs. Wonk and I recently spent a fab week in Nashville. When we weren’t attending concerts or touring distilleries, you’d find us at one of the city’s many craft cocktail establishments. Prior to our departure I’d done my research and come up with a punchlist of Nashville bars – some well-known and beloved, others up-and-coming and deserving of your attention, should you visit:
Rolf and Daughters
Holland House Bar and Refuge
Along the way were some unexpected serendipitous moments and a few surprising disappointments. Before getting to the reviews, some general observations on the Nashville cocktail scene.
Many of the most recommended cocktail bars serve as the bar portion of nice restaurants, rather than a standalone bar that may offer a food menu. This detail is important to understand if you’re planning to experience as many cocktail dens as possible. In our experience, if the restaurant closes its doors at 11 PM, so does the bar. So it behooves you to plan ahead and visit restaurant bars earlier in your evening, rather than showing up an 11:30 PM only to find a locked door.
It warmed my spirits-loving heart to see the products of many smaller distilleries represented at nearly early bar we visited. I can’t remember a single bar that didn’t have something from local Nashville favorite Corsair. Supporting your local distillery is great, but the same was true of St. George Spirits out of Alameda, CA—not exactly in the neighborhood. Again, every bar we visited had at least one St. George Spirit bottle on the back bar. I also saw plenty of love for Prichard’s, a tiny distillery an hour or so south of Nashville, specializing in rum, whiskey, and liqueurs.
Something I noticed–and perhaps this was just a statistical anomaly–relates to glassware selection. Usually I can look at a cocktail description on a menu and guess what sort of glass it’ll be served in. Most spirit forward drinks, with the exception of an old-fashioned, are typically served “up” in a coupe. In Nashville I was surprised by how many drinks I expected to be served up were instead served in a double old-fashioned glass. Not that it’s incorrect per se, it’s just different than I’m used to seeing elsewhere.With the preliminaries out of the way, let’s get to the bar reports
Rolf and Daughters – CocktailWonk Rating: 7/10
Rolf and Daughters is a “New American” cuisine restaurant that happens to have a reasonably ambitious bar program. The restaurant is an open, rectangular space with the bar area along one wall taking up about a third of the total floor plan. The overall vibe is casual modern, communal tables and lots of wood, brick, and Edison bulbs. The cocktails aren’t serious Tales of the Cocktail contenders, but the selection is cleverly named with solid bones.
Mrs. Wonk started with the Spiker and Sponge (rye, peach shrub, honey, lemon, IPA, Peychaud’s) followed by the Deep Pimmside (Pimm’s #1, applejack, ginger, lemon, soda). I first enjoyed the seductive Pearway to Heaven (gin, pear brandy, crème de cassis, lemon, egg), and finished with a dessert cocktail, the Don’t Meletti Me Down (port, Meletti, Smith and Cross, cinnamon, egg). All were tasty and well-executed.
Being a bar in service to a restaurant, on busy nights (and even Sunday night at 8 PM was busy), you’ll find yourself competing for space with red-wine swilling diners waiting for their table. If you have only one evening to check out craft cocktails in Nashville, there are better options. Since we had dinner reservations elsewhere, we didn’t get to extensively check out the food, but based on the one appetizer we did order and from watching the plates emanating from the kitchen, we’d definitely make a dinner reservation there the next time we’re in town, and stop in early to spend more time at the bar.
Holland House Bar and Refuge – CocktailWonk Rating: 8.5/10
The Holland House wasn’t originally high up on my list, but on a Tuesday night after a long drive from Louisville we were looking for both cocktails and real food for dinner. Holland House seemed like the best option. And what a fortuitous choice it was! Immediately upon entering the restaurant you’ll see the showcase square bar, with bartenders on the inside, surrounded by patrons on four sides. Several Nashville bars we visited had square bars, something I rarely see in other cities I’ve visited. The restaurant is moderately upscale southern and the bar staff is attired with the 1920s leather aproned, mustachioed craftsman look.
Within seconds of skimming the cocktail menu I knew that it would be a long evening as I worked through several intriguing selections. Meanwhile the ever practical Ms. Wonk was selecting food items from an abundance of options. We worked our way through several cocktails including the Tom Waits for No Man (Mrs. Wonk’s favorite witty cocktail name of the week), Agent Provocateur, and The Lady Vanishes. I started chatting about mixology topics with our bartender, Ben. Since Mrs. Wonk and I agreed all of our cocktails so far had been excellent, I felt confident to go off-menu. The result was the wonderful mezcal-based Don Maximiliano, and Ben was gracious enough to share his original recipe.
Mrs. Wonk was particularly enamored by Ben’s very lumbersexual bar apron–all heavy-duty waxed cotton canvas, tanned leather, and silver clasp hardware– and asked him about it. Amusingly, the aprons are made in our hometown of Seattle. Who knew? Not us! And Ben, our savvy Nashville bartender? Originally a native of Spokane. Left coast represent!
Cocktail Wonk’s advice: Don’t miss the Holland House. Go for dinner, sit at the bar, and say “Hi” to Ben for me.
Patterson House – CocktailWonk Rating: 6/10
The Patterson House is the big daddy of the Nashville craft cocktail scene, the bar on everybody’s short list of must-visit establishments. It’s often described as speakeasy style, although not particularly difficult to find (it’s right next door to the oh-so popular Catbird Seat restaurant), and no secret phrases or walking through refrigerator doors is required. What you will find upon entering is a small waiting room and a host stand. Beyond a curtain to the right, you can occasionally glimpse the bar. While you wait you can read the house rules, which boil down to: Don’t use your cell phone, no standing, mind your manners, be patient, and don’t hit on people. In short, a civilized bar that won’t get too crowded or too noisy, even on a busy Saturday night.
Yes, Patterson House gets a lot of love in the press and from the locals. However, I’m going to swim against the tide and state that Patterson House didn’t rock me like I was hoping for. (Update 11/2015 – Be sure to read my update on Patterson House at the end of this section below.)
The bar interior is 1920s speakeasy themed. Dimly lit, tin-ceilings, vest-wearing bartenders, flickering candlelight, all the things you’d expect. The rectangular bar sits in the middle of the room, while booths line the walls. A review of the spirits on the back bar got my nod of approval. So far, everything matched up with the glowing reviews I’d read.
The cocktail menu is very well executed, design-wise. House cocktails are broken down by spirit categories, and within each category ranked from most accessible through most challenging. (I applaud that bit of guidance for folks who want to try out new spirits but aren’t necessarily wonky about it.) The second portion of the menu is a lengthy list of classic cocktails. I’d vouch for everything on the classics list. Patterson House cocktail menu: Thumbs up!
So what’s my issue with Patterson House? The execution. We visited twice on a Wednesday night, before dinner at Catbird Seat and then several hours later after dinner for a nightcap. We spent a total of three hours at the bar, so I had plenty of time to observe the bartenders. I can write off one underwhelming drink or interminable wait as an unfortunate aberration. Unfortunately, there were multiple issues.
As someone who spends a lot of time in bars, observing bartenders, it was painful watching the drink construction at Patterson House. The first drink I ordered was a cognac-based cocktail stirred with ice. After depositing the mixing class with ice cubes in front of me, the bartender left and worked on other drinks for over ten minutes before returning. This was just one incident in a general start-stop-start-stop pattern I observed. Bartenders seemed to batch up tickets from several parties and then make eight or ten different drinks at once, with each shaker getting a brief moment of attention every few minutes. I’m not suggesting that drinks should be made one-by-one, but I think it’s good form to complete one party’s ticket before moving on to the next. I also noticed that our bartender was frequently referring to a menu reference. Perhaps he was new – fine, but even more reason to knock off the tickets one at a time.
I always seek out surprising, oddball spirits and flavor combinations in my cocktails, hoping to learn new tricks and expand my own horizon. You name it, I probably own it or have tried it. My first drink was one of the “challenging” Armagnac based cocktails (Armagnac, vermouth, rye, Amaro Nardini, mint), which I had high hopes for it. I’m familiar with each of its ingredients, but the drink was monotonic and mediciney. Interesting spirits combinations don’t always work out, and a good bar manager weeds out drinks that don’t make the cut. That didn’t happen in this case. A second, gin-based cocktail had the possibility of greatness except that the flavors were out of balance, as if the bartender made it haphazardly.
In fairness, Mrs. Wonk had a solid first drink prior to dinner (Piece of My Heart: Pimm’s No.1, lemon, Amaro Albano, Earl Grey syrup, egg white, and strawberry) and enjoyed her nightcap of a Ramos Gin Fizz and took one for the team, continuing to imbibe until I had an enjoyable third drink.
The elements of a really good craft cocktail bar are present, and I’d recommend you try it out. However, I really wanted to enjoy Patterson House more than I did.
11/2015 Update: We re-visited Patterson House almost exactly a year later, and had a radically improved experience. The bartenders were on top of their game, and all of our (too many) drinks were at least very solid, and several were exceptional. We also enjoyed a few off-menu spirits like brown-butter washed Plantation 5, combined with vermouth. Divine! I still stand by my original comments on my earlier review, but our repeat visit highlights that the bartender is a critical part of the experience.
Husk – 7.5/10
The bar at Nashville’s Husk restaurant is one of the rare breed that could easily stand on its own as a craft cocktail establishment. Husk serves elevated Southern cuisine by up-and-coming rockstar chef Sean Brock and is located in a converted multi-story mansion on a hill above downtown. Dining at Husk is very refined and stately, yet comfortable, with nothing out of place. The same applies to the bar.
On our first visit, we ate in the main dining room for dinner. While I had several excellent cocktails, I could only longingly gaze at the bar area as I walked by. It’s hard to write a bar review without visiting the bar! However, a last-minute opportunity for brunch at Husk a few days later allowed the opportunity to sit at the bar and observe like a wonk does.
The bar area is tucked away in the ground level and seats about twenty people. Looking through the bar I noticed that it was a moderately sized spirit collection, but every bottle up there was an impeccable choice for the slot it filled – exactly what’s needed, and not a bit more.
Just because the vibe of the bar at Husk is very refined doesn’t mean the cocktail menu is old-school and boring. Of the twelve or so cocktails on the menu (they change frequently), I found at least eight that piqued my interest, and all were well thought-out originals rather than rehashed classics with a fancy new name to confuse the civilians. Many of the drinks are guaranteed to be unique because they utilize ingredients made possible by Husk’s James Beard award winning kitchen. My personal favorite cocktails were the “Wild Aphrodite” (Pineau de Charentes, Manzanilla sherry, Amaro Nonino) and “To the Good, To the Bad” (embered-beet-infused mezcal, egg white, nasturtium cordial, lime, mole bitters). Look Ma! I’m eating beets!
Husk is a popular destination and, being a restaurant, isn’t open till the wee hours like a dedicated cocktail bar. You run the risk of a packed bar if you just pop by for a drink, but Husk is worth the effort to plan your visit in advance. (And Mrs. Wonk says don’t miss an opportunity to eat at Husk either—the pimento cheese alone is worth a trip back to Nashville.)
The Sutler – CocktailWonk Rating: 7/10
Let’s get the obvious question out of the way first: A sutler is a “…civilian merchant who sells provisions to an army in the field, in camp, or in quarters.” The Sutler bar in Nashville came to us highly recommended by our bartender Ben at the aforementioned Holland House, although the Sutler couldn’t have been any more different in execution.
For starters, the Sutler (in its current incarnation, a “reimagined” version of the original Sutler, a longtime Nashville nexus for musicians, artists, and dive-bar aficionados, but located in the same restored theater building) is next door to a hotel in what feels like a strip mall on the outer edges of downtown Nashville. As I opened the door, I was blasted by honky-music coming from a band playing on a small stage at the end of a long, open rectangular room, with a large, well-lit kitchen on one side. Waitresses carrying around big pitchers of beer did nothing to assuage my inner voice saying, “This doesn’t seem like a place to get craft cocktails.”
A bouncer helpfully mentioned that the Sutler is two bars in one– The cocktail bar is downstairs, accessed via a curtained passageway just after the kitchen. On the other side, a stairwell leads down to a basement, the staircase ceiling jammed full of hanging cowboy boots. Ponder that for a moment. Arriving at the staircase bottom, still no cocktail bar in sight. Mrs. Wonk eventually poked her head through an unmarked door and discovered the bar area, looking like an old-fashioned brothel, a Victorian parlor, and a barber shop, all jammed together in a dark concrete basement.
The next surprise was the cocktail menu. Each cocktail is named after a song and described only by a name, base spirit, and a flavor synopsis, rather than a complete list of its ingredients. For instance, the “Fancy” is described as “Brandy – A full-bodied sour with the flavor of pecan.” Short of asking the bartender what’s in every drink, we were left to take a bigger leap of faith than usual when selecting a cocktail.
Our faith was well-rewarded. Everything we ordered was enjoyable. The Armagnac-based “Wildwood Flower” was a standout for me, while Mrs. Wonk particularly enjoyed the “Always on My Mind,” utilizing Corsair Ryemageddon. We struck up a conversation with Brad, the young bartender in charge of our drinks, and before long he was sharing drink recipe details and tips for other bars in Nashville to check out.
Long story short, if you’re looking for interesting cocktails in a quirky environment, the Sutler may be just the place you’re looking for. Just don’t show up hungry—we arrived following a show at the Ryman downtown, only to discover that the kitchen had closed at 11 pm on a Friday. After a couple of cocktails, the 24-hour Greek diner across the parking lot was a godsend.
No. 308 – CocktailWonk Rating: 9
No. 308 was easily one of the highlights of our bar tripping in Nashville. Without knowing any better however, you might dismiss it as just another hipster/dive bar serving beer and cheap G&Ts. It’s located off the beaten track in a commercial part of East Nashville. The interior is sparse – not much in the way of unnecessary décor – but who needs that when you have big video screens playing movies with no sound while a mix of 80s/90s music thumps in the background.
The cocktail menu at No. 308 arrives as a single sheet on a clipboard, utilizing a faux typewriter font for a ramshackle look. The first think you’ll notice is the punny drink names – Rye ‘N Goslings (rye, Gosling’s blackstrap, ginger, egg white and lime) or the Chili Chili Bang! Bang! (mezcal, amontillado sherry, grilled pineapple, Ancho Reyes chili liqueur). Spend some times contemplating the ingredients and it quickly becomes clear that No. 308 draws inspiration from all over the spirits kingdom. Everything on the menu (even the vodka drink) was something I’d seriously consider ordering. I particularly enjoyed the Sherry Darling (scotch, spiced pear liqueur, amontillado sherry, Amaro Sibilla), and Mrs. Wonk was partial to the Bottle Rocket (tequila, green chartreuse, rosemary, lime and salt).
Here’s the thing: No. 308 is really two different bars – outwardly it appears to be a typical neighborhood hang in East Nashville. But spend some time communing with the cocktail menu, and you’ll see there’s cocktail wizardry hidden in plain sight. Owner Ben Clemons has competed at the national level at Bombay Sapphire and Appleton Estate cocktail competitions. It was a busy Saturday night when we visited, and he was plenty busy pouring shots and beers, but soon enough Ben and I realized we were fellow spirit wonks, and it was off to the races. Special bonus cocktail rounds magically appeared, one featuring a proprietary fruit-based spirit that Ben’s in the process of development for eventual release. Ben was a charming host, even in a raging Saturday night crowd, and we wished we’d had more time to stay. High on our list for a return visit to Nashville.
If you’re truly wonky about cocktails, you don’t want to miss Bar No. 308. Just leave your fancy clothes and expectations about what a craft cocktail bar should look like at home.
Pinewood Social – CocktailWonk Rating: 7.5
Pinewood Social was an unexpected bonus stop on our last day while waiting for our evening flight. Usually 4 PM on a Sunday isn’t the optimal time to evaluate a bar, but you make the best of the situation at hand. Pinewood Social isn’t just a bar, rather, it’s a former trolley barn converted into a giant indoor/outdoor space featuring a six lane bowling alley, outdoor plunge pool and hot tub (for the warmer months), bocce ball court, full-service restaurant, coffee bar, and cocktail bar. It’s a relatively recent addition to the Nashville scene and owned by the same savvy brothers who own Patterson House.
Whereas Patterson House encompasses you in a dark cocoon, the vibe at Pinewood social is big and open with large windows that let the sunlight stream in. The cavernous space, high open-truss ceilings and bowling alley in the next room give it a high-end sports bar vibe as opposed to a dark, craft cocktail den. The bar area is large and square, somewhat like the Patterson House, but on a larger scale.
While you certainly wouldn’t be out of place ordering a pint at Pinewood Social, the cocktail menu is distinctly non-sports bar like. I had concerns at first, given the initial ambience, but a few minutes with the menu laid those to rest. I started with the Sword of D’Artagnan (Argmagnac, pear brandy, Laphroaig, and bitters), the followed it up with a Three Roots of the Tree (rum, dry curacao, lemon, falernum, and nutmeg). Mrs Wonk enjoyed her Meaning of Happiness (Pimm’s #1, cognac, lemon, spiced pear liqueur, ginger syrup). Three drinks, three winners! (Mrs. Wonk also gives high marks to the specialty coffee that finished her Nashville experience, the Tennessee Pride: a latte with fennel and rosemary-infused maple syrup, topped with sage-rubbed bourbon sea salt. Sounds like a mess, but it was a tasty burst of caffeine before a long night of travel.)
—- Nashville impressed me with what I saw of the cocktail scene, and there were several other bars that we didn’t make it to including the 404 Kitchen and City House (where we had dinner but were not able to spend time at the bar) that get great reviews. The city has a vibrant food scene and a cocktail scene to match. Oh, and that little music scene thing—from belt-buckle country to local rockers Jack White and the Black Keys– will keep you occupied between drinks. It will be interesting to see if more standalone bars with serious craft cocktail credentials arrive.Nashville these days a city on the rise–a little bit Brooklyn, a touch of Portland, a dash of LA (and maybe a little too much Vegas for our tastes, having seen the Broadway District in full blown Saturday night mode )—and growing fast by the minute. It’s also an easy target for those who would dismiss anything in “flyover country” as having any redeeming value. That said, it was a great experience for us on all levels—killer music, great food, friendly people, fabulous bar scene. Highly recommended for a long weekend or longer if you can—there is much to see. Nashville, we will definitely be back!
In October, 2014 Mrs. Wonk and I toured eight whiskey distilleries in the vicinity of Louisville, KY, and Nashville, TN. In a prior post, I described the common elements of these tours in detail, while this post focuses on the unique parts of our Maker’s Mark Distillery visit. If you’re not familiar with the whiskey-making process, it’s a good idea to read that post first.
CocktailWonk Rating: 10/10 (Beyond the Mark $35 tour)
The Maker’s Mark Distillery in Loretto, KY, makes only a small handful of whiskeys, with the well-known and loved Maker’s Mark as the moneymaker. From the distillery’s start in 1954 up until 2010, it was their only regularly produced spirit. In 2010, they released Maker’s 46–aged a bit more via charred French oak staves. There are also a few limited release bottlings including Maker’s White (unaged), Cask Strength, and Maker’s Mark Mint Julep. The ownership of Maker’s Mark has changed a bit over the years and currently resides in Japanese hands as part of Suntory’s acquisition of Maker’s Mark and Jim Beam in 2014.
Being an avid planner, I hit the Maker’s Mark web site a month before our visit to scope out the options. On the tour page, after the standard details, is a single line with a link: “Special tour information.” Jackpot! Instead of the basic one-hour tourist bonanza, I booked us on the “Beyond the Mark” tour, which promised to show much more of the inner-workings of the distillery. Better yet, the tour size is limited to twelve people, far fewer than the giant groups we saw on the standard tour. The only catch is that you need to book the Beyond the Mark tour in advance, and the tour isn’t offered every day, so plan ahead – it’s worth it!
If you only learn one thing on a Maker’s Mark tour, it’s that they go the extra mile to ensure that their product remains the same, bottle after bottle, year after year. A group of testers at the distillery continuously blind-test newly made spirits with control samples from batches made years ago. There’s an on-site laboratory with gas chromatographs to ferret out variations from the standard reference bourbons. If any non-trivial difference is detected, they launch an investigation to get to the bottom of what changed.
Even the aging process gets the meticulous approach to consistency. It’s a well-established fact that the location of a barrel in the rickhouse affects how flavors are imparted. For instance, in the summer, the upper floors of the rickhouse are hotter than the lower, changing the rate and type of flavors that result from the aging. Many distilleries simply mix a blend of barrels from different parts of the rickhouse to even out the differences. However, Maker’s Mark rotates every barrel through different locations in the rickhouse to make each barrel as similar to the others as possible. This is a very labor -intensive process when you’re dealing with 500 pound whiskey barrels jammed together in close quarters.
As you drive on to the distillery grounds, you’ll notice that nothing is out of place. All the buildings are painted black with red trim and appear immaculately maintained, as if Walt Disney had decided to open a distillery. Tours begin at the visitor’s center, which was originally the house of Bill Samuel, Sr., the founder of Maker’s Mark. The rooms are filled with relics showcasing the family history and the story of how the iconic red wax topped bottle came to be. Mrs. Wonk would like you to know that the name Maker’s Mark and the red wax trademark are both thanks to Bill’s wife, Margie Samuels, who first melted red sealing wax in a crockpot in their basement kitchen to help their product stand out in the marketplace. She also gave the product its name—as a collector of pewter, she knew that the imprinted “maker’s mark” on the bottom of each piece was recognized as a sign of quality. (Margie is also only one of five women inducted into the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame. Go, Margie!)
It’s a short walk from the house to the first stop, the Toll House – a tiny yellow cottage that once served as the office for collections on the toll road. And just maybe you could acquire some bourbon while there.
Another short walk alongside a stone-lined stream bed brings you to the distillation building. The first stop inside features the two spirits safes and collecting tanks–perfectly polished copper, as you’d expect. To the side is a very large and noisy electric mill with multiple motors for grinding the corn, wheat, and barley that comprise the mash bill. Close by is one of the three copper Vendome column stills; a fourth is coming soon. Our guide collected a sample of high-proof new-make spirit pouring through the spirit safe in a long handled cup and passed it around for smelling and tasting.
Just beyond the mill, spirit safe and still are the mash cookers, fed from overhead hoppers.
A walk up a set of very steep stairs to the second floor – First stop: A small walk-in freezer. Within is one of the secrets of Maker’s Mark – their particular yeast culture. Not only is it carefully maintained and constantly tested at the distillery, only two employees actually know the composition and character of the yeast. And in case of an onsite yeast disaster, additional samples are held offsite in a secret location. (No, seriously. The unadulterated yeast is a very big deal to keeping the flavor consistent.)
After peeking in on the yeast, the next adventure is seeing more enormous mash tuns than you can count. The distillery uses a few old wooden tubs for character, but they predominantly utilize stainless steel tubs for easier cleaning. (Each historic wooden tub takes about four times as long to clean as the stainless tubs.) As at other distilleries, we were encouraged to stick our fingers into various vessels and taste the mash at different stages of fermentation. (Mmm, sour mash for breakfast!)
With the distillation building under our belts, we took a short walk to a single story building across the way. Insides lies the heart of Maker’s Mark’s consistency from bottle to bottle – their quality control laboratory. A table in one room is set up with dozens of glasses. Some hold unaged distillate, others hold aged spirit. It’s here that a dedicated panel of tasters does blind three-way tasting of newly made spirits vs. saved samples from months or years previously. They don’t know which glass(es) contain the new spirit and which have the older spirit—just pure human sensory testing. Any detected difference between samples is cause for a closer look. In order to test continuously and run investigations, the distillery maintains a vast library of their prior releases, so direct comparisons can be made on the spot.
In an adjoining room and upstairs is high tech scientific laboratory equipment, including four gas chromatographs that allow for extremely accurate studies of chemical composition. We were lucky to have one of the scientist who works in the lab speak to us for a bit about their processes and investigations. Any complaints from customers made about the quality of a bottle are investigated by the lab. One story she recounted was of a man who complained of a bad bottle—he had been a Maker’s drinker for years, but something was very wrong with this bottle. The lab’s investigation proved every teenager’s trick—adding water back to the bottle after you sneak your dad’s booze–is easily caught when you have a chromatograph at your disposal.
Leaving the laboratory we went into a small rickhouse where we saw the traditional charred American Oak barrel with a section of it removed to view the insides. It was here that our guide told the story of how Maker’s 46 came to be. Along with the regular barrel, a second cut-away barrel showed the charred French oak staves arranged inside it in a three-dimensional grid pattern, responsible for the primary difference between regular Maker’s and Maker’s 46. And where did the “46” come from? 46% alcohol by volume? Some magical formula? Margie’s age when she started dipping bottles in red wax? Sadly, no. It was barrel-stave test batch number 46 that proved the favorite…and won out in the naming contest when nothing better was agreeable.
Next up is a short stop at the printing room, one of the experiences unique to a Maker’s Mark tour. Every bottle label is printed on old printing press, fed by hand by the printer herself. Each label is also die-cut by hand with the distinctive deckled edge. A display case showed several special commemorative bottles, which Maker’s produces and bottles for various fundraisers and special events.
Another jaunt across the grounds takes you to the special projects room. There, a few employees craft the special details that make up a commemorative bottle – mostly this is a custom set of wax colors and a custom label. We peeked inside a cabinet to see dozens of different commemorative bottle releases, and several more cupboards containing even more. (Including a special release for our hometown Seahawks’ 2014 Super Bowl win—with green and navy wax.) In an adjacent locked area we could see hundreds of regular bottles, samples from prior runs going back who-knows how many years—the Maker’s Mark quality control library.
But wait, there’s more! The bottling facility itself is a visual spectacle. It’s extensively automated, but relatively small compared to nearby Heaven Hill’s facility, which is an assembly line of massive scale which I’ll cover in a future post. Here at Maker’s, the line is a combination of automation and human touch. At the start, bottles are gathered, inverted, and rinsed with whatever final product will fill them (as we were told, Why rinse with something that will water down the end product?). Bottles are then returned upright and filled in less than three seconds. Labels are applied and caps inserted. And finally, the payoff moment: As the bottles near the end of the line on the conveyor belt, a small team of about six employees grasp the bottle, dunk the top in wax, twist with a flourish, and return it to the belt for a trip through the cooler (to help harden the wax) and into a shipping case.
With the touring finally finished, it’s time for a tasting! The tasting room area occupies one end of a long building, and is divided by glass panels into four rooms, allowing for multiple tastings at the same time. In addition to the regular Maker’s and Maker’s 46, we also tasted samples of Maker’s that hadn’t been aged long enough, or had been aged too long, to aid in comparison. Since we were on the fancy tour, we received a pair of wax dipped Maker’s Mark rocks glasses to take home.
With the tasting completed, but still in the building, we walked through a small rickhouse mockup and admired the fanciful Chihuly glass ceiling commissioned by the current owners of Maker’s and just opened this year, including a few glass angels guarding their share. And then, at last, a final door…What’s behind it? Surprise! Exit through the gift shop.
The Maker’s Mark gift shop is relatively large. Beyond the generally available bottles, I saw the Maker’s Mark unaged white and their cask strength offerings. There are plenty of Maker’s Mark logoed apparel and items (golf tees! kitchen hot pads! bottle-silhouette cookie cutters! barrel staves!), and for a fee you can wax-dip anything you buy at the gift shop. (And yes, I’m sure they’ve heard it all.)
All in all, a great day in a picturesque location. One word of note from Mrs. Wonk if you are traveling from Bardstown to Loretto and rely on Google Maps to get you there: Our guide asked early on in the tour how our drive was to the distillery that morning. It turns out that about half of us took what locals jokingly refer to as “GPS Road”—a gorgeous but sometimes single lane “highway” that gives new definition to the phrase “scenic route”—the default route courtesy of the computing megamind at Google. The gift shop offers helpful pre-printed direction cards back to Bardstown or to other local distilleries. Which is good, since your cellphone will have very limited service out there anyway. No worries, just put it back in your pocket and enjoy the scenery.
Also, the Maker’s Mark tour is great for photographers. There were no restrictions on what I could photograph, and just about everywhere you look is a gorgeous photo opportunity, especially on a crisp autumn day like we had.
In October, 2014 Mrs. Wonk and I toured eight whiskey distilleries in the vicinity of Louisville, KY, and Nashville, TN. In a prior post, I described the common elements of these tours in detail, while this post focuses on the unique parts of our Willett Distillery visit. If you’re not familiar with the whiskey-making process, it’s a good idea to read that post first.
CocktailWonk Rating: 9/10 (standard $7 tour)
The Willett distillery in Bardstown, KY, first started operations in 1935, producing both bourbon and rye whiskey. Unlike many other well-known distillers, the Willett brand remains family owned and not part of a conglomerate. For a number of years between the mid-1980s and 2012, the distillery wasn’t in use. However, the larger parent company, known as Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, stayed in business as an independent bottler, handling whiskey made at other distilleries. In 2012 the Bardstown distillery was refurbished by the family to the beautiful facility there today.
Rickhouse at Willett Distillery
Beyond the flagship Willett brand, Kentucky Bourbon Distillers makes a number of other well-regarded brands including Johnny Drum, Noah’s Mill, Old Bardstown, and Pure Kentucky. What this means however is that any reasonably current bottle from Willet/Kentucky Bourbon Distillers aged more than 2 years (at this moment in 2014) wasn’t distilled by Willett at the Bardstown distillery.
Once you turn off the main road, the drive to the Willett distillery is very picturesque. You know you’re close when you see numerous white rickhouses in a giant grassy field along with a man-made pond with a fountain in the middle. Parking by the visitor’s center – a small, two story house–you’ll see another pond, and beyond that, numerous rickhouses in the distance that almost certainly belong to nearby Heaven Hill.
Heaven Hill rickhouses, seen from Willett Distillery
After gathering at the visitor’s center, we met our tour guide – a relatively young, personable chap who actually works in the distillery when he’s not doing tours. A short walk takes you to the mostly self-contained distillery building. As distilleries go, it’s fairly small but postcard pretty, looking like you’d imagine a distillery should look, with a grain hopper and a square tower encompassing the column still. The main structure has recently completed stone and wooden siding, making the building appear even more like a palace of wonder rather than just another industrial factory.
Willett Distillery mash cooker
Willett Distillery spirit safes
Upon entering, you’re in a large room with photos of the distillery operations. A short ramp leads to the main distillation space. First stop is the mash cookers — we didn’t get up close and personal with them, unfortunately.
Willett Distillery fermentation tanks
Next was a stop at the two spirit safes atop collecting tanks. Although we could spy the oh-so-intriguing vision of a gorgeous pot still a room away, it wasn’t time to visit it just yet. Instead we climbed the stairs to visit the fermentation tanks — at least seven that I counted. Some were being cleaned while others bubbled away with fermenting mash. Sampling of the mash is encouraged! Our guide spent a lot of time at the mash tanks explaining the fermentation process and also took advantage of the great views out the second floor window to point out where future distillery expansions are planned, including a small bed and breakfast and event space. (Mrs. Wonk is ready to book her future visit now.)
Willett Distillery pot still
We then descended the stairs and gathered in a large room dedicated to the pot still –and a very unusual pot still at that. With its squat base and a thin, long neck, it looks almost like a musical instrument. If you’re a Willett aficionado you’ve probably noticed the very distinctive Willett bottles – they’re a representation of this exact still. The pot still gets all the love on this tour. We didn’t see the column still (or stills) even though they’re just a few feet away from the fermentation tanks. This is the only meaningful deduction I can give the Willett tour—but not likely a major downside for the casual tourist or non-wonky visitor.
A short walk from the distillation building takes you to another building where (among other things) the casks are filled. Willett and Heaven Hill were the only tours were we saw cask filling – Willett’s filling is very home-spun and quaint. It doesn’t look like it’s changed since 1935. A highlight of this room was the metal barrel labeling template with cutouts. After a barrel is filled it’s placed on the end of the barrel and spray painted to create the standard parts of a barrel label. The individual barrel number is then added by hand.
Willett Distillery – rivet indentations
After filling the (very heavy) barrels, they’re rolled a few feet to an elevated series of barrel-width steel beams that run between the filling building and a rickhouse, allowing the barrels to be rolled to the rickhouse with relative ease. We could see indentation marks on the wooden floor left by the rivets of the rolling barrels, some with a ‘K’, others with a ‘Y’, giving a clue who made the barrels. We walked alongside the beams to the nearest rickhouse and entered for a spell to learn about aging. The sunny, clear day and the angle of the sun through the windows made the rickhouse interior the most picture pretty of any we saw on the trip.
Willett Distillery rickhouse
From the rickhouse it’s a short walk back to the visitor’s center. The tasting room is upstairs, and it’s a generous tasting! We went through at least five of the generally available Kentucky Bourbon Distiller offerings, followed by our individual choice of one of the of their higher-end bottlings. Our guide sensed my enthusiasm, so several more samples were forthcoming–always a good thing.
Willett Distillery tasting room
The gift shop has the decent selection of Willett branded goodies and cocktail paraphernalia. More important, the gift shop sells a number of bottles that aren’t readily available on store shelves everywhere. Of particular interest was the Willett Family Reserve, of which three different ages (2, 9 and 21 years) were available. Knowing that the older vintages weren’t made on-site, I purchased the delightful Family Estate Bottled two-year rye for $35 in addition to a bottle of the Pure Kentucky XO twelve-year bourbon.
The Willett Distillery is a photographer’s dream, including no restrictions on the areas where you can snap photos. If you have time before or after the tour, do walk around the rest of the grounds including the numerous rickhouses. On a beautiful fall day like we had, you can’t imagine a prettier place.