Hunting American Whiskey Heritage at the Wild Turkey Distillery

CocktailWonk Rating: 7/10 ($10)

Following an epic expedition through eight Kentucky and Tennessee whiskey distilleries in October 2014, Mrs. Wonk and I returned a year later, visiting six more major players and completing our regional Tour de Bourbon. While every distillery is unique and interesting in its own way, there are certain common elements such as fermentation tanks and rick houses that you’ll see on just about any tour. In a prior post, I described these common elements in detail, allowing me to focus this post on my observations about the Wild Turkey distillery. If you’re not familiar with the whiskey-making process, I’d suggest starting with that post.

“Wild Turkey? Are we really going there?” Such was the response from Mrs. Wonk when I outlined this year’s march through Kentucky Bourbon distilleries. If you’re old enough, you may have an impression of Wild Turkey as being inexpensive, less-than-stellar bourbon consumed in mass quantity by hard living folks like Hunter S. Thompson. That said, when those impressions were forming, bourbon and rye were less exalted than they are now, in the midst of the current whiskey craze, where folks pay exorbitant premiums for bottles labeled as the current “hot ticket.”  The upside to the current enthusiasm is that Wild Turkey’s reputation, helped in part by the Russell’s Reserve lineup, has shot up again. Thus I was able to construct a convincing argument to Mrs. Wonk that a visit was essential.  (Not that there was much discussion, she notes.

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Checking Out Woodford Reserve’s Distillery

CocktailWonk Rating: 7.5/10 ($10)

Following an epic expedition through eight Kentucky and Tennessee whiskey distilleries in October 2014, Mrs. Wonk and I returned a year later, visiting six more major players and completing our regional Tour de Bourbon. While every distillery is unique and interesting in its own way, there are certain common elements such as fermentation tanks and rick houses that you’ll see on just about any tour. In a prior post, I described these common elements in detail, allowing me to focus this post on my observations about the Woodford Reserve distillery. If you’re not familiar with the whiskey-making process, I’d suggest starting with that post.

Kentucky Horse Fields near Woodford Reserve.
Kentucky Horse (& Deer) Fields near Woodford Reserve.

It’s a rainy second day of our Great 2015 Bourbon Crawl. Having blazed out of the Buffalo Trace parking lot, we make a quick sprint south through Frankfort, KY, via Route 60.  Eventually turning off the highway, we find ourselves in over-the-top beautiful horse country, like in the movies or that one time of year that you watch horse racing on Derby Day. Kentucky horse breeder estates, rolling green grass, wooden fences, barns larger and nicer than most houses in our Seattle neighborhood, a private training track, and the occasional (no doubt irrationally expensive) thoroughbred horse. If we weren’t rushing to make the noon tour at Woodford Reserve, we’d have pulled over and gawked. But bourbon and copper pot stills beckon us toward the distillery. In the Cocktail Wonk book, a pot still trumps rolling hills any day.

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Roaming through the Buffalo Trace Distillery

CocktailWonk Rating: 8/10 (Hard Hat Tour – free)

Following an epic expedition through eight Kentucky and Tennessee whiskey distilleries in October 2014, Mrs. Wonk and I returned a year later, visiting six more major players and completing our regional Tour de Bourbon. While every distillery is unique and interesting in its own way, there are certain common elements such as fermentation tanks and rick houses that you’ll see on just about any tour. In a prior post, I described these common elements in detail, allowing me to focus this post on my observations about the Buffalo Trace Distillery. If you’re not familiar with the whiskey-making process, I’d suggest starting with that post.

Located on the banks of the Kentucky River on the outskirts of Frankfort, the Buffalo Trace distillery is the birthplace of numerous beloved bourbon and rye brands, including of course Buffalo Trace. But check out some of the other brands beloved brands distilled there:

  • Blanton’s
  • Colonel E.H. Taylor
  • Elmer T. Lee
  • George T. Stagg
  • (Pappy) Van Winkle
  • W.L. Weller
  • Sazerac

Surprisingly, Sazerac also produces vodka, but let’s just pretend I didn’t mention that.

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Checking out Alberta Rye Whisky Dark Batch, A Most Unusual Canadian Rye

As a cocktail wonk, I’m constantly expanding my spirits library, building an essential set of specimens representing the major spirits categories. My whisk(e)y collection has grown steadily, with dozens of bourbon, American rye, scotch, and Irish whiskey expressions. Inexplicably however, no bottles from Canada, our neighbor to the north and a whisky powerhouse on the world stage. I’ll confess that this was partially the result of my perception (widespread it seems) that Canadian whisky is composed of mostly spirits distilled to a very high alcohol percentage (thus stripping out most of the flavor), along with a bit of caramel and artificial flavoring

After seeing an announcement for the Seattle launch event of Alberta Rye Whisky Dark Batch, along with a host of well-respected Seattle bartenders participating, I decided that it was time to educate myself; the evening turned out to be highly educational, as I discovered a dark, complex rye with an unusual story (more on this below). I was also fortunate to meet Dan Tullio, Canadian Whisky Master Ambassador at Beam Suntory (who reminds me of a young Tony Bennett), and came home with a bottle of the Dark Batch to review here.

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Into the Colossus – A visit to Heaven Hill in Bardstown

Cistern room at Heaven Hill
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 Heaven Hill Bourbon Heritage Center visit. If you’re not familiar with the whiskey-making process, it’s a good idea to read that post first.

CocktailWonk Rating: 7/10 (Behind the Scenes $35 tour)

Heaven Hill Distilleries Inc., based in Bardstown, KY, is a study in contradictions. And at their gigantic facility here you’ll find just about every aspect of whiskey production–except a distillery. And while the company bills themselves as “America’s largest independent family-owned producer of Bourbon,” they own roughly 1,200 different brands, the vast majority of which aren’t whiskey. Don’t dismiss them as whiskey wannabes though – they have roughly one million barrels of bourbon aging in their warehouses, ranking them as the second largest bourbon inventory in the world behind Beam Suntory. Fun fact: Kentucky has more bourbon barrels undergoing aging than citizens

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Whiskey Nirvana – The Willett Distillery tour

Willett Distillery
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.

Willett 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
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.

 

For more photos from Willett, see my SmugMug gallery.

Essential Highlights of an American Whiskey Distillery Tour

Recently Mrs. Wonk and I went on an American Whiskey distillery tour spree, visiting eight distilleries in Kentucky and Tennessee in a little under a week. We’d have visited more except we only had two days in Kentucky, and Mrs. Wonk was starting to get a little itchy from all the talk of mash bills, white dog, and char levels. On this trip we toured:
  • Barton 1792 (Bardstown, KY)
  • Willett (Bardstown, KY)
  • Maker’s Mark (Loretto, KY)
  • Heaven Hill (Bardstown, KY)
  • George Dickel (Tullahoma, TN)
  • Jack Daniels (Lynchburg, TN)
  • Prichard’s (Kelso, TN)
  • Corsair Artisan (Nashville, TN)

2015 update:

A year later we returned and checked off these as well:

Each distillery has its highlights, and a series of future posts will spill the details on each. However, after a few visits it was clear that certain elements are present on nearly every tour, so this first post covers the common things in detail, freeing future posts to focus on the unique aspects of each location.

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