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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London Underground: Stepping Back Through Spirits History in the Cellars and Back Rooms of Berry Bros. & Rudd.

The framed letter on the wall reads:

“Dear Sirs,

TITANIC

Referring to your shipment by this steamer, it is with great regret we have to inform you that the Titanic foundered at 2-20 a.m. 15th instant, after colliding with an iceberg, and is a total loss. Details of shipment are shown at foot.

Yours faithfully,

For WHITE STAR LINE.”

We’re standing in 3 St. James Place, the London store of Berry Bros. & Rudd, purveyor of wine and spirits to the British Crown since 1760. The family-owned company can trace its history at this location back to 1698, when it was established just footsteps from St. James Palace, the onetime residence of kings and queens of England. Today Berry Bros. & Rudd are very much an international enterprise, selling wine from around the around, as well as high-end spirits, which include their own Berry Bros. & Rudd label. Their cellar in Basingstoke, Hampshire, currently holds close to nine million bottles of wine, so no small operation here!

Doug McIvor, who holds the title of Spirits Director for Berry Bros. & Rudd, is very generously giving Mrs. Wonk and me a private tour of the No. 3 St. James complex, including their very old original cellars. (Henceforth I’ll use BB&R as shorthand for their full name.) During our preliminary small talk before the tour, I asked Doug about what his job entailed. One of his duties is tasting and selecting spirts still at the distillery for their eventual use in a BB&R labeled release. Doug quite obviously has a Scottish feel about him (born in Scotland, moved to England at age 11) so I mentioned that it must be fun for him to travel around Scotland sampling whisky straight from the cask. He laughs –“That’s the romantic view of what I do.” He’s more likely to do his spirits tasting at his desk, as distilleries usually ship him barrel samples in small bottles, a process I got to experience firsthand a bit later.

Our tour started by stepping outside to the front of the festively decorated storefront – the decorations fresh from Christmas just a week prior. Doug begins by pointing out the gate to St. James Palace, less than a block away. In the distant past, wine from the BB&R would be carried through underground tunnels to a locked subterranean palace gate; after departing, staff from the palace would appear and move the wine and spirits inside to the palace, completely from prying eyes and possible thievery at street level. He also mentions that in the days before running water, royalty would occupy one of the several palaces along the Thames until the sanitary conditions became off-putting, then migrate to the next palace, presumably leaving the staff to clean up behind them.  Thus the nearby proliferation of palaces in the neighborhood, assuredly with better plumbing systems these days.

Balance scale for weighing customers at Berry Bros. & Rudd
Above us hangs a painted black sign, similar to others on English pubs and shops, this one featuring the image of a coffee mill. The sign hearkens back to the early 1700s, when the grocery at 3 St. James (started by the Widow Bourne, progenitor of the BB&R family) became a coffee merchant. The original sign was stolen not too long ago, and a hefty reward (a case of BB&R champagne) was offered for its return, but the offer wasn’t taken up, so what hangs above us now is sadly a reproduction.
A few steps to the left, we turn down a small passageway between 3 St. James and the adjoining building, but immediately pause to read the plaque commemorating the establishment of a legation (an embassy) from the Republic of Texas (then an independent country) to the Court of St. James, aka the British Crown, between 1842 and 1845. Continuing to the end of the passageway, we find ourselves in a courtyard ringed by other small buildings, residential and commercial, similar to the one we exited. We are standing in Pickering Place, London’s smallest public square. All of the buildings surrounding the square are owned by BB&R.
Doug McIvor showing us the customer weight recording books.
From the courtyard, we head back into the storefront where we marvel a bit at the Titanic letter. A few feet away, a human-sized balance-arm scale sits; a tray of metal weights on one arm, on the other what appears to be an uncomfortable sitting bench for one. And in fact, Doug tells me, this is exactly what it was once used for–after it was no longer needed as a coffee scale. He then leads Mrs. Wonk and me over to a small bookcase holding nine red leather-bound books, and selects a volume. Doug opens to a random page and explains that customers of the store we’re standing in would come here to be weighed and have their measurements recorded in these volumes—as it was not common practice for medical doctors of the day to have scales in their offices. One volume is dedicated exclusively to ladies – very important to keep that information separate, you know. Famous people who appear in the books include Lord Byron (early 19th century) and the Aga Khan (early 20thcentury).
The cellars at Berry Bros. & Rudd.
Doug then grabs a set of keys and down  the narrow stairs we go, into the original BB&R cellars which today still hold thousands of bottles of wine and spirits, some probably unimaginably rare, not to mention expensive. Modern equipment works to keep humidity and temperature at a hospitable level. The cellars are the interconnected basements of the multiple Pickering Place buildings we saw above, so the overall effect is of several connected rooms at slightly different levels. Dusty bottles are everywhere, some behind metal gates, but most easily touchable if we so dared.
Doug McIvor shows the wine course room at Berry Bros. & Rudd.
In the midst of all this dusty history, it’s a bit jarring to come across one reasonably modern room with rows of tables arranged to face a large video screen at the head of the space. This is the training room where BB&R teaches wine courses, everything from basic wine appreciation to master sommelier training.
Napoleon Cellar at Berry Bros. & Rudd
Another set of stairs takes us even deeper below the store to a room filled with large brick pillars supporting a low vaulted ceiling. This is the Napoleon cellar, named after Napoleon III who used these cellars to hold secret meetings while he was in exile. Countertops and cases line the room’s perimeter, filled with extremely old, obviously handmade bottles, a museum of sort. Running down the middle, and nearly the length of the room is a giant banquet table. BB&R hosts company events here, and for a modest fee, you can hold your own private party here as well.
The room were Cutty Sark was conceived, at Berry Bros. & Rudd.
Back up at store level, we step through a locked door at the back and into a quintessential British parlor. Old books, black & white photos, and bottles are everywhere. A small fireplace is lit, which keeps the room warm. This is where Cutty Sark blended whisky was conceived in 1923, partially in anticipation of the eventual end of prohibition in the US. At that time, BB&R was doing booming business in the Bahamas, a popular stop for smugglers bringing liquor into the US during prohibition. By the 1970s, Cutty Sark was the largest selling brand of blended whisky in the United States, and was contributing the vast majority of BB&R’s spirits (non-wine) revenues.
Today, Cutty Sark is no longer in the BB&R portfolio. BB&R, seeing the potential decline in blended whisky sales due to markets focusing on single malt scotch as well as increased competition, decided to sell the high revenue generating Cutty Sark brand in 2010 and use the profits to refocus BB&R on premium spirits. Part of this strategic shift included buying the Glenrothes distillery, which makes the whisky in Cutty Sark. Another substantial deployment of the proceeds was purchasing a forty percent stake in AnchorBrewer and Distillers, a San Francisco-based distiller and importer of many highly-regarded spirit lines, currently including Luxardo, Glendronach, Nikka, and Tempus Fugit.
Antique, handmade bottles at Berry Bros. & Rudd.
Today, BB&R and Anchor carry each other’s product lines, on both sides of the pond. Thus, the product lines that BB&R directly owns are available here in the US, including The King’s Ginger, The Glenrothes, Penny Blue rum, Pink Pigeon rum, and Berry’s Own private label — whisk(e)y, rum, cognac, etc. I’m immensely excited to have these spirits available here, and in fact it was BB&R/Anchor partnership that led to our private tour. The Anchor PR folks had traveled from San Francisco to hold a portfolio tasting at Westland Distillery (also part of the Anchor portfolio) here in Seattle. I got to chatting with Georgiana Green, one of their senior brand managers, about rum, and when I mentioned I would be in London a few months later, she told me I absolutely had to get a tour of BB&R and the cellars. A big thanks to her for making this happen!
Just a few of the available spirits at Berry Bros. & Rudd.
Back in the storefront area, with the tour concluding, Doug asked us if we wanted to taste some rum. But, of course! We moved to one of the store’s display rooms, lined with bottles from across the BB&R portfolio on display. He brought out a small package with several small sample bottles. The first four were cask samples of the four rums from the Medine distillery in Mauritius, selected by Doug and comprising the fourth batch of Penny Blue rum. A fifth bottle held a preview of the final blend of those rums. (I’ll save a writeup on this for a future post, but I will say it’s quite good.) Next, we tasted a cask strength, 66% ABV sample from Barbancourt in Haiti. And saving the best for last, Doug brought out a sample of the Exceptional Cask 1977 Jamaican Overproof rum, aged for 35 years and bottled at 121 proof. It was quite simply exceptional. At only £495, or about US $750, Mrs. Wonk had to keep a watchful eye on me to make sure I didn’t reach for my credit card. The agony of leaving without it!
The tour of BB&R was easily one of my top highlights from our two week European tour. Doug McIvor is a wealth of spirits information, a wonderful tour guide, and a generous host. If you find yourself in London, I highly recommend visiting the store, including a walk to Pickering Place. Even if you don’t get the private tour, it’s something not to be missed!

Suitcase Booze: The Cocktail Wonk Guide to Buying Liquor on the Road

One of the occupational hazards of Cocktail Wonkdom is an insatiable desire to find the next great bottle, the big score, the one you’ve only heard rumors of. After tapping out your local liquor stores and become bored (or frustrated) by ordering online, how do you feed the desire? The simple answer: Travel. The moment Mrs. Wonk purchases our tickets for our next great destination, domestic or international, I’ve already started plotting a strategy to maximize the goodies we’ll bring home in overstuffed (but under 50lbs/23kg) suitcases. I’ve learned a lot and am here to share some hard-won wisdom.

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Bar Notes: Tretter’s (Prague)

Cocktail Wonk Rating: 7.5/10
Tretter’s styles itself as a classic New York bar from the early 1930s and it succeeds at evoking that vibe: Mosaic tile bar counter, vintage cash registers, and an antique mirror running the entire length of the backbar. Bartenders wear white smocks, accenting the fact that Tretter’s also runs a bartending academy of which all bartenders must graduate.

Taking our seats at the long bar, we dove into the cocktail menu: a small bound book, extensive with more than 100 drinks, and featuring classic cocktails as well as Tretter’s originals. My first drink was a Crescit Sour (Genever, Chartreuse, lime, honey water, lemon bitters, egg white), which Mrs. Wonk and I both agreed was delicious. Mrs. Wonk enjoyed her Aperol Cherry Julep (Aperol, lemon, black cherry, elderflower tonic, mint leaves).

Along the bar counter, within easy reach (yes, I did restrain myself) is a large collection of various dry ingredients. Lots of dried fruits and leaves, as well as more unusual ingredients like marzipan and caraway seeds. Scanning through the cocktail menu I could tell these ingredients weren’t just for show. For round two, I had a Provocateur (inexplicably I didn’t record the ingredients, other than the aforementioned marzipan), while Mrs. Wonk had an expertly executed Green Park (gin, lemon, basil leaves, egg white, simple syrup, celery bitters).

Mrs. Wonk, with her great eye for detail, noted a few things in the space needed attention, such as mosaic tiles missing from the bar counter and some threadbare carpet on the stairs leading down to the rest rooms.  Rather than evoke a vintage feel, the space leaned more toward shopworn and in need of some updating, however superficial. Bar staff was mostly warm and welcoming, as were all of those we spoke to in Prague, but not the most effusive of our visit.

Both Tretter’s and nearby Bugsy’s strive to emulate a New York bar experience from the early 20th century, albeit decades apart. Both put out excellently crafted cocktails, but I give the nod to Bugsy’s for their overall execution of the theme as well as focus on the little details.

Bar Notes: BONVIVANT’S Cocktail Tapas Café (Prague)

Cocktail Wonk Rating: 6/10
This bar was recommended to us by a bartender in Prague, and we visited on a walk around the city on a bitter cold winter day.  As darkness fell and cold descended, the warm space was a nice respite from the outside weather. BONVIVANT’S is a relatively small establishment, with only room for five or six customers to sit at the bar counter. An adjoining, slightly elevated room provides booth and table seating. There’s a surprising amount of open floor space, sans tables – perhaps it’s packed with people standing in the evenings. The shiny tin ceiling seems out of place with the black/white checkerboard floors. Like elsewhere in Prague, the bartender wears a uniform, in this case a white lab coat.

The cocktail menu is divided into classics and original sections. Classics include a Hurricane, Brandy Crusta, Martinez, Cosmopolitan, and Last Word. The originals on offer were three or four ingredient affairs, sticking for the most part to standard ingredients rather than house made.
I started with the “classic” whiskey-based Penicillin. The ingredients were listed in Czech, so I have to assume the rest of the ingredients were as expected. Mrs. Wonk had the Provence (G-Vine gin, green Chartreuse, lavender syrup, with a flaming lavender garnish presented tableside). My second drink was the house Old Fashioned variation (Grand Marnier, calvados, Boker’s Bitters). All were competently executed but not enough to give a higher rating.

Disclaimer: We visited during the day and some folks were camped out at the tiny bar, so we took seats at the nearest table which was still fairly far away, and we weren’t able to interact with the bartender. That said, we made single-serving friends for the afternoon with a lovely couple traveling from Los Angeles—we commiserated about travel woes, bitter cold, and the positive attributes of bar tourism. They seemed to very much enjoy their several rounds of Last Words, before heading off to Vienna. Reviews I’ve read say that the food is good, so if you’re nearby and looking for a decent cocktail and reasonable food, I’d give BONVIVANT’s a try. However, I wouldn’t make a special trip across town just for this bar.