Bourbon as Science – A visit to the Maker’s Mark 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 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.
For more photos from Maker’s Mark, see my SmugMug gallery.


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.

Visiting the Barton 1792 Distillery

Barton 1792 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 Barton 1792 Distillery visit. If you’re not familiar with the whiskey-making process, it’s a good idea to read that post first.
CocktailWonk Rating: 6/10 (standard free tour)
The Barton 1792 Distillery in Bardstown, KY, is home to the well-known 1792 Ridgemont Reserve Straight Bourbon, as well as several less well known labels such as Very Old Barton. Since 2009, Barton Brands and the Distillery have been owned by the Sazerac Company of New Orleans, which also owns the nearby Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, KY. The Barton distillery totals 192 acres and has been continuously operating since 1879, not 1792 as you might guess from the name.

Barton 1792 Visitors’ center
Upon driving into the distillery and parking by the gift shop, it’s obvious that you’re smack in the middle of a large scale enterprise and not in some out of the way visitors’ parking lot like other distilleries. Giant trucks haul grain and barrels mere feet from where you’re parked. A giant brick building housing the distillation apparatus looms over the parking lot and the house-sized visitor’s center. A few hundred yards away is a large, black painted rickhouse, one of many owned by Barton, full of barrels aging whiskey.
Barton 1792 distillery
After a brief introduction at the gift shop, we walked outside to one end of the distillation building, where we saw a semi-truck full of grain being weighed before discharging its load into holding bins. Before discharging, probes reach into the grain and sample it for water content – a bad load will be rejected.
Vendome Still, Barton
We then walked outside along the building for a bit, stopping at a few points to talk about mash content (corn, barley, and rye) as well as peer through some windows at what we were told were fermentation tanks. We didn’t get to see any of the actual mash being fermented, which was a disappointment — most other distilleries show off their mash tanks, and some encourage you to sample it.
Spirit safe, Barton 1792
Distillation gauges, Barton 1792
Eventually we made our way inside and ascended several sets of metal stairs to near the top of the Vendome column still. (I was amazed that we didn’t have to sign a liability waiver, given the steep stairs and close proximity to very hot metal.) As we made our way up I spotted lots of interesting gauges with labels like “Fusel Oil Draw Plate 37, low.” Barton’s tour wins on this point – we saw much more of the still than at most other distilleries. At the top level we spent some time gathered around the copper and glass spirit safe, through which you can see a strong steady flow of clear, just-born whiskey flowing directly off the still. Below it is a copper “barrel” with clear ends with more fresh, clear spirit gushing into it. The guide took a sample of the fresh whiskey and passed it around, encouraging us to sample it. As around 70 percent ABV, it overwhelmed some people, but I found it quite enjoyable with a fruity essence. The guide had us rub our hands together briefly, then smell them, yielding the scent of one of the grains. Another short rubbing interval, and we now smelled a different grain. A very enlightening experience for many in our group.
Coal and rickhouse (in distance) Barton 1792
Rickhouse, Barton 1792
After the still, we made our way back outside and across the main yard to the black-rickhouse. Along the way we glimpsed a big pile of coal–reserve in case it’s needed to keep the boilers running.  Barton paints their rickhouses black to hide the splotchy distiller’s mold. It also gives them a cleaner, more imposing look. From where we stood outside the rickhouse, we could see other Barton houses perched on nearby hills. Inside we saw the traditional charred oak stave and several ceremonial barrel heads representing important milestones, for instance, barrel number four million.
Barton 1792 bottling house, rickhouse in distance
The tour ended back at tasting room and gift shop. Our group tasted the 1792 Ridgemont Reserve, Very Old Barton’s (80 proof), and then a choice of bourbon eggnog or chocolate bourbon ball cream liquor. We were also given a wooden bunghole plug with the Barton logo as a souvenir.
Photography wise, the tour had no restrictions and the surrounding countryside is very picturesque. However, without seeing the mash tanks or bottling facilities, you get a limited view of the overall operation. For this reason, I ranked the Barton tour lower than I might otherwise. I’ve read online that there are multiple Barton tours, including a longer tour that includes the bottling facility. However, I couldn’t find any information on Barton’s web site, and I saw no mention of it when we arrived at noon on a Monday afternoon.
Barton 1792 gift shop
The Barton gift shop is relatively small, with no limited or distillery-only bottles to be found other than perhaps the eggnog and bourbon ball liqueur, which while good weren’t something I would give up precious suitcase space for. There is a moderate amount of branded apparel and knick-knacks, as well as bourbon candy, if you’re into that sort of thing.


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.

Continue reading “Essential Highlights of an American Whiskey Distillery Tour”