With stone masonry, artists painting, and lush greenery, Woodford Reserve is the best distillery to visit. An air-conditioned bus drove us from the main house to the distillation buildings. Disembarking, I saw white stone buildings lining a narrow lane, iron tracks paralleling the roadway, and several painters working leisurely at their easels.
From New York, I’m used to constant noise, car engines grinding and people shouting into their Bluetooths. At the Woodford Distillery, the silence was as thick as the humidity. It crowded my ears until little country sounds broke through. I could hear birds in the trees and gravel crunching under my feet. The best part of the day was tasting the whiskey but not just the prettily packaged libation in the gift shop. We tasted the whiskey in its infancy. Our guide Ken taught us about sour mash, the mixture of corn and other grains. He showed us the fermentation tanks where the mash bubbled. Invited to taste the brew, I stuck my finger into what felt and tasted exactly like cinnamon sugar oatmeal. As the tour continued, we tasted other stages including: white dog, un-aged alcohol, and the delicious finished product, Woodford’s signature Bourbon. Caramel was the predominant flavor as well as a sharp. Our guide Ken sampled each with us. His spine would snap just a fraction as he nodded to the whiskey’s appropriate characteristics.
That morning walking into Woodford’s Welcome Center, I thought: It’s too hot!
Summer in the American South is an oppressive season, like a warm wool blanket you can’t shake off. It sticks in your lungs and clings to the back of your neck. I hated it. But as I followed Ken, I learned that the heat is the secret ingredient for Bourbon. Centuries ago, Scottish immigrants came to Kentucky with their recipes in hand. The heat changed the aging process and consequently, the flavor notes. Instead of aging whiskey for years in the misty, cool Scottish highlands, Kentucky Bourbon required a fraction of the time.
Heat makes the barrels swell and absorb the alcohol into the charred staves. There, the white dog steeps. As the heat recedes, the casks contract and squeeze the liquor back into the barrel’s center with a new honey tint. Year in and year out, the cycle continues until the whiskey reaches a precise age and hue. Without the aggressive heat, Bourbon would not be Bourbon. Walking into the storage houses, I touched the old racks of barrelled bourbon and breathed deep. In the summer heat, the air is heavy with “angel’s share”–evaporated alcohol that has seeped through the wood staves and into the barracks. Now when I drink Bourbon, I can taste the caramel spice and also that acrid humidity.
While traveling the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, I was most surprised and curious about the history in the area. At the distillery, Ken talked about the immigrants, the limestone water, and the families who’d revised their Scotch recipes into distinct American Bourbon. At the Old Talbotts Inn, we learned about our B&B’s legacy as the oldest stagecoach stop in Kentucky. While we fell asleep in our four-post bed, I could not help but think about the people who’d lodged under the same roof, including Jesse James, exiled King Louise Phillipe, and the man who’d spent one night in our suite, Abraham Lincoln.
Besides the great whiskey that we sampled at the distilleries, my favorite treat was the Bourbon dark chocolates with whole Southern pecans. Individually wrapped in black and goldpaper, they are bit-sized, region-specific souvenirs that are irresistible.