A Visit to the American Whiskey Trail – Part 2By Jake Emen
One frequently trumpeted statistic about American whiskey, and Kentucky bourbon, is that there are more barrels of whiskey aging in Kentucky than there are people. At Jim Beam alone, they have 1.8 million barrels in storage across 72 warehouses. There are 525,000 barrels in 27 warehouses at Wild Turkey. The numbers are staggering.
The State of the American Whiskey Industry
Although bourbon does not have to be made in Kentucky, the state is its undisputed home. As craft distillers have emerged all across the country, making bourbon and all other types of whiskey, an estimated 95% of bourbon is still produced in the Bluegrass State.
Kentucky is green rolling hills, it’s basketball, it’s horse racing, but above all, it’s bourbon. Even with that longstanding association though, the past few decades have seen unprecedented growth and interest.
A Trek to Whiskey Country
Visitors now flock to Kentucky to see its distilleries, sample their products on-site, and tour their facilities. An estimated 750,000 people, and growing, visit at least one Kentucky distillery annually.
At Wild Turkey, master distiller Eddie Russell says it’s due in part to having, “The most bourbon friendly governor we’ve ever had.” While the state may have been slow at first to get its legislation in order for visiting and tasting and selling at its distilleries, the unstoppable momentum of all things bourbon couldn’t be contained.
Hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars are being invested into the industry, from both massive conglomerates such as Diageo, Beam Suntory, Brown-Forman and the Campari Group, as well as smaller companies just starting from the ground up. There are glimmering new visitor centers, new distilleries and warehouses, new equipment, and new jobs, while old names and sites once lost to the times are being renewed and restored.
At the Brown-Forman Cooperage, more than 2,500 barrels are produced every day. At Vendome Copper & Brass Works, craft distillers wait nearly a year just for the privilege of having a new still built for an average of between $150,000 to $300,000.
The American Whiskey Trail: The distillery as a destination
Woodford Reserve built their visitor center in 1996, and master distiller Chris Morris believes it helped to usher in the modern age of the distillery as tourist attraction in the state. “All the Kentucky distillers were invited, and you could see their jaws drop,” he says. “That started an arms race.”
Suddenly, everyone wanted fancy tours and attractions. At one point, only Jack Daniels, in Tennessee, and Maker’s Mark had full visitor centers and tours. Now there are dozens of destinations, and traversing whiskey country has become a major national and international tourism force.
Each distillery offers a unique perspective and experience, so whether it’s making a pilgrimage to a favorite brand, or simply taking it all in to learn something new, there’s limitless appeal. Walk into a warehouse and smell the deep bourbon sweetness lingering the air and come away instantly enriched with a greater appreciation and understanding of the spirit.
The Bulleit Experience
The Bulleit Experience is located at the old Stitzel-Weller Distillery, where distillation ceased over 20 years ago. It’s the immense popularity of what came out of those stills all those years ago though that is in some ways responsible for the staggering growth in bourbon today. It may ring a bell – Pappy Van Winkle. The Pappy phenomenon may be miraculous or menacing depending on the perspective, but it’s undoubtedly a driving force behind renewed interest in good bourbon.
At Wild Turkey, two old school bourbon legends are still in charge, Jimmy and Eddie Russell. Yet, the distillery is all powerful , modern efficiency at work, with a fully computerized 52-foot tall, 5-foot diameter copper column still.
At Maker’s Mark, visitors may have the opportunity to hear Bill Samuels Jr. wax poetically on his family’s brand. “Between 1950 and 2012, there was one craft bourbon distillery started,” says Samuels. “It was here.” Dip a personal bottle of Maker’s into its signature red wax seal and bring some of that legacy home.
The beautiful grounds of Woodford Reserve seem a perfect fit for the brand and the man in charge, Morris. Stone buildings stretching back nearly 200 years old are still used for distilling and warehousing, blending in perfectly with that visitor center which helped spur on so much of this.
The Jim Beam American Stillhouse brings visitors back through seven generations of family whiskey making, with current master distiller Fred Noe, Jim Beam’s grandson, in charge today. The sheer mammoth industry of the facility, which is somehow the smaller of their two distilleries, is awe-inducing, with 200 gallons per minute flowing into their six-story still.
The state of American whiskey today is encapsulated through each of these stops and others along the way. It’s iconic names and transformational figures, old-timey wisdom interspersed with tall tales and historic facts. It’s family-run tradition backed by billion dollar multinational forces.
American whiskey is alive and well. Find your next bottle!