Bardstown Bourbon Company Tour and Barrel Pick
The second day of Bourbon and Time started mid-morning with a ride from downtown Louisville to Bardstown Bourbon Company. We arrived at BBC and were organized into two different groups for a full tour of the facility. To make it easier to hear the tour guide in louder conditions, everyone wore a headset for the duration of the tour. My group’s tour was given by John Hargrove, Vice President of Manufacturing Operations.
Over the years, I’ve done a lot of distillery tours across the US and Scotland. Most tours follow the same format because the production of whisk(e)y is the same no matter who is making it. Bardstown Bourbon was pretty similar to the other tours I’ve done. However, this tour stood out to me in other ways. Most distilleries in Scotland and many in Kentucky have a lot of history to them, giving an “old school” feel to the tour. You see tools from the 1800s, dingy yet charming fermentation rooms, and musty rickhouses.
The Bardstown Bourbon Co. tour was different. We started off in their fermentation room and for the first time in my life, I thought to myself, “Wow! This is a beautiful fermentation room!” BBC is all about transparency, both figuratively in their whiskey releases and quite literally in terms of their facility. Both the still room and fermentation room are large open spaces with walls of windows letting in tons of natural light. It looked like the showroom version of what a distillery might look like in a catalog and I’m apparently not the only one. I recently sent a friend who was in the area to lunch at Bottle and Bond, the on-site restaurant at the distillery and he said, “It’s funny, when you think of a bourbon distillery, you expect a sort of rustic, down-home type place. This place felt like I was having lunch at a tech firm in Silicon Valley.” I couldn’t agree more.
The final stop of most distillery tours is a visit to a warehouse/rickhouse. Before we left the main building to head to the rickhouse, the BBC staff wanted to show us the new events/tasting room that was still being built out. We went through a back corridor to a second story room with a big glass wall overlooking what will eventually be a tasting room on the main floor. I was one of the first people that walked up to the glass and looked down at the bar.
My excitement over what I saw must have been contagious because within 60 seconds, the whole room was abuzz. The room was split into two very clear camps. The first camp was the whiskey nerds who knew exactly what they were looking at. The second camp didn’t know why the first camp was so excited but simply knew SOMETHING big was happening. What did I see being poured downstairs? Two decanters from the legendary Old Crow Chessmen series.
Depending on who you talk to, Old Crow Chessmen bourbon (bottled 50 years ago in 1969) ranges from being really good to “the greatest whiskey of all time.” Either way, you were in for an exciting experience. Both Eric and David Mandel said a few words before we were invited to come up and grab a glass. I took a Glencairn with whiskey from a Light Bishop decanter. The other end of the bar had glasses from a Light Castle decanter.
One of the things you give up when attending events like these is the ability to spend a lot of time with any one pour. For someone like me that can dissect an ounce of whiskey over the course of an hour, this is both a challenge and an opportunity. With mere minutes to enjoy a legendary pour, you’re forced to distill (pun intended) your tasting down to a handful of notes. I remember this pour as being dark, flavorful, and complex despite the low proof. It didn’t strike me as the best bourbon I’ve ever had but I certainly enjoyed it and want to get another sample so I can spend more time with it. Halfway through my pour, there were some glasses left at the bar that were unclaimed. I grabbed one of them at the suggestion of the BBC staff and doubled my pour. It pays to stay close to the staff as you’ll see a bit later.
From here, we made our way to the nearest rickhouse. The distillery is expanding significantly both in terms of their buildings and the grounds. On the walk to the rickhouse, we walked alongside open dirt where I assume grass will soon be planted and had to step off the sidewalk at one point where they were smoothing out freshly poured cement. After getting to our destination, we were escorted up to the 6th floor. If you haven’t walked up five flights of stairs in a non-climate controlled building in Kentucky in the middle of July, it’s an experience to say the least. By the time you’re halfway to the top, you start to feel the heat. By the sixth floor, you are already sweating.
The 6th floor was ready and waiting for us. We were greeted with three barrels and three corresponding tables set up for us to do our very own Bourbon and Time single barrel selection! Each of the three barrels was from a very different mashbill. Bardstown Bourbon company has only been producing whiskey for about two and a half years so none of these barrels had much age to them.
The first barrel was whiskey from a high wheated mashbill (53% corn, 39% wheat, 8% malted barley) and at the time was aged 1 year and 3 months. It was light in profile and had that those soft fruit undertones that you expect from a wheater. The second barrel was a high rye bourbon (60% corn, 36% rye, 4% malted barley) that had aged 2 years and 7 months. I’m sure it had to do with the extra year of aging, but I found this bourbon to have a ton more depth and some really great flavor. Finally, the third barrel was a 95/5 rye (95% rye, 5% malted rye) that aged for 2 years and 4 months. Every pour was hot, but this one had extra heat with not enough flavor or complexity to back it up for me.
Of the three, I thought the high rye bourbon was the best, followed by the wheater, with the rye as a distant third. I talked to both John Hargrove and Master distillery Steve Nally about the three barrels and they both agreed that they expected barrel number 2 to be the favorite. As often happens with me, my taste preferences were not aligned with everyone else’s. The 95/5 rye got the majority of the votes and was the group’s selection. This was a really tough pick to make because of the age of the samples so I rated them as they were and not as they could be with more time. Once we got back to the main event room for lunch, they made a really cool announcement. We’re going to revisit these three barrels as they continue to age over the years. I predict that in time, that wheated bourbon is going to make a strong case for itself.
Masterclass and Tastings
After a nice lunch, we began a series of sessions from our sponsor brands. They were labeled as masterclass sessions though I argue that only the BBC session had the level of detail and education to earn that label.
The Bardstown Bourbon session picked up right where we left off in the rickhouse. We started with three samples of new make spirit. One was a wheated bourbon, another was a high rye bourbon, and the third from a 95/5 rye. As is always the case with new makes, it was really interesting to understand the base spirit without the influence of wood. Aging a spirit can hide flaws sometimes but there’s no hiding them in a new make. Of the three, I still liked the wheated and high rye bourbon more than the rye but I’m willing to keep an open mind about our barrels as they age. Next, we tried our chosen rye sample. The cool thing about trying this next was being able to go back and forth between the new make and the aged spirit.
Next, we tried the two flagship Bardstown Bourbon releases. The first is batch one of Fusion. I’ve been saying for a while now that the future of whisk(e)y is blending, especially in the bourbon world where large batches of well-aged stocks just don’t exist anymore. Bardstown Bourbon Company is taking blending in two different directions. With Fusion, they created a whiskey made up of 40% 11 year, 7 month Kentucky bourbon and blended it with 42% high rye BBC bourbon aged 2 years, 1 month and 18% wheated bourbon from BBC aged 2 years, 3 months.
Unlike some blending NDPs with more “interesting” pricing models, this is retailing for $59.99. There are enthusiasts out there that will see that percentage of 2 year old whiskey and associate that with a 2 year age statement. While that’s technically true, it doesn’t tell the whole story. If the end product tastes good, I really don’t care what goes into the bottle. I was fully prepared to be unimpressed by this but it was actually the opposite experience for me. It didn’t taste like “mostly 2 year old bourbon” to me and I was certainly looking for it. The transparency of mash bills, ages, and blending percentages is also a big plus for me.
BBC Discovery is a blend of 4 different Kentucky whiskies. A whopping 75% of this blend is that same 11 year, 7 month bourbon with the same mashbill as what went into Fusion. 10% was from 10 year old bourbon. Another 10% was from 5 year old bourbon with a different mashbill (I assume from another producer) and 10% was 13 year old wheated bourbon. This was higher strength, higher age, and had a more oak-driven profile. In other words, right up my alley.
Finally, we sampled another bourbon from their Collaboration Series. This is an 11 year old bourbon distilled in Indiana (it could be anyone really) and finished for 18 months in Goodwood Honey Ale Barrels. I love the fact that their aging periods are so long. I asked where they draw the line between the terms “finishing” and “double maturation” and they admitted that it’s a pretty blurred line most of the time.
New Riff was next and Jay Erisman, Co-founder and VP of Strategic Development talked to us about the company and what makes them different. The name New Riff is based on the fact that they like to do things differently. The distillery is a modern facility and their products didn’t see a retail shelf until their bourbon and rye was at least 4 years old. We revisited their straight bourbon, rye, and single barrel selection from the previous night. We also got a gift pack with a bottle of their bourbon along with an awesome branded spey dram glass. I expect New Riff single barrels to be part of the “next big thing” in bourbon.
Copper and Kings gave us a much appreciated break from whiskey for a bit. The company is 100% focused on brandy and they’re working hard to start a resurgence in that market. Available for sampling was their flagship American Brandy, a 100 proof brandy finished in whiskey barrels, their apple brandy, a cask strength private cask single barrel apple brandy that heavily piqued my interest, a single cask brandy finished in a cask from a Pacific Northwest single malt distillery that we definitely can’t identify. (It’s a distillery from a WESTerly LAND.) Finally, there was a grape brandy finished in tequila barrels. What was supposed to be an organized sampling sort of turned into a free for all. I went straight for that PNW barrel finish first and loved it. Then I tried the cask strength apple brandy. The heat was incredible but the flavor was there to back it up. Finally, I tried the tequila barrel finish. There is NO mistaking this one. Those sweet agave notes were prevalent throughout. It was a really cool experience to try high strength brandy. Copper and Kings is certainly making a name for themselves.
Earlier in the day, I asked David Mandell in private if I could take a look at the Bottle and Bond whiskey vault and he was happy to oblige sometime during the afternoon. Once we went on break after Copper and Kings, I found David and he sent me to the vault with Dan Callaway, Director of Bourbon Education, Visitors Experience and Product Development. We walked through a hallway into a construction area until we reached a receiving room. It’s funny to think that so much old and valuable whisky is being stored in a shipping cage no bigger than a walk-in closet but until construction is complete, it’s the perfect home for it. Dan brought me in and left me to my own devices while he tended to other business in the other room. I wanted to take photos of the most interesting bottles I could see while being mindful of time so I got right to it. Aside from more Old Crow Chessmen, I saw some other gems that caught my attention: Cedar Brook Sour Mash bottled in 1892, some 1974 Van Winkles (both gold and red wax), PA Michters, complete or near-complete collections of PHC, Evan Williams Single Barrel, OFBB, Four Roses SmBLE. The highlight for me was a Very Xtra Old Fitzgerald barreled in the 1950s. It was incredible to see so much amazing whiskey in one location.
I made it back to the tasting room right after the start of the Old Carter session. Mark and Sherri Carter told us a little bit about the short history of the brand and then did a fun experiment putting Batch 3 of their rye against Batch 4 side by side. The two rye whiskies were very different and the Carters informed us that one batch was chosen by Mark and the other by Sherri. The the sake of bragging rights, we were asked to vote for our favorite of the two. Batch 3 was more oak-driven and was my preferred pour. By comparison, batch 4 was spicier and way more herbal. Batch 4 won the majority of the votes. As it turns out, that was Sherri’s batch. We also got an opportunity to try a batch of 12 year old American whisky that was pretty amazing.
Next up was Wilderness Trail, a distillery I learned a bit about from an episode of Bourbon Pursuit. It doesn’t take long to realize that co-founders Shane Baker and Pat Heist are some highly intelligent guys. Wilderness Trail didn’t put out a whiskey release until it was four years old, yet they didn’t sell any neutral grain spirits or unaged whiskey to keep the distillery afloat while they waited for stocks to age. How did they do it? As it turns out, they also own Ferm Solutions Inc., a company that specializes in research, product development, engineering and technical services for the ethanol and distilled spirits industries. In other words, they do some science-y magic. There’s your startup revenue stream right there. We tried three different releases: a wheated bourbon, and rye bourbon, and a rye whiskey. I liked the wheated bourbon the best but oddly enough, it didn’t have your typical soft fruit notes and was actually quite spicy! Keep and eye out for these guys. Good things are coming!
Last, but certainly not least, was Woodinville Whiskey. Woodinville is a small operation out of Washington State but are really starting a make a name for themselves nationwide. Jon Trainer talked about the history of the distillery and their offerings but what stuck with me the most was that they play music to their sleeping casks. The thought is that the heavy bass will help the whiskey penetrate the wood faster. Kind of a cool concept. Even if it only makes a nominal difference, I really like the idea of aging casks rocking out. We were able to try their standard bourbon and rye as well as their cask strength bourbon. Their highly acclaimed Port Cask Finish wasn’t in the lineup but it was at the bar downstairs so Bardstown Bourbon Co. arranged for us to head downstairs and try the Port Cask as an official end to the day. The Port Cask did not disappoint and surprisingly, that was my very first time drinking anything out of a Norlan Glass.
I don’t know how the conversation came up, but I mentioned to Eric that I got a chance to see the vault earlier and he immediately suggested to David that everyone get a chance to see it too. (To my fellow attendees, you’re welcome!) David spoke about a few rarities that I didn’t see the first time including a clear, unlabeled bottle that contained a new make spirit from an unknown distillery from the 1940s. Pretty cool!
With the second day officially over relatively early, it was time to figure out what the plan for the evening was. Once we got back to downtown Louisville, a few people took off on their own. The majority of the group went to The Silver Dollar, a bourbon bar with a huge selection and great food. I was concerned that a large party showing up on a Saturday night during the same weekend as The Forecastle Festival seemed like a bad idea. A few of us decided to head just over the border into Indiana for a bite to eat and to hit up Match, a nearby cigar bar. Wouldn’t you know it, we ran into Ariel and Jon from Woodinville at the cigar bar and had a quiet, relaxing end to our day. Thanks again to Jon for giving me your Partagas Serie P2! I owe you one!
You would think that any story worth telling about the day has already been told, but there’s one last encounter I have to mention. We grabbed an Uber from the cigar bar back to the hotel. The driver asked what we were doing in town and we told him it was a bourbon-fueled weekend. He seemed interested in what we were talking about so we kept the conversation going. When we asked him what his favorite whiskey is and when he responded with Angel’s Envy Cask Strength 2013, I knew something was up. As it turned out, our driver was Patrick from Stogies on the Rocks! I’ve been following those guys for many years so it was mind blowing to run into one of them the way we did.
Stay tuned for the day three recap!