Before leaving Nashville we decided to stop at Corsair, a local distillery (thanks for the recommendation Mark). We were able to safely enjoy a tasting of a variety of their products including vodka, gin, and whiskey. We left with a souvenir of their Triple Smoke Whiskey, with plans to bring several new spirits home to enjoy with our family over the winter holidays.
After finishing our first stop in Nashville (will elaborate later) we headed north to Louisville to stop at as many bourbon distilleries as possible. I (Mike) had mapped out several locations of interest including Evan Williams, Heaven Hill, Jim Beam, Michter’s, and a few places that are newer on the trail. Unfortunately due to the pandemic most places were completely closed, and those that were open were permitted only to allow guests into their gift shops. No tours, no tastings. Not my best display of planning, but oh well.
Most of downtown Louisville was empty. After stopping in a few locations and seeing some cool history (including a few folks with a familiar name), we turned to food to save our stop in Louisville. Emily did some research and discovered that the famous local cuisine was a “hot brown”, an open faced sandwich type of dish with roasted turkey, bacon, and Mornay (lots of cheese) sauce over roasted tomatoes and Texas toast. The ultimate comfort food. We picked up one from the Brown Hotel where it originated, and luckily followed advice from our internet research and only ordered one to split. Here’s the recipe if you want to try and make one at home.
Our second measure of rescuing this doomed detour to northern Kentucky was, of course, dessert. We found a nice little ice cream spot and enjoyed some high quality traditional ice cream. All in all, despite my planning failures, it was a good day. After Louisville, we had also planned a few stops further south in Kentucky near Bardstown, also known as the bourbon capital of the world (which we confirmed were open for tastings). We drove south and parked at a small distillery just outside of Louisville (again, not open) to sleep for the night.
On Saturday we were determined to have more success. Our first stop was at Lux Row Distillers, which was awesome. While it is a distillery with much history, the current location is new as of 2015. Home to several brands, we were taken on a private tour through the distillery and barrel houses. Both Emily and I were nerding out at the massive barrel house structures, which are essentially huge barns until loaded with barrels. Our tour guide told us that the structure is actually dependent on the barrels and that their added load brings the structure together. We also learned that a local contractor basically patented their method of constructing the barrel houses, and we realized after driving around that day that all of the barrel houses around Bardstown looked the same. Good for them.
Following the tour we had the tasting room to ourselves and were able to taste four of their products (even though the day before they had mentioned tastings were temporarily suspended) which was a nice surprise. We again left with a bottle to try with the family, and headed to a nearby distillery at the suggestion of the staff at Lux Row.
The next distillery, Bardstown Bourbon, is a new operation and has only been around for 3 years. We learned that bourbon is typically aged for a minimum of 4 years, and they only recently pulled their 3 year product out of storage. While waiting for their bourbon to fully mature, they blended in some curated matured whiskeys from other distilleries (and also served proprietary blends of some of that curated whiskey, without their product involved). I tried a few of the blends (Emily opted out as she was that day’s driver) and really enjoyed what they were offering. I would definitely like to stop in again in a few years once they’ve got their own mature bourbon to try.
From there, we headed to enjoy a small tour and tasting of my favorite spirit, Maker’s Mark. As expected the property was absolutely massive, almost like an estate. They too had a limited tour/tasting availability, but we ended up on a small tour that showed us a few of the buildings on the property. To this day, every drop of Maker’s Mark product comes from a small still house on their huge property. We then sat down to try some of their staple products (Maker’s, 46, cask strength) but were also able to try some custom blends curated by the staff. These blends are made using a variety of species of staves (wooden slates placed long-ways within the aging barrel to provide flavor) selected by the staff and were really tasty.
Maker’s ended up being our final Kentucky whiskey stop as we could not find anything else open to the public, so from there we paused our drinking and turned to some natural history with a visit to Mammoth Cave National Park. Mammoth Cave, the longest known cave system in the world at 412 miles, is in central Kentucky and if you weren’t pointed to the entrance by the pavement and guardrails, you might miss it.
The cave tour was a wild experience. Despite having only 2 tour options (normally in non-Covid times there are many more, including some more advanced, tight-squeeze type routes) the experience was fantastic. At between 140-190 feet below ground with ‘ceiling’ heights of up to 50 feet at any given time, it was absolutely massive. The system is only dimly lit (to allow your eyes to adjust) but provides plenty of light to see the various formations as you continue deeper. In terms of history, Mammoth Cave played a huge role in the war of 1812, specifically due to the production of calcium nitrate (in the soil) into black gunpowder.
We learned about how the cave was discovered, who owned it throughout history, and its significance to the countries’ history. Although I’m certainly not a history buff, this was a worthwhile experience.
From the cave we headed back south into Tennessee again to hit the Tennessee Whiskey Trail. Learning from the whole Louisville failure, this time we called ahead and found a few distilleries that were offering tours, tastings, or both. We stayed close to our first Tennessee distillery location for the night and woke up early to start our trip across the state.
Our first stop in Tennessee (the second time around) was Old Glory Distilling. At 9:30 am or so, we were the only ones there. Go figure. Tours did not start until noon, but we sat down for a private tasting despite the early hour. Old Glory is a young distillery, again younger than the 4 year threshold, so they’ve chosen to produce some small batch whiskey in the interim. Small batch whiskey using smaller barrels equates to a shorter maturation period (smaller barrels have more surface area relative to the volume of the barrel, allowing more product to age against the wooden barrel more quickly). They also offered a few other spirits including vodka, moonshine, and gin, and we left there with our first gin bottle.
Stop number two for the day was H. Clark Distilling, a super tiny, single barn location, complete with an operational law office in the front of the building. Their story starts with Mr. Clark who, in 2010, lobbied and successfully helped to change Tennessee Law to allow distilleries to operate in places other than Moore County (where Jack Daniels resides). As late as 2009, Tennessee had only 3 distilleries, whereas there are dozens in operation today.
As noted above, H. Clark is tiny. They’ve got a single building in which all distilling takes place and 80 barrels can be stored in the attic. The photos above show the still that produces all of their product and also our whiskey cat friend who could not get enough of Emily. With the benefit of hindsight, I can say that H. Clark’s single barrel bourbon was my favorite of everything that we tried, including the Kentucky products. This was a super cool stop.
From H. Clark we continued to work our way south and stopped at Big Tenn Distillers, now also known as Big Machine Distilling (Big Machine is a major country record label who bought the distillery a few years back). Our favorite part of each stop on the whiskey trail was seeing and hearing about each location’s story and how they got started. Big Machine was no different. As they took us into their distilling warehouse to show us the operation, we got to talk to one of the distillers and see an incredible custom designed vodka still (apparently based on Nichola Tesla’s work).
The copper rings are on the exterior only and are meant to control the temperature throughout the distilling process. The liquid within the still travels up and down the still for what equates to 25 times distilled, and is then passed through a platinum filter for good measure. This results in a super smooth, colorless, tasteless vodka. We tried a few other products, which were all tasty (including some awesome blueberry moonshine liquor), and left with yet another bottle of bourbon.
Our final stop for the day (and the whiskey trail) was actually in northern Alabama at Black Patch Distilling Company. A small distillery started by a military family from Texas, they are new on the scene but making some great stuff. Yet another distillery where the product was not at the 4 year mark, they too were producing other products in the meantime, this time blue agave spirits (tequila, but not produced in Tequila, Mexico).
Tequila, by definition, must be 100% agave and at least 51% blue agave. Black Patch uses 100% blue agave for the entire process (whereas, apparently, many major Tequila producers will us 51% blue agave so it can be called ‘Tequila’, but then fill the remaining 49% with whatever type of agave is cheap and available). Another nugget that we learned is that colored Tequila comes from aging in barrels. Reposado is aged for between 60 and 364 days (less than one year). Anejo is aged for at least one year, but less than three years. To that end, some of the major colored tequila producers, including Jose, are neither Reposado or Anejo. What does that mean? Food coloring, and other nonsense, is used to color the liquor. So always check that your Tequila is Reposado or Anejo before buying! Their Reposado was great, but their Gold (Anejo), which was just recently made available, was even better. Almost a split between whiskey and tequila. The master distiller said he likes to call it ‘sipping Tequila’ and I would certainly agree.
Having developed quite a liquor cabinet for our little home on wheels, we turned our attention south and west with plans to hit the gulf coast. More food and fun next in Cajun and Creole country…