On the Road: Distillery Tours Day Four

On our fourth and final day touring distilleries in Kentucky we visited two extremes as far as age.  We started at one of the newest and high-tech distilleries in the state, Town Branch, and ended at the oldest continuously operating distillery in the state, Buffalo Trace.  The contrast in methods is striking, but the process is the same.

The new Town Branch distillery was completed less than a year ago.

The new Town Branch distillery was completed less than a year ago.

Town branch is located near downtown Lexington, but their barrels are aged offsite.  Here you see racks of barrels brought in from the warehouses for bottling.

Town branch is located near downtown Lexington, but their barrels are aged offsite.  Here you see racks of barrels brought in from the warehouses for bottling.

Town Branch is a new brand, and the off shoot of an interesting process.  Alltech Brewing has been making beer for years under the Kentucky Ale label.  Their flagship is Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale, a wonderful ale that is finished in used bourbon barrels for six weeks before bottling.  This creates a wonderful dark ale with the sweetness and caramel flavor of bourbon enhancing the hoppy ale to amazing effect.  Since beer and bourbon start out fairly similarly, they decided to distill their own bourbon to ensure a ready made supply of old barrels (although they use barrels from several distilleries).

This display shows the effect of barrel aging on bourbon.  From left to right you see bourbon fresh off of the still, at six months, and at two years.

This display shows the effect of barrel aging on bourbon.  From left to right you see bourbon fresh off of the still, at six months, and at two years.

The double pot stills in the new Town Branch distillery.  Mash is cooked in one, cooled in tanks below the floor, then pumped into the second still to be distilled again before being barreled.

The double pot stills in the new Town Branch distillery.  Mash is cooked in one, cooled in tanks below the floor, then pumped into the second still to be distilled again before being barreled.

Seeing the brewing and distilling processes side by side at Alltech was a very interesting part of the trip.  After touring all of the other distilleries, seeing such a modern operation was great as well.  It was a very enjoyable time.  It also made for an interesting contrast from our afternoon at Buffalo Trace.

Upon arriving at Buffalo Trace you are greeted by the old brick rickhouses on their enormous grounds.

Upon arriving at Buffalo Trace you are greeted by the old brick rickhouses on their enormous grounds.

Our last stop on this whirlwind adventure to see ten distilleries in four days was the storied Buffalo Trace Distillery.  Makers of the four hardest to find and highest rated bourbons in the word (Pappy van Winkle, George T. Stagg, William Larue Wheller, and Thomas Handy), Buffalo Trace was the distillery I most wanted to visit on this trip.  While I wasn't able to snag any of these hard to find brands from the gift shop (they are in such short supply that they are apparently never sold on site)  it was an amazing tour, made better by our guide Coy's knowledge and the amazing access afforded us on what Buffalo Trace calls their "Hard Hat Tour".

The corn silos at Buffalo Trace are HUGE.

The corn silos at Buffalo Trace are HUGE.

Buffalo Trace uses pressure to speed the cooking process of it's mash.  This is one of eight 9800 gallon mash cookers.  Each one is emptied every week and refilled.

Buffalo Trace uses pressure to speed the cooking process of it's mash.  This is one of eight 9800 gallon mash cookers.  Each one is emptied every week and refilled.

Here we see where the magic happens.  Each of the mash fermenters at Buffalo Trace ferment more than 90,000 gallons of mash.

Here we see where the magic happens.  Each of the mash fermenters at Buffalo Trace ferment more than 90,000 gallons of mash.

Here we see a fermenter that has been working for around 3 days.  The red substance is oil from the mash bill that floats to the top of fermenter as part of the process.

Here we see a fermenter that has been working for around 3 days.  The red substance is oil from the mash bill that floats to the top of fermenter as part of the process.

At the top of the still is the tasting box.  Here the raw spirits can be sampled and viewed as they come off of the still to determine alcohol content and taste.

At the top of the still is the tasting box.  Here the raw spirits can be sampled and viewed as they come off of the still to determine alcohol content and taste.

This is a better shot of the tap at the tasting box.  From this tap we were allowed to sample raw whiskey from the still.  It was a lot sweeter than the other new-make spirits we tried during the week. Photo courtesy of Buffalo Trace.

This is a better shot of the tap at the tasting box.  From this tap we were allowed to sample raw whiskey from the still.  It was a lot sweeter than the other new-make spirits we tried during the week. Photo courtesy of Buffalo Trace.

This tank captures the distilled spirits off of the still before barreling.

This tank captures the distilled spirits off of the still before barreling.

Here we see the heads and tails tank.  The heads and tails are pure ethyl alcohol, and the source of all of the old warnings about moonshine causing blindness and death.  A novice distiller who does not know how to remove these first spirits and the remains from the bottom of the tank from the whiskey they are selling can cause serious harm to their drinkers.

Here we see the heads and tails tank.  The heads and tails are pure ethyl alcohol, and the source of all of the old warnings about moonshine causing blindness and death.  A novice distiller who does not know how to remove these first spirits and the remains from the bottom of the tank from the whiskey they are selling can cause serious harm to their drinkers.

This kettle still holds more than 45,000 gallons of mash, and is one of several at Buffalo Trace.

This kettle still holds more than 45,000 gallons of mash, and is one of several at Buffalo Trace.

Here, in a small room off the side of the fermentation tanks in what was the old yeast growing room we find Master Distiller Harlen Wheatley's private domain.  In this room he creates the "experimentals", small batch, limited edition creations made available in limited quantities if he feels they are worthy of distribution.  According to Coy less than 10% of his experiments are made available outside of the distillery.

Here, in a small room off the side of the fermentation tanks in what was the old yeast growing room we find Master Distiller Harlen Wheatley's private domain.  In this room he creates the "experimentals", small batch, limited edition creations made available in limited quantities if he feels they are worthy of distribution.  According to Coy less than 10% of his experiments are made available outside of the distillery.

As you can see Buffalo Trace really rolled out the carpet and gave us full access on their tour.  I have many more pictures, but these illustrate the process of making Bourbon and show the age and character of the distillery best, in my opinion. 

This ends the tours of distilleries in Bourbon Country.  I have completed my passport and will be sending off for my t-shirt.  We had a great time, and will return to Kentucky soon.  Carrie and I both loved it, and found a ton of places we would like to explore with more time. 

Stay tuned for reviews of a couple of the better restaurants we visited and pictures from our time at Church Hill Downs and Keenland for Kentucky's second biggest tourist draw, it's wonderful horse and racing tradition.