Hauraki Brewing Company's Peter Wheeler is hot on the trail of a smooth American legend in the distilleries of Kentucky.
At home we enjoy great wine and food trails. We've holidayed in Scotland, always tempted by distillery visits and local tours. But this trip was for business — a journey to Kentucky, home of one of our suppliers in the heart of bourbon country. Business and pleasure can mix.
An easy 90-minute flight took us from New York to Louisville, Kentucky, famous for both KFC and bourbon. On our plane's approach the land below was dominated by rows of widely spaced warehouses. These multi-storey "ricks" held millions of litres of ageing bourbon, and we were to try just a little.
On the southern bank of the Ohio River, Louisville was founded on the river trade, a terminus for goods from Pittsburg, 1200km upstream, and only a short run downstream to the mighty Mississippi. The Ohio is almost 2km wide at Louisville and formed the boundary between the Southern Confederacy and the Northern Union states. Its economy based on subsistence farming of corn and tobacco, Kentucky also had a darker side, the slave trade. Today a few of the original cabins have been preserved and the struggle between slave owners and the free men of Indiana just across the river is recalled by local memorials and museums.
Like the crofters in Scotland's Highland, many crop farmers in Kentucky, faced with getting heavy, bulky and low-value grain to market found converting the "goodness" in the corn into a barrel or two of spirit very profitable. It was easily traded and shipped south. By the 1880's the State was home to hundreds of moonshiners making "likker". In the way of all business, partnerships grew, equipment sharing and eventual amalgamation saw the number of distillers shrink as the output grew and the district became the iconic home of bourbon.
The bourbon industry has had to fight hard to become recognised. Rum had been the spirit of choice almost since the USA was founded. Supplied with molasses from British colonies in the Caribbean, New York-based distilleries produced huge quantities of sugar spirit while Bourbon was seen as the drink of the poor Southerners.
By the 1900s, bourbon sales were finally increasing, but then came the 1920 Prohibition Act which made all the United States dry for 13 years. This was the time of bathtub gin, Canadian rye whiskey smugglers, rum boats lining up on the Carolina coast and the return of the Moonshiner. Fast cars and rough booze did nothing for bourbon's image.
The 1933 repeal had little effect as by then the industry was mostly bankrupt with old equipment and ramshackle distilleries. More importantly , financial backers were very wary of making investments in an industry that could dry up again with a Senate vote.
However by the 1960s a new breed of drinker was emerging worldwide. Here in New Zealand, the six o'clock beer swill remained and scotch was an old man's tipple; neither were really pleasant, when along came this newfangled drink: bourbon and coke. Sweet and smooth, it hit the spot for thousands of women and teenagers — and our love of bourbon began.
And it has lasted for more than 50 years. At one stage, New Zealand was Jim Beam's top market per capita, and our RTDs revolutionised the global drinks industry.
However back in the US, scotch still ruled until multinationals became interested in the bourbon industry and applied the same marketing skills that had made scotch, and white rum market leaders.
The hangover from prohibition was still being felt. State laws and local taxes differed wildly and even today Jack Daniels, made in Lynchburg, Tennessee, can't be legally sold there, as the county is dry. Running booze across county or state lines attracts the attention of the ATB (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives), a serious bunch who, like the FBI, ask few questions. But in the past decade the craft brewing revolution has forced some common sense changes to the law and today more than 200 distilleries are operating in the US.
In the heart of bourbon country there are 23 distilleries within easy reach of Louisville, including some of the best known brands — Jim Beam, Four Roses, Maker's Mark, Bulleit and Wild Turkey — along with a few new startups.
But there's no sign of Jack Daniels. Gentleman Jack is a Tennessee Sour Mash Whiskey, made the same way as bourbon but filtered through beds of maple charcoal, so it doesn't comply with the Bourbon Law. JDs brand their "bourbon", still made with corn, Sour Mash Tennessee Whiskey.
Homework done, we went downstairs to the Bar at our Hotel E21 (that's another story) to be faced with a drinks list of 298 bourbons. Different makers, different years, even different strengths and what about a single barrel offering? The barmen were true believers and soon had $15 flights of five selected whiskeys in front of us.
A 17-year-old 90 proof Eagle Rare was soft on the palate, a Willetts 8-year-old rye, at 114 proof — not so much thanks. Oh decisions, decisions — and there was plenty of tasting to do over the next few days.
Getting out of town was difficult (there's little public transport), so sober drivers were required ... and hard to find. Never mind, the Mexican restaurant next door to the hotel stocked 30 bourbons, so we were saved. Another block along Main Street was the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience — a distillery just 48 steps away from our room.
Evan Williams claims to be Kentucky's first commercial distillery and this downtown showpiece is a fully functional office block-sized plant producing special small batch runs. With only 12 visitors on each prebooked tour, the staff were full of information and allowed a close-up look at each of the production stages.
Not surprisingly, the tour finished in an 1880s-themed bar. Evan Williams' 86 Proof 1783 was especially nice and my wife (a real bourbon lover) was reluctant to move on. We weren't even on the trail yet and the tour had cost just $12.
Armed with the Louisville Urban Trail passport we discovered there were 72 bars and restaurants in town, quite a challenge as an "Old Fashioned" cocktail (bourbon, sugar, bitters and a lemon slice) is Louisville's official drink and all 72 bars had their special version.
Our other guidebook, the Kentucky Distillers Association (Est 1880) Bourbon Trail Passport, listed 10 distilleries with visitor facilities.
Our first stop however was work-related, with a big black Chevy pickup as our taxi.
Getting in was fine but falling out would be dicey, as the ground was a long way away.
Out of town, the famed bluegrass country wasn't blue or even green but a very dirty brown. "Just wait until spring," they said. I had somehow thought Kentucky would be hilly but this Bourbon Country is flat and covered by 2- and 4-hectare house and farm lots.
There was no stock in the fields; presumably it was in barns, rugged up for the winter.
Arriving at the Speyside Barrel Company, we saw thousands of used bourbon barrels being recycled, rebuilt or chipped. We were there to meet and greet the team and to pick over what we needed for home. Work can sometimes intrude on travel plans but in our business, work is always a pleasure and we have never yet met a dour grumpy brewer or distiller — funny that.
As the bourbon laws specify barrels are filled only once, the used ones are collected, processed then exported to Scotland, India, Japan, China and New Zealand, mostly for ageing new Scotch.
Our hosts, the Willett family, were longtime Kentuckians; they even remembered having Davey Crockett coonskin hats (hell, I had one too). One uncle was reopening the old Willett distillery in Bardstown (with Heaven Hill as their neighbour), while the manager's father was a VP with Jim Beam. Bourbon was obviously in the family's blood. Our celebration drink this time was a craft ale aged in a bourbon barrel — not bad at all and it solved the problem of having a few quick shorts after a few beers. We weren't driving.
We chose the Jim Beam Distillery in Shepherdsville for a half-day tour as the company had recently been bought by Suntory and part of the deal was to develop an enhanced visitor-experience centre.
It's a slick, well-run tour with 20 people per group and operates four times a day. Being prebooked there are no Disneyland-like queues and as distillery hands are the guides you are given genuine explanations. All for $14.
Our tour group comprised mainly Americans, all dedicated bourbon drinkers, no doubt. Jim Beam's site is large and a bus is used to move you around. The final warning as you board the bus: No smoking and no guns. In the still house it is sobering to watch as 75mm pipes gush 150-proof new-make bourbon or "white dog". A quick taste of white dog — "Yes, definitely bourbon" — confirmed it already had that distinctive Beam sweetness.
It was quite unlike any other new-make spirit I had tasted — they all had the edgy, sour cabbage water taste of new moonshine. Beam was very different and quite drinkable fresh. The still rooms were modern and semi-automatic but step outside and the still columns and towers wreathed in steam and bourbon fumes were from another century.
At Beam's, the new-make spirit is laid down in charred-oak barrels for three years where it mellows and colours. They are stored in ricks so huge that different floors and even different places on each floor have their own climate and the whiskey matures at different rates. The barrels on the outside (exposed to frost and heat) produce a spirit that is different from those in the heart, so it's the master blender's job to marry these streams into one consistent blend.
If he decides on a single-barrel bottling it should be taken very seriously, as by then at least 10 per cent of the original volume will have evaporated through the wood and the flavour will be intense.
Following the bourbon stream along into the bottling plant I was aghast to see the bottle-rinser using genuine Jim Beam bourbon as washing water. What a waste! But there was no time for dreaming as it was time to fill my own bottle with 9-year-old, single-barrel Knob Creek.
Presented with a quart bottle complete with my thumb print in the wax seal I was less sorry about the washing water.
A feature noticeable around the Jim Beam site — and all the distilleries — was the black residue coating buildings, pavements and trees.
This soot is the fallout from bourbon fumes evaporating out of the hundreds of thousands of maturing barrels. At Jim Beam this "angels' share" of 3 per cent a year amounts to a staggering 3 million litres being lost from each year's production.
In Speyside we had already seen tidemarks in very old barrels that had lost half their contents. No wonder the distillery angels always have smiles on their faces.
The Jim Beam tour finished in a brand new visitors' centre and — yes — another tasting room. A drop of Basil Hayden's spicy bourbon (lots of rye there) but it seemed to do the trick.
Though Louisville is a showpiece for the bourbon industry it is also proud to be the birthplace of Mohammed Ali and Colonel Sanders.
We just had to try KFC in Kentucky and spurred on by the rumour that American KFC is different from ours, we taxied to a suburban store. The rumour is true.
Our final aim was to try a local dish, recommended by all we met.
Not grits and possum belly but a Mungus Burger. This is a burger joint but had 98 bourbons to choose from, and 50 local craft beers. We were like goldfish in a bowl, and faced with a new challenge for next time.
And the burger?
Yes, it was humungous.
flies from Auckland to Louisville, Kentucky, via San francisco. Return, Economy Class tickets start from $1637.