Describing bourbon — the all-American whiskey-with-an-‘e’ — is best left to music. Here’s country singer Toby Keith singing ‘Whiskey Girl’:
Just ain’t enough good burn in tequila
She needs somethin’ with a little more edge
And a little more pain”And the intriguingly named band Bourbon Crow in ‘A Dead Boy’:
“I’m livin’ the American dream
A dead body and a bottle of Beam
The cops are hot on my trail
I don’t have any money for bail
I got everything that I need
A dead body and a bottle of Beam.
When the first sip of bourbon scrapes its way down your throat, you understand the quality of the drink — it's got angst and attitude, community as much as individuality. It invites you to a friendly challenge, such as keeping your face straight while your nostrils are being stripped to the bone. It’s life-affirming, a kind of grimy middle finger held up to a difficult world. Wine is sophisticated, scotch is smooth, but bourbon says: “Man up. This is the American South. We might be hospitable, but this is no place for sissies.”
I haven’t seen much of this part of America, red state America, which unspools flat and rural, from the windows of the bus taking us from distillery to distillery on the American Whiskey Trail. The trail is the brainchild of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS), the idea being to explore the making and drinking of bourbon.
The de rigueur first stop of the tour is Mount Vernon, Virginia, half an hour’s drive from Washington DC. This is where President George Washington lived and farmed and made quantities of bourbon — 11,000 gallons of spirits in the last year of his life, according to the distillery’s ledgers. It was predictably a Scotsman who, in 1797, proposed that a distillery be set up around the 1770s gristmill that ground wheat and corn. Fire destroyed it after Washington’s death and in 1850 the decrepit gristmill was torn down, but the whole thing has been reconstructed and restored to look the way it did in George Washington’s time, including staff in period costumes — it’s a little gimmicky, but lends ambience. This is where you’ll learn the terms and the basic technology of distilling, as white clouds of ground grain billow around in the gristmill, mash tubs bubble and spirit runs out of copper pot stills.
For those of you who are as clueless as I was about the whiskey-making process, here’s a basic run-down. First, put together a ‘mash bill’, comprising your preferred percentage of grains and malt. Add water and cook to turn the starches to sugar; cool the mixture and stick it into a fermentation vat with yeast (and possibly some amount of ‘sour mash’ from the last distillation) to convert sugars to alcohol. This ‘distiller’s beer’ is what goes into the still.
Distillation separates alcohol from water — when the distiller’s beer is heated, the alcohol vaporises into the upper part of the still and goes through a cooling pipe that turns it back into liquid. The first time it goes through the still, you get a 30-40 proof (15 to 20 per cent alcohol) distillate; a second distillation turns it into 80 proof (40 per cent alcohol) or ‘common’ whiskey. Toss the mash, or feed it to the cows, and reserve some (called ‘setback’) to use as sour mash for the next batch. As every distiller you meet will joke, there are lots of happy cows in whiskey-making country.
Raw spirit, fresh off the still, is what they call ‘white dog’. When it’s produced illegally, as it was during Prohibition, it’s called moonshine. It has to be put in a barrel and aged for at least two years before it can be called ‘straight bourbon’.
Mount Vernon made lots of rye whiskey and persimmon-flavoured whiskey in its time, using 2,100lbs of grain to produce a hundred gallons of whiskey (one gallon=3.78 litres). They continue to do so. At dinner at the Mount Vernon restaurant—where they’ve thoughtfully provided Indian journalists with chicken and lamb options and where a hundred per cent of Indian journalists have immediately ordered the beef steak — I try a mint julep. It’s horribly sweet, as is their wont in the South. I switch to a bourbon on the rocks and love it. Can’t remember the name of the bourbon. Fallout of this kind of assignment.
We fly from Washington DC to Nashville, Tennessee, where a bus picks us up and ferries us past fields and homesteads in what would be beautiful fall weather if we weren't so far south; it’s hot as hell. We end up, sweating and muttering, in an old-fashioned town square with a courthouse plonked in the middle of an admittedly touristy little market. Welcome to Lynchburg, Tennessee, world headquarters of Harley Davidson motorcycles and Jack Daniels whiskey.
The taste, quality and percentage of various ingredients determines the flavour of bourbon: the kinds and percentages of grain in the mash bill; the taste and mineral composition of the water; the yeast strain and length of fermentation and the size of the vat; the type of still and the proof to which alcohol is distilled; the kinds of barrels used to mature spirit and their placement in the barrelling house; and any processing that the spirit may be put through, such as mellowing. Ricks of sugar maple wood soaked in whiskey are set alight to create charcoal that filters impurities from the spirit, decreasing hangovers. (I’m all for it.) Bourbon thus mellowed is called Tennessee whiskey.
At Jack Daniels they mellow it not once but twice, which is what they reckon gives their premier brand, Gentleman Jack, its smoothness. And it is smooth. You have only to taste it along with white dog and Jack Daniels Black to know how far this drink has come. How do they feel about the fact that their fine, lovingly calibrated Tennessee whiskey gets mixed with cola to make the popular highball known as Jack and Coke? They smile a steely smile. It just means, they say, that it’s the best whiskey and Coke you’ll ever have.
Jack Daniels makes 20,160 barrels of whiskey a year. That’s a lot of business. Jack Daniels, sculpted in front of the spring water that determined the site, died from gangrene caused by kicking a safe that he couldn’t get open because he was in the office early and his assistant wasn't yet in. (The moral of that story, they’ll tell you, is: never come in to work early.) I wonder if little Mr Daniels could have imagined, when he set it up, that from Lynchburg, Tennessee, Jack Daniels would one day go out to the whole world.
The George Dickel distillery, in Cascade Hollow, Tullahoma, Tennessee, is a much smaller operation, a Tennessee whisky sold only domestically. They have strong Southern accents here and a wry humour (“We have twenty-eight employees and six or seven of us work.”). Dickel is a great bourbon and deliberately spells whisky without an ‘e’ to make the point that their whisky is as good as any Scotch. Outside the building runs the spring water that wells out of the limestone domes on which Tennessee lies.
We do a tasting: I like the fruity ten-year Barrel Select (which means it comes out of a single batch of particularly tasty barrels, all mixed up and bottled as a consistent premium product); but it turns out that the 90 proof Tennessee Whisky #12 is their largest-selling product. Tip: Do not nose bourbon the way you would wine, unless you enjoy aforesaid stripped nostrils. Breathing in from your mouth and nose together will prevent you from toppling over from the fumes.
They put us on a hayrick and drive us up to the barrelling houses where, in darkness, the barrels expand and contract with the seasons, letting the whiskey into their pores to leach the flavours from the wood, before pushing it out. Barrelling houses are fragrant with what they call the angels’ share, the portion of spirit that evaporates into the air. A two-man team is tasked with ‘leak-hunting’, since barometric differences can cause the barrels to sprout holes. Dickel’s eleven barrelling houses are single-storeyed, which means there is less variation in the topmost barrel and the bottom-most.
When George Dickel fell off his horse and died in 1894, he was worth $2 million. His wife moved to Kentucky during Prohibition; this facility was built in 1958. (The dour bust at the entrance doesn’t reflect Dickel’s German provenance; it’s based on a sketch of him in his coffin.)
George Dickel may leave out the ‘e’ in whiskey, but the Woodford Reserve distillery probably produces the most Scotch-like bourbon on the tour. It’s a one-brand distillery that consciously capitalised on the growing popularity of Scotches, brandies and cognacs during the 1980s, aiming to create a bourbon that tastes closer to a cognac. Launched in the mid-’90s, Woodford Reserve—located in beautiful country at Versailles, KY—now exports to thirty-five countries.
Its spicy flavour owes to a higher percentage of rye, the fact that the mash is cooked in red cyprus wood fermenters for six days and distilled in copper pot stills (which remove sulphides and result in heavier spirits), and the spirit is aged in oak weathered for nine months rather than the usual three or four and left alone for a minimum of five years.
Chris Morris at Woodford Reserve also creates Master’s Collection bourbons by playing around with the ingredients and proportions—once he used four grains instead of three; once he aged spirit in wine barrels to get a butterscotch flavour; once he used sweet mash to get blackberry and maple syrup notes; once he seasoned the oak for five years to get a spicy, blackberry blend of notes that was called the best bourbon ever made.
The very popular Maker’s Mark distillery in Happy Hollow, Kentucky, also tries to “make a bourbon that satisfies people who don’t like bourbon”. They take out as much of the bitter and the burn as possible, using a mash bill of corn, red winter wheat and malted barley, and age their barrels nine months to break down the tannins. Their first distillation takes place in a column still, the second in a copper pot still. The result is that Maker’s Mark and the excellent Maker’s 46 — the only new product from the company — are sweeter and smoother than other bourbons. (‘Happy Hollow’ sounds a little Disney and you do occasionally feel as if you’re being escorted around by happy elves but I’m a pretty happy elf by the end, so it’s all good.)
The long family history of Maker’s Mark (the Samuels have been distillers as far back as company president Bill Samuels’s great-great-great-great grandfather, first recreationally and then in earnest) includes that of Margie Samuels, the wife of the co-founder, who liked the wax seal on cognac bottles. On the bottling line, you’ll see any number of cheerful women dipping the neck of each bottle into vivid red wax. Bill Samuels will show you the bucket in which his grandfather concocted the new sour mash recipe that departed from a 170-year-old family recipe and set the tone for the modern company. The office is littered with photos of great men—politicians as well as outlaws—with whom the family has close connections. It reminds you that gutsy rebellion, in this country, is as much admired as conventional success.
Our final stop on the itinerary is at Bill Samuel’s godfather’s place in Clermont, Kentucky. That would be Jim B. Beam Distilling Co., one of the largest and best-recognised bourbon producers. It’s now run by his great grandson, Fred Noe, who escorts us around the comparatively huge industrial complex that constitutes the Jim Beam distillery. What the distillery lacks in charm, it makes up for in that famously relaxed hospitality over an outdoor dinner, where three staffers take up their guitars, perch on the wall and put up a little impromptu concert while we eat. The stars come out; the bourbon flows; the food is terrific.
When I open my bottle of Maker’s 46 in Delhi, the drink in my glass is infused with everything I know about America’s founding principles. By my lights, bourbon is as much a cultural and emotional product as it is an alcoholic beverage. Daniel Boone drank this stuff. That alone makes it worthwhile.
Getting there: I started my journey at Washington DC. Mount Vernon is about a half hour’s drive from there. For the rest of the trail, hire a car in Nashville (you could drive from Washington DC to Nashville, but it’s too long—better to take the two-hour flight there). From Nashville, Lynchburg is 1hr30mins by road. Lynchburg-Manchester is 30mins. Manchester-Tullahoma is 30mins. Tullahoma-Louisville is 5hrs15mins. Louisville-Versailles is 1hr45mins. Drive back to Louisville for the night. Loretto is 30mins from there and Clermont is an hour from Loretto. Clermont-Louisville is 1hr30mins. Fly back to Washington DC.
Mount Vernon The estate where Washington lived is on the shores of the broad, peaceful Potomac river. The mansion itself is a fine, many-roomed structure, beneath the length of which runs a basement where food was stored for the winter—a reminder of the fact that in the 1770s, hard work and planning made the difference between prosperity and starvation. A museum on the grounds has very interesting historical, anecdotal and personal displays related to Washington, including his dentures. The mansion, museum and distillery are very worth a visit (admission $15 per adult, tours from $5; mountvernon.org).
Nashville Well worth a stopover here is the Hermitage Hotel (from $250; thehermitagehotel.com), just to explore the many bars and live music that constitutes a vibrant part of the bourbon drinking project. The bars in Printers’ Alley and Broadway’s honky tonks are the hotspots to hit here.
Louisville The state capital of Kentucky is a warm, lively, welcoming city (visitor’s centre: gotolouisville.com). A wonderful place to stay is the multiple award-winning 21 C Hotel (from $300; 21chotel.com), right around the corner from the Louisville Slugger Museum. It is part-hotel, part-art gallery and a tad over-designed but extremely cool, with a congenial bar called Proof on Main where you can sample bourbon to your heart’s content. Sample Louisville’s nightlife: the Old Seelbach Bar, 762 Social and Fourth Street Live!. You can follow what’s called the Urban Bourbon Trail, a selection of nine bars in the city that showcase a range of bourbons (check justadd bourbon.com for details). Don’t miss a meal at Lilly’s (lillyslapeche.com), where an excellent bourbon-based cocktail to try is velvet 46.
Kentucky Bourbon Trail Kentucky has its own specific whiskey trail, kicked off in 1999 on the model of California’s successful wine tours and Scotland’s whisky tours. This trail (kybourbontrail.com) features Four Roses and Wild Turkey, both in Lawrenceburg; Heaven Hill, Bardstown; Jim Beam, Clermont; Maker’s Mark, Loretto; and Woodford Reserve, Versailles. It argues that Kentucky’s natural resources produce the very best bourbons. If you complete the trail, you get a Kentucky Distillers’ Association souvenir ‘passport’.
Vendome Copper & Brass Works Inc. This century-old family-run company (vendomecopper.com) in Louisville manufactures stills of all sorts—column, pot, stainless steel and copper. You can pick a design, or have one custom-made. Worth a visit to understand what goes into the design and manufacture of stills.
Jack daniels Lynchburg, Tennessee. Try: Jack Daniel’s Gentleman Jack. jackdaniels.com
Jim B. Beam Distilling Co. Clermont, Kentucky. Try: Knob Creek, Red Stag, Jim Beam, Jim Beam Black, Basil Hayden, Booker’s and Baker’s.jimbeam.com
Maker's Mark Loretto, Kentucky. Try: Maker’s Mark Bourbon, Maker’s 46. makersmark.com
Woodford Reserve Versailles, Kentucky. Try: Woodford Reserve.