I like bourbon, but I don’t know much about it. So for a novice like myself, last week’s crash-course visit to Buffalo Trace Distillery proved quite educational.
Indianapolis is really a beer town first and foremost (see recent past entries about our booming microbreweries). In fact, I can’t think of any local bars and restaurants that promote a bourbon selection. In Kentucky, however, it’s another story.
The process of ordering some bourbon here is enough to leave a person stammering and sweating. You can’t just go into a watering hole and request a cocktail. You’ve got to know what brand of bourbon you want; decide whether you want it straight up or on the rocks, neat, with water and how much; and any other number of other defining criteria. Bourbon is serious business, and these people do not mess around.
Located on a Kentucky River bend in the heart of beautiful bourbon country near Frankfort, Buffalo Trace is the oldest continually operating distillery of its kind in America, dating back to 1787. I drove down to attend the annual White Dog Days party, a celebration commemorating the first seasonal fall barreling of the newly distilled whiskey. According to lore, the freshly minted un-aged spirit is called “white dog” because it’s clear and it definitely has a bite. (I believe it’s the same thing as moonshine, but don’t hold me to that.)
The Buffalo Trace property is massive, taking in some 130 acres and around 100 buildings, many made from handsome weathered red brick. There are more than 300,000 barrels of whisky aging on site here at any given time, and each barrel contains 53 gallons. That’s a LOT of hooch.
We were greeted with a signature white dog cocktail made with lemon juice, orange juice and grenadine, then herded up for a tour of the grounds. The smell of roasting grains permeated the air, a distinctive aroma sort of like roasting coffee beans, but gamier and earthier. A few interesting tidbits I learned along the way — bourbon is a distinctly American product with strict defining guidelines. It has to be at least 51 percent corn-based; it has to be aged in new charred oak containers for at least two years; and no flavorings or preservatives can be added. A great trivia item — the round piece of wood that plugs each barrel is known as the bung, and the round slot it fits into is called the bunghole. Go ahead and say it a few times. You know you want to.
The aging process is what adds flavor and that distinctive honeyed brown color to the liquor. The inside of each barrel is toasted to caramelize the wood, just as you’d caramelize onions in a pan to bring out the natural sweetness. The longer the bourbon ages, the more of that flavor and color it picks up. Ten percent of the volume is lost in the first year; that evaporation is called the “angels’ share.” When you stop to consider that bourbon is aged anywhere from two to 20 years, you start to get an idea of what a long-term commitment it is to make this stuff.
We walked through the campus to get a look at the mash house cookers, the gigantic fermentation tanks, the stills and warehouses packed to the gills with barrels.
As a White Dog Day tradition at Buffalo Trace, everyone gets to sign his or her name on the first barrel of the season. Kinda cool to think that my name is now on a barrel of bourbon aging away somewhere down there.
With much pomp and ceremony, the Buffalo Trace folks hammered out the bung with a big mallet and suctioned out a sample of the white dog, then everyone toasted to the new distilling season and downed a shot. A festive catered barbecue dinner followed.
The next morning, I attended a bourbon tasting class. At 9 a.m. This made me more than a little nervous, especially when I entered the clubhouse room and saw each place was set with no fewer than eight — count ‘em, eight — samples. I was really glad I’d made sure to pad my stomach with some breakfast beforehand.
The glasses were arranged on a paper placemat grid by age and ingredient, and it was immediately interesting to note the color variations.
Here’s a quick walk-through in order of tasting:
1) Rain vodka. In addition to bourbon, Buffalo Trace also produces a nice organic white corn-based vodka twice a year. It’s got a slightly sweet fragrance and a mild, smooth flavor.
2) White dog wheat. Fragrant with a heady, yeasty smell. If you’ve ever smelled sourdough bread starter, that’s what it reminds me of.
3) White dog rye. Slightly spicier and stronger than the wheat. Have to say after tasting these and the cocktail the night before, I’m not a white dog fan. It’s got an unusual flavor profile that I just didn’t care for. I much prefer my bourbon on the aged side.
4) 7-month-old rye whiskey. Light golden in color, little bit of a smoky sweet flavor.
5) 3.5-year corn whiskey. Also light in color, made from 100 percent corn. No real depth of flavor here because it was made in a previous used barrel and most of the caramelized wood flavor and color had already been stripped out.
6) W.L. Weller Special Reserve. Pretty color and a smooth taste.
7) Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. Now you’re talking. This was my favorite of the bunch. Aged between eight and ten years, it manages to be full-bodied and complex, but also mellow.
8) Salzerac Straight Rye Whiskey. Darkest in color, it’s made with less corn than any other sample, so it’s technically not bourbon. This one makes you sit up and take notice with a heavy nose, strong bite and sharp smoky taste.
As it turned out, the tasting wasn’t quite as hardcore as I’d feared. I could have easily gotten drunk, mind you, if I’d downed all the samples. Fortunately, I got away with not having to taste every single one, and just barely sipped the ones I did try.
It was really interesting to learn more about Kentucky’s state beverage, and although I am still far from an expert, at least I won’t feel like a total idiot next time I want to order some bourbon.
* A fun side note, Ghost Hunters just filmed an episode at Buffalo Trace; watch for it to air on Syfy in November.
For more information about Buffalo Trace Distillery: