How do you move a 500-pound barrel of bourbon? Roll it downhill, of course! This is what Woodford Reserve does, and has done for years. No fossil fuels or electricity required.And how about getting that sweet flavor and striking amber color in the booze? Could it be some processed corn-derived sweetener? Or lab-produced tint? Nope. Just caramelized oak.
Same idea for the aging process. Mustn’t they consume kilowatts upon kilowatts of energy to regulate the temperature of the warehouse maturing rows of barrels in wooden bunks? As it turns out, the bourbon needs the changing seasonal temperatures to do its thing. Only rarely does Woodford turn on the AC or the heat to adjust what Mother Nature gives them.
I went on the tour, truth be told, because I fretted that I might not get through the Lexington, Kentucky airport security on my way back if I couldn’t produce a distillery tour ticket stub. So I went, and actually got into the process–including the natural, sustainable touches employed by the makers of this special breed of whiskey.
Here’s a little photo tour (The captions are under each picture. I couldn’t get the spacing to work out so each photo and caption was set apart… but you’ll get the idea):
It all starts with (from left) malted barley, rye, and corn. You can also use wheat, according to Wikipedia. Bourbon must start with a grain mixture that’s at least 51% corn, and at Woodford Reserve the percentage is about 80.
Yes, they love their corn. Even as a motif for restroom furniture.
They mash up that grain mixture, add water, and let it ferment in these huge, roiling vats. The whole place smells like baking bread. After sitting around and getting yeasty for a while, the mixture is basically beer. Then they cook it up (if I’m getting my order right) and wait still longer until the stuff acquires the alcohol content of wine.
Pretty soon, it’s off to the distillers. The mixture gets more and more refined in each one. This process takes the liquid to the stage of hard liquor. It’s now a clear liquid called “white dog.” Our tour guide claimed that’s where the term “hair of the dog” comes from. Not sure if that’s true, but the smell of it did make us bark with surprise. It’s strong stuff.
Then it’s poured into barrels, rolled across the street and down a gentle, grassy slope to the warehouse. That’s where it stays for seven to nine years, or until the taster says its ready. The dude completes a 20-year apprenticeship before he can drill little holes in the barrels and say something trustworthy about what pours out.
Then your tour guide takes down one of the barrels and tries a sip. He only lets you smell it (your two fingers of bourbon and chocolate-covered bourbon ball come at the end).
And finally, you see the somewhat unglamorous industrial side of the whole thing. The whole boxing operation takes up less space than a middle school gym, though, and the workers look happy enough.
That’s the bourbon story in a nutshell–or should I say a shot glass? Cheers from Kentucky!