Kentucky: A Mixed Drink of Promise and Tradition

Kentucky: A Mixed Drink of Promise and Tradition

The excellent time had by all touring West 6th Brewery (Staci’s Account, Dez’s Account) inspired excursion number two on Staycation 2013: embarkment on Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail. In a brief, unscientific poll of our friends at a Keeneland tailgate, Woodford Reserve was unanimously and enthusiastically voted the best tour on the trail and so we set our sights for McCracken Pike outside Versailles, KY.

Arriving a bit early, we had time to purchase our tickets and meander about the lobby exhibit illustrating of pre- and post-prohibition bourbon history and an outline of the distillation process. We then joined our tour guide, Matt for an entertaining, informational, and professional hour long tour ending with a sample of bourbon and a bourbon ball.

The tradition of Kentucky bourbon is fascinating in the context of historical events. My favorite story from the tour involves President Lincoln pointedly suggesting General Grant’s choice bourbon (naturally said to be distilled by Woodford Reserve’s ancestral company Old Oscar Pepper Distillery, later owned by Labrot & Graham, and today reincarnated under Brown-Forman) be sent to all his less successful and less intoxicated Civil War generals. The Woodford Reserve distillery also held the distinction of remaining open under government contract and supervision during prohibition to supply the country with legal “medicinal spirits.”

Along with the narrative anecdotes, the tour detailed the distillation process and choice of materials and methods with great pride. From the locally grown, natural corn supply to the benefits of water from a limestone aquifer, each ingredient was given a methodical explanation of its benefits and natural superiority. The use of cypress wood to form the fermentation vats and the triple distillation process using the copper pots pictured above was also all explained from a scientific and historical perspective.  Great pride was evident in the toasted, burned oak barrels formed by Woodford’s own coopers and used to age the bourbon in a climate controlled setting that resulted in many more seasons per year than experienced by other distilleries’ bourbon. If you do not have time in the near future to take the tour, check out the 3 minute Woodford Reserve “5 Sources of Bourbon Flavor” video linked to photo above for a more detailed explanation of the process.

While you might think touring a brand new brewery in downtown Lexington and a historic distillation facility dating back to 1780 might involve comparing apples to oranges, I can’t help but see and admire the two sides of the Kentucky coin represented by these two facilities. On one side I appreciate the rich and storied history of one facility operating in the context of tradition and preservation to make the best product possible and fitting into other local and world conventions. Even in business dealings, Woodford hearkens back to other well established processes. For example, there is a bidirectional exchange of alcohol implements between Scotland and Woodford Reserve. The copper distillation apparatus pictured above was forged in Scotland and used, toasted and burned oak barrels from the bourbon aging process are returned to Scotland and used again to mature Scotch Whiskey. Second, spent grain from Woodford is used to feed traditional livestock in the area. Finally, Woodford Reserve is the official Bourbon of the Kentucky Derby, the 139th running of which will take place in 13 days.

On the other side, I heard a promise of something new, the encouragement of change and competition and felt an energy to create that possesses the tourist. One of the most common phrases I heard at West 6th was something along the lines of “If you are interested in starting a brewery, and I hope you do so next door…” I could see the efforts being made to promote new businesses and to revitalize that district of downtown. One particular cooperative project that illustrated the West 6th commitment to the new and exciting was a soon to open tilapia farm that would supply a fish and chips restaurant on site and be fed spent grains from the brewing process.

The two sides of this coin are why I am so glad to live in and explore Kentucky. Taking these tours relatively close together led me to appreciate the traditions built over the centuries and the ongoing innovation that keeps Kentucky a relevant and exciting place to live. I highly encourage anyone to take these tours and experience Kentucky’s mixed drink of promise and tradition for themselves.


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