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Mixed Results on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour

Posted on by Eric Burke

One of the things I like to do in Kentucky is visit distilleries. To this end, when I heard a couple years ago that the Kentucky Bourbon Trail was organizing an offshoot passport program for craft distillers, I was not only intrigued, but excited. I owe my entire love of whiskey to one of the founding members of this tour (MB Roland) and so the very first opportunity I had to pick up a passport, I did. The reward is a julep cup. I really love free stuff.

My first stop was the Willett Distillery in Bardstown, KY. The Kulsveen family has been selling amazing bourbon out of this facility for many years. The current craft distillery is relatively new though. So new that they only recently released the first product distilled there, a two year old rye. This is a beautiful place. I highly recommend stopping in for a tour. (I did a review of my first visit back in 2012, though I know some things have changed in intervening time).

The second stop on my Craft Tour experience was at Old Pogue. Old Pogue was as much of a history tour as it was a distillery tour. And I loved that about it. Good history, good bourbon, a pretty drive. It hit all the right notes for me. (I did a separate review for this one as well.)

Barrel House Distilling was kind of an impromptu stop for me. I was trying to get over the disappointment that was Town Branch and found I had just a little time to kill before my planned drive to the Party Source to do some shopping. They were literally minutes away from where I was. Barrel House Distilling is located in the barrel house of the old James E. Pepper distillery on Manchester Street in Lexington. I was a bit unsure what to expect as I drove up to what looked like an abandoned building. But, ever the adventurer, I parked the car and made my way to the door. 

Upon entering I was greeted by Noah Brown, Operations Manager for the company. There was no one else there so even though we didn't have enough time for a full tour, we chatted a bit about what they were working on. I saw the still, some of the experiments they were conducting and did a tasting. Along the way, I decided I needed to do a little shopping before heading out of town and bought a bottle of rum. All in all, I found the place fascinating and need to get back to do the full tour.

Fast forward almost a year between stops in my journey to complete the passport and you'll find me driving southwest from Elizabethtown toward Bowling Green in search of a visit to Corsair Artisan. Corsair is one of those places that I've admired for a while. They literally wrote the book on experimental whiskey recipes. And while I've never had the opportunity to buy one of their liquid products, I do own the book. And have enjoyed it the numerous times I've read it. 

Corsair is located just off of a lovely little park/commercial area in Bowling Green. The space they are in is beautiful and spaceous in a manner that suggests that it had a previous life, maybe light industrial or retail. (A little searching of the internet suggests that my theory on the retail is correct.) Exposed brick and polished wood floors abound in the gift shop and tasting area. I have a feeling I may be stopping here again.

Paul and Merry Beth Tomaszewski at MB Roland Distillery are two very fine folks that I consider friends. I try to either stop in for a visit or meet up with them every time I pass near their place. The distillery is on the grounds of an old Amish farm just a mile or two north of I-24 in Southwestern Kentucky. Tours are available (and I would encourage you to take one), there is a gift shop and tasting room and several times throughout the summer they host a concert series named Pickin' On The Porch at the distillery. If you visit, you will not be disappointed. Great people that make great products.

I will admit to bias, but I love the stuff they make. I currently have bottles of their bourbon, white dog, Kentucky Black Dog, Pink Lemonade and St. Elmo's Fire on my shelf (or in my fridge). 

I just posted a review of Limestone Branch Distillery last week. But I will give you the 30 second synopsis. Great people making tasty products. Visit them next time you are near Lebanon. You can team it up with a visit to Independent Stave's Kentucky Cooperage and Maker's Mark if you wish.

And since that was my last stop, I got my julep cup. It was smaller than I expected. And had some rust/discoloration on it. Disappointing, but I’m not one to complain to loudly about how my free thing isn’t perfect.

Because I picked my passport up fairly early in the life of this endeavor, my passport only had seven distilleries on it. There are currently two more and someday soon I hope to visit those as well. But wait, you might be saying, you've only listed six above? You are correct. I couldn't bring myself make this next one look nice.

You see, I find people that use women as accessories to be offensive and I go out of my way to not give them money. This is the only weapon I have in the fight to get companies to treat women as if they are equal human beings worthy of equal respect. In this case, in order to get my stamp, I had pay up. You see, the only way to get a stamp is to go to the distillery. The only way to go to the distillery is to buy a $7 ticket. You are free to make your own choices, but I won't be visiting here again. 

I'm going to be a little judgmental here. Silver Trail is reason that I can't recommend participating in the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour passport program. I think that every other one of the distilleries that I visited are worth visiting in their own right. They make great products and you absolutely should visit them all. But Hardin is very far out of the way, the company at least presents itself as misogynistic, and it will cost you $7 per person to get your stamp. I recommend saving that money. Maybe spend it at one of the other distilleries to buy…oh, I don't know...a non-rusty julep cup?

A Pair of Wheat Whiskeys from Heaven Hill: Bernheim Original & Parker's Heritage

Posted on by Eric Burke

I am a 38 year old man. My dog has been aged for a minimum of two years. My wife is…

…yeah. My wife is NAS. That’s No Age Statement for those of you who are not versed in geeky acronyms. And much like my wife, many whiskeys have recently chosen to remove their age statements. It’s due to a lot of factors, but the main one seems to be a decided lack of stocks of an adequate age. 

So in an era when age statements are falling faster than the leaves outside my house, it would be big news if someone actually added an age statement to their bottle. It would mean not only that they had adequate stocks of that particular whiskey, but that they foresaw that they would continue to have it for as much of the future as is foreseeable. Plus, why bother? NAS whiskey is selling fine.

But, in spite of all that, that’s what Heaven Hill recently did to their Bernheim Wheat Whiskey. Bottles bearing a large, yet slightly oddly worded, “7 Years Aged” have recently begun to work their way through retail channels. I have yet to see it in Minnesota so when I saw a bottle down in Kentucky bearing the age statement, I knew I needed to buy it. If for no other reason than I like to reward good behavior.

Positive Reinforcement People!

Bernheim Original Kentucky Straight Wheat Whiskey, 7 Years Aged

Purchase Info: $28.99 for a 750 mL at Liquor Barn, Louisville, KY

Details: 45% ABV, Aged 7 Years

Nose: Sweet cotton candy, pears, fleeting hints of peanuts

Mouth: Sweet with a black pepper tingle and vitamin or mineral notes

Finish: Gentle burn. Continues the palate with lingering sweetness along with the black pepper and mineral notes.

Thoughts: This is pleasant though uninteresting. It can take a little water, but not much. I like it but wouldn’t want it for every pour. I’d love to see that age statement creep up even further.

That last statement is something that I’d heard almost every time that I talked to someone about Bernheim. It’s the common refrain: a higher proof and more age would make this perfect. And I’d say in this case, they might be right. Lucky for me, shortly after I got home from Kentucky I got the chance to see for myself if common knowledge was correct.

While I was in Bardstown for BourbonFest last month, Heaven Hill released this year’s Parker’s Heritage Collection to their gift shops. It is a 13 year old cask strength wheat whiskey along the lines of the Bernheim. Just older. And higher proof. I missed it in both the Even Williams Experience and in the Bourbon Heritage Center gift shops. The Bourbon Heritage Center by mere minutes. 

Things take a little longer to get to Minnesota some times so when I started to see tweets from local liquor stores showing that they had this year’s PHC I started making my rounds. Many were holding it for raffles or events, but one new comer to our market doesn’t believe in that. They just put it on the shelf. And I happened to walk in looking for a six pack of beer at just the right time. 

Parker’s Heritage Collection: Original Batch Wheat Whiskey

Purchase Info: $109.99 Total Wine, Burnsville, MN

Details: 13 years old, 63.7% ABV, minimum 51% wheat mashbill

Nose: Dark brown sugar and caramel, leather and bready notes.

Taste: Sweet caramel, but hot on the palate. Cinnamon red hot candies, mint and ripe fruit.

Finish: Long, rich and warm. This one hangs around for a while.

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Thoughts: This is a fantastic whiskey! A little hot without water, but settles down. At $110 I would seriously consider getting another if I saw it. But at that price I will probably only consider it. It’s just under my price ceiling for a bottle of whiskey. I’m happy to have bought it once, don’t know if I can bring myself to do so again.

Since I had a little of each left in my tasting glasses after this, I decided to try one more thing. 

Parker’s Heritage Wheat and Bernheim Wheat in a 50/50 blend

Details: My math puts this at 108.7° proof (54.35% ABV)

Nose: Brown sugar, red hot candies, ripe fruit. Shows a lot of the Parker’s in the nose.

Mouth: Thick mouthfeel. More so than either separately. Sweet brown sugar and baking spices.

Finish: Gentle burn that lasts a decent length of time. Sweetness mixed with spice.

Thoughts: I think I like this better than either alone. The Parker’s is awesome, both in flavor and in power. This is a bit more approachable without being boring. It is sweet but balanced with spice. I’d drink this everyday if they released it.

A Visit to Limestone Branch Distillery

Posted on by Eric Burke

For a bourbon fan, no trip to Kentucky is complete without making a few stops to visit the place where your favorite whiskey is made. Odds are though, that your favorite whiskey is not made in Lebanon, KY. At least, not yet. Limestone Branch Distillery in Lebanon, KY sells sugar shine in unaged, flavored, or (as of last month) aged varieties.

Sugar Shine is a clear unaged spirit, typically made from a combination of sugar and corn. Limestone Branch's version follows that tradition, being made from a mash of 50% corn and 50% cane.

As you pull into the parking lot, the first thing you see on the side of the building is a large Moon Pie sign. One of the products they produce is a Moon Pie flavored moonshine that, my wife tells me, is scarily close to the real thing in flavor. I'll have to take her word for it as I have never developed a taste for Moon Pies due to an aversion to marshmallows. 

You enter the building into the gift shop and are warmly greeted and offered a tour. We accepted and since we were a bit early, we passed the time with a trip to the tasting bar to try some of the products. After trying a few we wandered around the gift shop for a little bit deciding which of the products we couldn't live without. 

I have to mention one thing about the gift shop. It had the most ingenious ceiling I've ever seen. It's a metal roof. Being such, it's bound to get hot if there isn't any insulation. So there is insulation, black spray foam looking insulation. You wouldn't think, from reading about it, that this was something worth mentioning. But with the color of the walls, the floor, and all the visible wood around, it reminded me of nothing less than the inside of a charred barrel. It was an amazing effect. 

Once the tour started we were given a little history of the owners. As you might guess from their names, Paul and Steve Beam are part of the whiskey-making Beam clan. And from the little I talked to them, they seem to be a couple of really nice guys. 

After the history lesson, we enter the distillery area itself. This is not a big distillery. In the room is the research lab, mashing, fermenting, distilling, bottling and shipping area. 

This is one of the fermenting areas, if I remember correctly. I believe the tour guide told us that it is repurposed from a winery. In any case, it is really pretty.

This is the still. I hesitate to use the word cute, since that normally has condescending connotations. I don't mean it that way, but it is the best word I can come up with. It's a little over my height. It's little, but it gets the job done.

The condenser, the last part of the distilling process. The product is coming out of the tube below the gauge. As you can see it is clear as water. It won't get color unless it spends some time in a barrel or gets flavored.

This is the entire set up shown in the last three photos. Behind the condenser and the still is the fermenter. There are a few other smaller barrels acting in the same capacity scattered around as well. Behind us is the research lab and over to the right is the rest of the process. 

If you visit Limestone Branch, you may very well be coming from Maker's Mark which is just down the road. And if you do, you may think that you will be disappointed. I want to assure you that you won't be. After you get there, talk to the people, see the passion they have for what they do, and taste the fruit of their labors. You will understand what draws people to visiting craft distilleries. The ones worth visiting are exactly like Limestone Branch—filled with excited, passionate people who make a tasty product and are glad you are there to visit.

Speaking of products, the one I found I couldn't live without was the Apple Cinnamon Pie Sugar Shine. It's their unaged shine flavored with natural flavors. I assume apple and I can see the cinnamon stick since it is still in the bottle.

Limestone Branch Sugar Shine: Apple Cinnamon Pie flavor

Purchase info: $18.99 for a 375 mL at the distillery gift shop

Details: 20% ABV. "Mashed, Fermented, Distilled and Bottled by Limestone Branch Distillers" (I thought that was a nice touch.)

Nose: Apple pie, I swear I can even smell the crust.

Mouth: Thick, syrupy mouthfeel. Leads with cinnamon but transitions to cooked apples as it moves back. 

Finish: Slight lingering bitterness. No burn. 

Thoughts: This is a tasty liqueur. Tastes exactly like a baked apple pie that has been allowed to cool. Even the mouthfeel is correct since the liquid in an apple pie gets nicely thick and syrupy. I like it better cold, but ice waters it down too much. I'm keeping mine in the fridge. And this being October, I can promise that it won't last there until Christmas. It's autumn in a glass.

I urge you to go visit these guys even if you aren't a fan of shine. It's an interesting tour and they now have an aged product that is made from the sugar/corn mash. I got to sample it during Bourbon Fest and remember liking it. 

Chocolate-Bourbon Cocktail Cherries

Posted on by Eric Burke

Door County Wisconsin is famous for it’s cherries. And when my wife and mother-in-law went on a short trip there, I asked them to bring me some back. You see, I had the idea that I wanted to make a yummy garnish for my manhattans and I couldn’t pass this opportunity up.

Chocolate-Bourbon Cocktail Cherries

Chocolate cherry juice

  • 1 cup 100% cherry juice
  • 1 tbsp cocoa powder
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 3 tbsp sugar
  • pinch of salt

Bring these ingredients to a boil in a small sauce pan. Allow to cool enough to fish out the cinnamon stick (or leave it in if you want more cinnamon influence). 

Cherries

  • 1 pint Cherries (I used tart cherries because I like tart cherries, if you don't you might want to try sweet)

Pit the cherries while the Chocolate Cherry Juice cools. Pack them into a wide-mouth one pint mason jar. 

Alcohol

  • 1 cup Bourbon or Rye (I used a 50-50 mixture of Buffalo Trace and Sazerac Rye)
  • 1 splash of Luxardo Maraschino liqueur

Once the Chocolate Cherry Juice has cooled to below 160° or so add the spirits. Mix well and pour over the cherries. You will have too much, reserve the rest for topping up the jar after the Cherries start to absorb it. Store in the refrigerator, shaking occasionally.

These get better with time. I found that after a month the tartness had mellowed and the chocolate and cinnamon had a more subtle influence that integrated better with the other flavors.

Now, I need a manhattan...

Book Review: Beam, Straight Up by Fred Noe (with Jim Kokoris)

Posted on by Eric Burke

Fred Noe is a man that I have seen on a couple of occasions. Each time it was to get a bottle signed. I didn’t say met, or spoke to, or anything more personal because for some reason, he intimidated me a bit. I’m unsure of the reason. I normally don’t get intimidated by people just because of celebrity. He’s kind of a bigger guy, so maybe that was it. Maybe I just didn’t have anything to say that would be worth taking up his time. He looked busy. He was telling stories. 

After reading this book, I don’t think I’m going to have that problem anymore. I’ll have at least one thing to say: “Sir, I enjoyed your book.” And I did. The book is one story after another with a little history thrown in for good measure. In those stories you learn a little about what makes up the man that is the face of Jim Beam. 

It starts where the story starts, with a little family history. It moves into Fred’s boyhood and his view of Booker, his dad. And then into college where he really used a trunk full of Jim Beam to try to solve every problem. And it turns out that he did have problems, not being the best student. After a stint in college he hits the road with a band and eventually ends up back home working at the distillery. Finally taking over for his dad as the face of the company.

But my synopsis doesn’t do the book any justice. Fred is a masterful story-teller, I’m guessing from years on the road doing just that, and it comes through in the stories he tells and how he tells them. I can almost hear the soft Kentucky accent as I read and laugh. And, oh did I laugh. This is a damn funny book. If you haven’t, go read it. It’s short. You won’t be sorry. (Oh, and my wife seconds this review...so there's that.)

Purchase info: Signed copy, $22.95 at the Jim Beam booth, Kentucky Bourbon Festival