There are special behind-the-scene tours, and then there are very special behind-the-scene tours. Last week, I was graced to get a very special tour of Willett Distillery at Bardstown, Kentucky. This family-owned and run distillery has a unique history, and the former distinction of being the only distillery that didn't distill -- at least on site. Now, however, after extensive renovations the family is once again distilling using a column still and a beautiful copper pot still.
When I arrived, I was told that a group was coming in for a tour, and asked if I would mind waiting for them. I agreed, and it was one of the best decisions I've made. The group coming in was from Longman & Eagle, a most interesting bar/restaurant/more in Chicago that takes great pride in not just selection, but a knowledgeable staff. They had arranged the very special tour, and I got to go along. This is going to be a bit long, with lots of photos, so more is below the fold.
The process starts, of course, with corn. The grain is brought in to be "cooked" and the process requires care and control.
Willett is a craft distillery, which means that they don't do the huge amounts of the major brands. In fact, for that reason, they and a number of other small, craft distilleries have their own special tour on the Bourbon Trail.
From there, the mix goes on to ferment for several days
After some time has passed, the fun begins. Most distilleries do more than one distillation, for a variety of reasons. Willett does the first distillation in a column still.
The result of that first distillation is a product known by several names, but "White Dog" is one of the ore prevalent. It generally tends to be clear, but not crystal clear. In this case, it was fairly clear, and the tasting we did had a nose full of grain, and you could clearly taste the individual grains in the mix. The taste was literally as if eating raw/slightly-cooked grain.
Then comes the second distillation in the copper pot still. Copper does many wonderful things to the process, and the result is:
When I say that the family has been doing a lot of renovation and restoration, I'm not joking. You can see the love and craftsmanship in the distilling house. One little detail lies with the belt-driven fan system. Just had to share it
The next step is what makes modern bourbon so good: aging in charred barrels. What Elijah Craig started carries through today, and Willett -- like many distilleries -- gets its barrels made to its specifications at a cooperage. The empty barrels arive, are stored, and filled fairly quickly.
After the second distilling, the White Dog is piped over to the cooperage/barrel house.
Over at the barrel house, a couple of different views jumped out at me:
From the storage barn, we retired to the visitor center, and a sampling of some of the products
Some quick tasting notes to share: I enjoyed all, but there were two things that stood out as exceptional even at a craft distiller. The first is their rye whisky, which has a nose like fresh-out-of-the-oven good rye bread, and a taste that was rich, full, and even better than eating that loaf of bread.
The tour I got was not the regular tour -- let me be clear on that. That said, however, any tour there is going to be good and special just because of the nature of a craft distillery. Things are changing there, and work is already underway on a grist mill and a bed-and-breakfast that will add a very different touch to visiting and touring.
To say I had a good time would be an understatement. I highly recommend going for a visit, and just so you know, at least one person there is a veteran of the 101st. Good place, good people, and a very good product.