Recently, my sister moved from Dallas to Louisville. This presented me with an opportunity to visit the land of Bourbon and to take a first-hand account of Bourbon distilling. While the rest of the family was off to Churchill Downs, my sister, her fiance, and I headed into the Kentucky countryside.
I had never been to Kentucky before, but it proved itself to be a beautiful state. Louisville is in the midst of a renaissance but driving south of the city on I-65 it doesn’t take long before you’re into the rolling countryside.
I had been reading up on the bourbon trail, but given our limited time, we would have to focus our excursion on the distilleries closest to Louisville. If you are really pressed for time, you can check out Louisville’s “Urban Bourbon Trail”. Because we only had a few hours, we decided to visit the Heaven Hill Bourbon Heritage Center in Bardstown. The Bourbon Heritage Center has interactive displays depicting the history of bourbon making in the region. They also offer free tours and at the end of the tour, they have a very nice tasting center where you can sample some of their finest single barrel whiskey.
The tour starts with a short film depicting the history of bourbon and distilling in the region. After the film, we headed outside for a tour of one of the many rickhouses on site. The first thing you notice when you step outside is that it is very windy in this part of Kentucky. The second thing you notice is the sweet smell of fermenting whiskey. The tour concluded with a tasting of two of Heaven Hill’s single barrel Bourbons.
Here are 10 fun facts I learned during the tour:
- Bourbon must be at least 51% corn and aged a minimum of two years in new charred oak barrels
- To earn the label ‘Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey” the aging must take place in Kentucky; if the whiskey is not aged in Kentucky, it can still be called bourbon, but cannot be labeled ‘Kentucky’
- The process of using charred barrels “accidentally” originated with Elijah Craig
- Bourbon is matured in single use charred oak barrels in a ‘rickhouse’.
- Traditional rickhouses are seven stories, constructed of wood; only the windows on the first and seventh floor are opened during the aging process.
- Placement of the barrel within the rickhouse will directly impact the character of the bourbon as it ages
- A fungus known as Torula (Baudoinia compniacensis) grows on the side of the rickhouse; its brownish grey in color. The Makers Mark distillery painted their rick-houses dark brown to disguise the fungus
- During the aging process, the whiskey will penetrate nearly 2/3 of the way through the barrel
- During the aging process as much as 50% of the contents are lost to evaporation
- Used bourbon barrels are broken down, packed, and shipped to Scotland where they are used to age Scotch Whiskey
Share your own fun facts below.