The popularity of bourbon is at an all time high. With a whiskey crisis looming in the US, PlumpJack Wine and Spirit Noe Valley‘s General Manager Josh Thinnes set out on a journey to secure as much bourbon as he could. The booming popularity of our American Whiskey club is so large that a barrel is pretty much the best way to buy it. Not to mention how cool it is to have selected bourbon exclusively by the cask, to ensure that our customers get only the best. Come along for the ride!
Day 1-2 – Louisville:
Kentucky is truly a unique state, often referred to as the Southern most Northern state, or Northern most Southern state, in the US. Louisville is like America’s largest small town. Even with the largest city in the state boasting a population of nearly 600,000 people, it feels smaller than a town half its size. Many people have raved about the bourgeoning nightlife scene with loads of new bars and restaurants popping up all over the place. I decided to put my big city standards aside and enter with an open mind. Happily, it over delivered.
While in Louisville we stayed at The Brown Hotel, one of Louisville’s oldest and most prestigious hotels. This place oozes old school southern charm and class, with loads of character boasting an excellent downtown location right on the redeveloping 4th street. Back in the roaring 20s, nearly 1,000 people would fill the Brown’s ballroom on the weekends to dance the night away, stopping downstairs for the signature ‘Hot Brown’ breakfast in the morning before going home.
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We had dinner the first night at 610 Magnolia, a self proclaimed contemporary approach to southern cuisine, serving the people of Louisville for nearly 30 years in a quaint refurbished carriage house. I’d seen the chef on a recent season of ‘Top Chef’ on TV, and luckily was reminded of his establishment just before departing for my trip. The prix fixe menu is seasonally inspired and designed by chef Ed Lee. The staff was exceptionally welcoming, and Ed took at least ten minutes to chat with us about our trip and recommend some other favorite eating spots while in the city. I highly recommend this place, excellent atmosphere and character, delicious food, great wine list and cocktail menu.
Day 3 – Bardstown, Willett Distillery
On Monday, we set off for a morning appointment at Willett Distillery, located about an hour south of Louisville in the sleepy old town of Bardstown. Bardstown has the feel as though everyone should be riding around in a horse-drawn carriage; the town center is about two blocks long in each direction centered on a roundabout with an old church, turned visitor center, in the middle. The Willett distillery is just five minutes from town, with a long winding driveway leading up to the property. Willett is family owned and operated, a rarity in today’s bourbon world. Hunter, the son-in-law, was there to guide us through the facilities. It was the smallest operation we visited in Kentucky, and the attention to quality and detail was evident everywhere. Hunter wanted to be sure to show us the warehouse, or ‘rick house’ where all the whiskey was aging.
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We climbed up to the fifth floor of the rick house via the rickety and dark narrow staircase in the center, taking notice of the thermometer posted on the wall, which depicted a nearly 25 degree difference in temperature between the bottom and top floors. We took a spin around the still house; stopping to taste the new-make, white un-aged whiskey straight out of the still. Out of all the distilleries I’ve been to over the world, Willett’s new make whiskey was the smoothest tasting of them all. Not bad for 130 proof! We concluded the tour with a stop at lab to taste through a few of their older single barrel bourbons. The journey was off to a smooth start.
That afternoon after returning to Louisville, we visited the historic Seelbach Hotel, home to one of the world’s greatest bars. While at the Seelbach, one must order their signature cocktail, The Seelbach Cocktail; made with Bourbon, curacao, bitters and champagne. The bar is 50 feet of solid mahogany, the kind of place you could imagine smoke filled with a jazz quartet blaring in the corner until 3 am.
That evening, we had dinner at Holy Grale, a recommendation from chef Ed Lee of 601 Magnolia. This was one of the coolest spots. Holy Grale is an old church converted into a beer bar/restaurant with more than 30 beers on tap and a menu that is heavily-German influenced with food designed to work well with the beer. This place was awesome. It seemed to be a foodie-like crowd, and we even noticed our waiter from the night before at 601 Magnolia, drinking as a patron in the corner. The pickle plate was the highlight, as well as the burger served on a pretzel bun.
Day – 4 Bardstown, Heaven Hill Distillery
Heaven Hill’s bottling facility, where we would be taking our tour that day, is located just off the same road that Willett is located. They couldn’t be more different. Heaven Hill, home to Evan Williams, Henry McKenna and Rittenhouse whiskies, is aging more barrels of whiskey than anyone else in Kentucky, with more than 1.4 million barrels. The distillation happens at the Bernheim distillery located in downtown Louisville, but the bottling for all their brands (including many different vodka labels) happens at this facility.
The distillery used to be located onsite, but burned in a fire in 1996. This was by far the largest and most corporate of the operations we visited, even though it is 100% privately family owned. As luck (bad) would have it, we visited on an election day, so they were unable to serve any alcohol or worse yet, sell any bottles! The tour was very cool to see how a company of that size bottles and packages their products, but it was less bourbon centric, and not nearly as charming as the Willett experience the day before.
After arriving back in Louisville we had dinner at another recommendation of chef Lee, Jack Frys. This place was great, an old school take on fine dining – think Mad Men era white tablecloth. They had a live jazz trio playing, great food, and the cheapest Van Winkle pour we had seen in Kentucky.
Day 5 – Cox Creek, Four Roses Distillery
Four Roses was the most highly anticipated part of the trip, and thankfully it lived up to the expectations. With a mission to source bourbon for the store, and specifically the whiskey club, we had arranged for a barrel tasting with Master Distiller, Jim Rutledge. The stories I heard about Jim before arriving built him up to be some type of wizard of the bourbon world. It all lived up to the hype.
As we entered the bottling facility, we were escorted to the back, where 15 barrels were laid out, all ready for us to sample. Four place mats with 15 glasses on each were situated on a table in front of us. Jim walked in about two minutes later, and we got to it. He pulled out a bag of tortilla chips and six bottles of water and said, “One time a client brought his own bag of tortilla chips to the barrel tasting to clean his palate in between tastes. It worked so well, we now do it every time.” Pulling samples directly from the barrel, we filled all the glasses, sequentially in order of the barrels on the floor. Jim, his assistant Mandy, my Dad and myself all got to work sampling through the first five. We each made notes on our favorites and compared them after everyone had chosen a favorite. Surprisingly everyone shared the same favorite, which made my choice pretty easy. We then sampled through the next ten, each a different recipe. As soon as barrel #8 hit my glass, I could smell how amazing it was. I knew after the first whiff that it would be my favorite. I narrowed it down to a second favorite and we all compared. Amazingly again, Jim and I shared the same favorite, while Mandy and my Dad shared the same favorite. Their favorites turned out to be Jim and my second favorites. The decision was tough, so we decided to take both! We closed up the three barrel selections, signed the barrels, and took a few pictures. Then Jim took us on a tour of the rest of the facilities. We spent the entire day, rummaging through the warehouse and the still house, soaking up all the information. Just hearing him speak about bourbon and his passion for quality was contagious.
Day 6 – Frankfort, Buffalo Trace distillery
The morning we arrived in Lexington, we set off for Buffalo Trace distillery. Buffalo Trace distillery is situated on the prime location of the Kentucky River. When you think of Kentucky, with the picturesque horse farms and green pastures, you picture this area of Kentucky. The distillery produces a slew of extremely popular premium bourbon brands: Buffalo Trace, Eagle Rare, Blanton’s, Sazerac Rye, Weller, Pappy Van Winkle, and many more. Our private tour was in-depth and very behind the scenes, climbing up to the top of the mash room and across the catwalk to the still house. The size and capacity of this place was HUGE. They had the largest fermenter tanks in the industry at 90,000 gallons, and certainly the largest column still out of all the distilleries we visited. After a small tasting, we had some lunch at the company BBQ hut, and got ready for the most exciting part of our visit: selecting another barrel of Eagle Rare bourbon for the store. We were taken to warehouse where four barrels were arranged for us to sample. That will mark the 14th barrel of Eagle Rare 10 year bourbon that our store has purchased.
That evening we went to one of the countries best bourbon bars, the Bluegrass Tavern. The place was packed, but we managed to snag a seat at the bar. This place was ridiculous, they must have had more than 400 different bourbon selections, more than half of which went from $100 to “You can’t afford that” per shot. It’s a good thing it was walking distance from the hotel.
Day 7 – Versailles, Woodford Distillery
The next morning we journeyed to Versailles to visit Woodford Distillery. This was even more in the heart of horse country. We must have passed over a dozen horse farms on the way to the distillery, all with manicured landscapes divided by black wooden fences. The distillery grounds were pristine and equally well manicured. Woodford has a number of unique features in the bourbon world. They have longest barrel rolling line from filling room to warehouse. The barrels actually roll across a track on the ground, crossing a road on the grounds, hundreds of feet from one building to the next. Unlike any other distillery in Kentucky, Woodford uses three Scottish pot stills for distillation, instead of one column and one single pot still. We took a spin through one of the warehouses and the bottling line, and concluded with a tasting in the old tax excise office building.
Day 8 – Back to SF
All in all it was a great trip to Kentucky. I was thoroughly impressed with the food and bar scene in Louisville. It was also a great pleasure to be able to select the barrels exclusively for our store, and I look forward to another trip in the future to secure more!