Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Journey to Bourbon Country Day 2

Day 2 was scheduled to be the grind on this trip. Two distilleries in one day. I know, I know rough life we lead.

We woke up early, had a little cereal and got on the road. The first visit of the day was with Mr. Jimmy Russell, Master Distiller at Wild Turkey. We arrived and Jimmy was sitting in the gift shop signing bottles for people waiting to take tours. When we arrived Jimmy shook our hands with a big smile and our tour was on. It did not take long to discover that Jimmy is a heck of a storyteller, and with so many years in the business he has a lot of stories to tell. The Wild Turkey distillery sits on the edge of a huge cliff over looking the Kentucky River. We spent our time seeing the still and the fermenting tanks (all shut down for the summer months), and hearing stories about the way the business has changed in all of Jimmy's years. Stories about old distilleries that are long gong, stories about how modernization has changed the day to day operations, and best of all stories about how Jimmy has had fun with his fellow distillers over the years.

One of the favorite moments we had was when the regular tour came walking by us and saw us getting a small private tour and seeing the envy in their eyes as their tour guide said "and there is our head distiller taking a small group around." How special did we feel?

We then walked down to the rickhouses and saw just how many barrels they have stored. We did the math later and figured out that each building contains roughly 1,060,ooo gallons of whiskey. So dear reader, how long would it take us to dent that?

Then it was off to the old bottling facility, which they no longer use, to visit Jimmy's son Eddie who came up to Madison a couple years ago for the first "Celebration of American Distilling". Eddie was doing budget work and seemed happy to have a break. The highlight of the visit was Jimmy coaxing Eddie to tell a story about when he and Booker Noe and Elmer T. Lee all went fishing together in Canada. Good Stuff.

Then Jimmy took us to lunch at Tony's Barn. Bar-b-que that is "Lip Smackin, Tounge Lickin Good!" Walking in with Jimmy, they greeted us like old friends when we arrived and even brought out some "Cowboy Jelly" which they apparently just keep around for Jimmy. It seemed to be a jelly made of horseradish which tasted really great on a cornbread cake. Let's just say dear friends, that we stuffed ourselves silly.

After lunch Jimmy gave us a tour of Lawrenceburg where Wild Turkey and Four Roses reside. It was a tour given with the pride of someone showing off his hometown. Jimmy Russell has lived there all his life and it was easy to see he was proud of his hometown. We arrived back at the gift shop to say goodbye as we had to head to Four Roses, and Jimmy was off to meet the owner of the largest restaurant in Osaka, Japan. Mr. Russell is one of a kind and we hope to get to spend time with him again one day.

Next we hopped in the car, and headed over to meet Jim Rutledge, the Master Distiller at Four Roses and another visitor to the first "Celebration of American Distilling". The first thing we did was head up to the tasting lab to sample some of the barrel samples taken to decide which would be the next Four Roses Single Barrel Bourbon. Talking with Jim, you get a full sense of someone who loves bourbon. Someone who loves making bourbon and has a passion in his gut to make the best bourbon possible.
We then moved into a room where we discussed a lot of the nuances of whiskey. The difference between aging bourbon and aging scotch. The importance of the overall quality of a load of corn. Lots of neat stuff. Jim Rutledge is one man who understands the science of making great whiskey and he did a wonderful job of sharing it with us.

Then it was off for a tour of the distillery itself. One of the most interesting things at Four Roses is the fact that they use some fermenting tanks made of Cypress wood. The wood for these tanks was actually salvaged from the bottom of the Suwannee River in Norther Florida. A similar method is being used on Lake Superior to salvage wood from old sunken ships.

Overall today was a very successful day. We got to meet with two of the biggest names in the bourbon business, and we really enjoyed the time we spent together. Jerry summed it up best when he said, "It is just so special that guys from little old Star Liquor can get treated like kings by guys who are legends in the bourbon business." You said it Jerry!

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