Bourbon & Loathing in Kentucky
Editor’s Note: the names in this story have been changed to protect their bourbon-loving identities, with the exception of the Maker’s Mark personnel. The true author of this post shall simply be known as Remy. Now pour yourself a glass of whiskey and read up.
Good things come to those who wait. I’ve been hearing that since I was a little kid and as much as I hated it then, I find the expression useful as my friend Ashlee paces around the room impatiently. “We were supposed to have left hours ago!” she reminds me as I try to clear my head while throwing random clothes into my backpack and attempting to find my shoes.
She’s right of course. All week long we’d talked about exploring Kentucky’s famous bourbon trail. Naturally, we decided to have a few samples the night before and that turned into a near all-nighter that resulted in a noise complaint and the headache I now have splitting down my skull. Tyler comes to my defense. “It’s your fault, baby. If we didn’t have to stop for so many damn bathroom breaks we would have gotten to Remy’s hotel a lot sooner and we wouldn’t have had to stay up so late.”
“I swear to God, Tyler, if you mention that one more time!”
Their arguing buys me time. I hastily jam a toothbrush, belt, and half empty bottle of water into my bag and grab my car keys. “Okay love birds. Let’s go. Danny, get your gimpy ass up and let’s hit the road.” Danny, always prone to random and hilarious accidents is on crutches but he’s not going to let that stop him from something this important. We walk, or rather hop, out the door and we’re greeted by an amazing day. Sunny with that cool crispness that lets you know it’s fall. There’s slight breeze and we stop arguing.
We invoke Road trip rule #4: you can fit as many bags as you want into the trunk if you just slam it hard enough. I slide into the driver’s seat, fire up some mutually acceptable tunes, crank the ignition and we’re on our way. The hours fly by as we wind our way through the very scenic Smoky Mountains, sunroof open, windows down. As I turn off the highway, I’m surprised how quickly Kentucky “gets rural”. It isn’t long until we’re on a road about as wide as a driveway, surrounded by a few small houses and rolling fields of grass and trees. There isn’t much out here but we’re happy and feeling adventurous knowing Maker’s Mark is right around the corner.
When we finally arrive, we’re startled and giddy. There are neither signs nor massive tour groups. We simply round a final turn and the distillery is in front of us. It looks like a cross between an ancient mill and modern factory. Everything is constructed from grey stone and dark, precision-cut wood. Combined with the occasional logo in famous Maker’s red, the distillery stands out conspicuously from its evergreen surroundings yet somehow manages to look right at home. Sure it’s closed by now (It turns out Ashlee was right) but that’s no problem. We’re quickly approached by a hospitable Southern gentleman in, of course, a Maker’s red pickup truck. His name is Eddy. “Would y’all like a private tour of the facility?” You don’t have to ask us twice. We’re in.
My plan is to write a blog about how bourbon is made so I take careful notes on the process, how long the mash is aged, the type of oak that’s used for the casks. I sketch a diagram of Maker’s famous five-story still. Eddy is extremely friendly and explains the ins-and-outs of bourbon making so well that we walk away feeling like we could easily start our own distillery. Of course, the 120 proof unfinished bourbon i.e. moonshine that we sample probably inspires some of our ambitions and confidence.
I came to realize that we don’t enjoy bourbon because of how it’s made. We drink it because of how it inspires our senses. In fact, that’s precisely what I remember most about our adventure to Maker’s. It’s been several weeks since our trip and I have no idea what temperature the distillation process occurs at but my memory of the sweet, subtle, woody smell that greeted us when we walked in is crystal clear. I can sip a glass of Maker’s, close my eyes, and see the distillery. I remember the slightly smooth but textured feeling of the charred oak casks that give Makers Mark its trademark flavor all like it was yesterday. No notes. No sketches. As we turned to walk away, Eddy asked if we enjoyed our last taste test. Our reply came quickly: “Of course we did.”
“Well, it’s gotta age but come back in twelve years and you can try the final product.” Good things come to those who wait indeed.
Editor’s Note: thanks to Makers Mark for letting us borrow one of their photos. We figured the bourbon story of their blessed distillery calls us even.