"Sometimes you open up the barrel and it's empty. Heartbreak city."
October 10, 2015 8:00 PM   Subscribe

On the DVD of Ken Burn's "Prohibition" (which is awesome, by the way), there is a set of cut scenes that includes a narration-free segment of how Kentucky Bourbon is made. It's gorgeous, and I went looking online earlier this year to see if someone had posted the video. My Google-fu failed to find it, but I highly recommend seeking it out.
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI at 8:24 PM on October 10, 2015 [3 favorites]

That entire documentary is fantastic.

And damn, I debated buying bourbon or beer today and went with beer. Now the video will be less satisfying.
posted by Drinky Die at 8:25 PM on October 10, 2015

It was still pretty damn good. I think you picked the best quote for the title.
posted by Drinky Die at 8:36 PM on October 10, 2015

I dithered a little bit. I also liked the moment at the end where that same (super friendly) guy said "Isn't life a journey?" But that could probably be used as the title to all kinds of FPPs.
posted by axiom at 8:39 PM on October 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

AlonzoMosleyFBI: Netflix.
posted by Chitownfats at 9:03 PM on October 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

Those guys sound like they really love their jobs.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:11 PM on October 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

So cool. We are in Louisville for the weekend and went on the Buffalo Trace tour today (the BT guy in this video was leading the tour right after us). Which other tours in the area are worth it? I was going to pass on Beam but the video makes it look pretty cool!
posted by rossination at 9:11 PM on October 10, 2015

Well, there's a list of staffers and distilleries that appear in the video located here if that helps, rossination.
posted by axiom at 9:15 PM on October 10, 2015

the BT guy in this video was leading the tour right after us

That's Freddie Johnson from Buffalo Trace.

A couple of years ago I did the whole Bourbon Trail with some friends, we visited maybe ten distilleries in three days. Our tour at Buffalo Trace and getting to meet Freddie was the very best part.

He's the third generation in his family working at the distillery. Here's a good interview/oral history with Freddie and his father Jimmy Johnson.

Which other tours in the area are worth it?

Woodford Reserve was also a good tour, but a little more Disneylike. Wild Turkey was interesting in how much more of a greater scale they were doing the same thing, and our guide was pretty great there.
posted by peeedro at 9:25 PM on October 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

IIRC one guy said they go through 15,000 barrels per year, and every one is new, made of oak. Each of those barrels requires a fair amount of wood, and it made me wonder:

Is there really that much oak out there, that they can harvest that much each year (and that's not all we use oak for) without the forests eventually disappearing through overharvesting? He said the barrels cost about $150 each, which to me seemed amazingly cheap.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:33 PM on October 10, 2015

As Bourbon Booms, Demand For Barrels Is Overflowing. The French have been able to sustain their oak industry since pre-industrial times. Appalachia has a whole lot more oak than France.
posted by peeedro at 9:46 PM on October 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

Somebody with more knowledge can correct me if I'm wrong but I believe harvesting wood can definitely be sustainable with proper planning. You know how much land you have and how many trees you have and how much time it takes to grow them. Cut and price appropriately. The greater issue with deforestation in modern times is more about cutting down trees to produce food crops or grazing land instead.

The barrels are also reused for other purposes that don't require them to be new, so it's not a total waste to use new ones. Bourbon barrel aged beer is getting to be a big thing, for example.
posted by Drinky Die at 9:46 PM on October 10, 2015 [3 favorites]

Is there really that much oak out there, that they can harvest that much each year (and that's not all we use oak for) without the forests eventually disappearing through over harvesting?

Missouri's got plenty.

If you're a fan of both bourbon and beer, the Grit & Grain videos are worth a look.
posted by HumuloneRanger at 9:51 PM on October 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

So, a few of the guides mentioned how every barrel tastes completely different. Since that's the case, how do the big producers makes sure that all of their 1000's of bottles of bourbon taste the same?

Not that I drink a bottle of whiskey a day or anything, but I could probably pick out Jack Daniels, Bullet, and Makers Mark in a blind taste test against each other.
posted by sideshow at 10:42 PM on October 10, 2015

It's mentioned in the video too, they blend the barrels together before bottling to get a uniform taste. Single barrel offerings will be unique.
posted by Drinky Die at 11:09 PM on October 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

Missouri's got plenty.

I grew up near the small town of Lebanon, MO, which doesn't have a whole lot going on besides a huuuuuuge barrel making factory (which is apparently the biggest cooperage in the world, in a town of about 15,000.) I always wondered why the demand for white oak barrels was so big - I never knew they were so special, and aren't reused at all, at least for aging. Also explains why I know so many people in the Ozarks with recycled whiskey barrel tables and barrel planters.
posted by joechip at 12:11 AM on October 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

A rum distiller in New Orleans told me that after barrels are used for bourbon they're used for rum, and then for Tabasco (I think). There's a whole life cycle, and apparently it's regulated by law as well as custom.
posted by Joe in Australia at 2:33 AM on October 11, 2015 [3 favorites]

Scotch is also always aged in used barrels, so a lot of bourbon distilleries sell their used barrels to Scotch distilleries, where they'll then be re-used multiple times.
posted by Itaxpica at 5:08 AM on October 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

Can we have an SLYT warning on this, KTHX?

(Some of us aren't interested in watching long video documentaries on a smartphone, as opposed to reading essays.)
posted by cstross at 5:37 AM on October 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

AlonzoMosleyFBI: Netflix.

True, but unfortunately that doesn't have access to the extras on the DVD where the Bourbon video is.
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI at 5:37 AM on October 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

Used bourbon barrels are "knocked down" and resold to Scotch producers. They're reassembled on arrival.

Scotch aged in ex-bourbon barrels may be aged in "first fill" or "refill" barrel (the latter being an ex-bourbon barrel that's been used to age a scotch before), so they can be reused multiple times.

Sherry casks, and to a lesser extent rum and even port casks are also used - owing to their previous contents, each will impart different flavour characteristics to the whisky.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 7:21 AM on October 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

Barrel aged beer also a thing these days.
posted by freakazoid at 7:45 AM on October 11, 2015

The makers mark your is worth your time.
posted by RolandOfEld at 9:01 AM on October 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

I thought the Scotch makers bought their barrels from French wineries...
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:07 AM on October 11, 2015

I thought the Scotch makers bought their barrels from French wineries...

Some do, but not all by a long shot. Both the wood used (French vs American oak) and whether the barrel was used for wine, whiskey, or something else make a significant contribution to the flavor of the scotch, so depending on the flavor profile that the distiller or blender is looking for they'll use different kinds of barrels, or blend batches from several different types. The only really hard rule is that the barrels cant be new.

A lot more of the flavor of whiskey comes from barrels than people realize. Several distilleries release unaged ("white") whiskey; it's worth a taste if you ever find it to get a sense of what flavored come from the original distillation versus the aging.

Sherry casks, and to a lesser extent rum and even port casks are also used - owing to their previous contents, each will impart different flavour characteristics to the whisky.

I got a hold of some port-barrel-finished rye from Hillrock recently, and it's one of the single best whiskeys I've ever had.
posted by Itaxpica at 10:37 AM on October 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

The only really hard rule is that the barrels can't be new.

That's interesting, because the OP's documentary says that the barrels used for bourbon must be new.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 12:34 PM on October 11, 2015

That's interesting, because the OP's documentary says that the barrels used for bourbon must be new.

The fact that bourbon barrels must be new and scotch barrels must be used is actually really good for bourbon distillers; apparently the prices are close enough on both ends that you can actually almost totally make up the cost of new barrels by selling them down the line, compared to scotch distillers where the barrels are just another cost.

Kings County distillery in Brooklyn sells some of its used smaller (five-gallon) bourbon barrels in its gift shop to homebrewers to make barrel-aged homebrewed beers, and I've been told (though not by anyone who works at the distillery, so take this with a grain of salt) that at what they're charging ($150) they actually turn a profit, albeit a small one, on each barrel.
posted by Itaxpica at 1:11 PM on October 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

As someone whose visited most of the major KY distilleries I feel like I can give capsule reviews. Working East to West starting in Lexington and working towards Louisville:

Town Branch - This is conveniently located in the city of Lexington. It is relatively new so the product doesn't have a huge cachet. The distillery tour is combined with a brewery tour as both facilities are co-located. Coincidentally, one of their beers unifies both worlds since their KY Bourbon Barrel Ale is aged in used bourbon barrels. This wouldn't be my first choice for a tour but it is a nice one.

Woodford Reserve - This is the most beautiful of the distilleries in my experience (Maker's Mark is second). There are lots of horse farms nearby with their white rail fences. The property is chock full of rolling green hills and old stone buildings for both distilling and aging of their products. I guess one knock on this place is that Woodford doesn't have a lot of variety of mainstream products so if you are looking to taste something new and you've already had WR and WR Double Oaked then you are likely out of luck. I however really like this one especially for people that aren't necessarily whiskey fans since the surroundings are just so lovely.

Wild Turkey - This place and Jim Beam are the giants of the industry and the tours can be on the party/rowdy side. While Turkey the brand has existed for a long time, the distillery building that you tour is very new and kind of antiseptic. I mentioned that the tour had a party atmosphere and it was no surprise that our tour guide told us that he led drinking/tasting/promotional events in Florida during the winter. There were plenty of choices for tastings and while most other places strictly held to what is undoubtedly KY state law in terms of samples, this place was quick to share more once it was clear that the "squares" left after drinking their samples. Now by no means am i suggesting you get drunk on these tours especially since almost all of these places are spread out in the middle of nowhere but when a company makes say 4 different rye whiskeys, it can be nice to have a tiny taste of each to compare. While I am not as crazy to visit the antiseptic distillery building I have to say that the new visitor center has some very interesting architecture. I wouldn't travel here just for the building but it was a nice surprise and far different than any of the other facilities.

Buffalo Trace - I took the hard hat tour here which requires a bit of pre-arranging as opposed to the default tour. There was ton of information shared about the process and there was a lot of walking and climbing and descending steps through the distillery grounds. I'd highly recommend this tour.

Four Roses - I haven't ever taken the tour here but did do a tasting and found it to be the most insightful and educational directed tastings. Essentially they guided you through 4 different samples and explained what was different about each of their product and about what sensations and flavors you should experience with each drink.

Heaven Hill Bourbon Heritage Center - I haven't had the tour or tasting here. They do have a decent amount of artifacts on display and there is a fair amount of interpretative displays. They also have a large gift shop that features a large assortment of mustards and bbq sauces to taste. This place is owned by the same people running the Even Williams Urban Bourbon Experience in Louisville so the tasting options will be very similar.

Maker's Mark - As mentioned before this is also a very pretty place. While they have expanded greatly, they still have and use the old facilities which is what you tour. The two downsides of this place is like Woodford they only have a limited amount of product and also this place is really off the beaten path.

Jim Beam - Truly the Disney World of spirits with a giant two story barn-like building housing the visitor center. The tour had shades of the Wild Turkey experience although the Beam tour went through more older facilities as well as new ones. You could tell a lot of the tour guide's spiel of their past remembrances with the product as well as stories about previous tours are likely canned and repeated by all tour guides. There was pretty decent bbq for sale and there was an immense amount of choice of things to taste.

Bulleit - This too is a relatively new tour built at the site of an old distillery/aging warehouse complex. There was a lot of history given on this tour as well as a not too subtle and constant reminder that this facility had dealings with the famous Pappy Van Winkle family. Don't be fooled, Pappy is made at Buffalo Trace. You'll also find out if you take enough of these tours that there are lot of common surnames and descendants of those surnames that run most of the above mentioned distilleries. This tour perhaps had the best diorama of how the distilling process worked. With that said, unless you are in the area, a completist or a Bulleit fanboy, I think you can put this as a lower priority.

Evan William's Urban Bourbon Experience - this too I suppose is a "Disney World" experience but a totally different take. Rather than take you through a production distillery, they hired museum display creators and film makers to retell early life in Louisville through the eyes of Evan Williams who settled in Louisville in the late 18th century. It's a bit cheesy and ultimately your experience is going to be determined by how good your tour guide is at presenting the story in between the films and the recreated 18th century rooms. because you aren't touring a production distillery (although there is a micro-distillery on premise). If you are history person or like museum pieces or happen to be in downtown Louisville than this place is for you otherwise I'd say it is a second tier experience.


A few other things to keep in mind is that most of the distilleries shut down for portions of the summer for a good thorough cleaning/state inspection. The distilling spaces can be very humid and very warm so not doing the distilling during the hottest part of the year makes sense. The tours generally still operate but you may not see everything working.

Lastly, in addition to the big Bourbon Trail there is also a Craft Bourbon Trail. It is much harder to see all of these places because they are spread out across the entire state whereas the big trail's locations are all nestled between Louisville and Lexington. In particular, Willet is a fine place to visit and their whiskey is held in high regard. I believe they might be the largest of the craft distilleries. On the other end of the spectrum you have Limestone Branch. They are tiny operation with most of their production facilities essentially being the size of a four car garage. They've also taken a different path than most places. Because whiskey takes many years to age before it can be sold, most new distilleries need a source of revenue to stay afloat in the early years. The tactic that most places take is to buy whiskey from other people and blend it themselves. The Limestone people went a different way to get cash flow. While their refined product ages in a warehouse they also make a line of corn & sugar cane distilled spirits that is flavored with things like fruit or jalapeno. They also make a "MoonPie Moonshine" which shockingly enough has the flavors of marshmellow, chocolate and graham crackers steeped into the distillate. Mind you this isn't sophisticated stuff but it different and very surprising. It is also as a small business where your tour guide is also your bartender and likely also distilled the product you are tasting.
posted by mmascolino at 3:27 PM on October 11, 2015 [23 favorites]

The only really hard rule [for Scotch] is that the barrels cant be new.

There is no such rule. The only regulation about the barrels themselves is that they must be oak casks of a capacity not exceeding 700 litres. There is a rule about where Scotch can be aged (only in Scotland, and only "in an excise warehouse or a permitted place") but nothing specifying that the barrels have to be used.

In the US, the barrel aging rule applies to straight whisky*, but not by definition to all whisky. It gets complicated, but if it's distilled from grain mash at less than 95% ABV and sold at no less than 40% ABV, it can be called whisky; to be called straight whisky it must be that but also aged a minimum of two years in new, charred oak containers; to be straight bourbon whisky it must be all of that but also "from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent corn and stored at not more than 62.5% alcohol by volume." The TTB has a PDF. Also whisky can be labeled as "Bottled in Bond" or "Bonded" if the rules for straight whisky apply AND it was aged for a minimum of four years (not two) in a federally bonded warehouse AND it's bottled at a minimum of 50% ABV AND a few other things. But you may note that the federally bonded warehouse is roughly analogous to the Scotch rule about excise warehouses or permitted places.

Now, between the fact that US law results in a constant supply of single-use oak barrels, and that there's also a ready supply of oak barrels coming out of France, you don't even have to get into matters of taste before you conclude that maybe a producer of Scotch is going to prefer used barrels on account of the price. (They probably would also choose used oak on account of taste, but I've spent too much time on this comment without also looking for citations on that point) . But also there's no rule that says an American distiller couldn't use used oak barrels or age their product for less than two years, there are just laws determining what that distiller can actually call the end product.

* I have, under duress, used the spelling of "whisky" used in the TTB documents in this paragraph. I would like to have a word with the responsible parties at the TTB for using a non-standard spelling of "whisky" for what most people in the U.S. call "whiskey." Take it away, NYT.
posted by fedward at 4:32 PM on October 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

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