The second stop on this year's toddle down the Kentucky Bourbon Trail was at the venerable site of the Wild Turkey distillery in Lawrenceburg. A few years back, Campari purchased Wild Turkey for well over half a billion dollars. Since then, they have put more than a hundred million dollars into the brand and the site. I was curious to see how much that new international corporate influence I'd perceive on our tour. Those perceptions, good and bad, are all interesting. The first place a visitor sees that money at work in the new visitor center, where tours begin and end. This is a great facility. It is filled with entertaining displays of bourbon and Wild Turkey history, a cathedral of a tasting room with a fabulous view the Kentucky River, and a shop with all manner of entertaining (and/or delicious) inventory on offer. I'll come back to this location when I get to the tasting outlay, but I'll note one cool thing from when we first arrived. An elderly gentleman wandered into the lobby as our tour was getting ready to go. An elderly gentleman named Jimmy Russell, Master Distiller at Wild Turkey for about as long as I've been alive. The visitor center made no fuss about his appearance, he just ambled in for a few minutes. This left most of the tour group standing around awkwardly, wondering why about five of us were treating this little old man like he was Elvis.... It seems that Jimmy makes this visit often when he is in town, but I wouldn't absolutely count on meeting him. The tours leave on the hour, and from the outset, that new corporate ownership showed. Don't get me wrong. Most all big Kentucky outfits are owned by multi-nationals now. But for virtually all of them, job one is concealing this from visitors' subconscious. History, heritage, and craft are the bywords that other Bourbon Trail distilleries tend to shape their tours to convey, and more importantly, it is what virtually all visitors are looking for. The tour itself at Wild Turkey is industrial. It felt more like I was on the Ford F-150 plant tour as part of a visit to the Henry Ford in Detroit. (Caveat: I love the Rouge plant tour. It makes you proud to be a human being. If you've never been to the Henry Ford, it's worth a trip to Detroit all by itself. The plant tour is only a part of it.) The Wild Turkey tour is a fine industrial tour, and I certainly enjoyed it. Parts of it are extremely well done. But it left me unsatisfied, so let's examine why. The tour commences with a ride on a comfortable bus up to the top of the hill to the new distillery building. The bus thing is the first discordant note. I'm used to walking the entire tour. It makes many of these giant facilities seem almost intimate. I like to wander, but at Wild Turkey, every time I strayed out of a straight line from bus to door, I felt almost naughty. This new facility was actually under construction before the Campari acquisition. (I think. The timeline of the plant expansion and the sale are both a little murky.) The new distillery features all new and up to date stills and fermenting vats. The plant is capable of producing double the old facility—nearly 11 million gallons of whiskey a year. The new still runs at the same rate as the old one. The increase in production comes from the truly vast collection of fermenters that produce enough mash to keep the new still running for much more of the day. Wild Turkey is now a three-shift operation when it is not shut down for Summer maintenance. Upon entering the building, there is a nice little display that demonstrates the grains in Wild Turkey's mash bill. Out of all the distillery tours I've been on, this segment is actually one of the more cogent and educational descriptions of what the raw ingredients of bourbon are, and how they are handled that I've seen. But it takes place in a cinder block room with fluorescent lighting. If you saw this exact display at Makers Mark, they'd have it in an unlit, decrepit shed with dented scrap copper and a wooden plow in the corner.... Next you go up the stairs to the only actively disappointing part of the tour: The big still itself. How on Earth do you make a giant piece of state of the art copper equipment boring? You don't let me into the room with it. You see the still through a set of large plate glass windows—large, slightly dirty, definitely wet windows. [caption id="attachment_11420" align="aligncenter" width="1200"] This lovely picture of the countryside is brought to you by the fact that the view of the new still is so obstructed I couldn't get a single usable photograph of it.[/caption] Of all the quirks of this tour, the wall between us and the still was the only one that I was consciously annoyed by at the time. You can't see the still properly, but worse, you can't hear it. You can't feel its vibrations. (I assume. It wasn't running, due to the calendar.) You can't breathe the same air. There's a condom joke here, but I can't quite nail it down.... After the still room, you do get to walk amongst the truly vast arena of fermenting vats. This room is truly impressive, and you do very much get to breathe the same air here. I can't imagine how glorious (or overpowering) the aroma would be on a hot spring day. It also was the place where I learned my "one new thing" on this tour. I've been on so many distillery tours, I've heard virtually every detail before. But I always get something new, and the one I learned here is a doozy. Whenever you enter a fermenting room, the floor is just a few feet below the top of the giant tubs, and it is always a metal grid or sports widely spaced floorboards. I always assumed this was so you could easily access the top of the vats, but it is really so you don't die. So much CO2 roils out of the fermenters when they are running, it is dangerous. Fortunately, CO2 is heavier than air. The floor is elevated to keep you from literally drowning, and it has lots of room for air flow so that the CO2 can easily sink down where people don't walk during operations. Wild Turkey has huge ventilation systems to clear out the gas from down below. However, our guide said that there are still days when all vats are going that the CO2 levels are so high, they can't even conduct the tours on the elevated floor. After the fermenters, you spend more time in a cinder block stairwell, with a display of Wild Turkey products, past and present. The actual story the guide tells is pretty fun, but again the environment is... stark. After than, it is back on the bus. You ride past the brand new, ultra-modern bottling facility on the way to the rick houses. Note that I say that you ride past. They brag about how awesome it is, and how when bourbon production is down, they run tanker trucks full of Skyy vodka through there. But they don't take you in! I kept expecting them to take us in on the way back, but no dice. The ricks are great. To a certain extent, ricks are ricks, but the house Wild Turkey has chosen to show off is a beaut. The view from it is that bridge picture I petulantly stuck in above. The exteriors have just the right amount of whiskey mold to look cool but not too nasty. Inside, there is good light and great smells. I like the fact that there has been some recent wood replacement right where the tour stops inside, which illustrates very nicely the amount of engineering and maintenance has to go into these expertly designed buildings that look to the casual observer like beat-up old sheds full of barrels. (Caveat: They are beat-up old shed full of barrels. The twin facts that their design makes for some pretty amazing chemical reactions happening within, and that they don't fall down and kill everyone nearby, make for the engineering marvel aspect.) It was a cool bit of chance that as we were entering the rick house, we ran into Jimmy's son Eddie as he was leaving. He had been in there before us, checking on the progress of some unknown number of barrels, and took a few moments to say hello. It was a neat little add-on that reminds you that for all that this is a half-billion dollar operation, it also remains a deeply personal, hands-on one. [caption id="attachment_11426" align="aligncenter" width="1200"] Is it just me, or does this man look sheepish to have been observed drinking bourbon right out of the barrel at 11:20 in the morning?[/caption] After we left the rick, we boarded that bus again, and it was back to the visitor center for the best part of the tour: the tasting. And I mean that in all seriousness. I don't just mean the products are good, though the tasting did provide a good reminder that Wild Turkey's products, top to bottom, are a helluva lot better than most people imagine they are. (More on that issue in another post.) But also, the tasting room is a cathedral. [caption id="attachment_11427" align="aligncenter" width="1200"] Almost literally.[/caption] The sunlight-drenched tasting room has a view that in a single glance explains why they thought it was a good idea to put the visitor center so far away from the actual heart of the distillery. Inside, the space is dominated by the massive copper form of the old column still Wild Turkey employed for decades before the renovation. I will admit this exhibit does make up a smallamount for that big wall between you and the current still. You can get right up to it, look inside, and get a feel for the scale of the thing. The samples themselves are all quite tasty. As I said, Wild Turkey is a much better product than many people, especially outside their old-line demographic, believe. When was the last time you saw a craft bartender grab a bottle of Wild Turkey to make a drink? That's a shame, really. The only oddity I felt during the tasting was an almost sneer at their own rye product. Or not at their product, but at rye as a category in comparison to bourbon. Wild Turkey was one of the only American distilleries that kept the beacon of rye burning during the category's long sojourn in the wilderness, before its current resurgence. I would expect that they would do more to emphasize both their part in making sure there is rye to drink, and in making such a good rye. We enjoyed the tour, but I can only give a qualified recommendation for a visit to Wild Turkey. If you are a fan of Kickin' Chikin, by all means, go. And for Bourbon Trail veterans, it is a pleasant stop on the way to seeing it all. But for the casual visitor, who might only visit one or two distilleries on an isolated trip to or through Kentucky, there are many better, more entertaining choices for a good time. Simply put, this tour could be so much improved. The bus is unavoidable, given the spread out nature of Wild Turkey's plant. But for goodness sake, take the bean counters out and give them a high colonic with Russell's Reserve. Spend some money on the currently dreary spaces in which the tour spends most of its time. Make it feel like a Kentucky distillery, and not a mall parking garage in Chicago. There are wineries in California who make less wine in a year than Wild Turkey distills in a day, yet have multi-million dollar "chateaus" whose only purpose is to provide visitors with the impression of age and class. All of the Kentucky distilleries, except for Makers Mark, fall a bit short in this regard, but none so starkly as Wild Turkey. Let us get a view inside that high-tech bottling plant, or pretend it doesn't exist. One or the other. A lot of work clearly went into designing this tour, and I'm sorry to say that a lot more is needed to get it right. I know this was a lot less positive post than I usually write, but I have a follow-up coming with a whole lot good and fun to say about Wild Turkey. That one will reference a lot of things in this one, so I hope you stick around to read that one too.abc
What if Luke is actually Snoke? Bear with me here. I think that a careful examination of footage from Episode IV will show that this guy has been with the Dark Side of the Force since we first saw him. Don't believe me? Ask any bartender. I got this theory from an excerpt from the Steele Wars podcast with guest Mr. Sunday Movies (embedded at the bottom of this post.) And while I rip off their idea, I'm going to expand on it, upgrading Luke from maker of the dick move to obvious Sith mastermind.
Exhibit A: Luke Simply Enters the BarLuke is how old? 16? 17, maybe? I'm pretty sure that he is under age. A seventeen year-old who walks into your average dive bar here on Earth puts the whole operation in jeopardy from the Bureau of Liquor Control. The Cantina is in The Empire. This is how Stormtroopers handle a simple case of suspected receipt of stolen goods. Can you imagine how they'd handle someone they want to make an example of?
Exhibit B: Luke Tries Bringing Undesirables Into the BarReally Luke? Droids? In a bar? Have you no social graces?
Exhibit C: Luke Tells His Friends to Piss Off So He Can Get InThe bar straight out discriminates against Threepio and R2. And Luke, who is focused on sneaking in while underage, just outright shoves them back out into the street!
Consistency... Your hallmark, it is not!A true Sith can be evil on both sides of an issue!
Exhibit D: Darth Maul Wouldn't Be This Big of a Jerk When OrderingBartenders will take this piece of evidence by itself and scream, "Guilty!" Luke walks up to the bartender, who has his back turned, is clearly in the weeds, and has a room full of patrons who will clearly not take well having their drinks delayed, and grabs his sleeve. This is not cool, folks. And not only was it a Dark Side move a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, Luke probably also knew he was setting a bad example for young movie viewers a long time later, in a galaxy far, far away form Tatooine. Don't tell me a Sith isn't capable of projecting his evil beyond the confines of a story he's a fictional character in. They have some serious power, those guys. If you don't think Luke's "dick move" rises to the level of true evil, look at the hapless bartender's reaction. That is the face of a man who wants to eighty-six punks like Luke three times an hour, but he works in a "hive of scum and villany", so if he did, his tips would suffer or he'd get shot. Instead, Luke has this guy so terrified that the drink he hands over doesn't even kill Luke. This bar serves fifty alien species, at least one thing on offer there would kill this kid. If he wasn't a Sith, of course. Luke, Sith or not, you tug on a bartender's sleeve to order on earth, and your cocktail will at the very least contain 3/4 oz. of saliva.
Exhibit E: Luke Gets Some Dude's Hand Cut OffWhy does the fight start? The (admittedly rough and tumble) patrons to Luke's left quite politely make room for him when he first approaches the bar. So when does the apparent hostility arise? Why, after Luke is such a dick to the bartender![caption width="800" id="attachment_11372" align="aligncenter"] "I have the death sentence in twelve systems, and even I am not as big a dick as you!"[/caption] Luke has to know his behavior is unacceptable to them, but he callously shrugs off their concerns. This quite foreseeably enrages them, but Luke knows he can duck (or be thrown) out of the way and there standing behind him is a galacticly famous wizard with a magic sword. The results for the concerned patrons are predictable... ...especially in stories in the Star Wars universe. See? Case closed: Luke is clearly a Sith from moment one. If that is the case, then how do you explain the events of Episodes IV, V, and VI? Clearly, this is Luke getting rid of the Emperor and his own father to clear the way for himself. He then waits until he finds his own henchman. He turns his own nephew to the Dark Side, the disappears to the shadows while Ren wreaks havoc on a helpless galaxy. All the while, controlling him through the simple expedient of a fake, Wizard of Oz-type hologram as "Snoke".[caption width="800" id="attachment_11378" align="aligncenter"] "Pay no attention to the Jedi behind the curtain!"[/caption] It's air-tight. You know you can't argue with logic. Luke is Snoke. abc
I thought it would be interesting to put up a list of what I view as the single best value out there in each of the six great cocktail spirit categories. To be clear, these are hardly the best exemplars of Whiskey (North American), Rum, Gin, Brandy, Tequila, and Vodka, nor are they the cheapest. Far from it in both instances. These hit the sweet spot where the price and quality curves intersect. Prices, of course, will vary wherever you are, and in what mood the bottlers, distributors, and Chet behind the counter are in... These bottles also are Swiss Army Knife products, in that they aren't just good, they work well pretty much across the spectrum of drinks you might make with each. There might be a better gin, price to quality, if you only make Dry Martinis with it, but that gin might not be so great a value in an Alexander or a Pegu. So let's begin.
1. North American WhiskeyIn the whiskey category, I immediately discarded the Scotches and Irish. (It's OK, we Scots-Irish have been discarded for centuries.) I love both, but neither is remotely a common cocktail spirit. I settled on a bourbon simply because of market share. My choice will be familiar to long-time readers: Four Roses Yellow Label Kentucky Straight Bourbon. The price wobbles a bit, but you can almost always hand over a single Andrew Jackson and get your Yellow Label back with change. I've blogged quite a bit about Four Roses already, and I don't want to do anything like a full review of these six bottles anyway. Suffice to say, you can put a bit of this in a glass with some water, frozen or not, and hand it with confidence to just about anyone and know that if they turn their nose up at it, they are not a connoisseur but an ungrateful jerk. Further, it possesses enough character and polish to feature well in spirit-forward cocktails, but enough fortitude to remind you it's a bourbon drink in more... distracting recipes.
2. GinAmong gins, I'm going with one that I've never blogged. It is also the closest call on this list. Among these six bottles, it's the only one I don't naturally reach for when looking to try a new recipe at home. (Gin is my first cocktail love, and I tend to overspend within the range. Sue me.) At about twelve bucks a bottle, it is damned hard to touch New Amsterdam Gin. New Amsterdam is no sipper. But much as I love gin, if you like to sip gin you either have an unlimited budget, or a drinking problem... quite possibly both. (Sorry Angus, you know I love you.) With in the two main categories of gin today, New Amsterdam was among the initial vanguard of citrus-forward, "New American" gins that have risen with the resurrection of cocktail culture. It is a solid cocktail gin that may fall short for a Martini lover, but be a super entrance drug for your juniperphobe friends. It's consistent, reliable, free from any unpleasant notes... and it is twelve damn dollars.
3. RumYou cannot just say "this is the best rum". It would be a bit like saying "this is the best motor vehicle". Silver, Gold, dark, and Spiced rums all serve different, sometimes extraordinarily different purposes. But the rum I chose to put on this list, Plantation Grand Reserve 5-Year, is obscenely good for the price (about twenty-two bucks) and very versatile. Plantation 5 Year Rum is a Barbadan gold, and as I said, quite versatile. They make great rum on that island as a rule, but this bottle has just a hair more character than most. It also far, far too good on the rocks all by itself for any low-twenties purchase. It pairs well with Jamaican pot-still in a Mai Tai, yet slips easily into a standard Daiquiri as well. It's the baritone of rums.
4. BrandyHere's the thing about basic grape brandy: Americans are only now beginning to grasp what it takes to make it really well. For now, and a while to come, I expect, if you want a brandy to stand up with other world-class products, you go to France. But Courvoisier is in the mid thirties for just a VS, and cognacs tend to go up from there. That's tres cher if you are whipping up a round of Sidecars, or if you are curled up on the couch on a Tuesday night, catching upon NCIS and craving a snifter of something. And then Maison Rouge VSOP entered the State of Ohio, and my life, at just over twenty bucks. I do not understand this product. Yes, the packaging is painfully boring. No, no one in the US has heard of this juice since Hardy spends no money on marketing, as far as I can tell. But it is a perfectly fine sipper for non-special occasions, and it is as good a mixing cognac as you will find. And it clocks in at about two-thirds of the big names' entry offerings, while Maison Rouge is a VSOP. If you can find it, buy some. You are welcome.
5. TequilaChoosing a bottle in the tequila category was easy. Añejos and Extra Añejos, delicious as many are, are mostly too delicate (and too pricey) to mix with. Some of the best tequila cocktails I've been served were made with Reposados, but let's be honest, tequila as a category simply doesn't need wood the way whiskey does to be a legitimate, finished product. Silvers are the most versatile tequila category, as well as the best value. And the price and quality curves are so strong for Olmeca Altos Tequila Plata, I hardly buy much else from the tequila section these days. Is it special? No. Is it unique in some way? No. It is just good. You could sip it, I suppose. You can definitely shoot it, with no need to lunge afterwards for salt or lime. And you can mix the hell out of it. There's a balance in making tequila in commercial quantities between over-reliance on traditional methods, which can add taste elements here and there that can narrow the appeal of a product, and over-indulgence in industrial processing, which usually either sands so many edges off the profile it doesn't feel really like tequila... or just makes it taste like ass. Olmeca seems to have hit the sweet spot, and I hope they stay right there.
6 VodkaThe final great cocktail spirit (the youngest or the oldest, depending on how you look at it) is unique in its place for making cocktails. All the others are crafted to bring certain flavor profiles to the foundation of a cocktail. They are ingredients. Vodka is an accelerant. Yes, yes. I know. There are lots of vodkas out there that are "interesting" in one way or another. But vodka is in a cocktail to wake up and otherwise showcase the flavors of the other ingredients. (Unless the cocktail is a Vodka Martini, in which case, it's just there to get you bombed.) For making cocktails, a vodka should offer the highest purity of ethanol (with the lowest number of other complex molecules) to do its job right. Sobieski vodka does the job beautifully, and at about 12 bucks runs about a third of most vodkas of equivalent purity. Sobieski was one of the very first product samples I was ever sent as a blogger. They still have a link to my eight year old blog post about them, right on their website. I shudder to think how much money I've saved since then, not buying other, more expensive vodkas. (Disclaimer: I've still bought a bunch of other, more expensive vodkas... just not as many as I might have) Sobieski has boring, usually plastic bottles. It's marketing is plain, cheap, and highly intelligent. And it lives in an obscure position down on the bottom shelf, low-rent district of the vodka section of your liquor store. Get some. That's the list. What do you think? I'm always open to better suggestions. abc
KNOW US BETTER