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
My wife and I take a trip down the Bourbon Trail about once a year, visiting a distillery or two. Our first stop this year was at Copper & Kings, a Louisville Kentucky outfit that I don't think is technically part of the Bourbon Trail, since they don't actually make bourbon, or whiskey of any kind! Copper & Kings is primarily a brandy maker, though they also make brandy from apples, as well as a variety of absinthes. Oh, and the very occasional tiny batch of gin. Located in the Butchertown section of Louisville, C&K is located opposite a working slaughterhouse, a fact which announced itself to our noses rather dramatically after a brief rain. No distilling was going on, as this is August in Kentucky, but I can only imagine the war of aromas on a hot May morning.... Aside from the high quality of their basic brandy, I knew literally nothing about Copper & Kings before arriving at the facility. One look at the striking and beautiful facility placed the company in my mental category of "highly capitalized 21st century startups". This is a category that produces some of the best, as well as some of the most over-rated and over-priced, products I've explored since discovering that I'm a cocktail geek. I was eager to find out where C&K would settle across its product line. The distillery is worth at least a brief trip, even if you have zero interest in booze, but just like architecture. The main facility is an ancient brick warehouse, with a modern steel addition to the side. The entrance to the grounds is formed by a very neat building formed by three former shipping containers. The container to your right as you come in is a shop where you can sign up for tours, buy product, and do a little tasting if you haven't time for a full tour. The one to your left is a waiting area where you can relax in air conditioned comfort while you wait for your tour. A third container bridges the gap overhead between the two and seems to contain the HVAC for the two containers. I love the use of cargo containers as human habitations. As recycling goes, it is about as efficient an example as you can find. (The idea can be take way too far, of course.) The installation here is one of the more creatively laid out and designed examples that I've ever seen. Once you pass through the entrance, there is a huge patio/party space in front of the main building, with a huge moat to keep
morons visitors from just walking up to the big copper stills and burning themselves.
The patio, with it's well-equipped bar, firepits, and modern seating, is surrounded by lush wildflower beds, designed to attract butterflies and otherwise provide a little natural habitat in this industrial area of town.
The three glorious copper stills sit in a line at the front of the main floor, small, medium, and large. Behind them is the bottling line, and cage for finished product where they hope to place a fourth still one day. The smallest, Sarah, is so small it it raised up a few stairs. They use it for running experimental batches at an affordable scale, as well as making their intermittently-produced, micro-batch gin. The medium still is used to produce Absinthe, and the largest, Magdalena, is used exclusively for producing their core product line of aged grape wine brandies. All three stills are Kentucky made by Vendome Copper & Brass Works. The bottling line significantly automated and high-speed enough to attest to the reasonably high capacity of the distillery.
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By this time, I've seen so many distilleries, large and small alike, that there is usually only a few new things to be learned with each tour. (This is a tragic side-effect of having too much fun on the Bourbon Trail and elsewhere.) It also means I obsess over each new detail that I do learn. The big takeaway from Copper & Kings has to do with aging brandy. To reach the rickhouse, we had to descend to the basement. I immediately was puzzled by this. Enough trips to whiskey distilleries and you get used to the huge wooden houses designed to maximize temperature swings that will push and pull the whiskey in and out of the barrel wood. Brandy does not respond well to this treatment and becomes over-wooded well before it is properly aged. The basement protects the brandy from these swings.
But what is more interesting is the fact that loud music blares twenty-four hours a day down there. This is actually a part of their aging process. The heavy vibrations act on all the barrels to increase contact with the wood and deepen flavor. Is this trick for real? Heck if I know. They aren't the only distiller using this method, but it isn't widespread. Regardless, it is kind of fun, and if you want to listen to the same music your future brandy is rocking out to, just drop by the front page of the website and check out today's Spotify list. Don't listen as loud as the barrels do. It'll hurt your ears.
Besides the patio outside, there are several other spaces in the distillery designated for entertainment space. Directly over the stills is a large room (lavishly decorated in the distillery's signature orange) that is used for large tours, seminars, and wedding receptions. You know it is directly over the stills, since the absinthe aromatic basket is located here, and uses steam from the still right beneath it.
[caption id="attachment_11400" align="aligncenter" width="750"] Out tour guide Ian poses with the "Weapon of Mass Creation"[/caption]
The tasting room at the end of the tour is a large, well-lit space that opens out onto the rooftop. Your group will taste the basic brandy, and each visitor gets a couple of their own choice from most of the distillery's entire line. In addition to the base model brandy, Copper & Kings offers a reserve brandy, a young brandy, and a cask strength bottling. They also offer an aged and a young apple brandy, though I was kind of ticked to discover that they were out of stock of the aged apple spirit. Finally, they have four absinthes to try.
The products are, for the most part, very, very good. The brandies are delicious, and completely distinct from the stickily sweet American brandy you may imagine. But they remain distinctly not cognac. The absinthes are interesting. I particularly liked the ginger infusion. The young spirits are... young spirits. The white brandy is Pisco-like. And the white apple brandy... needs time in the basement with the Beastie Boys.
When visiting Louisville, I heartily recommend a visit to Copper & Kings. It is a visual treat (and olfactory adventure). The products are tasty, interesting and unique. The tour is well-scripted, and the staff is friendly. You can reserve tickets here.abc
The Bar Institute is a new series of annual events around the US, dedicated to many areas of skill development for bar industry types. I have just returned from three days attending the Bar Institute in Phoenix, Arizona. There should be several posts to follow about a number of excellent individual events I attended, but I want to start with an outline of exactly what goes on at a Bar Institute, what it is, and what it is not. I think this is important because the BI's marketing materials give a slick and beautiful idea of what kind of people would benefit from attending, they leave out a lot of detail about what to expect. I think that might leave a lot of people who should go hesitant to do so, and hopefully this may help a few of you decide to take the plunge. Bar Institute is the direct descendant/successor to the education component of Portland Cocktail Week. This is an excellent pedigree, and it is good for the industry to see the program expanded to other geographic areas. This year, there are five regional gatherings, and a national event to culminate the year. The northeast and southwest regionals have already occurred, in Baltimore and Phoenix, and the remaining 2016 cities are Miami, Austin, and Portland, with the national event in New York. The specific content from one city to the next will vary, as will the presenters, but the categories will be the same throughout. The three main categories are:
- Advanced Bartending & Technique. These classes cover subjects ranging from skills and techniques, to the use or creation of specialty ingredients, to customer interaction, with some oddball but useful classes like one on the differences in creating a menu for a large, mature market, versus a smaller one. This last subject came up in several classes I attended, and I mention it here specifically because I think it is an important point of failure for a lot of otherwise promising projects in cities like Columbus where I live.
- Bar Management & Ownership. More classes were offered in this category than any other, which reflects the Bar Institute's underlying focus on the somewhat novel concept that with this much money flowing through this industry, it really ought to be profitable for somebody. The selections here range from nuts and bolts things like costing a menu or reading a cash flow statement, to aspirational stuff like assembling a staff that will make you proud. Each regional BI has a different focus, and many sessions in the southwest event were centered on the design aesthetic from lighting to upon what what you decide to let your customers set their asses.
- Consulting & Ambassadorship. For those professionals who aspire to challenges (and income) beyond crafting drinks, but who don't incline toward the eternal dance with fiscal death that is bar ownership, the modern cocktail industry offers a host of jobs, large and small, to satisfy that urge. The classes in this category focus on these opportunities, with some additional insights on how bar workers and owners can leverage these services as well.
- Proprietors 360. This is a special category of classes, all of which are offered by the principals of Proprietors, LLC, the bar ownership and consultant group behind Death & Co, and many more. These classes cover subjects in all of the first three categories, but offer a cohesive set of real-world examples that ties them all together.
- Electives. Many of these classes focus on professional health and wellness issues for bar professionals. Like athletes, a bartender's body is their livelihood. Other classes hosted discussions about entertainment and work life balance. A session on the increasing opportunities for women in the upper professional ranks turned out to be especially timely....
Each year, more and more folks join in the understanding that if Man ever needs Tiki, its drinks, its ambiance, its vibe, he needs it in the dark, cold days of February. Warm tropical breezes, short-sleeved, festive shirts, and lots and lots of rum are just what the doctor ordered to fend off the gloom! On the same day I got the two cool new mugs I want to talk about below in the mail, I got a tweet that the purveyors of said mugs, Frankie's Tiki Room in Las Vegas is on the Tiki Month bandwagon! (Caveat: I am aware that since Frankie's is a Tiki bar, this is not exactly an heroic leap 'cross a chasm of faith for them. Still, every solider I can recruit is welcome in my battle to warm February with passionfruit and cinnamon!) I first became aware of Frankie's about two years ago, which makes me sad, because the last time I got to go kill someone in Las Vegas was three years ago! So if you live in Las Vegas, or are having a small event there, and want a really great murder mystery party, do give me a call. I'll even discount my travel expenses to make it a better deal for you, just so I can visit Frankie's. (Further caveat: I always discount travel expenses to Las Vegas, because... craps tables.) Anyway, part of my annual Tiki Month tradition is treating myself to a few new mugs. These two from Frankie's will likely get the most use this year of the new ones, and will likely be among my top five overall. And I like both these mugs for both aesthetic and practical reasons. As a matter of personal taste, I like cleaner designs. The Watusi has a nice scary Tiki face, but you don't lose the facial features among scores of notches all around them. The Bombora is a volcano, which I love anyway, and is a very clean design. I only question the decision to not have the little Tiki man on the front be depicted throwing a virgin up into the caldera. Gotta keep the gods happy, you know. As a practical matter, These things are the right size. Too many really cool mugs consume well over twenty ounces, which is just too damned much because:
- Given the strength of many Tiki drinks, that is just not a good idea.
- I appreciate the variety in Tiki drinks, as do my guests, and having a twenty three ounce drink will fill you up with only one taste experience.
- There is no way you are getting through a drink that big without all the ice melting into a watery mess.
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