Whisk(e)y…With an ‘E’

Hi, friends.  I’m giddy you stopped by!  I hope everyone is enjoying a lovely weekend.

As promised a couple of weeks ago, I have a special guest blogger here today.  Technically this was supposed to happen last weekend, but unfortunately, my guest was in a car accident that totaled his beautiful convertible. Ugh!  No worries, though, because aside from a few cuts and a little soreness, he’s feeling A-OK.  And that’s a very good thing because I happen to be in love with this guy!

Readers, today I’m turning things over to my sweet husband, Mr. C, who is going to share with you a little bit about the whisk(e)y education we received on our recent anniversary getaway.  Enjoy.

Whisk(e)y…With an ‘E,’ by Mr. C

Wendy and I recently took a vacation to Lexington, Kentucky.  The sole purpose of our trip was to experience the American evolution of something that the early colonists brought over from Scotland and Ireland. Whisky.  I mean Whiskey…although in this case, they call it Bourbon.  Let me tell you, some folks are very sensitive to spelling and names.  That, however, is not what I want to talk to you about today.  Today, I want to tell you that regardless of what you call it or how you choose to spell it, this amber liquid is incredible in all of its varied forms.  Especially when shared with your best friend.

The basic formula is consistent across the entire world.  Water, Yeast, Fire, Wood, Sugar in the form of a fermentable grain, and Time.  Lots and lots of time.  It is the variations in these ingredients that create the wide array of choices available to us around the world.  There are two things which primarily distinguish bourbon from my favorite form of whisky, Scotch.  Where single malt Scotch is made entirely from malted barley, bourbon is made with a blend of grains which must be at least 51% corn.  Bourbon must also be matured in a new American oak cask that has been charred on the inside.  Reuse of the cask is prohibited for bourbon.  As a result, bourbon casks are resold to wine makers, beer brewers, and other whisky producers where they continue their life, adding nuances of flavor to these other libations.

On our recent trip, Wendy and I visited three distilleries:  Buffalo Trace, Maker’s Mark, and Woodford Reserve.  I was amazed at how different all three distilleries are.

Buffalo Trace is an enormous, industrial feeling complex.

Flower pots in front of Buffalo Trace Distillery.
Buffalo Trace Distillery.
A dirty brick building.
A water tower that says Buffalo Trace Distillery.

They produce multiple brands using only three recipes, also called the grain bill.  The recipe differences lie in the proportions of corn, rye, and wheat.  However, the majority of the flavor differences in the products they produce actually come from the work of nature after the distillation and casking is complete.  The temperature and humidity variations through the seasons as well as the specific tree that any given cask is made from, contribute an enormous amount of variety to the flavor of the finished whiskey.

Whiskey barrels in the window of a brick warehouse.

Everything about Buffalo Trace is HUGE!  The fermenting tanks have a capacity of 92,000 gallons each!  They have 12 of these!

Whiskey mash in a fermenter tank.

The heart of the whiskey production is an enormous, 60,000 gallon column still that produces the “White Dog”, or un-aged bourbon.  The column still, also called a Coffey still, is named after Aeneas Coffey, an Irishman who perfected and then patented the pre-existing concept of a continuously operating still.  This still is different from the giant copper pot stills that are used in the majority of Scotch production.  The main difference is that the column still can run continuously, while the pot still must be stopped and refilled for each run.  But to whisky enthusiasts, the differences go much further.  Much debate exists over the differences in flavor and quality produced by each type of still.

A whiskey column still.
Stacked whiskey barrels in a warehouse.

The second distillery on our list was Maker’s Mark.  This facility is drastically different from Buffalo Trace.  Where Buffalo Trace is an enormous industrial complex, Maker’s Mark feels like a family farm. Albeit, a very large family farm.

A park-like setting.
Whiskey barrels in a wagon and a gray building with red shutters.
A green house with a wrap around porch.
A white cat sleeping on a door mat.
Whiskey Jean, eager to welcome guests to the distillery.  Well…maybe not so much.

Maker’s Mark has only one grain bill from which they make their products.  All of the variations in flavor, come from the wood.  The Maker’s Mark grain bill is mostly corn with the addition of malted barley and wheat.  The malted barley is a distinction from most other bourbon producers who use rye in their grain bill.

Maker’s Mark solved the argument over column vs. pot by using one of each.  Their first distillation runs through a column still, and their second distillation is via a small copper pot still.

Where distilled whiskey from the column still is transferred to the copper pot still.

What I found to be most distinctive about Maker’s Mark is their attention to the flavor contributions made by the charring of the barrel staves.  They have employed the talents of a “wood chef” who focuses on the different flavors that he can derive by burning the wood in different ways!  I never really thought about it this way, but much of the sweetness in a bourbon comes from the charred wood inside the cask.  It does make sense when you think about it.  What happens when you sear vegetables in a hot skillet?  The burned edges taste sweet!  Caramelized onions anyone?  I suppose a tree is just a giant vegetable.  Caramelize it and it tastes sweet!

My absolute favorite moment in all of the tours that we took, was when we arrived at the large facility where Maker’s Mark marries together all of the casks selected for a bottling.  They had just finished dumping all of those casks into a giant tank to prep for bottling.  Well, the gentleman in charge knew that we were coming and had captured a small bottle from the last cask that they dumped.  He gave it to our tour guide along with some small plastic cups.  Yes, my friends.  We stood there in the presence of all that bourbon and sipped on our very own, unfiltered, undiluted, single cask, Maker’s Mark.  It was sublime!

A woman pouring whiskey into a glass.
A massive fermenting tank.
Maker's Mark bottles being capped by a robotic machine.
Maker's Mark bottles on a conveyer belt.
A Maker's Mark truck.

The last distillery on our list was Woodford Reserve.

A stone wall with a Woodford Reserve sign.

This place, more than any other, made us feel like we were somewhere in Scotland.  The whole facility felt like a street in Leith.  But it was when we entered the still house that it really came home.  We stood there in front of three beautiful copper pot stills.  It could have easily been a distillery somewhere in the Highlands.  Except that it was nearly 90 degrees Fahrenheit outside… oh well.

Three tall copper whiskey stills.
A stone building housing whiskey barrels.
A gray stone building.
Stacked whiskey barrels in a warehouse.

Some of you, no doubt, noticed that throughout this blog I interchangeably used the terms Whisky, Whiskey, and Bourbon.  That was intentional.  A few weeks ago, I was a whisky snob.  No longer.  Whether it comes from the Isle of Islay, the mountains around Aberfeldy, or the hills of Loretto, KY, uisge beatha is an incredible libation that should be enjoyed neat, a dram at a time, and with someone you love.  Oh yeah, uisge beatha is Scotch Gaelic for “water of life”.  I guess I am still a bit of a whiskey snob.  I’ve just learned that spelling doesn’t matter anymore.


Mr. C

10 thoughts on “Whisk(e)y…With an ‘E’

    • Thank you! He has a replacement already. The same car but better. :). It was a stressful week after it happened but it all worked itself out quickly. His guardian angel was definitely looking out for him that day. The entire length of the car’s driver’s side was mashed in.

  • Quite informative – I’ve never acquired a taste for it, but my mom was fond of her occasional ‘wee dram.’ Glad to hear your husband is okay and the car is repaired. These things can scare the living daylights out of you. I still can’t drive in snowstorms after I slid off the road into a tree many years ago.

    • Thanks, Eliza. It took me a long time before I fully acquired a taste for it. I began with Bourbon and the sweeter tasting Scotches and over time eventually developed a love for even the strong, peaty ones. So tasty! You are right about scary car accidents. Probably best to stay indoors on snowy days if you can. It’s always a good excuse to catch up on Netflix or something. 🙂

  • Very interesting. Maker’s Mark is the only one I’ve heard of before. I agree, that last one looks very Scottish, but I don’t agree that spelling doesn’t matter. Whisky is Scottish, whiskey is Irish. Either way, slainte!

    PS hope all is well after the car accident.

  • Most interesting, and a lot of information for you to take in on your tours, but offset with plenty of tastings I expect. I didn’t know that bourbon casks were never reused for bourbon although I’m sure I’ve heard of Scotch whisky being matured in old bourbon casks. The accident sounds horrific, but what a relief it wasn’t worse. Nice to see and read Mr C’s contribution, an excellent guest blogger. 🙂

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