Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day I spent with friends in Lansing, Michigan, but on the 28th I packed up my car, kissed Pepper goodbye, and headed to Lexington, KY to hang out with Steve of OmniBrain for a few days. His sister lives there, and they were nice enough to give me a post-holiday home as I don’t have any family in driving distance for me. Of course, being in Lexington, I insisted we go drink bourbon for free in the form of a distillery tour!

The closest one was the Four Roses bourbon distillery in Lawrenceberg which was established in 1888. All bourbons are whiskeys, but for a whiskey to be considered bourbon its production must conform to a list of rules: it must be made in America, be composed of a grain mixture that is at least 51% corn, distilled to no more than 160 proof, it must be 100% natural (nothing other than water added to the mixture) and aged in new, American, charred oak barrels. The barrels cannot be re-used for bourbon but can be re-sold for other purposes, like aging and flavoring other whiskeys or hot sauce.

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The Four Roses distillery (pictured above) was quite beautiful. It was built in 1911 in the Spanish Mission style, and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. It sits on the Salt River, which is both its water supply and cooling system for the distillery. Decrepit, nominally creepy storehouses line the riverfront, which at one time was where the distilled spirit was aged. Now only the production occurs in Lawrenceberg and the filled barrels are aged in warehouses elsewhere, where there is more room. The distillery did not close during prohibition, it was one of only six granted permission to continue production for “medicinal purposes.” (snicker…)

The fermentation process, which I got to witness at the distillery, involved inoculating a grain mash (corn, wheat, malted barley, and rye) with yeast in a huge open vat. The yeast consumes the sugars in the mash releasing carbon dioxide. This makes the mash look like it is in a roiling boil, with huge malodorous bubbles rising to the top of the mash and popping. After 4 hours the mash is then distilled in a huge still, with the evaporated alcohol being condensed into a separate container. The ‘proof’ is tested, pure water is added to adjust it, and the liquid is poured into charred barrels for aging.

I did end up buying some of their Small Batch Bourbon which I thought was warm and smooth (I think my exact words was “not too burny”). I may be turning into a bourbon fan after all.


  1. #1 J-Dog
    January 3, 2008

    Looks like you had a fun time, but I am looking forward to your Retrospectacle Blog Of The Future, where I can click on a link in your post and receive a small sample right from my pc… say, around a pint? I want to make sure it’s not too burny too!

  2. #2 arby
    January 3, 2008

    Happy newish year from Kentucky. If you ever really do turn into a bourbon fan, might I suggest Henry McKenna Single Barrel? Ignore the tarted up label and the half-truths printed on it, it’s a fine bourbon. It will be a bit burny at 100 proof, but ice cubes or a splash of crik water will take care of that. Very sweet, very smooth, and IMHO much better than any of the other “small batch” bourbons I have tried. And I’ve tried most of them. Around $28 for the 750ML bottle locally. rb

  3. #3 McDawg
    January 3, 2008

    Nice one.

    You don’t want bourbon though really. You want the real McCoy in the form of pure Scottish Malt Whisky.

    A couple of years ago, a bunch of us spent 5 days at the Annual Islay Malt and Music Festival

    We visited four whisky distilleries. Without question, our favourite was Bruichladdich is a stunningly good malt whisky.

    Check out this really crazy but true story

  4. #4 arby
    January 3, 2008

    Of course, the Scotch distillers age their whisky in our used bourbon barrels. After the spirits have sucked all the goodness out of the charred oak. Goodness. rb

  5. #5 Kristjan Wager
    January 3, 2008

    All bourbons are whiskeys, but for a whiskey to be considered bourbon its production must conform to a list of rules

    I hate to say it, but bourbons are not whiskyes, no matter what they claim.

    Check out this really crazy but true story

    McDawg, I’ve had some of Bryichladdich’s Yellow Submarine whisky. Very nice.

    Still prefer a 18 year Talisker though. More smooth in my opinion.

  6. #6 Rev. BigDumbChimp
    January 3, 2008

    I’m a HUGE Bourbon fan.

    Try form Noah’s Mill if you can ever get your hands on it. It’s one of the most complex whiskeys I’ve ever had the pleasure of sipping, Scotch or Bourbon. It packs a punch, but it’s good stuff.

    Another good one to try is Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey (partially owned by the same guys involved in Flying Dog Brewery) which uses some bits of Scotch and Bourbon distilling techniques. It’s quite good as well. Has some characteristics of both.

  7. #7 Rev. BigDumbChimp
    January 3, 2008

    um… “form” supposed to be “some”.

    No I haven’t been sipping any yet.

  8. #8 McDawg
    January 3, 2008

    My experience of Bourbon is v. limited.

    We used to run a small bar, “Splasho’s” in our (music) rehearsal room here in Glasgae back in the 90’s. Wild Turkey and Jack D were the only BB’s we had on offer plus some crap blended Scots Whisky.

    WT was indeed feckin’ wild, so, ever since, I’ve not touched a drop.

    What I found is that when you actually visit and speak to folks involved in different distilleries, you really get a true smell and flavor. I think that’s what this thread is all about.

    I am reading a book about this.

    Like fine wines, choc etc. , the whole subject matter boils down to personal taste? Correct me if I’m wrong.

    “MENU” We all have a choice.

    For muggins right now, it’s a (griddle pan fried)local beef fillet steak, fresh garlic, a dash of S&P, oodles of top quality Italian extra v. olive oil, herbs and some meaty fries. Yum yum =)

  9. #9 arby
    January 3, 2008

    Kristjan: Bourbons are NOT whiskeys/whiskeys?? Can you back that up with… anything? Not trying to be snarky, but what leads you to say that? You could start with Wikipedia, “whisky” or “Bourbon whisky”, I did, and it doesn’t seem to back you up. rb

  10. #10 arby
    January 3, 2008

    Whisky/whiskey, whiskies/whiskies(plurals). Turns out there is a section on the spellings on Wikipedia too. I shoulda read that.. rb

  11. #11 snooper
    January 3, 2008

    Ahh antiquated and quaint as Whiskeys might be, there is a new kid on the block with genetically superior pedigree!

    Seen this stuff from Sammy Adams’ brewery? Not cheap but very interesting 27% alcohol thanks to selectively bred uberyeast

  12. #12 Kristjan Wager
    January 4, 2008

    Kristjan: Bourbons are NOT whiskeys/whiskeys?? Can you back that up with… anything?

    It’s a purist thing.

    While there are some decent drinkable Bourbons, they are considered lesser to the Single Malts and to a lesser degree to the blendeds (which I consider them equal to). Some (especillay Scotch) would claim that the only proper whiskys are single malts.

    Whisky is the Scottish spelling, whiskey is the Irish/American spelling.

  13. #13 arby
    January 4, 2008

    Dead thread, but I jus’ can’t help myself. Bourbon equal to blended? Hardly. “Some” would claim? Who, you? Do you have anything beyond simple mistaken predjudice to back up your claim that bourbon isn’t whisky?
    I will admit to a conflict of interest here, the bulk of my firewood comes from the butts of white oak logs left over after the milling of barrel staves. We have two cooperages in town, much of the production goes to wine barrels sold around the world, as well as bourbon barrels. One is owned by a French company, the other by a large American wine maker. Bourbon keeps me warm in more ways than one.
    Kristjan, please try a couple of good ‘single barrel’ bourbons, ‘spand yer mind. rb

  14. #14 Shelley Batts
    January 4, 2008

    Well, everyone has their preferences, don’t they? I was more of a wine person until I went on the tour and became fascinated with the process of fermentation and distillation. I kept thinking about how labor intensive it must have been before the mechanization of most of the process (computer-controlled temperatures, etc).

    Thanks for all the suggestions though, I’ll certainly keep them in mind to try in the future (and I do like Scotch too!)

  15. #15 Kristjan Wager
    January 4, 2008

    Kristjan, please try a couple of good ‘single barrel’ bourbons, ‘spand yer mind

    Can you suggest any that it’s possible to get here in Europe? The Bourbons I’ve tasted has been everything from decent (Jack Daniels) to vile (Jim Bean), but I wouldn’t call any of them ‘good’ (but then, they weren’t single barrel).

    Thanks for all the suggestions though, I’ll certainly keep them in mind to try in the future (and I do like Scotch too!)

    Shelley, what kind of Scotch do you like? It might be possible to make some better suggestions, if we know what you already like.

  16. #16 arby
    January 4, 2008

    Alas, Kristjan, I am totally ignorant about which bourbons might be available in Europe. You’re right, the mass produced Beams etc are not the best stuff in the world, some are borderline vile, although most of the big distillers make so-called small batch bourbons that can be very good. The Henry McKenna I mentioned is produced by the largest bourbon maker, Heaven Hill, though I don’t think you will find their name on the bottle. The Master Distiller supposedly goes through the warehoused barrels, and through sampling picks out what they call a “honey barrel”. That is, a sweet smooth barrel that meets the taste profile for whichever label it will be bottled under. A dream job.
    Even though Maker’s Mark, a small batch bourbon, is produced in my county, I can’t recommend it. I would suggest you do like I do with Scotch, in my ignorance. Just do some sampling at a bar, ask the bartender, try a few of the expensive ones. Ask for small batch or single barrel. I found a lovely single malt Scotch that way once, but I can’t remember what it was. Take notes.
    Jack Daniel’s isn’t technically bourbon, the charcoal filtering thing isn’t permitted with bourbon.
    Happy sampling, I’ll taste yours, if you taste mine. rb

  17. #17 Laura
    January 8, 2008

    My fave bourbon will always been Woodford Reserve. If it’s good enough for the Kentucky Derby’s mint juleps, it’s good enough for mine.

    I’ll have to seek out some of these small distilleries, though!

  18. #18 David
    February 23, 2008

    I like that SB has tagged this post a “Latest Related Entry” to oil hitting $100/barrel 🙂

  19. #19 raindogzilla
    February 23, 2008

    For good small batch bourbon probably available overseas, Blanton’s is very good as is Knob Creek. Jack Daniels is sourmash whiskey, delicious blasphemy and Wild Turkey 101 will make your head spin. Maker’s Mark is ultra-smooth.

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