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.
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.