By Richard Thomas
For decades now I have had the pleasure of either showing friends and assorted visitors around my native Bluegrass, or at least offering advice on such things when I am not there to do it in person. When it comes to bourbon distilleries, I usually ask a simple question: “Do you have a favorite brand, and you want to see where it’s made, or are you looking for a really good tour?”
If it’s the latter, I always point to Woodford Reserve, easily the prettiest distillery in Kentucky. Some have buildings that can match the attraction of Woodford’s historic, field stone stillhouse and main rickhouses, and some can compare to the bucolic splendor of the distillery’s location in the midst of prime Kentucky horse country, a stone’s throw from Keeneland on the banks of Glenn’s Creek. Only Woodford’s Labrot & Graham Distillery scores top marks on both counts.
The Journey Is Half The Fun
One of the virtues of Woodford Reserve is it’s location, nestled into the grassy, rolling hills of rural Woodford County. For travelers basing themselves in Lexington or Frankfort, the distillery is sited so that an itinerary can always tack on a meandering drive down Old Frankfort Pike and by the thoroughbred farms, with their equine palaces-cum-barns, rail fences and dry stone walls.
The one thing that drive and the rural, back country lane location used to mean was taking some extra care in planning a meal stop, but that is no longer an issue. The visitor center at Woodford has undergone steady change over the years, having expanded from a gift shop and sitting area to include a cafe and patio, so one can now combine a meal with the view of the Glenn’s Creek valley.
Down In The Valley
The two main points of interest on a tour of Woodford Reserve are the stillhouse and the main warehouses, all field stone buildings that exude the distillery’s 19th Century origins. In terms of eye candy, the sights are second to none for a distillery in a United States, and arguably the world. Add to the aforementioned virtues the cypress fermenters, the only Irish-style, triple set of Forsyth’s copper pot stills in Kentucky, and the postcard image of the rails for rolling barrels from the filling station down, and it’s no wonder I see footage of the distillery serving as the stock bourbon distillery setting in so many travel programs about Kentucky.
Labrot & Graham’s architecture speaks to its history, and that story is something no visitor should overlook, so interwoven the distillery is into the story of Kentucky bourbon. This was the original distillery of the Pepper family, and it was as the Oscar Pepper Distillery that the facility hosted Scottish chemist-physician Dr. James Crow, inventor of the sour mash process and the namesake for “Old Crow.” Sour mash refers to the practice of using some old mash to a new batch of mash, an important measure in controlling the fermentation process and achieving consistency. So many of the brand names in bourbon whiskey are drawn from salesmen and managers, with Crow being one of the few big names recognizable as a master distiller.
As with nearly all whiskey tours, the tour ends back at the visitor center with a tasting. In addition to the basic tour, offered every day from 10 am to 3 pm, specialized versions focusing on the historic side of the distillery (Wednesdays only) and featuring a more in-depth look at the technical process of making bourbon (Tuesdays and Thursdays only) are available.