By Richard Thomas
For the serious bourbon fan, coming to the Bluegrass and visiting distilleries is a good start to understanding and appreciating Kentucky’s native spirit and how it is made. What is more, taking in more than one distillery should hopefully allow one to see the differences in how each whiskey-maker creates their products and crafts their identity.
As important as the major and minor distilleries are in making Kentucky bourbon, they are not the only players in the industry. Of all the big whiskey companies in America, only Brown-Forman owns its own cooperages. All the others rely on outside companies to provide them with the new white oak barrels that provide between 40 and 80% of the flavor of the whiskey, and are the backbone of bourbon-making.
Likewise, those pretty copper stills are mostly made in Kentucky as well. Finally, a serious student of bourbon should want to move beyond the whiskey history as presented by the big companies themselves, and seek a more neutral presentation. With those three points in mind, here are the stops to make in Kentucky to get beyond just the distilleries and come away with a deeper understanding of the industry:
Most of the glittering copper machinery you see at the distillery is made by Vendome Copper & Brassworks in Louisville. The company has been in business for more than a century, and is an embedded fixture in the Kentucky bourbon business. As a metal fabricator, Vendome does not conduct tours and is not particularly well set-up for that purpose in the first place.
However, Vendome is located on a public street, and there is nothing stopping a tourist from stopping by. The loading bay and workshop doors are often open, and often plenty of assembly work and still parts can be seen just by standing on the sidewalk. To go beyond that, sometimes insider tours of Vendome are offered as part of area bourbon festivals or by local bourbon clubs.
Vendome does not do all the still-building in Kentucky, however. Some of the copper you may see checking out distilleries in the state was made by Portuguese, Scottish and German companies, but some of it was also made by small firms down in Western Kentucky, like Hillybilly Stills and Rockypoint Copper Stills. If you find yourself down in the vicinity of Paducah, you may want to call them and see if you can stop in. The worst thing that could happen is they say no.
Although the still-fabricators aren’t particularly visitor-friendly, some of the cooperages in Kentucky are. What is more, seeing the inside of a barrel charred by roaring, shooting flames is a must-have experience for any devoted bourbon fan.
At present, Independent Stave Company’s (ISC) Kentucky Cooperage is the only cooperage open for regular tours conducted in-house. This facility is located in Lebanon, and can easily be tacked on to a visit to either Maker’s Mark or Limestone Branch.
Brown-Forman’s cooperage in Louisville is also open to tourists, but only as part of a tour arranged by Mint Julep Tours. The company’s Old Forester tourist experience and distillery in downtown Louisville, set to open later this year, will have a small in-house cooperage.
Bardstown’s Bourbon Museum
Finally, for a take on bourbon history that isn’t focused on the brands owned by a particular company, stop at the Oscar Getz Museum in Bardstown. Based in Spalding Hall, erected in 1826, the museum hosts a collection of bourbon artifacts and papers starting with the whiskey’s earliest foundations in Colonial times.