An Affair with Bourbon - Part II
Updated: Sep 11, 2019
If you read Part I, you know what an incredible experience Leigh and I had at Saxony Farm last Thursday as part of the Kentucky Bourbon Affair. Between the beautiful horses and the incredible lunch we were served, I couldn't imagine the day getting any better, but it did!
A short drive back into Lexington brought us to Alltech's Town Branch Distillery tucked away near the intersection of Maxwell Street and Versailles Road. If you're like us and are familiar with how this area of town looked prior to Alltech taking over operation of the Lexington Brewery Company, which, by the way, traces its roots back to 1794, you know the transformation that this area of our city has undergone. Thank you, Pearse Lyons! When you pull onto the campus, you are immediately struck by how clean and tidy everything appears. Perfectly trimmed hedges with a bevy of potted flowers greet you at every turn.
Once inside the visitors center, our guide, Mark Coffman, sat us down and gave us a brief history of the plant and the process of not only distilling bourbon, but crafting beer as well. In fact, it is the oldest craft brewery in Lexington and one of only a small number of joint distilling and brewing operations. How fortunate are we that we have such a place here right in our backyard! And the visitors center really is a showpiece with Irish-inspired decor, historical photos, and all manner of items for purchase. Wait. You can shop and drink at the same time? I know a lot of people that would be excited by that combination.
Across the street from the visitors center, Mark took us through the distillery and explained further how exactly they take the mash bill (a mixture of corn, barley and rye), add spring water (in Kentucky we have limestone-filtered water which adds a smoothness to the bourbon), put it through a cooking and cooling process before adding yeast, then transferring to fermenters that look to me like large wooden jacuzzi tubs. It's during this fermentation process that the alcohol content is reached. The liquid is then put into stills. At Town Branch, these stills are gigantic pot stills from Scotland. At the conclusion of the process, the whiskey is put into new, charred barrels and stored at their rickhouse in northern Woodford County by the Kentucky River. Mark told us they produce over 6,000 barrels of whiskey a year. That's a lot!
While showing us the large room with the copper pot stills and large fermenters, Mark pointed out that in the stone facing on one of the walls were hidden mosaics of a clover and a man. He challenged us to find them, and as an expert Where's Waldo locator, I began searching in earnest for the two objects. But alas, they were not to be found. I will have to make another visit out there just to find those things or it may start to keep me up at night.
Now that the science portion of our tour was done, it was time to get down to the business of actually tasting the product. After all, the proof is in the pudding, as they say. Our large group bellied up to a beautiful wooden bar and were introduced to Dell Weatherford, who was more than willing to trade our wooden tokens we had been given at the outset for a sampling of any of their many spirits on tap. Along the side wall we were given the opportunity to stick a pin in the map indicating our home state or country. It was amazing to see there were pins from almost every place on the globe. It was a good reminder of the significance bourbon has played in shining the light on Kentucky on the world stage.
But wait, for us the experience was not yet over! Moving over into their Bottling Room, we were brought to two tables that were set up for us to do a more thorough tasting, as well as the opportunity to bottle our very own. Mark, along with Pete Weiss and Sterling Baxter, walked us through the offerings of Pearse Lyons Reserve Single Barrel, Town Branch Rye and Town Branch Bourbon Single Barrel. Two of them clocked in at over 100 proof. You could definitely "feel the burn".
Mark called it getting a Kentucky hug. Wowza! I can see why bourbon was used for medicinal purposes in concoctions like a hot toddy. No cold or flu could set up shop in a body that's coated with that stuff!
After these powerful tastings, I was a little apprehensive when they now handed us glass bottles and gave us full permission to turn on a faucet of bourbon out of a tank they called "Dorothy" (remember the movie Twister?) and fill 'er up! Luckily, the group I was with were all veterans of the bourbon industry and had no problems achieving the perfect pour. For the final touch we added our very own Town Branch label, complete with date and batch numbers. Labeling is harder than it looks and I now have the utmost respect for the people whose job it is to put one on every bottle they make there. Mark Coffman was kind enough to sign our bottles as well which made them even more special. It really was the perfect way to "top off" our day at the distillery.
With new friends made, a load of knowledge gained, and a warmth in my belly, it was time to say adieu. As I said in my first piece of this series, it really was one of those magical days that I will remember forever. And now armed with this wealth of information, Leigh and I felt even more excited about attending the final event of the Kentucky Bourbon Affair, Saturday's Higher Proof Expo.