As Bourbon Heritage Month draws to a close, I’ve been thinking back to a great trip that we took in December of 2006.  In Louisville for a good friend’s wedding, we were lucky enough to get set up with a private tour of the Maker’s Mark Distillery in nearby Loretto, Kentucky.  Although this is a great memory for me in part because it represents Elizabeth’s awakening to just how good bourbon can be, the tour itself was truly unforgettable.

There were a dozen of us in all, visiting Louisville for a good friend’s wedding, and we couldn’t very well leave Kentucky without a trip to a bourbon distillery!  I made a call to a friend who works with Maker’s Mark here in Washington, and he offered to set us up with a tour.  I accepted his offer, thinking that it would amount to little more than the usual guided tour of the grounds and a few of the more picturesque buildings.

As it turns out, they rolled out the red carpet for us and we got to see operations at Maker’s Mark up close and personal.  Join us for the tour and some more great photos (all of them taken by another friend, Sean Redmond) after the jump.

Before we started our tour, we were invited into the old family farmhouse that sits back a bit from the main distillery grounds.  There we were treated to some phenomenal Kentucky hospitality in the form of a lunch that featured country ham and an assortment of sides made from scratch, accompanied (of course) by our choice of Maker’s Mark cocktails.  While we ate, we got a brief introduction to the history of bourbon and the differences between Maker’s Mark and many other Kentucky bourbons (there are a few, but the biggest difference is the absence of rye from their recipe).  As if the meal weren’t satisfying enough, we were treated to a Maker’s Mark-soaked bread pudding for dessert, topped with a bourbon cherry that eventually inspired us to attempt to make our own this year.

From there we headed down to the grounds, where we were walked through the distillation process.  We learned about the way the grain is fermented, turning into large cypress cauldrons of frothy yellow liquid known as sour mash.  They actually introduce mash from a previous fermentation into each new batch to ensure consistent qualities and acidity, in the same way that wineries employ a ‘mother’ and bakers hold onto starters for their bread.

The fermentation tanks get surprisingly warm and humid as a result of the chemical processes going on inside.  At this point, we learned firsthand, the grain mixture has a taste that makes it very clear why the technique is known as ‘sour’ mash.  When the liquid is ready to go, it is pumped into copper stills (like the one at the top of the post) where it is vapor-distilled to remove impurities and create a clear, concentrated alcoholic liquid that is technically bourbon, but without all those great smoky-sweet flavors.

So where do they come from?  The barrels, of course.  Charred oak is used to give the bourbon its color, its caramel notes and even some of the more woodsy flavors that occasionally come through.  But you can’t just pour the bourbon into the barrel and then walk away – at least not if you want it to come out the way Maker’s Mark does.

Once the barrels have been filled they are sent to the barrel warehouses (there are two on site and other, less picturesque storage nearby) where they are rotated from the top – the hottest part of the five-story buildings – to the cool, damp ground floor.  In the process, the bourbon leeches into the natural imperfections of the charred barrel and then contracts back out, taking with it some of that oaky deliciousness.

While in the warehouse, we were treated to a tasting of bourbons at various stages in their aging, something not on the standard tour.  It was really interesting to see the difference in bourbon that is too young (astringent, smoky but not exactly pleasant), too old (scorched, bitter, flat) and just right, and it gave us an appreciation of what goes into the process at Maker’s Mark to ensure that the bottles they turn out taste consistently right.

After a barrel has been aged appropriately, its contents are bottled and sent along to the Bottling House (one guess what happens there).  Here the bottles are filled, capped and labeled with that distinctive torn-looking label.  We got to see the old-fashioned stamping machine that is still used to cut the labels, and we each got a cut label to take home as a memento of the trip.  

Maker’s Mark’s true signature, though, is the red wax that seals the bottle.  And there in the Bottling House we saw little pots of red wax throughout, just waiting.  Because we were there on a weekend, we didn’t get to see any of the dippers in action, but it was definitely impressive to think that this was where employees stand day after day, dipping and twisting the bottles to achieve that distinctive appearance.  Needless to say, some of our group had to try their hands at dipping in the gift shop when the tour was done.

As I said at the beginning, the tour was an amazing exposure to aspects of bourbon culture that I had previously known nothing about.  Even without the red carpet treatment, we would have been impressed by the way this bastion of small batch spirits entertains its guests.  If you’re even in Kentucky – I don’t care if it’s Louisville or Lexington, Bardstown or Bowling Green – I would encourage you to make the trek to Loretto and take the tour.  And if you happen to see my barrel (a perk of their Maker’s Mark Ambassadors program), give it a turn for me!