American Whiskey Trail Tour, Day 5

George Dickel’s modest tasting room and gift shop. Photo credit: Kevin R. Kosar

Don’t get me wrong — Jack Daniel’s is a very impressive company. Its sales growth over the past 40 years is mind-boggling. During the 1970 and 1980s, most American whiskeys saw their sales drop. They laid off workers and cut back on capital upgrades.

But not company the Jasper Newton Daniel started 150 years ago. It went gangbusters, helped in no small part by celebrities like Frank Sinatra and Michael Anthony of Van Halen, who guzzled it on stage. (Anthony even had an Old No. 7 electric guitar made.)

And Daniel’s did itself a great favor by taking a rather fanatical attitude toward execution. If they were going to make a bazillions cases a year, they were going to keep quality high. It presently keeps three full timers on the payroll to do nothing more than burn wood into charcoal, which is used to filter the whiskey after it comes off the still. It continues to use a copper still, and gets its barrels from its parent company, Brown-Forman, and nobody else. A Jack Daniel’s microbiologist cultures the yeast it uses by the thousands of gallons, and the lactobacillus for its sour mash. To call the Jack Daniel’s distilling crew control freaks is both accurate and a high compliment. No wonder the stuff sells in 160 countries.

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Touring the American Whiskey Trail, Day 4

Eddie Russell, master distiller, leads a bourbon tasting class in Wild Turkey’s visitors center. Photo credit: Kevin R. Kosar

Thirty years ago, most whiskey distilleries were lonely places — industrial factories in remote rural areas. For the most part, the proprietors of these places saw themselves as manufacturers, the first tier in the three-tier system. They made whiskey, which was then trucked away. Customers were far removed.

Some, but not many, folks might drop by for a look around. “If we had 100 people come in a year, we were lucky,” says Eddie Russell master distiller at Wild Turkey. When folks showed up on the Lawrenceburg, Kentucky property, whoever was around the office would give them a tour of the property. Wild Turkey built a small visitor’s center in 1987. “Maybe 3,000 or 4,000 people a year would visited in those days,” says Russell.

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Touring the American Whiskey Trail, Day 3

The many fermenters at Jim Beam’s Clermont distillery. Photo credit: Kevin R. Kosar

It was difficult to feel anything but awe standing in front of the still at Jim Beam’s main distillery. It is six-stories tall, and 200 gallons of beer pour into the still each minute. The still pours forth 30 gallons a minute of 135 proof white dog — the water-clear liquid that gets watered down to a respectable potency and popped into charred barrels for aging.

About 300 employees work at this facility in Clermont — but this is not the only Beam factory. There is another distillery in nearby Boston, Kentucky (also employing 300 folks), and a third distillery 75 minutes away in Frankfort. All told, Beam shipped eight-million cases of whiskey this past year, which includes its famed white label and all the other brands (Booker’s, Basil Hayden, Knob Creek, etc.). One Beam barrel house I visited holds 20,000 53-gallon barrels of bourbon. It is one of 70 Beam booze storage facilities.

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Touring the American Whiskey Trail Tour, Day 2

A nearly-completed Vendome still. Photo credit: Kevin R. Kosar

We all have heard the story: manufacturing is dying in America. All the good blue collar jobs are moving to Mexico and China. America’s middle-class employment has been hollowed out — the few get lucrative white collar jobs, and pretty much everyone else is stuck doing low-pay hourly work.

There is some truth to this glum picture. U.S. manufacturing employment is down since 2001. But all is not awful. Indeed, in at least one line of business we are seeing a resurgence in American manufacturing: drinks-making. The casual news reader might intuit this much, what with the reports of American liquor production and exports booming.

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Touring the American Whiskey Trail, Day 1

Worker about to grind grain at George Washington’s Mount Vernon distillery. Photo credit: Kevin R. Kosar

Where better to start a tour of the American Whiskey Trail than at Mount Vernon? George Washington often has been called the father of our grand nation — the prototype of this new man, the American.

Appropriately, he owned a distillery that made whiskey. Washington got into the business at the end of his presidency. In 1797 he gave the thumbs-up to Scotsman James Anderson to build a distillery at his beloved Virginia home to produce high-quality hooch.

And what a distilling operation it was. The mill powdered grain with millstones imported from Europe and marvelous wooden machinery that marvels the eye today. The distillery was 75 feet long by 30 feet wide, with five stills. Within a couple years, George’s booze barn was belching 10,500 gallons of rye whiskey and other spirits, and it was profitable.

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