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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Maker’s Mark 46 Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey and W.L. Weller Special Reserve 7-Year Old

Scotch whisky often draws cheers for being like wine—incredibly diverse.  Whereas a Highland malt (e.g., Dalwhinnie) might mix smoke and fruity flavors, an Islay whisky (e.g., Laphroaig) will be far smokier and throw in iodine and brackish notes.

Pity that Bourbon is only belatedly getting a similar respect.  Per U.S. regulation, Bourbon must have a mashbill that is not less than 51% corn.  That leaves the distiller free to play with the remaining 49%, using varying amounts of corn, wheat, rye…chicken flesh. (Just joking.)  The result, of course, is Bourbons that taste very different from one another.  Different stills, different stillmen, and different aging add all the more diversity amongst Bourbons.

Take Maker’s Mark 46 and W.L. Weller Special Reserve 7-Year Old.  Both are wheated Bourbons.  Yet, they taste very differently.

Maker’s 46 is a significant upgrade from the standard Maker’s Mark.  This wheated Bourbon (92 proof) is big-flavored and tastes of toffee, caramel, and vanilla.  It is delicious.  (Rating ****1/2)

Meanwhile, W.L. Weller Special Reserve 7-Year Old Bourbon (90 proof) is utterly different.(1) The wheat flavor is much more pronounced, and it is less sweet than Maker’s 46, and shows a nutty flavor. (Rating ****1/4)

And this example only scratches the surface.  Throw a rye-heavy Bourbon like Old Forester into the mix and the tippler can really begin to appreciate the breadth of flavors Bourbon offers.


(1) Chuck Cowdery reports that this 7-Year Old might be going away, alas.

(2) If you are looking to buy these whiskeys online, try this seller.


6/2010 Maker’s Mark Releases New Bourbon


Back in December 2009, Bill Samuels told us he had a new whiskey in the works. And Chuck Cowdery has been on this story since September.

On June 7, the Associated Press reported that Maker’s Mark 46 will arrive in July. It’s aged a bit longer and finished in oak planked barrels.  The new Maker’s is 94 proof, higher than the standard 90 proof Maker’s.

See also the fine piece on this new Bourbon at


12/2009 An Interview with Bill Samuels, Jr., Maker’s Mark Distillery

Bill Samuels, Jr., head of the Maker’s Mark Distillery of Loretto, Kentucky, was in Washington, DC today. Bill kindly made some time to sit with me at the Hawk n’ Dove bar, a beloved watering hole just a couple blocks from Congress. Bill then entertained about a dozen friends of yours truly.

Bill has been at the helm of the distillery for 35 years. Oh how times have changed. Maker’s Mark has boomed, going from 60-some thousand cases per year to over 900,000. We discussed the changes that happened at Maker’s Mark, and in the Bourbon industry generally.

You can listen to our chat by clicking here. Fair warning—it’s 20 minutes long and therefore a rather hefty 18 megabyte file, so your download may take a little time.