The American Whiskey Trail
BY Corey Scholibo
May 24 2010 6:45 PM ET
After our tour and delicious lunch of baked beans, salmon, and and indescribably good brownie-bottom pie, served by a sweet Southern woman with a thick accent, we sat down to sample Dickel's concoctions. These delightful Southern meals can be arranged at nearly every distillery you visit if you are traveling in a group but harder to come by if you are flying solo.
The other thing I learned that makes whiskey is the aging process. Whiskey is aged in charred white oak barrels. The charring adds a flavor as the whiskey expands and contracts from winter to summer, soaking up the flavors of the wood. The South, it seems, makes such distinctive whiskey because it has drastic temperature changes, from incredibly hot summers to very cold and sometimes snowy winters.
We tried various years of aging from three to 12 — the flavors get sweeter as they get older. But the whiskey had yet to win me over. Then the master distiller, whose job it is to stay on top of the batches, sample them, and get the flavors just right, served up a 13-year-old straight from the barrel. Another requirement for American whiskey is that it needs to be distilled down to no more than 40% alcohol by volume (80 proof), but this renegade he served is 115 proof. The caramel-colored concoction roped me in.
“This is the one for me,” I declared to my companions, all spirits writers who seem uninterested in the fact that until now I had not actually had a whiskey I liked. Now, with a little buzz going, I boarded the bus for our next stop.
Next we headed to the Woodford Reserve distillery in in Versailles, Ky., which makes a superpremium bourbon. The spirit gets its name from the French Bourbon region of Louisiana, though it is no longer made there. The Woodford grounds look like a Scottish plantation, and the bourbon is aged in stone warehouses that provide their own distinctions when it comes to flavoring the alcohol. Woodford is very smooth, with a hint of mint, and has a caramel finish.
There are dozens of distilleries not far outside Nashville, not all of them equipped for visitors, but you will want to spend more than half your time there. The only downside is that most are about two hours away from the city and about two hours away from each other. There are a number of small-town bed-and-breakfasts near each, but I am not sure I would feel comfortable staying outside the city.
For accommodations, Indigo Hotel Nashville West End (1719 West End Ave., 615-329-4200) is a swanky spot that might just fit the bill. Located near Church Street in the heart of Nashville's gay district, it makes going out at night a breeze.
For a more upscale and quieter time, stay at the historic Hermitage Hotel (231 Sixth Ave., 615-244-3121). This grand hotel has been around since 1910 and was visited over the years by celebrities from Greta Garbo to John F. Kennedy Jr.
As the week carried on, I quickly learned that once you have seen one distillery, you have pretty much seen them all. They all consist of a tour of the distilling machinery and end in a tasting of some the company's selection. Master distillers talk to you about flavor and color and hints of cinnamon achieved from their very specific process. But some of the distilleries have actually erected tourist attractions to make the experience more exciting.
Jack Daniel's, for instance, is the Disneyland of distilleries. People from far and wide make a pilgrimage there to worship their favorite brand, and you quickly realize that Jack Daniel's is more than alcohol, it's a way of life. A giant museum kicks off a tour that takes you through the grounds and to the original shed where Mr. Daniel kept his office, where your overall-wearing guide regales you with stories.
Maker's Mark in Kentucky is by far the most fun and interactive. The visitors' center is a quaint little house painted the brand's signature red and features computerized talking paintings of the founding family telling the history of the brand to each other from facing walls in the study. The kitchen is superkitsch and done up to resemble the original 1950s kitchen where the Samuels family first invented their bourbon. Grab a fresh-baked cookie and some lemonade as your guide tells you how Mrs. Samuels first decided to dip the bottles in hot wax to make the now-famous seal. After viewing the factory floor where they still hand-dip every bottle, you get a chance to dip your own bottle in the enormous modern gift shop.