Distillery Visits

Maker’s Mark, the Mint Julep, and the Road Ahead

As I stared at the buffalo head mounted above the warm crackling fireplace, I thought to myself, “why am I here?” ‘Here’ was the Historic Botherum, the incredulous Lexington home owned, renovated, and decorated by famed gardener, landscaper to the stars, and the quintessential Southern gentleman, Jon Carloftis. This was the beginning of a press trip sponsored by Maker’s Mark.

My thoughts were quickly interrupted when I was handed a mint julep. After all, this was Kentucky in springtime, and juleps are in season. The refreshing cocktail and some small bites came courtesy of the inviting Ann Evans, former executive director of the Kentucky Governor’s Mansion.

We were given the tour of the house, but it wasn’t until we explored his extravagant basement bar and enjoyed a pour or two of bourbon that I realized two things. First, Mr. Carloftis has an eye for design. The decor of his home is really something to behold. My wife, who was also on the trip, described the home as ‘southern masculine whimsy’. The man is clearly talented. Second, he loves his Maker’s Mark. In addition to dozens of Maker’s bottles displayed around the house, liquor closet, and basement bar, every one of his decanters held the famous wheated bourbon. Carloftis designed the landscaping at the distillery including the meandering pathways, something of which he is extremely proud. Trees at the distillery were also trimmed to provide a clear line of sight for visitors. Thankfully, I didn’t have to wait long to see this for myself.

The next day was the main event – the visit to Maker’s Mark. The hour long trip from Lexington featured long winding roads, plenty of silos, and countless bathtub Marys. Upon arrival, the pastoral beauty of the distillery grounds I’d long heard about quickly came into focus. This is one picturesque distillery.  Hell, even Master Distiller Denny Potter told me how gorgeous the distillery looked just a few days prior at the New Orleans Bourbon Festival.  The dark brown buildings with their Maker’s Mark signature wax red shutters stood out against the surrounding Kentucky greenery. It seemed right out of a painting. And the keeper of that little slice of whisky heaven, Maker’s Mark COO and grandson of the brand’s founders, Rob Samuels, Jr., was the perfect person to walk us around. I doubt anyone is more knowledgeable about the brand. Like Carloftis, Samuels is extremely proud of the work being done at the distillery. After all, it’s in his blood.  Whisky-making in the Samuels family goes back many generations.

The tour of the grounds was amazing. It is a pilgrimage every bourbon fan should experience. The word “handmade” appears on every label of Maker’s Mark. There is a certain charm in the quaintness of the distillery that lives up to that description. From the small stillhouse and wooden fermenters to the fact that every label is still printed by hand using a letterpress. The wax dipping is also done by hand instead of by machine. Make no mistake – this is no big, automated factory. It’s a “model of purposeful inefficiency,” as Mrs. Samuels put it.

One clear violation of that phrase is the new cavern carved into a limestone shelf that allows the distillery to create Maker’s 46 and Maker’s Mark Private Select year round instead of only in the winter. When Bill Samuels, Jr. created Maker’s 46 years ago, he discovered it could only be done in the winter. Otherwise the barrel-stave finished bourbon didn’t come out right. So, in an effort to efficiently make the expression year-round, Maker’s carved a massive chunk into a nearby limestone shelf. It houses Maker’s 46 barrels, Private Select barrels, and a tasting room.

But what struck me as most interesting was what Maker’s Mark informed us of as we shared a dram of their whisky at the edge of their solely controlled, limestone-filtered water source. The distillery’s Environmental Champion, Jason Nally, preached the importance of sustainability. A native of the area, Nally used to dirtbike in the backwoods surrounding Star Hill Farms as a kid. Now he studies just about every aspect of that same natural space for the distillery. For Nally, understanding and working towards a future that breeds sustainability is key not only for the future of distilling, but of a much larger picture – one of a cleaner planet. It was an impassioned plea from someone knowledgeable who clearly cares.

From a distilling standpoint, Nally wants to make sure the lake is clean to ensure that pristine water source will always be available and that oak growth in the forested area nearby flourishes. By the way, all this work being done does not harm local wildlife. In fact, all the area animals and insects are being studied as well.

This environmental stop along the tour wasn’t just for show. This year, Maker’s Mark has committed to removing 75,000 pounds of trash from the world’s oceans and waterways.  It’s bigger than the standard ‘giving back to the community’ line we often read about.  While that is certainly applauded, what Maker’s is doing seems bigger.  Another way we’ve seen change in a non-obtrusive manner came by way of using paper straws in cocktails instead of plastic ones. Every julep we were served on this trip featured a paper straw or reusable silver straw.

It was impressive to hear of Maker’s Mark’s efforts. They’ve come up with the hashtag #CocktailsForCleanups.  Use it every time you post a photo of a Maker’s mint julep or any other cocktail to bring a little awareness to their efforts. Know that in a microcosmic kind of way, it can at the very least help spark a conversation, which can be as refreshing as that ice cold, minty delight known as a julep.

Thanks to Maker’s Mark team and the EVINS team for the trip. Though my travel expenses were covered, neither group suggested nor held any editorial control over this post. As always, all thoughts and opinions are my own.

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7,000,000 Barrels and Counting: Buffalo Trace Has Its Eye on the Future

On April 11, 2018, Buffalo Trace Distillery filled its seven millionth barrel since Prohibition. While that’s certainly a big milestone, the distillery isn’t resting on its laurels. Business is definitely booming, and sales are expected to go up. Distillery president and CEO Mark Brown told us Buffalo Trace has made whiskey projections through 2047. A few spirits writers were invited to partake in the celebration and were given a sneak peak at current expansions.

We began the trip with a commemoration of Warehouse AA (yes, that’s its actual name), the first rickhouse built on the distillery’s new farm.  This 68,800 barrel capacity warehouse is already almost full.  In fact, the photo below was taken from one of the top floors. You can see the barrels on the floor below.  The second warehouse, BB, is almost complete while the third, Warehouse CC, was in early stages of construction.  Brown told us that 30 warehouses total are to be constructed on the new land over the next decade. The new warehouses have temperature and humidity monitoring, which allows the distillery to fingerprint what each barrel is exposed to.  They are also heated with warm water-filled pipes.

While the group tasted some experimental whiskies, including a bourbon matured in Mongolian Oak, we talked more about the distillery’s expansion.  Buffalo Trace currently has a capacity of roughly 220,000 barrels a year, according to Master Distiller Harlen Wheatley. The expansion process is obviously multi-tiered.  First, new gas boilers and cookers are to be installed.  The bottling operation is moving to another part of the distillery, leaving room to add four fermenters, which will raise their capacity to about 240,000 barrels per year.

In addition, a duplicate still will be added. By the way, I believe Buffalo Trace’s beer still is currently the largest in the industry at 84 inches.  At that point, with 12 fermenters in place, their barrel capacity moves up to 440,000. They’re not done yet. Adding an additional eight fermenters will move the needle further to around the 550,000 number.

And this is all expected to be completed by 2022.

Insane.

It was eye-opening to actually see the entire operation in person. I know Buffalo Trace is cranking out a lot of whiskey, but DAMN…this distillery is really cranking out a lot of whiskey!  

We also walked around what is to very soon become the sensory lab and company archives. All very cool.  Needless to say, the bottle archive room (pictured above) left me in awe.

One of the biggest surprises of the trip involves Sazerac’s partnership with The Last Drop Distillers, a company specializing in rare, ultra-aged spirits. Inside a warehouse at Buffalo Trace is the new cold storage Warehouse P. This room is kept at a constant 45 degrees and has a capacity of 400 barrels. The aim here is to slow down the maturation process, allowing barrels to potentially reach the ripe old age of 50 years while reducing angel’s share and still remaining palatable and not over oaked. The barrel pictured below was originally filled on 4/22/1993, then topped off on 1/21/2013 with a barrel that shared the original’s fill date. New barrels containing different types of whiskey are also being stored in this room.

Equally impressive are all the experiments going on.  Look at Warehouse X for example.  They are currently studying how temperature affects maturation.  We not only got to look around at all five chambers of that warehouse, we got to taste whiskey from each.

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Another tasting was stuff they’ve been tinkering with, including a 13-year-old wheat whiskey, an 11-year-old bourbon featuring amaranth in its mashbill, and the upcoming “Craft Your Own Perfect Bourbon” release (we tasted at cask strength, and it was delicious).  There were also bourbons aged in different oaks, including Canadian, French, and the aforementioned Mongolian oak.  Remember, bourbon can be matured in any new, charred oak container – the rules don’t specifically say American white oak.  I’m sure they have a million other experiments they’re keeping under wraps.

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The day ended with the ceremonial rolling of the seven millionth barrel into Warehouse V by beloved third-generation distillery employee Freddie Johnson, with a little help from his grandson.  Freddie and his late father Jimmy rolled the six millionth barrel into the warehouse a decade ago. A crowd of employees and special guests attended the festivities.  I gotta say – it was a real treat to watch this.

So what’s to become of barrel number 6,000,000?  The distillery plans to bottle it for charity. Details to follow.

Warning: whiskey geek moment. Eagle-eyed readers may see a familiar name at the center of the barrel. Yep… that would be my mark. Everyone present at the commemoration of Warehouse AA also signed a barrel. Here’s hoping I can get my hands on a bottle from both barrels.

 

Needless to say, the entire experience was amazing. Many thanks to Buffalo Trace for inviting me along to celebrate. Here’s to the next millionth barrel, which will be here much sooner than later.

Buffalo Trace paid for the entire trip. All thoughts and opinions are my own.

From Grain to Glass: A Visit to Frey Ranch Distillery

Distillery owner Colby Frey in his rye field. Frey Ranch grows several grains on the estate.


About an hour east of Reno, a most exciting craft distillery lies in the sleepy farming town of Fallon, NV:  Frey Ranch Distillery.  Run by husband and wife team Colby & Ashley Frey, the distillery is smack dab in the middle of their large farm estate.  

The Freys have called Nevada home since before it became a state.  In fact, Colby’s great-great-grandfather filed one of the first land claims in the area.  Farming is the family trade.  It’s in their blood.  Multi-generational business history is one of the big pushes for some Kentucky distillers, and it is the same for the Freys when it comes to farming.

The Freys do everything on their estate, from growing grains to bottling.


“It helps, through generations and  through trial and error, to learn the best way to grow grain and other products in the desert of the driest state in the nation,” said Colby Frey.  “Now we have this unique ability to grow the grain in this atmosphere which is totally different than anywhere else in the world.”

Back in 2001, Colby and his father, Charles Frey, Jr., started growing vines and making wine.  He enrolled in several fermentation and wine-making classes, and took the time to practice and experiment.  “What’s neat about being a farmer is you have to know a little bit about a lot of things,” Colby said.  A jack of all trades, so to speak.  

Frey Ranch Distillery is about a hour’s drive from Reno.


Distilling soon followed.  Grappa and brandy were the first spirits distilled at the estate, which makes sense given their wine-making proclivities.  The 50-gallon still used at the time was handmade by Colby, but that would change when they decided to expand their distilling capabilities.  Now, they are rocking custom-made Vendome stills.  Located in Louisville, Vendome Copper & Brassworks is the go-to still maker for a lot of American distillers.  With the new equipment in place, the Freys have the capacity to produce 10,000 cases of distilled spirit a month.


Years later, the first whiskey the Freys distilled and put to rest was bourbon.  That bourbon comes from a four grain mash bill – corn, rye, wheat and barley.  At the moment it’s about two and a half years old, but the Freys made one thing clear:  they will not sell a whiskey younger than four years old.

“Right now it shows extreme potential.  When we try it at four years, if we think it needs more time, we’ll let it age,” Frey explained as we tasted their bourbon.  I have to say, it’s pretty enjoyable at the moment.  Being such a young age, the bourbon is grain forward, but not sharp.  Instead, like the majority of the other whiskies I sampled at the distillery that day, I found it rich and flavorful with lots of vanilla and light caramel.

Colby and Ashley Frey say their bourbon shows “extreme potential.” I’d have to agree.

 

Only grains grown on Frey Ranch Estate are used in production of their spirits.  Grain-wise, the Freys are growing corn, wheat, rye, barley, and oat on their farm.  That, and the fact that Colby likes to tinker and experiment, allows for the production of other whiskies.  In addition to bourbon, the Freys have distilled a rye whiskey, wheat whiskey, oat whiskey, malted corn whiskey, and malt whiskey.  That last one has a light peating level.  What’s interesting is the peat is made on the estate from decomposed corn stocks.  

In addition to their more traditional bourbon, a unique bourbon is also aging in the warehouse.  For this particular whiskey, the four grains used in their standard bourbon – corn, rye, wheat, and barley – are all malted on-site and used in the mash bill.  A malted bourbon?  I wasn’t sure what to call this whiskey, but it’s just bourbon (thanks for the insight, Chuck).  Compared to their more traditional bourbon, this whiskey is still fairly young and has a long maturation ahead of it.  The whiskey itself was rather interesting.  I mean that in a good way.  It had an earthy quality their standard bourbon didn’t have.

Having sampled their range of whiskies, I found that none had that “green” taste.  You know, that young, brutish, sharp character found in a lot of craft distillery whiskies.  Even though most were still very young, the whiskies had backbone.  That can be attributed to the attention and care in not only in the fermentation and distillation of the spirits, but also to the generations of know-how the Freys have instilled in their farming techniques.


Everything comes from and is done at the estate.  Everything.  Growing grains, malting, fermenting, distilling, maturing, and bottling – everything.  I’ve never seen anything like it, and I can’t help but appreciate the conviction with which the Frey family are approaching the distillation of spirits.

“There’s a saying in the wine industry that you gotta like what you make because you might end up drinking it all yourself.  So we want to make sure we like it before we bottle it.  We don’t want to do anything to even remotely sacrifice our reputation for having quality products.”

The distillery trip was entirely paid for by Frey Ranch Distillery.  Thanks to the Freys and Argentum for the wonderfully educational weekend in Reno.  As always, all thoughts and opinions are my own.