The lore of Kentucky bourbon is as mysterious as the folks that make it.
WORDS Adam Fitzgerald IMAGES Adam Fitzgerald, Dan Dunn, Julian Focareta
The first thing I notice about Kentucky is the smell. With every distillery we pass, the birth of “America’s Native Spirit” floods the air with a fermented, doughy funk. This orgy of water, corn, and yeast kick-starts the life cycle of bourbon. Once distilled, the virgin spirit matures inside charred oak barrels stacked in titanic outbuildings, or rickhouses, that punctuate the Kentucky landscape. According to the Kentucky Distillers Association, there are over eight million barrels of aging bourbon in the state today. The evaporation off each 53-gallon barrel sends notes of vanilla, chocolate, and leather into the atmosphere. Locals call this the "angels' share" — a sweet smell of death, if there is such a thing. We pass through pockets of these complementary aromas for miles. The smell is also the last thing I’ll ever forget about Kentucky.
A few months ago, we received an invite from our buddy Fletch at Rebel Yell to visit their distillery in Bardstown, Kentucky. The Bluegrass State is home to the Bourbon Trail, a road-trip-style tour developed by the Kentucky Distillers Association. I'd always wanted to explore the Trail, and this gave me the perfect excuse. A quick call to friend and fellow recreational drinker John Ryland, owner of Classified Moto, and I had a willing accomplice for the trip.
The tourist version of the trail is an off-the-shelf activity for visitors — tailored, measured, and safe. We're hoping for something of the bootleg variety: hard to find, unpredictable … and maybe a little less safe.
Riding into Bardstown, the sights and smells already have us intrigued. “It’s quite yeasty here,” Ryland jokes over our SENAs. We’re riding the latest Triumph Scramblers, the 1200 XE and XC. These capable on- and off-road machines are the perfect vehicles to distill the legend and lore of Kentucky into our own rendition of the Bourbon Trail. The tourist version of the trail is an off-the-shelf activity for visitors — tailored, measured, and safe. We're hoping for something of the bootleg variety: hard to find, unpredictable … and maybe a little less safe.
“You can make bourbon anywhere in the country," says John Rempe, head distiller at Lux Row Distillers. "But all the good bourbon comes from Kentucky.” Rempe is the brand steward of Rebel Yell, Ezra Brooks, and David Nicholson, and the master blender of the sought-after Blood Oath. He's dedicated to his craft, going so far as to build his home on the distillery grounds to oversee production. He's also a rider, so we appoint him our unofficial guide for our few short days here. Rempe shows us around part of the 90-acre farm that Lux Row occupies and gestures to a good spot for us to set up our tents. Our view is the newly-built Lux Row distillery and the Revolutionary-era stone farmhouse inherited with the property. This prompts our first question. The answer is yes — it’s haunted as hell.
Every Kentuckian talks about the “legendary" spring water used to make bourbon. “Iron makes really bad whiskey. It can turn the whiskey black,” Rempe explains. “The natural limestone in the ground here filters the water, removing the iron and leaving a good amount of magnesium and calcium. That’s what the yeast needs for good fermentation. As people were moving around, farming and distilling, they found the spring water here perfect for making whiskey.” It’s hard to tell true history from clever hyperbole, but it's part of the allure. There are legends aplenty.
Bourbon has been made in Kentucky for over 200 years. All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon. To be a true bourbon, the whiskey has to be produced in the United States; made from at least 51 percent corn in the mash bill; distilled at not more than 160 proof; aged in a charred oak barrel, and go into its barrel at not more than 125 proof. We sample Lux Row’s offerings with the master himself, and Rebel Yell’s 10-Year wins our vote; it is so scarce and the demand so high that the distillery limits sales to six bottles per week. In 1999, bourbon production was at an all-time low, but the past two decades have seen unprecedented demand due to Asian and European exports. Today, it's a $9 billion industry in Kentucky alone, with new distilleries cropping up every year.
We’re desperate to find some fire roads, legendary springs, or abandoned places the new Scramblers could take us to. We ask the Lux Row staff about any “off-the-trail” spots we could hit, but receive a warning about Cornbread Mafia territory.
“Ha! The Cornbread Mafia?” I think it's a joke. It's not.
In the late ‘80s, Kentucky was the epicenter of the largest domestic marijuana growing operation in U.S. history. The violent criminal enterprise spread across ten states in the Midwest and South. At the time of the bust, the feds seized nearly 200 tons of marijuana. Seventy of the 100 “Cornbread Mafia” members arrested were from Kentucky. Zero of those 70 turned against the others. Not one cooperated with federal agents to save themselves. "Tight-knit" is an understatement. Our Triumphs are capable, but “outruns gunfire” wasn’t in the marketing copy. We explore other options.
Kelsey, a Lux Row tour guide, lights up remembering a certain patron from several months earlier. “This guy owns an abandoned property. He loves to talk about it. He even left his card.” A quick phone call and we are set for tomorrow afternoon.
The next morning, we arrive at the Independent Stave Co, a cooperage — or barrel maker — about 25 miles southeast of Bardstown. Our 8 a.m. start time is late in the day for the crew here. ISC operates 18 hours a day, six days a week. Outside, the smell is equal parts freshly sawed wood and campfire. Quercus alba, or American white oak, is the source. The tree is nicknamed "stave oak" after the one-inch slats that make up each barrel.
If the first legendary part of Kentucky bourbon is the water, the second is the barrel. It’s critical to the aging process of bourbon, and ISC is the largest supplier of American white oak barrels in the world.
“How many barrels do you make a day?”
“I can’t tell you,” says Brendan Paris, Safety Coordinator at ISC.
“You don’t know?”
“No, I mean I’m not at liberty to tell you.” ISC has been in operation for over 100 years, and their proprietary process is the reason for that. After several requests for permission, we’re granted a tour that the paying public can’t see. But strict instructions come with it: Don’t film the employees. Don’t film or photograph the equipment. Don’t film beyond or above this point. Everyone we meet is serious about their job.
After assembly, the barrel is steamed to prevent splitting. Then comes the magic: the inside of each barrel is charred for 30 to 60 seconds at around 500 degrees. A "level one" char is slightly more than “toasted.” A "level four" is “alligator char.” Different chars caramelize the sugars in the wood, imparting the raw whiskey with its signature amber color and flavors of vanilla, spice, and oak. The char also serves as a natural filter, removing imperfections in the spirit.
Before we leave, we visit “the yard,” where the oak staves are seasoned outside. Ryland and I walk through a maze of pallets stacked ten feet high, sprawling about a quarter-mile in either direction. Brendan tells us they are low on inventory that day. I ask one more time how many barrels they make and he politely lets me know it's not happening.
Thirty-five miles northwest, we land at the property of Jim Shulthise. Jim assures us this dilapidated distillery isn’t abandoned. His family still owns the land, and the buildings on it. They never abandoned anything.
In 1844, Taylor William Samuels turned this family farm into a distillery. The T.W. Samuels Distillery changed hands several times, suffered from fires, robberies, and a Prohibition shutdown in 1920. After the company rebooted in 1933, T. William (Bill) Samuels, Sr. tried to convince his father that the family recipe was subpar, but to no avail. Spite would see Bill leave the family business to start his own brand in the 1950s. He called this small craft distillery Maker’s Mark. The T.W. Samuels Distillery finally closed its doors in the 1980s and was purchased by the Shulthise family soon after. Jim’s father utilized the distillation equipment to purify and bottle water under the name Samuels Springs until the mid-'90s.
Razor-sharp ceiling panels dangle 15 feet above us while the sweet smell of the angel’s share blows through the broken windows. We climb rickety platforms that may have just passed OSHA standards ... of the 1980s.
Jim walks us through more than a century’s worth of Kentucky history that took place on this property. This isn’t a Bourbon Trail tour; the only tastings here might be of the lead, black mold, and asbestos variety. “Watch your heads,” Jim warns as we walk into the bottling room. Razor-sharp ceiling panels dangle 15 feet above us while the sweet smell of the angel’s share blows through the broken windows. We climb rickety platforms that may have just passed OSHA standards ... of the 1980s. But the way Jim walks us through this place with pride paints a masterful picture of its heyday. He sees no decay. It’s beautiful in his mind, and now we see it too.
“The spring is what Dad called a ‘legendary water source since 1844,’” he tells us. “It’s about a quarter-mile down the road. It's a natural spring. It’s piped up to that cover. And what we did is ...”
I stop him. “Can we see it?”
Jim is more than happy to bring us there. We follow Jim around a steep embankment, through a barbed wire enclosure, down some makeshift stone steps, through a locked steel door, and into the T.W. Samuels spring house.
“This is the legendary water source since 1844,” Jim says.
I’m speechless. Shocked, Rempe says, “I didn’t think we’d see anything this cool today.”
We file in along the narrow concrete edge surrounding a six-foot pool of pure Kentucky limestone water. The blue hue looks unnatural. Chiseled limestone walls, slick and alive with vegetation, lead back to the cave entrance. I was Indiana Jones for Halloween when I was six; I’ve been ready for this day. I start plotting my route around the edge of the spring house to shimmy into the cave, but Jim deters me. “No. I really don’t wanna see you go in that water.” Dammit.
I can’t leave without doing something. With no Holy Grail to choose, I reach into the pool, scoop the water into my hands and raise it to my mouth. No one else is fond of the idea. I choose... wisely. Unless I get giardiasis. Bottoms up.
My intestines are still intact when a rooster wakes us at 6 a.m. for our last day in Kentucky. Ryland swears someone yelled his name outside his tent in the middle of the night, and thinks the old farmhouse ghoul could be the culprit. We pack up camp, get on our motorcycles, and head for Maker’s Mark distillery. We end up on the wrong road, but it's not a disappointment. Old Elizabethtown Road rides like something out of the European countryside. I ask Rempe over our SENAs if this is a one-way, and he assures me it isn’t. I flick the Scrambler into Sport mode. On this road, it’s panic-inducing, but worth it.
We land on Maker’s Mark Road, which leads us to the distillery. We roam the well-manicured grounds for a few minutes as pop music blares through outdoor speakers and tourists ogle prop-like outbuildings. It feels like Disney World compared to the grit of Bill Samuels' birthplace. Rempe, Ryland, and I agree to pass on the tour, and head back to find Elizabethtown Road for one last rip.
On the final ride back, those strange pockets of sweet and savory aromas are now a familiar comfort. For the two centuries before the Bourbon Trail was a tourist attraction, Kentuckians were taking spring water, burning oak, and making bourbon. This is what they lived, loved, and died for, whether it was popular with outsiders or not.
Over our last dinner, Rempe's girlfriend Shelly says, “The Bourbon Trail isn’t really a place. It’s a state of mind.” I tell her I’ll be stealing that and claiming it as my own for this piece. But I'll give credit where it’s due. If you're willing, that state of mind will take you far beyond distillery tours and tastings. It showed us “America’s Native Spirit” in ways we never expected.
Until next time, Kentucky. We'll see you on the trail.