Ways of Whiskey Blog

My First Favorite Bourbon (Sure it isn’t whiskey?)

When I decided to stop being the dutiful designated driver and learn to drink more, I was at a loss for where to start and how to find what I like.  On one of our many trips to Louisville, I asked a willing bartender to help me find that out.  After the second or third bourbon, he brought me a Glencairn glass of Angel’s Envy.

For starters, the liquid is the deepest amber with a smooth, shiny surface.  It reflects light and everything around back into the glass.  The color grows from lightest amber at the edges to its deepest color in the middle of the glass.  Maybe it is because it reminds me of my birthstone, golden topaz, that I love the look so much.  Wait, Citrine cannot possible be the November stone.  It is cold with little or no life.  Topaz and its companion, Angel’s Envy, are alive with color, warmth, and flavor.

I venture down to the 12 Bar Blues Bar, which is local for me in our basement, to pour a glass of Angel’s Envy to begin the writing process tonight.  I admit that it has been several months since I had picked up a glass of Angel’s Envy.  It had become my go to drink when I do not know what I really feel like drinking.

The bottle has migrated to the back of the bar for some reason.  However, the distinctive bottle with the shape of folded wings is nice to hold and fun to look at.  The Glencairn glasses are next to the arrangement of distilled spirits that my husband likes to keep on hand.  I pick one with a logo and pour the amber liquid out in a nice splash.

The color is inviting to the eyes before it makes contact with your nose.  Ah, it smells as inviting as well.  It lingers toward sweet with just enough earthy smell that seems familiar.  I personally get the touch of burnt butter with a hint of leather.  The aroma opens the sinuses and lifts to the top of your head.  It is one of my favorite bourbons for smell.

One test for a great bourbon is to watch how the legs, or residual liquid, hug the glass as you tilt it in your hands.  Just image this same action coating your mouth with flavor and texture. Not all great bourbons have legs, but those with legs will stand up to the action necessary to taste and feel the bourbon as you roll it around over your tongue and through the back of your throat.

I tilt the glass and slowly roll it around in the palm of my hand.  The amber liquid rolls with the action and leaves behind a clear sheen to show where it had started on its journey.  The legs on this bourbon are strong and leave no question as to their smooth coat.  It takes a few minutes for the legs to complete their hug of the glass and slide down to join the remaining liquid.

Now it is time to take that first sip. I notice the slight burn on the tip of my tongue. This burn is slightly sweet and the aroma starts to fill my mouth. From there, the flavor crawls up and over the tongue to give the tastebuds the same shiny coat that the legs gave the glass.  The flavor hugs in close and travels out to the cheeks.

The bourbon travels back to the edge of the tongue and up to the throat with a warm burn that reminds me of leather and a burnt butter flavor.  After the liquid passes over the back of the throat, there is the combined flavors and warmth line my cheeks and work their way over my tongue.  The burnt butter flavor fills my mouth in one last burst and dissolves into a warmth before it begins to slowly fade.

Over the years, this has become one of my favorite go to bourbons.  It compliments every gathering of friends and strangers alike.  It gives a sense of joy to your tastebuds as well as your olfactory cells.  I can simply enjoy the smell in between sips with as much pleasure every time I have a glass of it in my hand. 

I have good memories visiting south central Kentucky with my family where the sights and sounds were quite different from where I grew up.  Tobacco was king then.  I remember walking through tobacco fields and touching the velvety leaves.  When it came time for the tobacco to be hung in the barn, it was a pleasure to sneak into the barn, find an overturned basket and breath in the smells.  There was dried barnwood along with the earthy smell of the dirt floor, tobacco, and hay from the fields surrounding the barn.

When I smell tobacco or leather in a bourbon, I can find myself back in the tobacco barn sitting on that basket and breathing in deeply to enjoy the earthy smells and think of warm sunshine.  Leather in bourbon reminds me of the smell of horses, leather saddles, and hay. The experience transports me back to the barn on my grandparents’ farms every time.

Now my glass is empty, but the Angel’s Evy still tastes sweet and leathery in my mouth.  I just need to decide if I want one more glass before I call this entry complete.  Oh yes, let’s do one more.  Please.

Distilling in the Family Tree

While my husband and I were dating, the subject of distilled spirits came up now and then.  His grandfather, H.L., was very fond of high balls.  We would go to visit Rich’s grandparents in downtown Chicago once a month.  As soon as we walked in the door, H.L. would cry out to his wife, Lillian, “We need a couple of high balls out here to get started.” 

I asked Rich why he did this at the beginning of each visit.  Rich explained that Lillian did not allow H.L. to drink unless there was company and they wanted a drink.  H.L. must have known his grandson well enough to order up the drinks on our arrival.  I suspect it was more that he used Rich as an excuse to finally get a drink in the house.

Genealogy gave me an inside look at the lives of people on our family trees.  One of the best things about genealogy is collecting up the stories.  Some of these stories had to do with alcohol. 

Rich’s paternal aunt, Betty, volunteered to sit down with me to discuss the people she had known personally in that side of the family.  She had a great memory and made all of them feel very real to me.  That side of the family was also known for their love of distilled spirits and Betty had a few stories about them.

When Betty was 10 years old, the grandmothers from both sides of the family had a lady’s day in the garden at one of the family homes in downtown Chicago.  Five of the women gathered to gossip, tell tall tales about the family, and enjoy a beautiful day. 

Betty was quickly drafted to make mixed drinks for the ladies.  They instructed Betty in the amount to use, the various additives, and how to present the drink to each lady.  Apparently, they all drank something different.  Betty said she spent all afternoon making drinks and the ladies were pretty well under the influence by dinner time.

Rich’s great grandmother, Helene, came from Lithuania in 1922.  She made bathtub gin and other alcohols as needed.  I can’t say for sure that this was during Prohibition either.  From some of the stories, it sounds like she made alcohol when there was a gathering of family members where she might need a large quantity. 

Helene lived on a farm at the edge of Chicago, in an area west of Schiller Park.  In the early 1960s, O’Hare Airport was being constructed just a little further west of Helene’s farm.  The city of Chicago came in and said that her two-story farmhouse was in the way of airspace and she had to sell out and move.  Helene left kicking and screaming from the farm.  Until her dying day in 1972, she cursed Chicago and the mayor by crying out, “Goddamn, Daley!”

Sorry, I got off onto a different two-lane road there for a  minute. This takes me to my maternal family.  I know that they were distilling spirits for personal consumption as well as using it as a bargain tool.  This was common in many locations to barter for services or things that you needed.  People would specialize in a liquor or process to make it desirable by their neighbors.

My maternal grandfather produced peach brandy as his barter tool with his neighbors and friends. He grew peach trees on the south side of his garden.  They produced the most beautiful and sweetest fruit I can remember  From these, he distilled down to his final product in one of the outbuildings that lined the backyard. His operation was quite self-contained. I remember peeking into that building once to see the still, but there was no active operation at the time.

Sad to say I never had the opportunity to taste his peach brandy since I was too young. The look on my mother’s face would have been priceless, if he had been able to offer up a glass. My mom never drank, that I know about. Later, she accepted the fact that I learned to drink so long as she did not have to see it happen.

Over the years, I have come across stories and records for other family members who distilled spirits.  I image most of my early relatives distilled to have spirits at all.  Living in remote areas would mean that purchasing spirits was difficult and transporting it back home maybe impossible. 

My maternal family comes from Scottish roots.  I like to think they would have been involved in the whisky business through a family operation or for their personal use.  They might have come close to starting up one of the distilleries that survived for decades and would be well known today.  I have yet to find proof.  I guess I will continue to research and drink whiskey with hope.

Urban Bourbon Trail

Note:  This blog describes an older experience with the Urban Bourbon Trail.  You can check out the Urban Bourbon Trail website for the latest information.

Several years ago, I took my husband to Louisville for a long weekend.  We discover the Urban Bourbon Trail during our stay.  This program offered a straightforward way to experience bourbon in different settings and using unusual ways to present the spirit.  The bourbon drinks of each location provided history as well as a localized flavor for the experience.  This was more than just drinking around town.

Using the Urban Bourbon Trail book that we picked up at the Visitor’s Center, we could choose a location, such as a bar or restaurant, based on the specialty they offered.  When you ordered a drink, you could get a stamp in the book.  By collecting stamps, we could redeem these for an Urban Bourbon Trail t-shirt.

We decided to start at the farthest point out and work our way back to the Galt House Hotel, where we were staying for the weekend.  The Brown Hotel is an older establishment that sits on Broadway and Fourth Street.  The hotel reminds me of the 1890s and the heyday of horse racing in town.  The bar is a console arranged in one corner of the lobby area.  It is all dark wood and fancy carvings.

Sitting at the center of the bar, we took out the Trail book to find out the special drink for this location.  We ordered our drinks with the female bartender.  She was glad we were there.  Our drinks were delivered quickly, and they were delicious.  The Trail was off to a blazing start and the evening ahead looked bright.

After finishing our drinks, the bartender stamped our books and asked if we would like another round of something to drink.  I shook my head and let her know we were done.  She glanced down the bar to a group of guys who were already drunk.  I assumed she was having a challenging time with them and did not want to be left alone.  I felt sorry for the situation, but we really had plans to move on.

The next stop on the Trail was the Old Seelbach Bar located in the Seelbach Hotel.  This hotel has been a staple of the area for as long as I can remember.  The Rathskeller in the basement has been the site of proms, weddings, and other events.  The ceiling is a bricked dome with lots of colors and very dark.

The bar is updated from the early 1900s of the original hotel.  The difference here is the bartenders take very care of you as you explore.  Our favorite has been Cindy, who has also been credited with many of the drinks on the menu.  The staff is truly knowledgeable and willing to share that knowledge.  We always enjoy sitting at the bar itself and talking to the staff.  Hopefully, it is a slow night, and they have the time to talk.  This place does tend to be busy.  Rich’s favorite drink at the Old Seelbach is the Horse’s Neck.  I just like to try whatever is different from my last visit.

One of my visits to the Seelbach included older kids from the family.  My son, Rick, was celebrating his birthday a few year ago and we had Rich’s niece, Erica, and her fiancée, Haran, with us.  Cindy had concocted a chocolate mint bourbon drink that went down way too smooth.  Erica and I enjoyed a couple of those.  Thanks, Cindy!

As you make your way north on Fourth Street, you enter Fourth Street Live.  This is the central entertainment area with bar, gaming, and even music on the street stage during the summer months.  Our current favorite bar here is Bourbon Raw.  This replaced the Maker’s Mark Bar from a few years ago. 

One trip with my husband and son found us here when we need food to support our bar wandering.  We did the small plates and found a wonderful variety of tastes.  We stayed for a while and enjoyed a few drinks with our meals.  The staff was helpful with information and history.  We always make this a stop when we tour the trail in Louisville.

Proof on Main has also become a staple with us for any tour.  This bar is so nicely decorated and seems so cozy.  We prefer the couches at the back of the bar where we sip our drinks and talk.  The menu has a nice assortment of drinks and just straight up shots.  The staff is helpful and take care of their customers.  This is my son’s favorite spot in town.  It is on the lower floor of the 21C Museum Hotel.  We remember to take a tour of the latest art exhibit in the basement before we leave.

I am a planner.  For everything I do, I make up a plan on what I want to cover and how to go about getting it done.  Vacations are a natural project for planning.

For good eats, my guys prefer the Muscle and Burger Bar down on Sixth St.  My trips schedule time for them to take in food at some point here.  I like the mussels, but I am not necessarily a red meat type of girl.  Their drinks as varied and interesting.  The place is usually packed from the time they open until closing.  They do not take reservations, but I always offer to stand in line while the guys tour a local distillery experience.

Marriott used to have a small bar on the downstairs floor called Tru.  It was relaxed and the bartenders showed a lot of care while you sat the bar with your drink.  However, the bar disappeared over time and no replacement was added.  It is greatly missed.

We like to stay at the Galt House Hotel at the end of Fourth Street and on the river front.  The twin towers provide a beautiful view from most of the rooms.  It is a busy complex with lots of ballrooms and convention rooms that are usually busy. 

The Jockey Silks Bar is on the third floor of the west tower.  In the early days, the bar was red leather and dark wood.  Recently, it was updated with lighter wood, simple barstools, and mirrors.  The orientation was turned so the bar runs the length of the room instead of a small area at the back.  The jukebox is the same.  The drinks here are memorable and time honored.  It is always our last stop of the night.

When celebrating Rick’s birthday, we hung out in Jockey Silks for most of our evening.  The kids were competing for control of the jukebox.  I think Haran won with the country tunes. The bartender managed to entertain us with his knowledge of alcohol and earn his tip at the end of the night.

Louisville has become ground zero for many of the distilleries around the Louisville area.  The Experience concept has given the distillery business a focus on drawing in the customers and showing the behind the scenes as well as tasting the finished product.  I hope that everyone who attends a tour at a facility learns more about what they are drinking and what they link.  Since no two distilleries are alike, you should tour every one of the Experiences to learn the differences.  My choice is the Evan Williams Experience that opened on Main Street.  This distillery has had a presence in Louisville since the 1790s and has a marker for the original warehouses down by the river.

Though the Urban Bourbon Train concept has changed to include other locations around the entire state, the local version in Louisville continues to be an adventure that I would recommend to anyone looking for more experience and knowledge about distilled spirits.

Bourbon Trail and Then Some

My husband, Rich, brought up the Bourbon Trail as a weekend getaway. After doing a little research, I discovered that someone was using a marketing scheme to work up business for the string of distilleries through the center of the state of Kentucky. It sounded like a great idea and another opportunity to learn more about distilled spirits.

Our first visit into Bourbon country was for an extended weekend visit. We made our headquarters in Louisville at the esteemed Galt House hotel. On Saturday, I drove Rich down to Bardstown to the Heaven Hill distillery, which is just outside of town. The property at Heaven Hill has the typical views that you get in Kentucky with forest and open meadows.

We signed up for a tour and walked around the gift shop until it was time to line up.  The tour had ten people on it. The group was small by today’s standards, but not so crowded that you could talk to the guide and move around the sights of the distillery.

The tour took you through the distillery showing each task it took to make bourbon. It gave history on the distillery, the family, and the components that went into bourbon made in Kentucky. It was interesting to see their process and get their perspective on distilling.

After the tour, we decided to have lunch at Talbott’s Tavern in downtown Bardstown. The stone building that houses the tavern was built in 1779 and sits on the square. It is one of the oldest western stagecoach stop in the U.S. You can feel the history when you enter the front door. It has aged nicely and carries all the warmth of time and care. Lunch was excellent and we were ready for our next few stops.

Rich picked out smaller customers who are signed up with Whisky Systems, the company where he works. This gave us a downsized version of the larger operation we had seen in the morning. Limestone Branch Distillery is in Lebanon, Kentucky. We traveled the back roads to reach the distillery. The field stone building looks new on the site, but with an aged appearance.

The tour led us through their distilling tasks. With only a small tour group, we had opportunities to see things in the distillery that might not have been possible with a large group.  Rich was able to talk to the guide, who also worked in the distillery, about specific tasks, requirements, and how Limestone handled some issues. This is not something you get to do everywhere.

The other nice thing about this tour was that Limestone makes Yellowstone Bourbon.  My maternal grandfather drank this brand.  I remember seeing a bottle of Yellowstone sitting high up on a shelf in his kitchen over the years.  I do not believe that he drank it very fast.  The level in the bottle seemed to go down slowly from one month to the next between our visits.  Then a new bottle would appear a couple of times a year. 

Over the years, we have been able to do the Bourbon Tour and go to different distilleries for each visit. You can only do two or three distilleries on one tour. The tours are usually an hour or so. You must allow hour and half for each distillery visit. Then you need to allow time to spend in the tasting room. If you have questions you want to ask, this can take some time with a group that might have ten or more people and they all want to ask a question. This accounts for thirty to forty more minutes.

Most of the distilleries have beautifully kept grounds that you can wonder around and see how the families used the properties in their everyday lives. I always enjoy the various gardens that are available. These might be a vegetable garden, but most include flower gardens highlighting the Kentucky flowers. This can be another fifteen to thirty minutes, if your husband allows you to look.

You can spend up to two full hours or more on site at a distillery to appreciate all they have to offer. Then you have the drive to and from your hotel and even between the distilleries.

Best stories from Bourbon Tours

  • At Wild Turkey, the tour guide asked Rich to stay afterwards to talk about homebrewing. I sat at the front desk with the ladies who worked for the distillery. A gentleman came in asking how to get to Louieville. The ladies corrected his pronunciation several times to “Luvahl.” After the fifth time, the entire group at the desk yelled out “Luvahl” every time the gentleman said “Louieville.”

I signed the guest book before leaving to see that my boss had been on a tour earlier the same day. I just had to text him to let him know I saw his name in the book.

  • Four Roses: We went on a tour with a group of people who were part of a combined bachelor and bachelorette party. The lady managing their experience was having trouble getting everyone onto the party bus after the tour. I believe they had already been to two distilleries and trying to get to the fourth. A few members were not holding up well and others just wanted to stay and drink more. Unfortunately, we left before I could determine how successful she was going to be with getting them on the bus.
  • Party buses loaded with men is a popular tour at the distilleries. We have been to a few tours where men poured off the bus. Quite literally. I am not sure how they stood up. They would make it through the tour and then sit down at the tasting with relief. Their friends had a job of getting back up and on the bus again after another four glasses of bourbon.
  • We toured Maker’s Mark with my brother-in-law, Alex, and his wife, Kelli, a fellow outlaw.  The grounds were so beautiful, but I got very little time to enjoy them.  This visit was for my brother-in-law to enjoy the distillery atmosphere for his favorite bourbon.  You can buy a bottle of Maker’s Mark and put your own touch to the dripping red wax.  Alex was definitely a kid in the candy store for this activity.  He made sure that we got several good pictures of him dipping his personal bottle of Maker’s into the wax vat.
  • I rented a house in downtown Bardstown for a stay rather than a hotel anywhere else.  It turned out that the house was built around an original cabin from the early 1700s.  It was so small, but had so much detail to it that it beyond cute.  We could walk to Talbott’s Tavern, the square uptown, and pretty much anywhere in the downtown area. 
  • The Kentucky Dinner Train was another attraction that we did with my brother-in-law and sister outlaw.  The train leaves out of Bardstown and travels a 20-mile branch of the old Louisville and Bardstown Railroad line.  It is a two-and-a-half-hour trip out and then back with dinner and drinks served onboard.  The gentlemen enjoyed their bourbon with dinner as we watched the scenery go by, including the Jim Beam Distillery.

A Beginning for Everyone

Every journey begins with that first step. My journey started by sipping a whiskey as my husband described what he experienced in it. I’m not so sure I tasted the same thing, but I could see why he liked it.  I took another sip, another step, and now I am finding more new tastes and some adventures.

Since I did not start drinking alcoholic beverages until a little bit later than my peers, I call myself a late alcoholic bloomer.  I was 24 or 25 before I hit my bar days. The sister of a friend invited me out to go dancing and drinking. We found ourselves single in the world where our friends had gotten married.  It seemed easy enough to pair up and go out without trying find a boyfriend.  That is until she found a guy and walked down the aisle herself. Then I was on my own in the bar world.

In my first trials of drinking distilled spirits, I didn’t enjoy the burn either before or after the sip. I decided I couldn’t enjoy the taste.  I did, however, find that I enjoyed the taste of spirits after someone else had the drink.  It was not hard to talk a guy into drinking something I wanted to try and get the flavor from a kiss. I could get a hint of the flavor without experiencing the burn. I did not know what I was missing from the entire experience.

Now I fast forward a few years. My husband, Rich, was a serious homebrewer who delved into the various tastes and textures of beer. After being stationed in Germany for several years, he came back to the U.S. where beer was not yet up to his standards. I developed a taste for his beer.  Then the explosion of microbreweries occurred in the U.S. Through his friends and the local beer society, I learned to taste and distinguish the wonderful world of beer.

Then my husband began exploring distilled spirits. For him, this was not a new area as his family was quite well versed in drinking cocktails and each had their favorite spirits. He jokes that the family drink is the High Ball, which his maternal grandfather enjoyed as often as his wife would allow. This was my first real step into spirits as the designated driver for my husband after a visit to the bar or distillery.

My bar days were spent in Louisville, which was almost the center of the bourbon world. Distilled spirits were popular among the crowds that moved through the bars. My favorite bartenders created wonderful concoctions using spirits. I knew something about drinking spirits, even if I didn’t enjoy it. My family even contains a few distillers from back in the day and into the present.

My husband began exploring distilleries along the Bourbon Trail in the middle of Kentucky. We took the tours and heard the stories from each distillery. It was amazing how different each one was. He would sample the tasting room wares with much gusto. I sampled sparingly, which lead to the discovery that heads and tails make a different in each product.

After most tours, Rich talk to the guides, distillers, and anyone else around with the distillery about their process and products. Being the driver, I would stand around and listen, which meant I was gaining knowledge by osmosis. Distillers call homebrewers lazy because they don’t complete the brewing process to get distilled spirits. It did give them a common ground to discuss what we were drinking.

Rich went on to become a certified Bourbon Steward through Moonshine University in Louisville.  He has a nice kit you can use to determine what you smell, taste, and enjoy.  I admit to dragging it out and working on my tasting skills.

From these first steps, I discovered I do like distilled spirits. However, I have very specific taste in what I like.  Using Rich’s Bourbon Steward kit, I learned that I like leather and tobacco in taste. I don’t like heads at all, but I will tolerate some tails. When I taste a distilled spirit, I know how to evaluate it for taste and texture. From here, I am just beginning to explore the world one taste of spirits at a time.

Distilling in the Family Tree

All good stories have a beginning. I am writing this blog to share my adventures in distilled spirits.  I hope it is a story worth telling. It is definitely personal for me and maybe for those who have taken some of the steps with me.

I am battling some issues while writing this blog.  For one, these events are in the past. I must search my memory for events, what was said, and the expression on someone’s face. My memory tends to work in still photos and some moving pictures. At this age, it might be a little fuzzier than I would like. However, some of my stories might be interesting and tell you about what I have learned about Whiskey.

I find it interesting that Whiskey has two versions to its name. I prefer it with the E, but I can see how it came to be spelled without the E.  Languages are peculiar on how they develop in one place or another. If I had become the linguistics professional I had intended to be, I could give you the arguments behind the differences. Alas, you will have to read about them elsewhere.

I was born and raised in Southern Indiana, just across the river from Louisville, Kentucky. The location for my journey seemed important to me. My family on both sides came from south central Kentucky.  This meant that someone in the family was a home distiller. I suspect that I have several distillers lurking in the shadows of my family tree.

My maternal grandfather produced peach brandy as a barter tool to use with his neighbors and friends for services or necessary items. He grew peach trees on the south side of his garden.  From these, he distilled down to his final product in one of the outbuildings that ringed the back of his house. His operation was quite self-contained. I remember peeking into that building once to see the still, but there was no active operation at the time.

Sad to say I never had the opportunity to try his peach brandy since I was too young at that point. The look on my mother’s face would have been priceless, if he had been able to offer up a glass. My mom never drank, that I know about. Later, she accepted the fact that I learned to drink so long as she did not have to see it happen.

While growing up, I heard more about mixed drinks than anything. My folks did not drink, but many of their friends did. My paternal grandpa and uncle both liked their whiskey straight up.  They had a stash in the barn away from the women folk. My maternal grandaddy, who was single, had his favorite brand sitting on a shelf in the kitchen. Now that I think about it, it should have been in my genes to like distilled spirits.

I recently learned by some of my cousins on my maternal side have become distillers for a new distillery northwest of my hometown.  Spirits of French Lick is part of an operation run by one of the local wineries.  I was surprised to hear that Alan was quite the expert and even had his own podcast.  As I said, this is my maternal side of the family tree, and it appears that side of the family has a distilling gene built into their DNA. 

My husband, Rich took a job as a software developer for Whiskey Systems, which is a barrel management application for distillers. He wanted to sample the spirits and learn more about what each distiller was doing.  We set out to visit many of the company’s customers to talk and drink.  Learning more about each distilled spirit was fun and we met many great distillers along with their support staff. It was only a short leap for Rich to become a certified Bourbon Steward through Moonshine University. Now he has the challenge coin to prove he knows and understand spirits.

I have sampled several types of spirits and can appreciation the variations that go into distilling down to a product. Our adventures have expanded my view of the distillery business and the world.  Now when we travel somewhere, it is my task to find distilleries in the area and plan a visit to sample the products.