Wide World of Whiskey

7 things a Kentucky bourbon pilgrimage taught us about the universe

December 18, 2018
Four Roses Distillery LLC logos are displayed on stacked up
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Kentucky isn’t a hard place to get to know. It’s simple in a good way and friendly in an honest one. By the time you’ve swooped in over the stables of Keeneland or seen Coach Cal’s face beaming at you from every bar TV and bumper sticker in the county, you’ll feel like an old friend. But it’s down the side roads and in the fields—perched on top shelves, middle shelves, and yes, even the bottom ones, too—that you’ll find something a little trickier:

Bourbon. Bourbon you remember and bourbon you’ve never heard of. Bourbon in square bottles. Bourbon in round bottles. Bourbon aged in Sherry casks and bottled in bond. Bourbon that will teach you something not only about bourbon, but the whole weird, wide world swirling around it.

This is the scene at Lexington’s OBC Kitchen, as I join a group of strangers—some bourbon pros, some not—for what promises to be an incredible, if somewhat hazy, deep dive into the world of Four Roses bourbon. It’s a Sunday night in December. Somewhere there’s football on, but no one’s really paying attention because A) there are appetizers and B) Four Roses master distiller Brent Elliott just ordered the whole table a round of Single Barrel OESV.

Lesson 1: Bourbon is the closest thing Kentucky has to an olive branch

I won’t know what “OESV” stands for until the morning, but for now we eat, drink, and talk. Everybody asks each other questions about work and whiskey. I say I’m a scotch guy. A few people turn their noses up. I don’t know if it’s because they don’t like scotch or because scotch guys are the worst. Either way, it doesn’t matter because soon a manhattan appears in my hand, smoke from charred bourbon barrel chips curling up from the rim. I’ll see you in the morning, it practically screams. And so it does...in a manner of speaking.

Twelve hours later, I’m seated in a conference room beneath a decked-to-the-halls Four Roses gift shop, thoughts briefly turning to every sucker on earth currently shuffling into their office. In front of me sit Four Roses’ quartet of current U.S. bourbons—the standard Four Roses (affectionately referred to as “Yellow Label” by just about everybody), the Small Batch, the Single Barrel, and the new-this-year, already-very-sold-out 130th Anniversary Edition. I check my phone. It’s 9:31 a.m. A little early for bourbon by most accounts, but hey, when in Rome Lawrenceburg.

Lesson 2: Bourbon, brown sugar, and oatmeal is the true breakfast of champions

Working my way through the Four Roses range, I learn that OESV code from last night’s Single Barrel is one of ten possible Four Roses recipes comprised of two mashbills (“E” for traditional and “B” for high rye) and five different strains of yeast (V, K, O, Q, and F). Those ten recipes are then blended to create Four Roses and Four Roses Small Batch, while the Single Barrel and limited releases—such as the 130th Anniversary, which I refuse to leave a single drop of despite the hour—usually bear a single recipe’s signature due to their barrel-by-barrel selection process.

After the creaky morning joints are oiled and everyone’s learned something, we head across the parking lot, the rare Kentucky snowflake falling, to a hot, loud, smelly, perfect stillhouse, where all the magic happens. We take photos (lots and lots of photos) and taste the “beer” out of massive 14,000-gallon fermentation tanks. Elliott shouts explanations of things that no one can hear. All is right in the world.

Then the Four Roses mastermind leads us into "The Lab"—great whiskey is as much science as art—where we take a look at pH monitoring equipment and refrigerated yeast strains shipped in from California before stepping into a generic office kitchen with one distinguishing feature: A seven-foot tall cabinet loaded tip-to-tail with what seems like the entire recorded history of bourbon.

Lesson 3: If you’re wondering what to do with that chem major, try bourbon

We try Four Roses icon Al Young’s 50th anniversary bourbon and a pure F strain that goes down like a bouquet of soft spring flowers. We sample Four Roses Super Premium, only available in Japan, and the 2016 Elliott’s Select, a single barrel expression handpicked by the mad scientist himself. At a certain point I sort of lose track. An hour ago I thought the 130th Anniversary Small Batch was the best bourbon I had ever tasted. Now I’m not so sure...about anything. We leave happy, a little flushed, and ready for lunch.

After some caffeine and something to soak it all up, we trek an hour west to Four Roses’ sprawling warehouse complex in Cox’s Creek. The rain flicks on and off and a harmony of snores kicks up from the front of the van. I answer a few emails and think about whether or not I understand bourbon any better now than I did when I woke this morning up. Maybe not, but I had certainly drunk a lot more of it, and that has to count for something, right?

Lesson 4: The best way to learn more about bourbon is to drink more bourbon . . .

At Cox’s Creek, we’re greeted by another gift shop with another Christmas tree, but through the gate and down the gravel road, where they bring in two full tankers of bourbon a day, we finally arrive at the barreling and bottling lines. There we see how the whiskey goes from truck to barrel to bottle to market, and in my head I shudder at the logistical nightmare of making sure Small Batch doesn’t go into Single Barrel and vice versa. There aren't too many jobs I’ve encountered in the past 24 hours that I wouldn’t bite someone’s hand off for, but this is one of them.

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The visit ends in another conference room drinking more bourbon—this time with some holdovers from the Private Barrel program, which allows particularly lucky retailers to handpick their own exclusive expressions straight from the warehouse. My palate is shot, but when someone hands you a once-in-a-lifetime experience, you drink it.

Lesson 5: . . . But there is a point of diminishing returns

That night there’s a steak and cocktail in downtown Lexington—quiet and bitter cold, but lit up for the holidays all the same. I think about what is a more robust, less pretentious cocktail culture than New York City and how I can’t wait to shout that at everyone when I get back. We make friends with the bartender and she let’s us nose some Douglas Fir bitters that aren’t even on the menu yet. They smell like Christmas.

In the morning we get up, drive 90 minutes to Louisville, sprint through the Bourbon History Exhibit at the Frazier History Museum, and make our own whiskey tumblers at a glass blowing glass. We eat lunch and do the Louisville Slugger factory tour. I’m handed Christian Yelich’s bat and it makes me want to take a few cuts, but with running lathes and a tour group full of Indians fans who actually saw their last World Series win, I decide against it.

Lesson 6: Putting bourbon and baseball bat tours across the street from each other is a bad idea

I make my flight, although just barely, and I have a few hours to take it all in and maybe detox a little while I’m at it…

After years of staggering, industry-wide growth, I can’t help but feel bourbon is about to jump the shark. Suddenly bourbon guys have become the scotch guys they always loathed—name-dropping label snobs who won’t put anything less than $40 in an old fashioned. The brands of yesteryear are being stitched back together and shocked back to life like Frankenstein’s monster while states like Texas and Utah try to put their own stamp (with varying degrees of success) on Kentucky’s most cherished export. Take a trip to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail and see the construction sites and the distillery signs lining every highway exit. It’s a decade away from becoming Napa, which is essentially just Disneyland for people with Porsches.

So sure, maybe this whole thing is about to detonate. Who knows. But I’m glad I got to see it, in the way I got to see it, before it does. You still won’t find me bribing liquor store owners for rare bottles that just “fell off the truck” or geeking out over master distillers like they’re Slash. But I’m happy to say I’m back on the bourbon wagon...or is it off? I can never keep track.

Lesson 7: All good things come to an end . . .

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