We hit the Bourbon Trail back in April for the second time, which was a long awaited return to our mother ship! Driving through the beautiful countryside filled with rolling pastures, historic tobacco barns, and herds of thoroughbred horses really brought us back to our roots. It is so easy to get caught up in our day-to-day routines, which unfortunately tends to take us away from the modest, simple beginnings that we all came from (in one way or another). I like to think of my trips through Kentucky as both a vacation and a cultural experience that ends up making me feel right at home.
One of our primary goals during this trip, besides betting on horses at the Maker’s Mark Mile, was to visit the historic Four Roses distillery in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. During our previous trip to bourbon country, we had to miss this landmark facility because of time constraints and blood alcohol levels. But as with most good things, the wait and anticipation only made our experience at Four Roses all the better.
Arriving to the smell of fermenting mash on the backdrop of the 1910 Spanish Mission-Style buildings was like taking a trip back in time. This is one of the very few large distilleries left that has maintained its historical identification, both in the actual buildings that house the distillery, and in the process by which they produce their bourbon. Unlike some of the other mass production distilleries on the Bourbon Trail, Four Roses is truly an authentic facility that has held true to its purpose and roots in the culture of bourbon.
I have to admit, Four Roses was not even in my personal bourbon collection prior to this trip. I had some mental block that prevented me from being able to think of any bourbon with the Four Roses name as the “sipping type”, which has turned out to be my loss. In fact, all Four Roses bourbons (even the “mixin’ types”) are made with extremely high quality and the highest respect for the bourbon tradition. They also produce several top shelf varieties that boast a smoother finish with a richer palette to satisfy those of us who prefer to enjoy bourbon by itself. In either case, if you have any negative pre-disposition towards Four Roses bourbon, I highly encourage you to visit their facility (if possible) and at least give their product another shot at a fair evaluation.
Pruitt and I have stocked up on Four Roses bourbon so that we can taste it and rate it ourselves. Check our Bourbon Reviews page periodically to see what new things we are discovering about these products and the many more that are emerging on the bourbon scene these days.
As far as I am concerned, Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve (20 year old) is the holy grail of bourbon. There are more expensive bourbons out there, even some that have been aged longer, but none are more elusive. Blake, Shay (a friend of the journal), and I went to Kentucky last year to tour the Bourbon Trail with a goal of obtaining a bottle of the fabled bourbon. Previously we had been unable to find it online or in stores, and had been told supplies were very limited at the distillery. When we arrived at Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, it was a rainy day but we were excited to see the tour of this award winning and innovative distillery. We called ahead and made reservations for the hardhat tour, which I highly recommend. On the hardhat tour, you will get to see every step of the distillation and aging process firsthand. From the time the grain arrives at the distillery on the truck, to single barrel bourbon being hand bottled, you get a glimpse at every facet of the bourbon production process.
After a great tour, we enjoyed a delightful tasting of the Buffalo Trace brand bourbon as well as their new Eagle Rare single barrel bourbon and the Buffalo Trace Bourbon Cream Liqueur. The Eagle Rare and Buffalo Trace bourbon can be found at most any package store, however, the bourbon cream liqueur can only be bought on sight at the distillery. After the wonderful tasting, we were cut loose on the gift shop which had most of the brands that are owned and produced by the Buffalo Trace distillery proudly displayed. The only thing that we could not find on any of the gift shop shelves was a bottle of the acclaimed Pappy Van Winkle bourbon. When we asked a clerk she said we should check with the bartender in the back. So, in what can only be described as a less than confident manner, we anxiously walked back to the bar tender and asked for the Pappy. With no assurance in his voice, he said he would check in the back and then disappeared behind the rear entrance to the bar area for several minutes. To our delight, he returned saying they had four bottles left, all signed by the current proprietor of the Pappy Van Winkle name, Julian P. Van Winkle, IV. Of course we responded with a “We’ll take ‘em, all of ‘em”. At that moment, Blake, Shay and I each bought a bottle for ourselves and picked up the 4th for a fellow bourbon connoisseur that we knew would truly appreciate it. You could have heard a pin drop in that gift shop as the 20 or so tourists who were waiting on the next tour admired our exit. It was as if we had just cashed in a jackpot in a Mississippi casino and had the world right at our fingertips! Mission accomplished, the trip was a resounding success, highlighted by the fact that we bought the last four bottles of Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve bourbon in existence at the distillery.
We have each been saving our bottles for suitable occasions, each wondering who would be the first to open the stock. I recently bought my first house here in Raleigh and celebrated the occasion with some friends from work. We grilled some steaks and had some beers to christen the new place in style with good food, good company, and good banter. As the party thinned out and only a few of my closest friends remained (Blake, Geoff – another friend of the bourbon journal), the vibe was just right and I decided to uncork the Pappy. I have to say, this bourbon was absolutely worth the wait! Unbelievable complexity unravels on your tongue, a delicate taste that has been developed over 20 years in a barrel reveals immensely intimate flavors of Rich oak with honey and citrus notes chasing each other around in the glass. Add an ice cube and the taste continues to evolve and open up, lightening the taste profile so that you can pick up floral hints, flavors of fig, and as Blake swears, sweet tea! It just keeps giving and giving as it passionately unfolds and develops on your palette. Evolving from the first sip to the last, a truly delightful bourbon. I can see why it is as elusive as it is, and in the words of Farris Buller, “If you have the means, I highly recommend you pick one up”.