The highlights of a trip through America's whiskey distilleries are, of course, the distilleries themselves: the contrasting scales of operations in Tennessee of the George Dickel distillery and its neighbour Jack Daniel's; the gleaming new Wild Turkey distillery in Kentucky; the idyllic village-like setting of Maker's Mark; the rare pot stills at Woodford Reserve. But getting out of the commercial distilleries and into the museums and machine shops reveals a bigger picture of the past, present and future of American whiskey.
The American Whiskey Trail (AmericanWhiskeyTrail.com) is an initiative of the Distilled Spirits Council (DISCUS) designed to promote the cultural heritage of spirits in the USA. The website, which suggests distilleries to visit from its member companies (major liquor owners like Diageo and Jim Beam), links to a map of its many craft distilling affiliate members (that may or may not be open to the public for visits), and also encompasses several historical sites.
Geographically, the trail extends as far north as the Fraunces Tavern Museum in New York City, includes historic points of interest in Pennsylvania and Virginia, and includes the two major Tennessee whiskey distilleries - George Dickel and Jack Daniel's - along with four bourbon distilleries in Kentucky. From a practical standpoint the entire American Whiskey Trail would likely make a week-long road trip, though the majority of the distilleries and sites are in a small geographic area between Louisville and Lexington, Kentucky.
My trip, however, began in Virginia. Arguably the most important site on the trail is Historic Mount Vernon, the estate of first American president George Washington, just south of Washington DC on the Potomac. In addition to the house and grounds - a supremely popular tourist attraction in their own right - are working recreations of his distillery and gristmill, located down by the river that powered both operations.
Most of the time, the wood-fired pot stills at Mount Vernon only distil water for demonstrations, with tour guides in period clothing giving talks about the process. That was the case on my visit, though they had all the goods available on-site to start making the hard stuff. Grains for distilling (and other uses) are ground in the gristmill, located next to the distillery. The gristmill was rebuilt (both the original distillery and gristmill burned down, as they tend to do) to its Washington-era working condition, which was extremely high-tech for its day. It's a steam-punk's dream, powered by a 16-foot water wheel, with giant wooden gears and massive, spinning grinding stones filling the several-storey building. With one motion, the operator was able to turn on the apparatus and the entire building whirled into action. Rough grains loaded into the top were ground into flour.
When the distillery is making whiskey, some of those grains (60 per cent rye, 35 per cent corn, and five per cent malted barley) are cooked in an open-top copper pot in the distillery, then fermented in small barrels for three to five days. The solids and liquids are then transferred with buckets into one of the five stills and double-distilled. Logs are fed into the fire beneath the stills, and their output is captured in buckets. Not only have they made rye whiskey here from George Washington's recipe, they have also distilled fruit brandy and single-malt whiskey on site. About two weeks before my visit, a group of Scottish whisky makers, including distillers from Glenmorangie and Laphroaig, made American single-malt here. That spirit is ageing and will be served at special events, as they made too little of it to sell at retail.
George Washington's distillery is called the "gateway to the American Whiskey Trail", but his significance in relation to the development of the industry is equally noted for his crushing of the Whiskey Rebellion. Though just a few years later he would himself become the nation's largest distiller of rye whiskey, in 1794 Washington ordered 13,000 militia troops to quash the rebellion (fought over taxes on distilling, naturally), which they quickly did. One stop on the American Whiskey Trail, the Oliver Miller Homestead not far from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was home to several distillers involved in the Rebellion. There, they celebrate a Whiskey Rebellion Day in July of every year.
The rebellion forced Scots-Irish farmer-distillers to move further inland into what would become Kentucky, attracted not least by a new government incentive: free land to anyone who would move there, build a house, and grow corn on the property. (This new land, rough cut from the forest, was not the right climate nor geography for growing rye, but it was perfect for corn). And with few roads for transporting grains, few barns in which to store it, and iron-free limestone water running through the area, it was also the perfect set of circumstances to encourage distillation of all that leftover corn. The seeds of the bourbon industry were planted.
In the late 1700s American whiskey was distilled in small copper pot stills (though sometimes small stills were actually made out of tree logs), but today of the large distillers only Woodford Reserve uses a portion of pot stilled whiskey in their bourbon. Today, nearly all bourbon makers use giant, wide, continuous column stills - though most American whiskies go through a second distillation in a "thumper" or "doubler" that acts like a pot still. Interestingly, it wasn't until the end of American Civil War in 1865 that columns trickled into Kentucky, some 35 years after Aeneas Coffey's column still was patented.
At our next stop on the Trail, at the Vendome Copper & Brass Works (vendomecopper.com) in Louisville, Kentucky, they build both column and pot stills. This company, the last major still maker in the United States, supplies many of the huge bourbon makers with their stills, as well as their fermenters and other equipment.
The warehouse is crammed full of gleaming copper and stainless steel stills and other equipment in the making. Over here, a gargantuan column still is formed from several giant copper pipes lying next to each other on their sides. Over there, smaller column stills, a future exhibit for the new Jim Beam visitors' centre, are standing on end ready for installation. A row of completed copper pot stills (destined for the new crop of small-batch distillers) in all sorts of unique shapes lines another section of the space. Business is booming with both the expansion of large distilleries to keep up with demand and with the new crop of small distillers popping up all over the country.
The next stop in Louisville, where another historical evolution in American whiskey - the practice of aging it - is manifested at the Brown-Forman Cooperage. Today, new, charred wooden containers are legally required for bourbon. Though distillers say that all the good whiskey makers were already using new charred American oak barrels, it wasn't until 1938 that new barrels were legally required. According to one historian, this law was put in place at the end of the Great Depression by senators from states with lumber businesses who wanted to protect their home state industries.
The Brown-Forman Cooperage makes barrels for Jack Daniel's, Woodford Reserve and other brands at the rate of half a million per year. Due to the recent growth of American whiskey, they've had to increase production by 25 percent over the last ten years, and the factory shows it. Many huge, fire-breathing machines are crammed are together in an order that looks more patched together than planned in advance. It's surprising they let tour groups through here at all.
But they do, in small quantities. Driving onto the property we saw acres of staves air-drying outdoors, and then warehouses full of them. Wood for barrels made here is purchased from all over the country, much of it in more northerly climates than Kentucky. The tree logs are cut into flat staves, which are left to dry outdoors in tall stacks for half a year, then moved to a "pre-dryer" and then a kiln building. It takes 9-12 months for the wood to become dry enough to work with.
Cooperage is still quite labour intensive, as it has always been. On one machine, slight curves are carved in the staves; on another, the barrel heads are assembled, and then toasted on another machine that runs them through a fiery oven. The barrel-assembly station is where much of the artistry of barrel-making is still visible: skilled coopers search piles of various-sized staves and arrange them together to create a perfect leak-proof circle.
We watch as on subsequent machines the metal hoops are fitted around the outsides of the barrels, and then groups of the barrels are run through a giant oven that shoots flames up in the air through their middles to char them for exactly the right amount of time. The shop is loud, seemingly chaotic, and the process involves probably twenty different workers in the process of making each barrel, but one can only think of how much more effort it would be for a single person to make each cask individually.
A decade ago there were a dozen or so whiskey makers in America. Today with the explosion in small-batch distilling there are well over 300 distilleries in the country, many of them producing whiskey, albeit differently than the big distillers along the American Whiskey Trail.
Pot or combination stills (pot stills with a rectification column on top) are the norm, and most of these new distillers seem to be using smaller barrels, from five to twenty gallons each, as opposed to the standard 55 gallons for bourbon. They release these whiskies at a younger age than regular bourbon, and many release completely unaged white whiskies.
But it's not just the small distilleries that are changing the face of American whiskey. Thanks largely to the cocktail renaissance, the demand for rye whiskey has gone way up, and the big distilleries are finally catching up to bartenders' needs. All the large distilleries I visited were increasing rye whiskey production, many of them ten-fold, though this is still a tiny fraction of bourbon production.
It seems now that between unaged whiskey, rye whiskey, and whiskey made in pot stills, the future of American whiskey is starting to look an awful lot like its past.