Whiskey has been around for almost as long as there has been corn, barely and pristine water with which to make it. Not unlike many other foods and libations though, America has put its unique stamp on this mother of all spirits.
I discovered the well-textured history of American bourbon whiskey while on a recent tour of the Woodford Reserve Distillery in Versailles, Kentucky, not far from Lexington.
Amazingly enough, distilling on the site dates back to the 18th century and even though Woodford hasn’t been in constant production during that time, the distillery is the oldest of the nine bourbon distilleries in current operation in Kentucky.
Driving up the narrow, country road to Woodford sets the scene, transporting the guest back in time to when backcountry stills were an all too common sight. Woodford is small, very small, with only a few buildings making up the factory complex. The centuries old stone buildings though look better suited to a quiet stream-side retreat in Ireland than in Kentucky, further adding to the Old World mystique.
Given the busy tour schedule on the day I visited, we started the tour at the traditional end point, the building where the hundreds of barrels of whiskey are aging. The smell hits you well before you enter the building, but becomes almost literally intoxicating as you walk through the door. Throughout the aging process, thousands of gallons of whiskey are lost to the Angel’s Share, the process of evaporation that occurs while the bourbon is nestled in the oak barrels.
I also learned the true meaning of bourbon. It is, as it turns out, a type of whiskey and not a unique kind of spirit. Bourbon, which is named after a county in Kentucky, can be made anywhere in the United States, but 99% is made in Kentucky, thanks in large part to the unique limestone water found there.
What struck me more than the barrels, the elaborate bottling process or even the huge fermentation tanks where future batches of this amber bourbony goodness will be made, was the immense pride on behalf of the staff. I was shocked that a major, international brand would have only a handful of full-time staff; even when counting part-time and temporary staff their number barely hits sixty. But the tour guide who taught us about the distillery was passionate about the product, its history and what it has meant to the state of Kentucky. She alone transformed what may have mean another humdrum tour into a truly educational experience; the ultimate goal of any tour guide.
Woodford is but one of several bourbon distilleries in Kentucky and all of them share this same sense of satisfaction in their work and the importance of the history of bourbon to this country. So while you’re enjoying your next snifter of Kentucky bourbon, consider for a moment not just the tremendous effort it represents, but the pride as well.