Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 20/4/2019 (400 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Whiskey is on the nose, and we’re halfway between Glasgow and Edinburgh, but this isn’t Scotland and a kilt is nae to be found.
This is the Kentucky bourbon trail, and Louisville — home of the Kentucky Derby and birthplace of the hot brown sandwich — is its epicentre. Within the city, and within a few hours’ drive, are some of the biggest, best and smallest names in bourbon: Jim Beam, Evan Williams, Maker’s Mark, Bulleit, Wild Turkey and Woodford Reserve are just a few.
They each offer tours of their distilleries, samples and lessons in bourbon history. Bourbon is a specific concoction of whiskey, so much so the U.S. Congress passed regulations in 1964 stipulating what can and cannot be called bourbon. Among eight requirements are that it be made with a grain base of no less than 51 per cent corn; that it must be aged in new, charred oak barrels; and must be made in the United States. (A common misconception holds it must be made in Kentucky.)
I started my tour at Maker’s Mark, about an hour south of Louisville, where our tour guide, Jackie, is recounting how the founder, Bill Samuels Sr., began the business in 1953.
"He didn’t want to sell the rock-gut, horrible, moonshine his family had been making, and he actually had a ceremony where he burned the family recipe," she said.
So, he set about devising a recipe for a smooth, sipping whiskey and came upon the blend for what would soon become Maker’s Mark: 70 per cent corn, 14 per cent malted barley and — here’s where he diverged from many bourbon makers — 16 per cent red soft winter wheat.
It’s the wheat, Jackie said, that gives Maker’s a sweeter edge than some bourbons, many of which use the spicier grain rye instead. The three grains are milled to a fine meal and cooked in water to create a mash, which is then fermented with yeast to produce alcohol. After double distillation, it’s aged in barrels where bourbon gets the majority of its flavours and colours. (Whiskey cannot be called bourbon if it contains added colourants or flavourings.)
The barrels at Maker’s Mark are made out of white oak and, as with most bourbons, are charred on the inside to caramelize the wood sugars. Once distilled, the whisky ages in these barrels for at least three "Kentucky summers" in the hottest areas of the company’s warehouses. It’s here where the alcohol is most active, moving in and out of the wood and gaining its flavour. Tasters determine when a barrel is ready to move to cooler storage areas, where the process of transferring flavours slows down.
A tour gives you a behind-the-label look at how bourbon is made, complete with fascinating tidbits about Maker’s — such as how Margie Samuels, Bill’s wife, took an active role in designing the distillery campus; insisted on paying homage to the family’s Scottish roots by declaring it would be whisky, without an "e" because that’s how it’s spelled in Scotland; and decided on the colour scheme still in use today. That scheme has black as the main colour for all buildings, to represent the deep, rich colour of the bourbon; red for shutters to represent the red wax used to seal each bottle; and tan for trim, to represent the grains used in the mash. She even gave the whisky its name and designed the iconic labels.
That red wax, by the way, was also Margie’s idea. You can buy unwaxed bottles in the gift shop and try your hand at adding the wax, if you want. She also designed the labels, which are still made on the same letterpress printing presses as in the 1950s.
Production began in 1954 and the first bottles went out the door in 1959.
In Louisville, I toured the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience. While the tour is in a historic downtown building that operates only a demonstration distillery, the tour is museum-quality, complete with vignettes filmed with actors in period costume depicting both Louisville history and Williams’ own beginnings in bourbon, as well as recreations of Louisville’s Main Street in the 1800s.
Within walking distance of Evan Williams are four more bourbon tours: Michter’s, Rabbit Hole, Angel’s Envy and Old Forester. Oh, and the bit about being halfway between Glasgow and Edinburgh? That would be Glasgow, Ky., and Edinburgh, Ind.
A few factors contribute to Kentucky’s position as the centre of the bourbon world: first is the temperature swing, from hot summers to cool winters, that plays a large role in how the whiskey develops its flavours while aging. The other is the water, which filters through the area’s limestone shelf. That filter action not only leaves the water clean and with significantly reduced levels of iron, which is detrimental to the taste of whiskey, it adds calcium and magnesium, which contribute to flavour and assist in the action of the yeast in the mash.
That limestone also contributed to another, more recent, piece of Kentucky history.
On Feb. 12, 2014, at 5:39 a.m., the ceiling of an underground cave began to crumble. It would normally be a common and insignificant geological event for the area, except for what was directly above that cave: eight priceless and irreplaceable Chevrolet Corvettes. It was an event that shook the National Corvette Museum to its foundations and set in motion a recovery process that would be only partially successful.
This is Bowling Green, Ky., and the museum is just across the street from the factory where Corvettes have been made since 1981. The fateful day saw the eight Corvettes plummet to the depths of a hole about 20 feet deep. Five were damaged beyond repair, with one nearly sliced in half when it was hit by a falling chunk of concrete. The eight cars swallowed were the 1.5-millionth Corvette (a white 2009 model), the 1993 ZR-1 Spyder, a 2009 "Blue Devil" ZR1, a black 1962 roadster, a 1984 PPG Pace Car, the one millionth Corvette (a white 1992 model), a 1993 40th Anniversary Corvette and a 2001 Mallett Hammer Corvette Z06.
Only the millionth, the 1962 roadster and the 2009 Blue Devil were repairable. The rest were total losses, but remain on display in the Skydome, the area where the sinkhole opened.
The disaster ended up being a boon to the museum, which left the sinkhole on display for a year before beginning repairs. The news sent attendance soaring by 100,000 visitors in 2014, and has kept it rolling above the 200,000 mark since.
In 2016, the event became a centrepiece of the museum, called the "Corvette Cave In!," with re-enactments from inside the cavern, and video and graphic displays explaining the cave-in. It culminates in the Skydome, where the affected cars, and dozens of others, are on display. Lines on the floor show where it collapsed, as well as the periphery of the cavern. A manhole with a glass window offers a look down 42 feet to the bottom of what remains of the cavern, which was otherwise filled in with earth before the floor was restored.
Sinkholes are common in Kentucky, thanks in small part to the limestone that gives bourbon its distinct character: runoff water collects in "karst" holes in the limestone and erodes the earth underneath. In the case of the museum, the presence of a sinkhole escaped detection during construction (the museum opened in 1994). Engineers, employing the recommended procedure at the time, drilled 15-foot bore samples and found no evidence of an underground cavern. Unfortunately, the cavern was 30 feet down. Over the next 20 years, its ceiling eroded.
The museum offers car lovers an intimate look at the history of the Corvette, including life-size figurines of Zora Arkus-Duntov, an engineer regarded as the "Father of the Corvette," and later designers Larry Shinoda and Jerry Palmer, as well as examples of the car from its roots in 1953 to today’s C-7 (Corvette, seventh generation) model. Rumours have persisted that the C-8, due out in 2019, may be a mid-engined version, the first in the model’s history.
That Corvettes would be built in the Bluegrass State is fitting, as it’s quite the state for drivers. Ribbons of windy, hilly tarmac criss-cross the state, and each turn opens a new, beautiful vista to take in.
Copy Editor, Autos Reporter
Kelly Taylor is a Winnipeg Free Press copy editor and award-winning automotive journalist. He's been a member of the Automobile Journalists' Association of Canada since 2001.