Big Machine Distillery

Big Machine Barrel

A Very Special Place

Over the past several years I have enjoyed touring many small distilleries across the country. Some are well run, tidy operations with one or two offerings. Others are little more than store fronts buying and reselling some other company’s product. Big Machine Distillery (BMD) doesn’t fit into either category. This is a very well run, efficient operation turning out a wide range of their own products. Without a doubt, this gem tucked away in the rolling hills of central Tennessee just south of Nashville is the most impressive small distillery I have visited to date.

This visit, in September 2022, was my first post COVID foray back out into the wonderful world of small distilleries. I started with a Google search of small distilleries within an hour drive of my home in north Alabama. Checking out their web sites allowed me to narrow my search down to six distilleries that looked promising. I contacted each, asking permission for a deep dive visit to their operation with the goal of writing a post for my blog. Four did not respond, one was not interested, but Big Machine rolled out the welcome mat. That was my first clue this was going to be a very special place to visit.

Big Machine Distillery

Big Machine Distillery at Lynnville TN

The company operates at three locations. The primary facility, where most, but not all of the distilling takes place, is in Lynnville Tennessee. This was the site of my visit.  Their other two locations are in the Nashville area. The downtown Nashville distillery/bar contains live music, a 250-gallon copper pot still, tours and tastings. It is located at 122 3rd Avenue South. Their Berry Hill Tavern located at 2824 Bransford Avenue in Nashville has a full menu, outdoor patio, games, TVs and bottomless Bloody Mary Brunch.

I arrived a few minutes early, but the Chief Distiller, and the original founder, Clay Cutler greeted me warmly. He then turned me over to two young ladies, Markeila and Halley, the primary distillers at Big Machine. I have to admit, that was a surprise, but Clay had a bigger, and very pleasant surprise for me. Turns out every employee at the Lynnville site except Clay is a woman. Perhaps this is the secret to such a well run distillery. BMD makes whiskey, vodka, gin, and specialty liquors such as a bottled Old Fashioned Cocktail. I focused on their whiskey offerings on this visit.

The Building Blocks of Fine Whiskey – Ingredients and Process

Clayton developed his Tennessee whiskey flavor profile over years of trial and error. He began with a small 5-gallon stovetop still, progressed to a 25 gallon still, before going big time with the current 500 gallon copper pot still. Experimentation and innovation are still deeply embedded in the DNA of this distillery. I observed and sampled some of the on-going experiments while there. Examples include bourbon made with red corn, straight sided barrels, and a futuristic looking vodka still Clayton helped to design and build.

Another defining characteristic of BMD is consistency throughout the operation to achieve uniformly high quality results. The distillers are careful to cook the mash at the same temperature each time, with the same mash bill, for the same period of time. They use the same yeast, added at the just the right time. Finally, just like the major distilleries, they keep reference bottles of the finished whiskey to ensure their flavor and aroma profiles do not wander.

The Water & Mash Bill

BMD uses water in two different waters to produce their whiskey. They use a municipal water source treated to remove chlorine and soften the water for mashing. They also test for proper Ph and adjust it as necessary in order to assure a consistent fermentation. However, for gauging, or adjusting the alcohol content of the whiskey, they use reverse osmosis water. They believe, and rightfully so, using reverse osmosis water ensures the water does not affect the taste or aroma of the finished product.

Clay’s inspiration for his whiskey mash bill was his favorite whiskey, Makers Mark. After much experimentation, he settled on a mash bill of 74% white corn, 13% hard red winter wheat, and 13% malted barley. BMD sources the corn, which provides the whiskey’s sweetness, from local farmers. It arrives already ground to Clay’s specifications. They source the wheat from the northern plains, usually Montana or the Dakotas. It stays in the flavor background, allowing the sweet corn to shine through. It also arrives already ground. Sourced from suppliers located in north central US and Canada the two-row barley aids in sugar production. They grind it on site to a fine texture to maximize sugar production. The high sugar content of the mash maximizes alcohol production.

Cooking & Fermenting

The distillers cook the grains and water in a 1000-gallon mash tub. BMD uses a sweet mash  instead of the industry standard sour mash. This is consistent with most small distilleries in the US. The sour mash technique was developed and popularized in the 19th century as a quality control measure during the American distilling industry’s expansion and consolidation. Contrary to popular opinion, using sweet or sour mash does not affect the taste or aromas of the finished whiskey.

Once the cooking is complete, the distillers add a commercial dry yeast to kick off the fermentation process. Clay considers the source and type of their yeast to be a trade secret. He selected this yeast after many years of trial and error during the development process of his signature whiskey, Clayton James.

Distilling & Filtering

The Lincoln County Process

BMD distills its whiskey four times a week using a set up that includes a 1000 gallon cook tank, two fermenters, a 500-gallon Vendome pot still and a six-plate rectification column. Markeila and Halley monitor the new make as it comes off the still with a hydrometer. However, they make the cuts, heads, hearts, and tails, using taste and smell. Each 500-gallon batch yields about 50 gallons of hearts with a typical proof between 140 and 155 per batch.

BMD uses the Lincoln County Process (LCP) for its Tennessee whiskey, but not its bourbon. Their LCP is a simple gravity feed through a charcoal filter, and takes 2 to 3 days for a 275-gallon tote. Unlike others, their LCP is a closed system. The slight pressure this provides allows the new spirit to absorb some of the maple charcoal’s smoky sweetness. Once a tote of fresh make has finished the LCP process, the ladies transfer the whiskey to one of the gauging tanks. They adjust the Alcohol by Volume (ABV) as necessary to 125p, then transfer it into new oak barrels.

Barreling, Aging & Bottling

Over the years, BMD has sourced barrels of various sizes, from various cooperages. Clay has even experimented with building his own straight side barrels. At this time, they are buying industry standard 53-gallon #4 char top fill barrels. Currently, BMD stores its barrels vertically four to a pallet, usually stacked four pallets high. The warehouse now has over 1200 barrels of various products at various ages. Prior to building the ageing warehouse, BMD used shipping containers placed alongside the distillery building to age their whiskey. The whiskey experienced extreme temperature changes while the barrels were stored in these containers. This may account for the strong woody flavor the barrels imparted on some of their finished whiskey. BMD bottles their standard Tennessee whiskey at 90P in a scotch style clear bottle. BMD bottles their bourbons at cask strength in especially designed bottles and stoppers somewhat in the style of Blanton’s.

Tasting the Whiskey

First up was the distillery’s flagship product, Clayton James Tennessee whiskey. I tasted the 90P and the cask strength single barrel. I liked both, but prefer the single barrel. The 90P is, in my opinion, a better mixer than sipper. The predominant flavor, to my palate, was wood. This whiskey was not unpleasant, but I prefer something more complex. Such a wood forward whiskey dominates and overpowers any other flavors that might be present in the whiskey. The cask strength single barrel on the other hand, was very complex and a nice sipper. At 115P I anticipated lots of heat, but it was rather tame. I really liked this whiskey, and prefer it to its Tennessee cousins from the nearby mega distillers.

Borchetta Bourbon

Next up was the Borchetta Bourbon, both cask strength, 115.5P and 117.23P and both six years old. This bourbon uses the same mash bill as the Clayton James Tennessee whiskey, but does not undergo the Lincoln County Process. This whiskey is wonderful. Deep color, silky mouthfeel, delightful aromas and taste. BMD has a real winner with this whiskey. The Borchetta Bourbon inaugural release 2021 won double gold for taste and packaging.  The Borchetta family hand selects these barrels in honor of the return of the IndyCar to Nashville.  Borchetta Bourbon 2022 is their second release to celebrate the return of IndyCar to Nashville. They were the lead sponsor of both IndyCar races. This year’s hand-selected barrels contained red corn, white corn or blue corn bourbon.  Every step of this Borchetta Bourbon bottling is meticulously done by hand in their Lynnville distillery.

The last whiskeys I tasted were two experimental bourbons. One was made with red corn and the other with blue corn. Both were single barrel and cask strength, 120.6P and 119.5P. Both were very good, and I look forward to seeing them bottled.

Big Machine Gin

Lastly, but certainly not the least I tasted their two gin offerings. I am not a white liquor fan, and when Markeila offered to let me taste the gin I demurred. However, she was insistent, and so, to be polite, I agreed. A good decision. I’m glad she kept after me to try it. One was their standard unaged gin. The other was lightly aged in a used whiskey barrel, somewhat akin to a reposado tequila. Both gins use the same mix of botanicals, and as Markeila kept pulling out the little bottles of ingredients to show me I was amazed. They use a wide variety, but citrus dominates and tames the juniper. Both gins were worthy of sipping straight, but would certainly make for killer gin and tonics.

Next Visit

I am already planning a return trip. I want to bring some friends, and I want to – surprise, surprise – look into their vodka. Vodka is a my absolute least favorite liquor, but the proprietary process BMD uses to produce theirs is too intriguing to pass up. Clay designed and built his own vodka still. It looks like no still I have ever seen. Included in the set up is a three-stage filter that uses shungite stone (yes, I had to look that up) and platinum and other precious metals.

If you are planning a trip to Nashville, or to the two mega distillers in Tennessee, don’t miss making at stop at Big Machine Distillery in Lynnville. You will not be disappointed.


French Polynesia – Hawaii-Tahiti Cruise

Eurodam at Nuku Hiva

At long last, after an inordinately long delay, I finally have Part 3 of this series about our most recent cruise, a 28 day roundtrip cruise from San Diego to the Hawaiian Islands then down to French Polynesia, ready to publish. Blame of the delay rests solely on me and the travails of life. Way too much time spent in medical waiting rooms of one kind or another, to include our dog’s veterinarian. Time spent too on land trips to Chattanooga and Atlanta. Time well spent with my grandsons’ Cub Scout Pack. It’s amazing how fast time flies even when I’m retired.  So to recap, way back in March and early April we sailed on Holland America’s MS Eurodam. Part One of this story covered the first 13 days of the cruise, from San Diego to Fanning Island. Part Two covered 4 days, 2 days in Bora Bora and then a day each in Raiatea and Moorea. This third and final part covers our excursions on the last leg of the cruise from Tahiti back to San Diego.

Tahiti, French Polynesia

Day 1 Excursion: Off the Beaten Track Tahiti by 4×4

Surprisingly, our cruise line did not offer a wide variety of excursions on Tahiti. Prior to departure, we reviewed our choices, taking into consideration the number of times we were already scheduled on snorkeling trips. We decided to skip the snorkeling and see the interior of the island. In retrospect, not a good decision.

Tahiti by 4x4
Tahiti by 4×4

This four hour tour, in the back of an open pickup truck, took us from the harbor to the Papenoo Valley and back again. We spent the first and last 40 minutes of our tour careening through heavy traffic on our way through town to get to the back country. Who knew Tahiti was so developed and crowded. Once off pavement and onto the rough unpaved road the truck’s lack of comfortable springing and the hardness of the bench seats soon became painfully obvious. Eating dust from the lead vehicles wasn’t a thrill either. Compounding our disappointment were the difficulty in taking photos from the back of a crowded, bumping truck, and the dense vegetation alongside the roadway which limited the photography opportunities.

Fortunately, once in the high country we made several stops that allowed us to take some photos. Nevertheless, this wasn’t an excursion we’d recommend.

Fakarava, French Polynesia

Day 2 Excursion: Blue Lagoon Snorkeling Tour


This was our next to last stop before returning to San Diego, and our last snorkeling excursion. As we did on Bora Bora we contracted with a private provider instead of taking one of the ship’s excursions. This trip took us to two snorkeling spots, the Blue Lagoon and a coral pinnacle located in Fakarava’s main lagoon. The Blue Lagoon was pretty, but the coral pinnacle was fantastic. Our tour guide provided an on shore lunch at the Blue Lagoon, complete with iced down coconuts. We had a memorable time and this was a wonderful way to begin to wrap up of time in French Polynesia.

Nuku Hiva, French Polynesia

Day 3 Excursion: Taipivai Valley Scenic Drive

Nuku Hiva is one of the more under developed islands in French Polynesia. It also does not have any reefs to speak of, so no snorkeling. In fact, we were warned to stay out of the water due to the deep water sharks that patrol the coastline in search of a meal.

Nuku Hiva
Nuku Hiva

The only excursion offered for the island was a motor tour in one of the taxis that service the population on the island. The taxis are all private vehicles, no meters, and sometimes you get one with working AC, but mostly not. 🙂 We drew a well-worn Toyota SUV with a lovely young lady as our driver, and, of course, no AC. The tour took us up into the highlands of the island where, unfortunately, it was raining. We were able to get a few decent photos at one of the lookouts when the rain stopped for just a bit and the clouds parted. The moment did not last long. Then we rode down to the other side of the island and stopped at one of the small villages for a snacks and an opportunity to purchase some local handicrafts. Then back in the taxi for a return trip to the port. The island is beautiful, and the locals friendly and welcoming.

These three excursions were a nice way to wrap up our trip to Polynesia.

Hawaii-Tahiti 28 Day Cruise Part 2

Mount Otemanu Bora Bora

This is part two of a three part series of our recent 28 day roundtrip cruise from San Diego to the Hawaiian Islands then down to French Polynesia. We sailed on Holland America’s MS Eurodam. Part One covered the first 13 days of the cruise, from San Diego to Fanning Island. Part Two covers 4 days, 2 days in Bora Bora and then a day each in Raiatea and Moorea. The third and final part will cover the last leg of the cruise from Tahiti back to San Diego.

Bora Bora, French Polynesia

Day 1 Excursion: Motu Islet Lagoon Cruise & Beach Break

Shark Boy Boat
Shark Boy Boat

The Motu Islet Lagoon Cruise & Beach Break is a three hour tour (not on the SS Minnow) rated as moderate activity. Shark Boy excursions operates this excursion on behalf of Holland America. We tendered to the boat harbor where a representative of the excursion company directed us to their boat. The boat was a large cameraman, about 15’ by 40’, powered by two large Mercury outboards. The boat had a wide ramp in the front with steps which made it fairly easy to get into and out of the water.

Leaving the harbor we traveled through Vaitape Bay, then past Raititi Point and the islets of Motu Toopua and Motu Tapu. Along the way we saw our ship at anchor in the bay, and the island’s highest peak, Mount Otemanu. During the trip the excursion boat’s owner spoke about the island, serenaded us with local songs, and even sounded some calls on a conch shell. The weather was perfect; clear, warm, with lots of sunshine.

Our first stop was at a shallow water snorkeling spot that stingrays and Blacktip Reef Sharks frequent. The water depth varied from about waist deep to chest deep. The water was crystal clear and just cool enough to be refreshing. This experience was a blast. Almost as soon as we entered the water, numerous sharks and rays were swimming all around us. Our guides hand fed the rays, and then, after moving us away a bit, threw chum into the water for the sharks. This was my first time swimming with sharks, but not once did I feel threatened or frightened.

Our second, and last stop was at a small islet motu for a snack of local fruit and some snorkeling. The water was crystal clear, but there wasn’t much to see. We spent about 90 minutes there just relaxing and enjoying the scenery. We then returned to the boat harbor, and tendered back to the ship.

Day 2 Excursion: ¾ Day Lagoon Tour with Polynesian Feast

Patrick, our guide & the owner / operator
Patrick, our guide & the owner / operator

Long ago we learned that belonging to the online Cruise Critic community made our cruising more enjoyable and rewarding. As we prepared for this cruise, we learned that one of our fellow Cruise Critic passengers was organizing a private excursion with a company called Maohi Nui. After some due diligence we decided to take a chance on this non Holland America excursion. What a great decision! We enjoyed a five hour excursion, with three snorkeling stops, and a full lunch with complimentary drinks, all for less money than a similar Holland excursion. If you want to snorkel in Bora Bora, do not miss this excursion.

Our first stop was a deep water location that gave us plenty of opportunities to swim with the Black Tip Reef sharks. Getting into and out of the water was more challenging than the day before with Shark Boy. Instead of Shark Boy’s large boat with stairway, Maohi Nui uses small, narrow 12 person boats. Instead of stairs we had a ladder to get into and out of the water. No problems for me, but one man dropped his camera as he was clambering down the ladder. It quickly disappeared straight down 30 feet or so in the crystal clear water to the bottom. Our guides began free diving to look for it, and finally recovered it in about 15 minutes.

Our second dive stop was the same shallow water location we were at the day before with Shark Boy. Even though it was the same, it was still a blast, and I really enjoyed the closeness of the sharks and rays. Our third and last dive stop was another deep water location. No sharks or rays this time, just a reef with lots of small fish. Lots of fish. Clouds of fish. Our guides swam around feeding the fish which attracted more and more of them. One of the guides swam up to me and fed the fish inches from my face. What a rush.

With the diving complete, it was time to go to the motu for lunch. Our hosts prepared a Polynesian feast featuring roasted suckling pig, two types of grilled fish, and a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. They also provided soft drinks, beer, and wine. I opted for the local Hinano Beer, a nice lager style. Following lunch, our host Patrick, put on a demonstration of fire baton twirling. Then it was back into the boats for the return trip to the harbor. Our excursion took us all around the island allowing us to take photographs of Mount Otemanu from every angle.

Raiatea, French Polynesia

A Taste of Vanilla & Taha’a Motu Picnic

View from our Platform
View from our Platform

We met our guide, Rose, dockside for this 3 ½ hour excursion. Our boat was a large and comfortable catamaran. Leaving Raiatea behind, we steadily cruised through beautiful waters to the nearby island of Taha’a. Once ashore we walked a short distance to Vallee de la Vanille. This is one of the plantations which provide much of French Polynesia’s world famous vanilla products. Workers at the plantation described and showed us how vanilla is cultivated and prepared in French Polynesia. We were amazed to learn it takes up to three years from when they are planted to begin harvesting beans from the vines.

After our vanilla visit, we re-boarded the boat for a quick trip to a nearby motu for another beach picnic. Once ashore we quickly noticed that all of the beach chairs under shade were already taken. Then I saw a small set of stairs built into a large tree leading up to a small platform with three lounge chairs. Throwing caution aside we claimed the platform as ours. We had a fun time relaxing in the shade high atop everyone else. We also snorkeled here and enjoyed yet another lunch on the beach.

Moorea, French Polynesia

Motu Beach Picnic & Ray Feeding

Sleeping Cruzer
Nap time

Another snorkeling trip, this time with the expectation of being able to feed the stingrays. We previously fed tame stingrays in the Bahamas on another Holland America cruise. I was really looking forward to feeding the wild stingrays in French Polynesia. Alas, that was not to be. Our guide did all the feeding. Trying to get up close to see and take photos was a challenge because of boat loads of people trying to do the same thing at the same time. Nevertheless, we did get a chance to get close to the guide who then allowed us to kiss a ray. Quite a slimy experience. We also saw a few of the Black Tip Reef Sharks, but not much else at this location.

Then it was off to another motu for another beach lunch. After lunch, instead of snorkeling, I decided to take an Army nap on the bench of our table. My wife took lots of photos as I slept … of me.

Our introduction to French Polynesia was fantastic, especially the snorkeling in Bora Bora. Part three of this story, and the last part, will cover our time in Tahiti, Fakarava, and Nuku Hiva, and then back to San Diego.

Hawaii-Tahiti 28 Day Cruise Part 1

Rainbow Falls on Big Island

My wife and I were recently able to complete one of our bucket list trips. This 28 day round trip cruise from San Diego took us to the Hawaiian Islands then down to French Polynesia. We sailed on Holland America’s MS Eurodam. Due to the length of this trip I have decided to break my blog post down into three parts. Part One covers the first 13 days of the cruise, from San Diego to Hawaii, Fanning Island, and on to French Polynesia. Part Two will cover 4 days, 2 days in Bora Bora and then Raiatea and Moorea. The third and final part will cover the last leg of the cruise from Tahiti back to San Diego.

San Diego

Our flight from Atlanta to San Diego landed Friday night March 9th. When we stepped outside the terminal to hail a cab the cold air, in the mid-fifties, really surprised us. A little homework would have prepared us. We were way too focused on where we were going, and not on where we were starting. Lesson learned. We spent the night at the Marriott Courtyard Hotel Liberty Station not far from the airport. Our brief stay was comfortable and the hotel’s close proximity to the cruise terminal allowed us to sleep in the next day. If we ever cruise from San Diego again, we’ll certainly plan on staying here.

Five Day Run to Hawaii

The ship offered all kinds of activities to keep us happily occupied during the many days at sea we had on this voyage. My absolute favorite were the photography classes the ship’s photography shop offered. Our instructor, Justin, did an amazing job of teaching the many novices, especially me. I learned to compose photographs and take better portraits. My photos show a definite improvement over the course of the cruise.

Well before we left on this cruise I offered to teach an introduction to bourbon class to my fellow cruisers. Twenty-three people took me up on my offer, and the ship’s activity team provided outstanding support. I was limited to a one time shot, so I elected to cover more information than I should have. yet another lesson learned. 90 minutes was way too long. Next time, and I hope I will have a next time, I intend to break the seminar down into to multiple components, or if time is again limited I’ll keep the information pared down to the bare minimum. Nevertheless, the seminar was well received. A major plus was the opportunity to make new friends. I would often meet with some of them in the Billboard Onboard lounge for happy hour drinks.

One of my go to bourbons

I was disappointed to see that the ship’s bourbon selection was limited. My go to selections on the cruise were Knob Creek and Wild Turkey 101. Both are solid bourbons and served me well throughout the cruise. I also enjoyed the Knob Creek Rye on many occasions. In addition to whiskey, I enjoyed Margaritas and, for the first time, I tried a Bloody Mary. One of the benefits we enjoyed on this cruise was nearly unlimited drinks within a specified price range. This worked well for whiskey and mixed drinks, but our wine selection was extremely narrow. We received this benefit as a bonus for booking the cruise. Based on our experience we do not plan on purchasing one of these packages on a future cruise. We can do better buying on our own from the full range of the ship’s bars and wine list.

Touring Hawaii

Day 1 Excursion: Oahu: Explore and Taste Oahu’s North Shore

This six and a half hour tour provides an easy and informative overview of the eastern and northern sides of Oahu, the most populated island in Hawaii. Our guide, Keith, kept up a fairly constant and interesting patter throughout the trip which contributed immensely to the overall value of the excursion. In short, without Keith the trip would have been rather dull and nowhere near worth the cost. Keith picked us up dockside with a 20 person minibus which was in good repair and with sufficient seating for our small group.

Byodo Temple
Byodo Temple

Leaving the dock Keith drove us through downtown Honolulu then headed east on the H3 freeway towards Kaneohe. Our tour was scheduled for a scenic stop at the Pali lookout. Unfortunately, a recent landslide had significantly damaged the lookout so the state had closed it to repair the damage. Continuing on along Oahu’s eastern coast our first stop was the historic and interesting Valley of the Temples. We spent about an hour exploring the beautiful and scenic Byodo Temple. The temple has an impressive number of Koi fish in the ponds and streams which surround the temple. We picked up a small bag of fish food at the nearby shop. We enjoyed feeding the fish, as well as some of the many birds that inhabit the valley.

Our next stop was at a public park that offered beautiful views of Chinaman’s Hat. We had plenty of time to explore the park, snap photos, and even to dip our toes into the water. Next stop was for lunch at Tsue’s Farm for food truck fare with outdoor picnic style seating. Our choices were spicy shrimp, garlic and butter shrimp, or chicken. I opted for the spicy shrimp and my wife chose the garlic and butter shrimp. Both dishes were tasty, but challenging to eat as the shrimp were not peeled and they were liberally coated in sauce. In short, eating was an enjoyable, but messy endeavor requiring lots of napkins. Dessert was a local Hawaiian favorite, shave ice with innumerable flavor combinations. Then it was back in the van for our next stop, Haleiwa Bay.

The north shore parking area included the all important restrooms, which most of us took the opportunity to check out. Then we hoofed it across the highway to the beach. Although the highway was busy the drivers were courteous and always let us cross safely. We had the time to walk down to the beach. However, most of us stayed along the highway and snapped photos of the surfers out in the water. I must confess I also snapped a few photos of a couple of ladies in thong bikinis. All in all, it was a very scenic stop.

Then it was back in the van for a short drive to the Dole Pineapple Plantation located in the immense valley between Oahu’s two extinct volcanoes. This stop offered us the first serious opportunity for gift and souvenir shopping. The plantation offered a wide variety of pineapple themed foods and desserts.  I opted for the soft serve pineapple ice cream and was not disappointed. As much as we enjoyed this stop, the group’s consensus was that, given the high prices for everything, we would have preferred stopping at a local Wal-Mart which were reputed to have much the same souvenirs at much lower prices.

Leaving the plantation behind, we drove back to Honolulu, passing by the Army’s Schofield Barracks Hawaii installation. This brought back a flood of memories for my wife and me as we were stationed at Schofield for three years (1978-1981).

Day 2 Excursion: Big Island Tour: Volcano and a Taste of the Big Island of Hawaii

This six and a half hour tour provides a good overview of the windward side of the Big Island with the added bonus of a fairly long sightseeing stop inside Volcano National Park. Our driver, David, provided an informative running commentary along the way, keeping us entertained and engaged in the tour. David picked us up dockside with a full sized window van which was in good repair and with sufficient seating for our small group.

Our first stop was at a local coffee grower and processor, the Hilo Coffee Mill. The owner gave us a 5 minute overview of the coffee growing and roasting process then turned us loose to visit his small gift shop. In addition to having the opportunity to buy coffee and coffee themed merchandise, we were given small free samples of his coffee. Sad to say, I was not impressed with his coffee. However, to be fair, as an old Soldier, I like my coffee strong, which is not how they brewed their samples. Tasting it brought to mind a favorite cousin who we joked brewed his coffee by waving a single bean over the hot water. 

Volcano National Park
Volcanoes National Park

Our next stop was Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Our first and only previous visit was in 1979 during a short break I had during a 30 day Army training exercise. It was fun and interesting to see the park again, and to marvel at the tremendous changes the recent activity had created in the landscape. Most amazing of all was the transformation of the Halemaʻumaʻu crater. We had plenty of time at the park which allowed me to take the one and a quarter mile Ha‘akulamanu (Sulphur Banks) hike in addition to viewing the caldera. After a pit stop at the Volcano House it was back in the van to drive to our next stop; lunch.

We enjoyed a simple, but tasty lunch at Volcano Garden Arts, an eclectic art gallery located about a mile from the entrance to the park. We had plenty of time to shop and wander around the beautifully maintained grounds. After lunch it was back in the van to drive to Rainbow Falls.

This was our first time to the falls, and it was postcard picture perfect. We spent about 20 minutes at the falls. I used all that time to take a few hundred photos, putting my new found photography knowledge to good use. Our last stop was at Big Island Candies. This was a fun and tasty way to wrap up our visit to the Big Island of Hawaii. As we shopped in the storefront part of the factory we could see the workers making the candy through a large window. More importantly, employees circulated through the shop handing out free samples. I made a point of seeking out every available sample while we were there. Most of us left with more than one bag or box of goodies to enjoy on the rest of the cruise.

Fanning Island

Staying out of the rain
Staying out of the rain

Our next port of call was the tiny atoll of Fanning Island, properly known as Tabuaeran. Located in the central Pacific Ocean, it is part of the Republic Kiribati. The island only has about 13 square miles of land area, and the maximum elevation is about 3 m (10 ft) above high tide. About 2,000 people live on the island scraping out a basic subsistence living. In addition to the tourist dollars we brought, the ship donated school supplies, from Holland America as well as some of the passengers, to the children.

No shore excursions were available. Just go ashore, walk around, buy some handmade trinkets, and take photos. Unfortunately, during our time ashore it rained … a lot. A true tropical downpour. I elected to stay under cover dockside, while my wife, armed with our only umbrella, braved the mud and wind to do some shopping. Of course, just as soon as we returned to the ship to dry out the rain stopped and the sun came out in all its glory.

Crossing the Equator and International Date Line

One of the many fun activities we experienced on this voyage was the line crossing ceremony when the ship crossed over the equator. Sailors have for centuries celebrated such crossing with an initiation rite that, unfortunately, often involved extreme hazing. Luckily for us, Holland America doesn’t do any of that, at least for us passengers. Those crossing the equator at sea earn the title of Shellback. Our crossing coincided with crossing the International Dateline, which made us Golden Shellbacks. Additionally, our crossing occurred at the Vernal Equinox which added the Royal Order of the Purple Porpoise to our honors. Each passenger received a certificate, signed by the Captain, attesting to our elevation into the Royal Order of the Purple Porpoise Golden Shellback. I celebrated the occasion with a double Knob Creek Rye whiskey.

The first part of our 28 day Hawaii and Tahiti cruise was very relaxing, and we met lots of fun and interesting people. It was wonderful to see Hawaii again and renew our relationship with the islands.

Black Patch Distilling Company

Black Patch Product Line

Black Patch Distilling Company

I was privileged to pay a visit to Black Patch Distilling Company in Madison Alabama on January 9th 2019. Black Patch, owned by Clayton Hinchman and operated by his wife Leslie and stepfather Gary Cooper, opened in June 2018. The Black Patch label proudly proclaims that the distillery is owned and operated by a combat veteran. That vet is Clayton. Clayton is a graduate of the US Military Academy at West Point and an honor graduate of the Army’s prestigious Ranger School.

He was grievously wounded in Iraq while on a combat patrol. In Iraq, Clayton served with Task Force 17, also known as Task Force Ghost. The task force’s missions included finding and eliminating high value enemy personnel. Due to the secretive nature of their work their did not use standard issue Army patches . Instead, they wore only two patches, an American flag and a black patch. It was this experience which provides the inspiration for the name for the distillery.

Gary Cooper Master Distiller

Master Distiller Gary Cooper
            Master Distiller Gary Cooper

The distillery’s Master Distiller is Gary Cooper, Clayton’s stepfather. Gary, a polymer chemist with lifelong employment in the petrol-chemical industry, had for many years longed to leave that work and instead open a distillery. Clayton and his wife were able to bring that dream to fruition. Like most distilleries, Black Patch produces and sells bourbon and rye whiskeys. However, for this visit I wanted to focus on the two products that are unique to Black Patch, Órale and H.E.A.T..

Órale, currently available in Platinum, is an unaged spirit made from 100% blue agave syrup. Blue agave is challenging to work with and produces low yields of alcohol. However, Gary is quick to say that only 100% blue agave can produce the easy sipping sweet and favorable spirit that he wanted. H.E.A.T., a very different drink, is a blend of Canadian whiskey and handmade cinnamon candy. Cinnamon whiskeys are very popular today, but almost all use chemicals to work their magic. To make H.E.A.T. Gary opted for the labor intensive homemade candy recipe to avoid the plastic aftertaste that plague the other competing products.  These characteristics bring life to the distillery’s motto “our passion is on the inside of the bottle, not on the label”.

Since its founding last summer the distillery has become a popular gathering place for the locals. This popularity drove the owners to invest in a bar and a place for a food truck to park inside the building. Now, fans of Black Patch can spend some time sharing food and fun in addition to the full range of Black Patch products.

Black Patch Órale Platinum Ingredients

Órale Platinum
Órale Platinum

Gary describes Órale as an enjoyable sipping liquor, but one that also stands up well when used with a mixer. The main ingredient used to achieve this balance is 100% Blue Agave syrup sourced from Mexico, New Mexico, and Arizona. This is the same agave that is used in Mexico to produce that country’s finest Tequilas. Gary adds water sourced from Madison City municipal water department. He treats the water with a carbon filter and water softener to remove organic compounds, as well as chlorine, iron, and calcium. All of which can give the final product a funky color or taste.

To convert the sugar into alcohol, Gary uses a dry yeast especially formulated for agave syrup and yeast nutrients. This is a mixture of protein, free-form amino acids, minerals, enzymes, vitamins, and fibers that increases the yeast’s ability to convert sugar into alcohol. To boost alcohol production even further Gary adds alpha-amylase and beta-amylase to the mixture to break down complex carbohydrates and simple carbohydrates in the blue agave syrup into simple sugars to aid in the production of alcohol.

Since Órale Platinum is a bottled unaged straight off the still no barrels are used in its production. The Reposado version is aged for at least 2 months months in used bourbon or rye whiskey barrels.

Making Órale Platinum

Gary mixes 25 gallons of blue agave syrup and 240 gallons of water in his mash tank to make a batch of Órale wash. Once mixed, he heats the mixture to about 160o. He then adds the alpha-amylase and allows the mixture cook for about an hour. Next, he cools the mixture to about 140o and adds the beta-amylase into the mixture. He then allows the mixture to sit overnight in the mash tank. This ensures the complex sugars have been broken down into the simple sugars the yeast will need to produce alcohol.

The next morning he uses his transfer pump to transfer the mixture into his fermentation tank and cools the mixture to about 80o. Now he adds the yeast and yeast nutrients which will use the sugars in the mixture to produce alcohol.

Now the waiting begins. The yeast need anywhere from seven to ten days to fully convert the sugars in the mixture into alcohol. At this point fermentation activity is complete and the mixture now has an Alcohol by Volume (ABV) somewhere between 3.5% and 4.0%. Once again using his transfer pump, Gary transfers the fermented mixture into his still for its first distillation. This first distillation is called the stripping run and bypasses the column portion of the still. The spirit at this point is about 40 proof or 20% ABV. This stripping run converts the original 265 gallon batch of water and agave syrup into about 55 gallons of 40 proof alcohol.

Gary collects 4 batches together then runs the second distillation, called the spirts run. This run uses the still and the 4 plate column to produce the raw Órale distillate at about 135 proof. Gary then adds filtered water to bring the proof down to 80 for bottling. Gary reserves some of the batch which he places into used bourbon barrels for a minimum of 2 months to produce his Reposado Órale.

H.E.A.T Cinnamon Flavored Whiskey

H.E.A.T. Cinnamon Flavored Whiskey
    H.E.A.T. Cinnamon Flavored Whiskey

Sticking with the military theme of the Black Patch Distilling Company, the distillery team named this cinnamon flavored whiskey after the military’s high explosive anti-tank weaponry. Taking the military theme one step further, the label includes a graphic of a lovely lady riding a bomb that is reminiscent of the nose art that adored many World War II bombers.

H.E.A.T. starts with a base of four year old Canadian Whiskey with a mash bill of 75% corn, 20% rye, and 5% malted barley. This corn heavy whiskey provides a solid sweet base for the final product. Black Patch makes their own cinnamon candy on site to flavor the whiskey. Doing this makes a big difference in the whiskey and truly differentiates it from competitors such as Sazerac’s Fireball or Jim Beam’s Kentucky Fire.

These mainstream cinnamon whiskeys use propylene glycol to keep the oils used in making the whiskey in solution. This keeps the whiskey from looking look cloudy. The US Food and Drug Administration does consider propylene glycol safe for human consumption. However, it does add somewhat of a synthetic plastic taste to the whiskey.

H.E.A.T. is Black Patch’s biggest seller, but is not yet available in any Alabama ABC stores. You’ll need to go to the distillery or find one of the bars or non-ABC liquor stores in Alabama to buy your shot or bottle. H.E.A.T. is a great sipping whiskey for anyone what doesn’t ordinarily sip whiskey. I love sipping H.E.A.T. while I am reading a good book.

Straight to Ale (STA) Brewing and Distilling

Straight to Ale Huntsville Alabama

A Renewal Story

I had the privilege of making a visit to one of Alabama’s largest production breweries. Located in Huntsville Alabama, Straight to Ale (STA) is more than just another craft brewery. Straight to Ale operates as a brewery, a distillery, a restaurant, and an arcade occupying 45,000 square feet in Huntsville’s Campus 805. Campus 805 began life in 1951 as one of Huntsville’s public high schools. In 1967,  as the city grew, the campus transitioned into a middle school. However, once again, as the city’s needs changed, the school was closed and the property passed into private hands. Working together with the city and two anchor tenants, one of them Straight to Ale, the developer set about creating a multipurpose entertainment venue. The end result brings together not one, but two craft breweries and distilleries, Straight to Ale and Yellowhammer, with other restaurants, catering services, event venues, a public park, and even an axe throwing business, Civil Axe.

A Story of Growth

Straight to Ale began life as a home brewing operation, but shifted into the commercial world with a 500 square foot space in the old Lowe Mill, a factory given rebirth as an arts and craft center. As sales grew, the owners shifted operation to a 10,000 square foot facility on the south side of Huntsville. Eventually, the business began to outgrow that facility as well leading the owners to begin looking for the next step. That next step, taken hand in hand with the developer, was the creation of today’s location in Campus 805. This new, and much larger facility, allowed STA to grow not only in size, but to add the distillery, the restaurant, and the arcade to ensure they offered something for everyone.

One of the keys to Straight to Ale’s growth has been the evolving Federal and Alabama state laws pertaining to the craft brewing and distilling industries. Some changes, such as the tax relief provided by the recent US Tax Act of 2017, have allowed Straight to Ale to invest into their manufacturing operations, both in personnel and equipment. The elimination of Alabama laws such as the ones that prohibited onsite sales also helped fuel Straight to Ale’s growth. Nevertheless, legal barriers such as record keeping, and restrictions on onsite sales, still exist.

My guide for this visit was Kimberly, STA’s Marketing Director. She was extremely helpful in ensuring my many and detailed questions were answered, and that I had the opportunity to see everything I wanted to see at STA. Thank you again for a wonderful visit.

STA Brewery Operations

The heart and major driving force of STA is the brewery. They produce a wide variety of beers and ales, most of which is available on tap or in cans throughout Alabama. According to Bob, STA’s lead brewer, the brewery is making about 700 barrels of beer each month. Most of STA’s brewing equipment was purchased from Premier Stainless in California.

Monkeynaut India Pale Ale (IPA)

Where the Magic Happens

Monkeynaut IPA is an American IPA style beer with an alcohol by volume (ABV) of 7.25% and an International Bitterness Units (IBU) rating of 75. STA describes this beer as “citrusy, floral hop aroma, a strong malt body, and a crisp finish”. I love IPAs, especially with spicy foods, and I really enjoy this IPA. STA uses a mill system from Malt Handling LLC to mill all its source grains onsite. This allows them to pull from their silos of base malts on an as needed basis. Milling onsite helps them to produce a consistent product and facilitates the breakdown of sugars into alcohol.

STA uses a mash bill comprised of 2 row barley [] to produce Monkeynaut IPA. They add some Crystal Malt to the mash [] to add sweetness and color to the finished beer. STA uses a Centennial hop in Monkeynaut which creates a very nice balance of citrus and floral notes with the bitterness of the IPA style.

Monkeynaut IPA started from the founder’s homebrewing days and was scaled up and adjusted to match STA’s brewery equipment. This includes the choice of 75 IBUs since, according to STA, this is close to the original for this brew and is a perfect balance to the malty backbone. STA achieves this bitterness rating by adding several hop additions throughout the brew process along with a heavy doses of dry hopping. STA doesn’t use any other bittering agents in their Monkeynaut IPA.

Laika Bourbon Barrel Aged Russian Imperial Stout

According to STA this beer is a big bad Russian Imperial Stout that has lots of dark, crystal, chocolate, and flaked malts; along with a hearty amount of sweet molasses added in the boil. It is aged anywhere from 4-12months in used bourbon barrels. Laika is an adapted homebrew recipe, with an ABV of 10.1% that falls with the accepted style for stouts. I have not yet tried this beer, but it is on my have to do list for 2019.

STA Distillery Operations

STA’s still, which includes a 4 plate column, a 16 plate column and a gin basket, was purchased from Minnetonka Brewing & Equipment Company in Minnesota. They also have a small pilot still that they use to experiment with different products. The pilot still is currently being used to test producing absinthe.

Shelta Caverns Monkeynaut Whiskey

Whether its Whiskey, Gin, or Vodka, the Distilling Starts Here

When I first reached out to STA to ask if I could visit and write a blog post, I told them I wanted to focus on their Light Whiskey offering. When I asked about the mashbill for this whiskey, the answer was Monkeynaut IPA beer. My perceptive response was “Huh? Do you mean you make it from beer?” The answer was yes, and Glenn and Cade, the STA distillers, then proceeded to educate me about German beer schnapps. Turns out those crafty Germans have been turning excess or even poorly brewed beer into a distilled spirit for centuries. It is however, not something that is done today on a large scale industrial basis. In fact, it’s not something that’s done much at all. In the US only few craft operations such as STA and Arcane Distilling are turning beer into whiskey.

As we were discussing this amazing (to me) whiskey Glenn quickly poured up a small sample of the Whiskeynaut white dog for me. The aroma was incredibly floral, without any hint of the unpleasant congeners typical of white dog. Glenn explained that they distill the whiskey to 180 proof, nearly the level of vodka, thereby removing most of the non-ethanol compounds. The whiskey is distilled twice, first a stripping run using only the still, followed by a spirits run using the still and the 4 plate column. The raw whiskey goes into new oak barrels with a 3 or 4 level char at 100 to 120 proof. Oak chips are added to accelerate the aging process. Despite the high proof, the hops in the beer power through to give the distillate its wonderful floral aroma. Glenn then gave me a sample of the finished aged whiskey, which is bottled at 80 proof. Again, the wonderful floral notes were there, both in my nose and on my palate. The color was a nice pale amber reminiscent of a good scotch.

Shelta Caverns Gin

The gin uses a mash bill of 2-row barley and wheat, a dry yeast produced specifically for neutral washes, and juniper berries for flavor. The first step in making this spirit is to create a 190 proof distillate using the sixteen plate column. Fundamentally, this first run produces a spirit that could be sold as a vodka. This distillate is then diluted and redistilled through the gin basket at 100 proof which creates the characteristic gin flavor. The finished distillate is cut to 80 proof and then bottled.


Jim Beam – Behind the Beam Tour

Jim Beam Distillery

This was the third distillery tour I enjoyed on our Kentucky Thoroughbred and Bourbon Land Cruise in May 2018. The Jim Beam Behind the Beam tour costs a whopping $199.00 and lasts four hours. Because of those two factors, my wife declined to join me for this tour. The tour was a fun and educational experience and, in my opinion, well worth the time and monetary investment. It was a delight to spend time with our guide, Jennifer, the distillery’s Trade & Hospitality Manager. She ensured that everyone’s questions, and I asked many, were fully and clearly answered.

The highlight of the tour however, was the 90 minutes or so that our group of 24 spent with Master Distiller Fred Noe and his son Freddie. Both men were plain spoken, open and honest in their answers and explanations, and fun to be around. Fred Noe was especially entertaining, but did tend to use some salty language. Not an issue for an old Soldier like myself, but I can imagine some folks might be a bit put off. I highly recommend this tour for the serious bourbon enthusiast.

Jim Beam Ingredients

Jim Beam uses the famous Kentucky limestone filtered water, drawn from a nearby well, at each of its two distillery locations, for all its whiskeys. The well water is used as is for fermentation, but is demineralized for gauging or cutting the proof for barreling or bottling. Jim Beam sources its grains from multiple locations. It obtains corn from Kentucky and Indiana, rye from New England, and malted barley from North Dakota. All grains are milled on site on an as needed basis. Jim Beam uses a yeast strain, which they propagate themselves, that dates back to the 1930s. Jim Beam obtains its barrels from the Independent Stave Company. Each barrel receives a level 4 char, which requires about a 55 second burn. The barrels are not toasted before charring.

Jim Beam Product Line
The Entire Jim Beam Product Line

Jim Beam uses these ingredients to make a phenomenal number of products from the basic Jim Beam White Label to the highly regarded special “Booker” bottlings, such as the recently released Booker’s Bourbon Batch 2018-03 “Kentucky Chew”. This wide range of products helps explain the company’s dominance within the bourbon industry. There’s something for every taste and pocketbook. Between its two Kentucky distilleries, Jim Beam produces about half of all Kentucky Bourbon. Since about 90% of all bourbon produced in any given year comes from Kentucky, this means that Jim Beam is producing about 45% of the world’s bourbon. That statistic does come with an asterisk however. Jim Beam gets to claim its bourbon dominance only because the good folks at Jack Daniel’s choose not to call their fine Tennessee Whiskey a bourbon. If they did, they would be the world’s leading bourbon producer.

The Whiskey Making Process at the Plant #1

The milled grains and water drawn from the well are combined in the mash cooker. The cooked mash is then pumped into one of the plant’s 22 fermenters where the mash spends about 72 hours (3 days) to allow the yeast time to work its magic converting sugars into alcohol. Jim Beam, like almost every major bourbon producer, uses the sour mash technique, so some of the back set from an earlier distilling run is added to the fermenter along with the fresh mash. Once fermentation is complete, the mash, now called distiller’s beer, is pumped into the distillery’s column still.

The column still at the main plant in Clermont has 23 plates and stands about five stories tall. The distillate from the column still, known as low wines, comes out at 125 proof for most of the product line. Low wines for the Booker family of products comes out at 115 proof, which means more flavor and aroma compounds, good and not so good, are still in the distillate. The low wines move from the column still to a doubler that increases the distillate to 135 proof. Once again, the Booker line is handled differently and comes off at 125 proof. Plant #1 usually produces about 800 barrels per day, while the Booker Noe Plant produces about 1,100 barrels a day.

Dumping Old Overholt Rye
Dumping Old Overholt Rye

The new make is pumped into barrels and stored in one of Jim Beam’s many rickhouses. The company has more than 100 rickhouses scattered over the surrounding countryside. As of May 2018, Jim Beam has a little more than 2.2 million barrels of whiskey aging in its rickhouses. Once the aging process is complete, the barrels are returned to the distillery to be dumped. During our visit, they were dumping 3 year old Old Overholt Rye Whiskey. The whiskey is moved from the dump station to the bottling line, and then shipped out to wholesale outlets around the world.

Our tour took us to the Knob Creek Single Barrel dump station and bottling line. One person in our group had the honor of dumping a barrel, then we all moved to the bottling line. Once there we all had the opportunity to clean an empty bottle using Knob Creek left over from a prior bottling run. Also, for an additional fee, we had the opportunity to get our own personalized bottle of Knob Creek Single Barrel. I, of course, could not resist the siren call, and bought a bottle. Later, in the gift shop, I was able to get my bottle custom laser engraved, for yet another additional fee.

Tasting the Whiskey

Fred and Freddie Noe
Fred and Freddie Noe

Next stop on our tour was to Jim Beam’s oldest rickhouse, where we linked up with Fred and Freddie Noe. As I noted above, both men were a joy to be around and openly shared information with our group. As an example, one person asked how Devil’s Cut was made. I expected a marketer’s answer suitable for a TV ad. Instead, Fred Noe told us they simply add some water to the barrels after they have been dumped, and allow the water to sweat out some of the whiskey trapped in the wood. The extracted whiskey is then blended with other Jim Beam bourbon to make the final product. Once inside the rickhouse we sampled some Jim Beam straight from the barrel, using a commemorative glass that was ours to keep. Our 12 year old sample was dark, 118 proof strong, and full of flavor. Some really good stuff.

We moved from the rickhouse to the T. Jeremiah Beam Home where we ate lunch and sampled more whiskey with Fred and Freddie Noe. Here is what we sampled:

  • Basil Hayden Dark Rye – A blend of Kentucky straight rye, Canadian rye from Beam’s Alberta Distillery, and California port-style wine. Bottled at 80 proof this was tasty and very easy to drink.
  • Jim Beam Distiller’s Masterpiece – 10 year old Jim Beam finished in Pedro Ximénez sherry casks, bottled at 100 proof. I liked this one, but not enough to pay its high price to add to my bar.
  • Knob Creek Cask Strength Straight Rye – This has no age statement, but Fred Noe said it was aged for 8 years in Warehouse A. Bottled at 119 proof, it is a challenge to sip neat. It is better on the third sip than the first. It is full of flavor and would make a wicked good Old Fashioned cocktail.
  • Little Book “The Easy” Blended Straight Whiskey – the first whiskey created by Freddie Noe, it is a blend of 4 year old Jim Beam, 13 year old corn whiskey, 6 year old rye whiskey, and 6 year old malt whiskey. Freddie told us his goal was to recreate Jim Beam’s mash bill using finished whiskeys. At 120.48 proof, this really needs some ice or even some water to enjoy.

Of all the distilleries, large and small, I have visited over the years, this tour was head and shoulders the best. The tour was very informative, but the time we spent with Fred and Freddie Noe was what made the tour worth its $199 price tag. I enjoyed the experience so much that I intend to do it again sometime in the not too distant future. Assuming of course, I can convince my wife to let me spend the money.

Alaska Cruise MS Zaandam July 2018 Week 2

Booze Cruzer at Hubbard Glacier

The first week of our Alaskan cruise was a blast, but unknown to us, the best was yet to come. Week 2 was filled with spectacular scenery, an incredible diversity of wildlife, and whiskey. Lots of whiskey. All in all, a wonderful conclusion to our Alaskan cruise.

The Cruzin’

Homer Alaska

Homer Homestead
Storefront on the Homestead

This was our second visit to Homer, and for this visit we decided to do something very different from our usual wildlife watching or museum viewing. One of my wife’s favorite TV shows is Alaska the Wild Frontier, a reality series about homesteading in Alaska. We couldn’t visit the homesteads featured in the series, but Holland America did offer an excursion to another local homestead. What we learned on that homestead was very surprising, at least to me. First of all, it was very small, just 5 acres. Secondly, the family didn’t earn their living from just one activity, such as farming or ranching. Instead, they ran a number of different money making enterprises.

They raised and sold vegetables to local restaurants, farmers’ markets, and, from their own storefront, to the general public. That storefront also sold ornamental plants and gardening supplies. They also grow flowers, most of which are sold to brokers who ship them to Europe. On top of all these enterprises, their most important and largest money maker was the manufacturing of organic Alaskan gardening, potting, and planting soil. Our guide was the owner of the homestead, and he was assisted by two of his very young granddaughters.  My wife and I got a kick out of the obvious joy these two young girls displayed helping their grandfather show us their home. This wasn’t the typical Alaskan tour, however, I highly recommend it.

Kodiak Alaska

Liberty Ship Fish Packing Plant
Liberty Ship Fish Packing Plant

The weather finally caught up with us. It rained all day, mostly a hard, driving, and cold rain. We toured the small town, stopping at three small museums. The most interesting thing in town to me was the World War II Liberty ship that grounded in the harbor and was turned into a fish processing plant. The first stop was the Baranov Museum in the Erskine House, erected as a fur warehouse in the early days of Kodiak’s settlement by Russians and Americans.

Our next stop was the Alaskan Native Alutiig Center. Like the Baranov Museum, this is a very small facility, but it is packed with interesting displays and artifacts.  Out last stop was to a small military museum built inside a World War II era coastal battery. The pride the aging veterans have for this museum was very evident and warmed the heart of this aging veteran.

Hubbard Glacier

Large Ice Fall at Hubbard Glacier
Large Ice Fall at Hubbard Glacier

As our cruise ship slowly approached Hubbard Glacier the weather began to clear, though it would stay mostly overcast throughout the day. Nevertheless, visibility was very good, allowing us to take in the entire beautiful vista the glacier provides. Hubbard Glacier is nicknamed the “Galloping Glacier” because it moves quickly, often as much as 80 feet in a day. Unlike most Alaskan glaciers, it advances in warm weather and retreats in cool weather. This is because the local weather causes warm moist air to rise and drop snow onto the ice fields that feed this glacier. The glacier was calving, or dropping large ice chucks, all during our visit, making for exciting photographic opportunities.

As much as we have enjoyed viewing glaciers in Glacier Bay National Park, Tracy Arm, or Prince William Sound, Hubbard Glacier is our favorite. It’s size is overwhelming, its almost continuous calving is exciting, and its setting glorious.

Sitka Alaska

Rescued Bald Eagle at Raptor Center

We spent Day 12 in Sitka, one of Alaska’s oldest ports and one of our favorites. This was absolutely a marvelous day, filled with otters, whales, eagles and bears. The otters and whales were in the wild, the eagles and bears were at rescue centers.  The first part of our excursion was a wildlife cruise, once again aboard a comfortable Allen Marine Tours tour boat. As we cruised around the area we were treated to spectacular views of immense beauty, a wrecked tugboat, and a huge raft of otters relaxing on the surface. We also saw a humpback whale slowly feeding along the shoreline while a deer grazed nearby in the tall grass.

Back onshore, we transferred to a bus for a short ride to the Alaska Raptor Center. This was our second visit to the center, and, just like the first time, we could have spent more time here viewing and learning about the birds. Another short bus ride brought us to the Fortress of the Bear, a rescue and rehabilitation center for Alaskan bears. Built on the site of an abandoned paper mill, the center’s mission is to rescue orphaned cubs, bring them back to health and provide a long life full of enrichment. Unfortunately, it is Alaskan state policy to kill orphaned bear cubs. Since 2007 this center has recused many bears and has placed several with zoos around the country. The seven bears on site, housed in enclosures designed to replicate nature as much as possible, were fun to watch and photograph. We could have stayed and watched for hours, but, just like the raptor center, had to leave all too soon.

Victoria Canada

My Wife Took the Best Photo of the Day

We spent our last full day of this cruise in one of the loveliest Canadian cities we have ever visited. Although we had already seen numerous whales on this cruise, we choose to take yet another whale watching excursion. We made this decision with quite a bit of trepidation. Many of the reviews of this excursion cited the lack of whales. On the other hand, many reviews were positive. So, we decided to take a chance hoping we would see Orcas and were not disappointed. After a long high speed boat ride we came to the home area the Orca J pod. This is the pod which recently had the mother whale that carried its dead baby around for nearly two weeks. We did not see that whale, but we did see most of the other members of J pod.

The lesson we took away from this tour was the same one we learned in Juneau. We were there to see wild animals in their natural habitat, and they, not us, decide what we get to see. Overall, the tour was a fun and worthwhile experience that we would happily repeat in the future.

Seattle Washington

Little Balls of Death for Sale 😀

Since our flight home from Seattle wasn’t until late in the evening we took a bus and unguided walking tour of Seattle. Our first stop was the recently updated and refurbished Space Needle. The work was still underway in some areas, but the improvements, especially the glass viewing walls made for an incredible visit. Then we were off the Pike’s Market. Half the fun of this market is the people watching. Even on a Monday the place was crowded with locals and tourists. We browsed through the market, looking, but not buying, having a grand time. We stopped for lunch at an Italian deli, before heading back to the bus. Even taking the tour we arrived at the airport six hours before our flight. Fortunately, we were able to rest and relax at the USO in the airport. The staff was friendly and helpful, and the free food and drinks appreciated.

The Boozing

New BFF is on the Left

We continued to enjoy our wine package on this second week of the cruise, but I took advantage of the Zaandam’s bars to sample several whiskeys I have never had before. This sampling included a bar tender led tasting of four scotch whiskeys, none of which I had ever sampled before.

  • Highland Park Einar: It’s okay, but I’m not a fan. Just too light tasting for me.
  • Glenlivet12 Year Old: Really a disappointment. Not something I would purchase for myself.
  • Glenmorangie Original: Reminded me of an Irish Whiskey, very light without a lot of nose or taste. A disappointment.
  • Laphroaig10 Year Old: As the bar tender was setting up our glasses a passerby said “Yuck, why are you even trying that nasty stuff”. So of course, I liked  it. Almost like sipping a campfire. I have already added this to my home bar collection.

Alaska Cruising MS Zaandam July 2018 Week 1

My wife and I had the privilege of taking a 2 week cruise along the coast of Alaska aboard Holland America’s MS Zaandam in July 2018. This was our fourth Alaskan cruise, and we’re already planning on our next trip to this incredible part of the world. Seems like no matter how much we see and do, there’s still plenty more to see and do. As always, Holland America’s crew took care of us and we were very comfortable and happy on board.

The Cruzin’

Our port of departure was Seattle, WA. We arrived the day before to ensure we didn’t miss the boat due to flight delays. Our flight arrived late at night so we stayed at a hotel near the airport. We slept in a bit the next morning, then used the hotel shuttle to return to the airport where we linked up with Holland America’s transfer bus to the port. Check in with Holland America was quick and efficient as usual and we were soon on board the Zaandam. This was our first cruise on this ship, so we spent the first hour of so learning the layout, and finding our cabin. Then, time for the first of many delicious and way too filling meals on board.

Shortly after leaving the dock and heading our to sea we made our way to the main dining room where we met the two other couples and one single traveler with whom we’d be sharing most of our evening meals with for the next two weeks. We are always nervous about meeting our assigned table mates for the first time. Will we be comfortable with them, or, as has happened in the past, will we need to find other dining options in order to avoid the table. Fortunately, as is usually the case, everyone came together extremely well, as if we were old friends meeting up again after a long hiatus. We spent Day 1 of the cruise at sea on our way from Seattle to Ketchikan. This gave us an opportunity to rest and recuperate from pour long flight to Seattle from the east coast.

Ketchikan Alaska

Misty Fjord

First port of call on our recent Alaskan cruise was Ketchikan, Alaska. This was our fourth visit to Ketchikan. Nevertheless, it was easy to find a great excursion we had not yet experienced; a four and a half hour boat trip to Misty Fjords National Monument. We were blessed with perfect weather, clear and cool, and we saw lots of beautiful scenery. The sights we enjoyed on this trip included an active bald eagle’s nest, a Tlingit pictograph, and New Eddystone Rock; an immense volcanic spire rising from the emerald sea. We also saw numerous float planes overhead carrying other tourists who chose to take a short aerial tour of Misty Fjords. While I am sure they had a memorial experience we were happy with our choice. I believe we saw more scenery and animals on our trip, and had the opportunity to take many more photographs.

Our tour boat, named the Wilderness Explorer, is operated by Allen Marine Tours. Allen Marine Tours is a family-owned business, and one of the oldest tour companies in Alaska. We would enjoy their cruise tours over and over again on this cruise at different ports of call.  The Wilderness Explorer, like all of Allen’s boats, was custom built in their shipyard in Sitka. Since we would be cruising near various wild animals in the water, Allen chose to power their boats with water jets instead of propellers. Attention to details, like the water jets, were evident throughout the boat and ensured a safe and comfortable cruise tours. The crew was well trained and dealt with the passengers in a courteous manner that helped make for a wonderful tour experience.

Tracy Arm Alaska

Perfect conditions to view the glacier

After leaving Ketchikan, we cruised Tracy Arm to view Sawyer Glacier. As we sailed through the night on our way to the entrance of Tracy Arm the fog closed in reducing visibility to about 50 yards. The ship’s fog horn serenaded us every two minutes all night long. We went to bed that night fearing we would not be able to see anything but fog the next day. However, as we approached Tracy Arm, the fog lifted and we had perfect weather for the rest of the day. This was our second trip into Tracy Arm, but we were wowed just as much as we were the first time.

Sawyer Glacier carved Tracy Arm, a narrow fjord, out of the surrounding rock by the over a period of hundreds of thousands of years. Tracy Arm is about 30 miles long and culminates at the face of South Sawyer Glacier. Towering mountains and cliffs as high as 3000 feet flank the channel. The depth of the fjord is about 600 feet in many places. The Captain took advantage of the clear weather to slowly navigate the ship very close to face of the glacier, much closer than we were able to get on our first visit. Other, smaller tour boats were able to get even closer. We spent about an hour watching the glacier and did see a few piecing calving off the glacier.

Juneau Alaska

Dog Sledding on Mendenhall Glacier

This was our fourth visit to Juneau, and we spent a long day in port. So long in fact, that we had time to take two tours. We took a helicopter up to the top of Mendenhall Glacier for a dog sledding excursion in the morning. We went on a whale watching tour in the evening. The dog sledding trip was a blast, and was the highlight of the entire cruise. The helicopter trip took about 20 minutes each way and the scenery was spectacular. Soon after we arrived on the glacier, a ten dog team with guide whisked we away on a circular tour around the dog camp. The dogs were excited and love running and pulling the sled.  We had a great time and highly recommend this excursion. Absolutely unforgettable.

In the evening we boarded an Allen Marine Tour boat for whale watching. Unfortunately, the whales did not cooperate, so we didn’t see much. Nevertheless, it was an enjoyable outing, and once again, the crew was friendly and helpful. Although some folks groused about the lack of significant whale activity, we did see a few, it’s important to remember that these are wild animals in their natural element. We weren’t at Sea World.

Icy Strait Point Alaska

Look Ma; People.

Our day in Icy Strait Point was very short. We arrived at 7am and departed at 2pm. Although this was our first visit to this port of call, it has claimed a spot on the top of our list of places we’ll return to sometime in the future. We decided to split up at this port. My wife took a cooking class, and I took a combination sea and land tour. My wife enjoyed her class, especially learning about how the locals not only survive Alaskan winters, but thrive. I had an unbelievable tour, witnessing humpback whales feeding using the bubble net technique and a breach, and getting within 30 feet of a Coastal Brown Bear sow with two cubs. One thing that makes this such a wonderful port is that it’s docking facility and on shore activities are small. So small, that it cannot accept large ships of more than one ship at a time. This fact, combined with the friendly people and and diversity of available excursions makes this a do not miss Alaskan port of call.

Anchorage Alaska

What a Train Ride

We spent Day 6 of our cruise at sea sailing around the Kenai Peninsula on our way to Anchorage. Once we arrived in Anchorage on Day 7 we took the Spencer Glacier – Grandview Train excursion. It was a long ten hour day, but well worth the time and money. We left Anchorage on board the train at 9:45am. We were assigned to Car B and Seats 15 C & D. Unfortunately, this put us at the front edge of a picture window that spanned two rows. This restricted our view and often forced us to move about the cabin or out to the tiny platform between cars to take good photos.

This is a regularly scheduled Alaskan Railroad itinerary, not a special tourist excursion. As such, it makes stops to allow passengers to get on and off at several stops along the way. Some tourists don’t like the time wasted at these stops, but, for us, it’s all part of the experience. Our journey took us along the shore of the Turnagain Arm, with stops at Girdwood and Portage before traveling through the tunnel to Whittier. After a short stay in Whitter, the train retraced its route to Portage, then went to the Spencer Glacier Whistle Stop and beyond through the Placer River Valley to the Grandview stop. The scenery was fantastic and we caught quick glimpses of wildlife as we rolled along to include a moose and a black bear.

The Boozing

We purchased the 8 bottle Cellar Number 2 Wine package which lasted us for the entire two week cruise. Our favorites from the package were the Chateau Ste. Michelle Riesling and the Meiomi Pinot Noir. I purchased beer from time to time to accompany some meals, usually when we chose hamburgers for lunch. My go-to beer was the Alaskan Amber from the Alaskan Brewing Company. At one time or another while cruising Alaska I have tried all of the beers and ales from Alaskan Brewing Company, so I did not feel compelled to try anything besides the amber.

While we were in Juneau I stopped in at the Almalga Distillery and the Red Dog Saloon. The Almalga Distillery is a very small operation that makes a very nice gin using neutral grain spirits (NGS) purchased from a distillery in Anchorage. Almalga cuts the proof of the the NGS by about half, then re-distills it along with a botanical basket to make their gin. The Red Dog is an iconic saloon that dates back to the gold rush days. It serves good food and good drinks, and has a souvenir shop with a wide variety of Red Dog merchandise.

I’ll publish Week 2 of our Cruising and Boozing trip soon. Stay tuned.

Maker’s Mark – Behind the Mark Tour

Spirits safes at Maker's Mark

This was the second distillery tour we enjoyed on our Kentucky Thoroughbred and Bourbon Land Cruise in May 2018. The tour cost us $40 apiece and, unfortunately, wasn’t worth the price. I expected this would be a deep dive into the technical and production details of Marker’s Mark along the lines of the Woodford Reserve tour. Alas, it was little more than a standard consumer tour that lacked technical details and was more about marketing talking points. The only bonus was two commemorative Maker’s Mark wax dipped rock glasses. Otherwise, it was a basic consumer tour.

Maker’s Mark Ingredients

Barrel Number 1
The very first barrel of Marker’s Mark.

Maker’s Mark uses the same four basic ingredients as every other distiller, namely water, grain, yeast, and the barrels. However, unlike most other bourbons, Maker’s Mark uses wheat as their flavoring grain instead of rye. The mash bill for all Maker’s Mark bourbons is 70% corn, 16% soft red winter wheat from Peterson Farms in Kentucky, and 14% malted barley from Wisconsin. Using wheat results in a sweeter and milder final product, which many people find appealing. My father introduced me to this bourbon and it was the first bourbon I tried drinking without any ice, mixer, or water. It was immensely smooth and easy to drink and quickly became my favorite bourbon. However, over time, my preferences have evolved to more flavorful and robust choices such as Henry McKenna Single Barrel Bottled in Bond. Maker’s Mark propagates its own yeast using a strain our guide told us dated back to 1844. Once again, consistency is the driving force behind the use of this in house propagated yeast. The water source for Maker’s Mark is a nearby 10 acre lake. The water is filtered for mashing and demineralized for adjusting the whisky’s proof for barreling and bottling. Like most Kentucky distilleries, Marker’s Mark purchases its barrels from the Independent Stave Company. The white oak barrels are not toasted and are charred for about 40 seconds. This results in a char of between # 2 and # 3.

The Whiskey Making Process

The process begins with grinding then cooking the grains. All grains are ground on site to the Master Distiller’s specifications using a roll mill instead of a hammer mill. Our guide explained that the roll mill produces a more consistent ground product than the hammer will, which helps produce a more consistent final product. Product consistency is one of the hallmarks of that Maker’s Mark says sets it apart from other bourbons. Once the mash is cooked it is pumped to one of the distillery’s many fermentation tanks. Although Marker’s Mark does use 8 old fashioned cypress wood tanks, most of the mash ends up in one of its 62 modern stainless steel tanks. Like most bourbon distillers, Maker’s Mark uses the sour mash technique. So, as the cooked mash is added to the fermenting tank, some of the back-set, or sour mash, from an earlier distilling run is added. Like so many parts of the Marker’s Mark process, using the sour mash technique leads to product consistency. After fermenting for three days, the resulting distiller’s beer is pumped into one of three identical Vendome column stills.

Sampling New Make
I get to sample new make right off the pot still. Two thumbs up.

Each of these 38 foot stills contain 17 plates and produce low wine whisky at about 120 proof. The low wines from each column still are pumped to their matching Vendome pot still, also known as a doubler. The finished new make or white dog from the pot stills is about 130 proof. Generally speaking, the higher the proof the less the flavor. Distilling to 130 proof means they are keeping more of the flavors they worked so hard to create during fermentation than if they distilled up to the legal limit for bourbon of 160 proof. As the new make comes off the pot still a bit of demineralized water is added to bring the proof down to 110. This is a lower proof than many of its competitors, and means that the whisky is extracting fewer tannins from the barrel during aging. Fewer tannins means less wood flavors, and leads to the smoother, easier drinking final product for which Maker’s Mark is known. The barrels of new make are stored in the top of one of the distillery’s 7 story rickhouses where they stay for about 3 years. The distillery then rotates the barrels to the middle of bottom of the rickhouse to finish aging. Most barrels are removed from the rickhouse for bottling after aging somewhere between 5 ½ years and 6 ¾ years. Most distilleries do not rotate their barrels, preferring instead to mix barrels from various parts of different rickhouses to get to their desired flavor profile. Marker’s Mark takes this labor intensive and therefore costly approach in order to achieve that prized consistent color, taste, and aroma profile. Our last stop on the tour was the bottling line where we watched the bottles being hand dipped into Marker’s Mark signature wax.

The Tasting

Wax Dipped Rock Glasses
Wax Dipped Rock Glasses

No distillery tour is complete without a tasting. Our tasting consisted of six different samples; standard Maker’s Mark, their premium Marker’s 46, immature or green Maker’s Mark, over mature or spoiled Marker’s Mark, fresh new make, and their Mint Julip specialty drink. I was underwhelmed with both Marker’s Mark products. There is nothing wrong with them, I just have grown to enjoy bourbons with stronger taste and aroma profiles. I didn’t enjoy the immature or over mature samples and wondered why we were even presented with them. Perhaps they just wanted to get rid of some mistakes. The new make was interesting since it will one day grow up into full mature Marker’s Mark. Like it’s older and ready to drink siblings, it was smooth, but without much flavor. I was also underwhelmed by the Mint Julip, preferring to ask a friendly bartender to make one from scratch.

Overall, this was a positive tour experience and I learned quite a bit about Marker’s Mark. However, unless you really want those wax dipped glasses, I recommend the standard tour instead of the Behind the Mark tour.