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.


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.

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.

Woodford Reserve Distillery – Corn to Cork Tour

Corn to Cork Tour

The Booze Cruzer at the Woodford Reserve Distillery
The Booze Cruzer at the Woodford Reserve Distillery

As I mentioned in my Kentucky trip overview post a few weeks ago, I paid $30 for the two hour Woodford Reserve Corn to Cork Tour and tasting. The tour was definitely worth the $30 and I highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in making whiskey. Our guide, a young woman named Stacy, was extremely well versed in the details of the distillery and its operation. She was able to answer all but one question which made this tour the most informative tour of all the tours we enjoyed on this trip.

The only question she left unanswered concerned the production split between the Woodford Reserve Versailles facility and the Brown-Forman distillery in Louisville. In case you were not already aware, much of the distillate that ends up in a Woodford Reserve bottle comes from the Louisville facility. The details of that production split appear to be a closely guarded corporate secret. Also, while the Versailles facility uses cypress fermentation tanks and copper pot stills, the Brown Forman Louisville facility uses stainless steel tanks and a column still.

The Ingredients for Woodford Reserve

The four essential ingredients for any whiskey are the water, the mash bill, the yeast, and the barrels. The Versailles facility uses filtered well water for distilling. This allows the master distiller to take advantage of the minerals in Kentucky’s famous limestone filtered water during fermenting. Later, when it’s time to dump the whiskey from the barrels and bottle it, Woodford Reserve uses purified water from a reverse osmosis machine to cut the whiskey to the desired bottle proof. Using this demineralized water ensures the water doesn’t affect the whiskey’s flavor or aroma profiles.

The Versailles facility uses three primary mash bills; one for bourbon, one for rye whiskey, and, one for their newest product, malt whiskey. The bourbon mash bill consists of 72% corn from a single source in Kentucky, 18% rye from suppliers located in northwest United States, and 10% malted barley also sourced from northwest US. This very high corn mash bill tends to result in a sweeter final product than bourbon with mash bills with a higher rye content such as Jim Beam Old Granddad Bourbon at 63% corn and 27% rye. The rye mash bill, at 53% rye from northwest US, 33% corn from Kentucky, and 14% malted barley from the northwest US produces a very bourbon like rye whiskey. Woodford Reserve’s newest major product is its Straight Malt Whiskey with a mash bill of 51% malted barley from northwest US, 47% Kentucky corn and 2% rye from northwest US.

Woodford Reserve propagates its own jug yeast at the Versailles facility. This yeast, which dates to 1929, is used to obtain their desired fruit and floral flavor profile. The Versailles facility receives one teaspoon of frozen stock from Brown-Forman every 3 months to ensure consistency. During the Corn to Cork Tour we were allowed into the Quality Control room and shown how they propagate the yeast. All Woodford Reserve barrels are produced at the Brown-Foreman Louisville Kentucky cooperage. The barrels are toasted before receiving a medium char.

The Whiskey Making Process at the Versailles Facility

The grain is cooked in the mash tun

All grains received at the Versailles facility are ground on site using a hammermill. The ground grains, along with well water and some of the backset from a previous distilling run, are added to the mash tun for cooking. Adding the backset, known as the sour mash technique, helps maintain the Ph of the water, adds nutrients beneficial to fermentation, and reduces water and utility costs. Once cooked, the mash is pumped into one of their 7500 gallon cypress fermentation tanks. The yeast is added and the mash is allowed to ferment for up to seven days. While Woodford Reserve’s marketing highlights the importance of the cypress to their whiskey, it is important to not lose sight of the fact that much of the Woodford Reserve product is distilled in the Louisville facility where stainless steel fermentation tanks are used. The cypress tanks have coiled steel tubes running along the inside to cool the fermenting mash to a temperature of about 85o. The folks at Woodford Reserve believe the longer fermenting duration, most distillers use three days, results in a more flavorful final product. The fermentation tanks are steam cleaned after every batch. Once fermentation is complete, the fermented mash, called distiller’s beer, is pumped to the beer well and it’s time to start distilling.

The mash is triple distilled using the three gorgeous copper pot stills. The first, called the beer still, produces a distillate at about 30 proof. As the alcohol vapor condenses it moves into a holding tank. Once a batch is ready in the holding tank, the distillate is pumped into the high wine still which raises the distillate up to about 100 proof. Some cuts are made as the distillate comes off the high wine still, but most of it is passed along to spirits still. The spirits still produces distillate at about 158 proof, which is quite high for bourbon. Most other distillers go no higher than 140 proof. Woodford Reserve cuts out most heads and cuts deeply into the tails, focusing on the hearts to give the final product its strong fruit and floral notes. The heads and tails are recycled into the next batch run to ensure the distillery extracts as much usable alcohol from each fermented batch of mash.

The finished distillate is pumped to the gauging tank where water is added to bring the proof of the product to the desired strength for barreling. The barrels of raw whiskey, whether from the Versailles or Louisville facility, are stored in Woodford Reserve’s rickhouses. Unlike most distilleries, Woodford Reserve uses steam to heat the rickhouses in cycles during winter to improve maturation. After the whiskey has aged sufficiently, the barrels are brought to the bottling line where they are dumped and the whiskey placed into a batching tank. The number of barrels, and whether they originated at the Versailles or Louisville facility, is managed by the distillery to achieve a consistent product that meets their standards. A typical batch contains between 120 to 140 barrels. The whiskey is chill filtered to remove compounds which can cause the whiskey to become cloudy during storage and transportation.

The Tasting

After the Corn to Cork tour was complete we returned to the visitor center to taste three Woodford Reserve products; Woodford Reserve Bourbon, Woodford Reserve Double Oaked Bourbon, and Woodford Reserve Straight Rye. I was underwhelmed with the bourbon and rye, but absolutely loved the Double Oaked Bourbon.

This was a fantastic tour experience, due in large part to our guide Stacy’s deep and broad knowledge of the distillery. I highly recommend taking this tour instead of the standard consumer tour. It’s well worth the $30 fee.

Kentucky Thoroughbred and Bourbon Land Cruise May 2018


This was my third trip to visit Kentucky, and was significantly more fun than my first two. My first, in the summer of 1974 for six weeks, was to Fort Knox. I was 17 and at the mercy of two Army Drill Sergeants. The second, in the summer of 1992 and also to Fort Knox for six weeks, was much better since I was older and a Major, but still not a fun time. They say the third time is the charm, and, for me, this trip on the Bourbon Trail certainly was.

My wife and I have traveled extensively throughout the United States, and quite a bit around the world. Kentucky is, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful places we have been, filled with friendly and welcoming people. To say we had a great time is an understatement. While there we toured several horse and bourbon venues. The horses for my wife, the bourbon for me. We both enjoyed everywhere we toured. We are already planning a return visit in the not too distant future.

Horsing Around

Our base of operations for all but two nights was the Kentucky Horse Park Campground. This is a wonderful, well run facility, with 260 RV campsites. However, these sites only have power and water hook-ups. None have a sewer hook-up, so plan accordingly. They also offer RV sites with no hook-ups and primitive sites for tent campers. Campground amenities include a store, pool, bathhouses, and laundry. Everything was neat and clean, and even over the Memorial Day weekend, quiet at night.

Kentucky Horse Park

Statute of Man o' War at the Kentucky Horse Park
Statute of Man o’ War at the Kentucky Horse Park

We spent two days touring the Kentucky Horse Park (KHP), and could have spent more time there. In short, the KHP is Disneyland for horse people. The Parade of Breeds, offered twice a day, showcases various breeds from around the world. We were introduced to many breeds we had never seen before, including the Marwari. At the Hall of Champions show, also offered twice a day, we got up close and personal with retired champions such as Thoroughbreds Funny Cide, and Go for Gin, American Quarter Horse Be A Bono, Standardbred Trotter Mr. Muscleman, and Standardbred Pacers Staying Together, Won The West. We learned about draft horses and their harness at the Big Barn, and saw how Mounted Police train and operate at the Mounted Police Demonstration. We also toured the Saddlebred Museum and stopped at the numerous Memorials and Statues throughout the Park such as Man o’ War. Saturday night we watched Kentucky Spring Classic, FEI Open Jumper show, which brought in top tier competitors from around the world. The highlight however, was the International Museum of the Horse. We spent hours inside this well done museum, and could have spent even more time there. Going back is definitely on our to-do list.

Churchill Downs and Keeneland Race Tracks

Churchill Downs
Churchill Downs

No trip to Kentucky is complete without visiting at least one of these two magnificent thoroughbred racing venues, so we did both. We toured Churchill Downs visiting the paddock area and going trackside, and toured the Kentucky Derby Museum. Both are well worth the money. Keeneland wasn’t open for racing during our visits, but we were able to drive around the property and snap a few photos of this beautiful facility.

On the Bourbon Trail

Seeing and learning more about horses was wonderful, but the reason the Booze Cruzer was in Kentucky was … BOURBON. First stop, Moonshine University, yes gentle reader, there really is a Moonshine University.

Moonshine University – Executive Bourbon Steward Course

The Pot Still at Moonshine University
The Pot Still at Moonshine University

The the Executive Bourbon Steward Course is offered under the auspices of the Stave and Thief Society and in partnership with the Kentucky Distillers Association. This is an all-day course consisting of classroom instruction and hands-on opportunities in the university’s working distillery. As soon as I returned to our hotel room after class was over my wife asked me if I had a good time – yes I did – and if the day was worth the $500 tuition – yes it was. Yes, it was expensive, but I learned so much, and I’m sure the other 22 students did as well. The day’s coursework covered a deep dive into the Stave and Thief Society’s bourbon body of knowledge, the basics of distilling whiskey, and sensory training. I’ll provide many more details in future blog post.

Woodford Reserve Distillery – Corn to Cork Tour

Our guide, Stacy, shows us the deep color of Woodford Reserve straight from the barrel
Our guide, Stacy, shows us the deep color of Woodford Reserve straight from the barrel

I took the $30 Corn to Cork tour at Woodford Reserve. This was a very informative two hour tour that culminated in a tasting session back at the Visitor Center. This was without a doubt the most information filled tour of all the tours I took on this trip. The three gorgeous copper pot stills in the old stone still house are an impressive sight. Our guide, Stacy, was extremely knowledgeable and able to answer almost any technical or production question I posed. The only question she left unanswered concerned the production split between the Woodford Reserve Versailles facility and the Brown-Forman distillery in Louisville. In case you were not already aware, most of the distillate that ends up in a Woodford Reserve bottle comes from the Louisville facility. The highlight of the tour for me was the tasting since I had never sampled any Woodford Reserve product. I wasn’t overly impressed by the standard Woodford Reserve Bourbon, or their Rye whiskey. However, the Double Oaked Woodford Reserve Bourbon blew my socks off. Even my wife, who normally shuns whiskey, liked the Double Oaked. I’ll provide many more details on this tour in future blog post.

Maker’s Mark – Behind the Mark Tour

Maker's Mark Spirits Safes
Maker’s Mark Spirits Safes

At Maker’s Mark I opted for the $40 Beyond the Mark tour. 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. The highlight of the trip was tasting fresh off the still new make aka white dog from a dipper that the tour guide passed around. I’ll be providing more details on this tour in future blog post.

Jim Beam – Behind the Beam Tour

Fred Noe Speaks to our Group
Fred Noe Speaks to our Group

This tour is only offered a few time each year, and at $199 per person is downright expensive. However, Fred Noe the Master Distiller himself and his son and heir apparent Freddie Noe, spent about 2 1/2 hours with our group. The tour of the distillery, conducted by Jessica, the Trade and Hospitality Manager, was informative and extremely well done. Fred and Freddie Noe joined the group at the rickhouse. Both were down to earth, plain spoken, willing to share personal and business stories, and just plain fun to be around. Each guest on the tour came away with a bottle of bourbon signed by Fred and Freddie, and some of us purchased a second bottle which was also signed.

I learned a lot about the distillery, their product line, and their family. Really a great visit and well worth the money. I’ll be providing more details on this tour in future blog post.

Wild Turkey – Standard Consumer Tour

Master Distiller Jimmy Russell signs my bottle of Rare Breed
Master Distiller Jimmy Russell signs my bottle of Rare Breed

I hadn’t planned on touring Wild Turkey, but it was on our way home from touring historic Fort Boonesborough State Park, and we still had time to catch the last tour of the day. This tour is free for military, a nice touch that I really appreciated. The tour is your usual basic consumer tour, i.e., herd the tourists along from point to point, imparting marketing gems at each stop, with samples of three products at the end. No complaints, this tour achieves what it ought to do. The surprise bonus was the opportunity to meet Jimmy Russell, the Master Distiller, in the visitor center where he was signing bottles. Jimmy was accommodating to everyone who came to him with a bottle, signing and posing for photos. He seemed the genuinely enjoy interacting with everyone.

Buffalo Trace Distillery

Some of the many Buffalo Trace Products
Some of the many Buffalo Trace Products

Like Wild Turkey, this was a last minute addition to our itinerary, and we took the basic consumer tour. Buffalo Trace offers all of its tours free of charge, which combined with touring on a Saturday meant the place was packed with tourists eager to see the distillery and taste their products. We waited almost an hour after getting our tickets before our tour started. Our tasting was limited to two of the four products they offered, and was a cattle call at the bar affair. Not my cup of tea, or glass of bourbon, but the tour achieves what it ought to do, and the price cannot be beat.