After spending a steamy afternoon wandering around the delightful Makers Mark, we agreed that we should at the very least see Jim Beam, even if time wasn’t going to allow for a tour. So, piling back into the shiny enormous Chevy Suburban, air conditioning on full Arctic mode we set off. Our journey to Makers had taken us down winding country roads wide enough for only our truck, this rattled our American companions but being British we were used to this sort of driving, it felt like home. The road to Jim Beam was a different route entirely, typical American highways, the landscape dotted with brick red barns and miles of yellow corn.
Our stop at Jim Beam was short, we pulled up to the monolithic like main building, charcoal grey against an azure summer sky. Painted on the front of the building the familiar Jim Beam logo, but behind, washed out in white reads “James Beam Distilling Co.” harking back to long gone times, I suspect this may be touched up now and then to retain the effect but there is history here no doubt about that. Outside the souvenir shop is a statue of Jim himself welcoming you in.
The plot of land Beam occupies is bigger than Makers, that is to be expected their output globally is far bigger. The lawns roll up and down hill with roadways leading to enormous warehouse buildings which clearly are needed to meet the incredible world wide demand.
One of the strange things we spotted while driving through Jim Beam was the jet black trees. This may seem trivial, but to see them was just plain weird, the trunks of the trees looked pitch black, as though they had been scorched where they stood, yet they were leafy and healthy. A mystery that would be solved by our tour guide the next day at Buffalo Trace.
If the first day of our Bourbon Trail seemed hot, then day two was about to teach us a lesson in how hot Kentucky can get, by now the air conditioning in the Suburban was my best friend, the only place in America where I could get some respite from this atrocious heat. We pulled into the car park for Buffalo Trace around mid morning, the concrete acting like a solar mirror, blinding sun from all angles and heat every which way.
We congregate in the main building, this is where our tour would start and end. Buffalo kindly offer the tour for free, including tasting at the end. Don’t think that because the tour is free it will be lacklustre or that the tasting will be miserly, far from it, the tour is rich in information, slick, and interactive, the tasting is generous and casual. Walking from building to building we see a huge amount of the distillery, our first stop was an old firehouse converted to house a large projection screen and a few fancy visual props. Here we learn Buffalo Trace’s history, the pilgrims that settled nearby, the story of Blanton’s and of course as it is America, the odd overlay of a billowing star spangled banner or two.
As we moved around the site the heat pounded us at any opportunity, so every building visit was greatly welcome, in particular i was looking forward to the Blanton’s bottling house. A small building surrounded by giant barrel stores. Inside there are two main conveyors each lined with a dozen or two people taking Blanton’s from vat to box, the bottles are filled by someone at one end, they then pass down the line, the signature horse rider cork is added and wax sealed, the neck label added, the body label with its vat details on, it’s then bagged and boxed and packed at the end of the line.
The room is swimming with the smell of alcohol, it’s overpowering. I don’t know how long the production line workers spend in here but I can just about manage the ten minutes we are in there, overpowering alcohol and shade or blistering heat and clean air? The clean air is welcoming but the heat is relentless as we work our way around the rest of the tour. We end our visit where we started, back in the visitors centre, and time again for tasting. As I mentioned the good people of Buffalo Trace are not shy when it comes to pouring here we had the option to sample various drinks from the Buffalo trace stables, Vodka, Buffalo’s White Dog unaged whisky, Eagle Rare and Buffalo Cream. I skipped the vodka simply because the demand from everyone else was so high and I was there to focus on the bourbon after all.
The White Dog, similar to Makers White, unaged, straight from the still, essentially moonshine. Raw, rough, sweet from corn, oily it covers your mouth leaving the corn sweetness behind. It’s not unpleasant, it’s not as smooth as Makers White somehow but it’s not bad. Next was Eagle Rare, this was smooth and tasted of cinder toffee the contrast between the White Dog and this was massive. Finally we tried the Buffalo Cream, Buffalo’s answer to Baileys’, a bourbon cream liqueur. It was easily as good as Bailey’s, smooth rich creamy and loaded with chocolatey flavours, they recommend pairing it with root beer, which at the tasting I understood, the flavours work well together, I like root beer not everyone in the UK will make the connection however and I feel this would be better placed as a Christmas drink, much like its Irish competitor.
With that our Bourbon Trail was drawing to a close, as ever just time to make a quick dash around the souvenir shop to pick up a few gifts for the folks back home and then back on the road, the long drive back to Ohio through an enormous proper mid west storm, countless stops to fill up on unnecessary sugary snacks and cheap soda drinks and world war three between two six year old identical twins over whose feet should go where. As for the black trees? Mold, apparently its as simple as that, something to do with the distilling process creates a mold that attaches to the tree trunks, interestingly it was one of the ways police in the prohibition days used to catch moonshiners in the Kentucky hills.