I’ll have my grits n gravy right there thanks. Extra biscuits please. Coffee black. Another day another whiskey distillery all in the name of “research”. In this chapter we’re going to knock off 2.5 giants of american whiskey. Woodford Reserve, Willett and dash of Heaven Hill (i’ll explain later).
Driving through rolling green hills of Kentucky, past thoroughbred horses ain’t so bad. This place is teeming with goodvibes. As Springsteen is just wrapping up ‘baby we we're born to ruuuun….’ we pull into the carpark of Woodford Reserve.
Green sweeping lawns give way to hand laid stone walled buildings set amongst mature european trees and now we’re in Scotland. Til we hear the southern American drawl from our tour guide bringing us firmly back to Kentucky!
Woodford Reserve is a distillery steeped in history. Elijah Pepper built the original distillery and then handed it over to his son Oscar Pepper who worked with Scottish distiller James Crow to build the distillery (or part thereof) we see today hence the unmistakable Scottish vibes. This was also part of the Peppers being of Virginian decent which roughly all of which were from the British Isles. Little Scotland was bound to happen. These two guys revolutionised the whisky making in Kentucky by what some call making the process scientific. I’d call it just writing stuff down. They documented the amounts of ingredients used, the distilling process, charring of the barrels and the ageing process. All was fine and dandy til the temperance movement hit causing the ban of hard liquor but that didn’t stop these guys having one of the 6 licences to produce ‘medicial’ whiskey which could only be prescribed by your local doctor. Little surprise America was a very sick nation for what happened to be the exact length of prohibition.
Back then the distillery was also known as the Oscar Pepper distillery and produced a bunch of whiskies including “Old Crow” ala James Crow. The facility also changed hands a few times and is now owned by second time owner and whiskey juggernaut Brown-Forman. It was only in 1996 that the distillery became known as Woodford Reserve named after the county it was in - Woodford. And there you have it. The history of Woodford reserve so no need to take the tour right? Wrong. This place is epic and one of the most beautiful distilleries we’ve ever seen. They took us through to see all the usual suspects from the grain to distilling process, the heat controlled rick houses and the bottling plant. As an unexpected bonus we were thrown in with a complete distilling team visiting from Jack Daniels so a bit of whiskey geek talk did ensue. Love that stuff.
As you all know we’re car nuts too so there was no way in hell we were missing out on the other iconic product to come out of Kentucky - The Corvette! We decided to split the visits in two this time covering the NCM Motorsports Park (where they do some of the Corvette Testing) and Art’s Auto Mart which is across the road from the museum. I will save you the details of this first Corvette part til the next episode but check out the pictures!
Next up was Heaven Hill. Never heard of it? Not a hell of a lot of bourbon drinkers outside of the region have either but get this - they make Elijah Craig, Parkers Hertiage, Evan Williams, Bernheim, Larceny, Henry McKenna, Old Fitzgerald, Rittenhouse, Pikesville and Mellow Corn plus a whole raft of other spirits. Even driving into the carpark you’ll see a whole bunch of rick houses heading off into the distance and these are big buggers too.
As we rocked up towards the end of the day we ended up missing the last tour but had a quick poke around the distillery store. We ended up visiting the site another couple of times only to be met by a private event by the Governor and another time we couldn’t get a tour. Just wasn’t meant to be. No bother as one of my favorite distilleries of all time was just 1 mile up the road. Willett!! As we wound up the hill to the distillery we were greeted with beautiful rick houses on top of the mountain overlooking the Heaven Hill site. Willett is almost like a well set out whiskey village with different styles of buildings set among lush lawns. The word idyllic certainly comes to mind.
We were lucky enough to have contact with the head distiller Drew but couldn’t line up an actually face to face due to his travel schedule. Hope to catch him next time! The tour highlights here had to be that amazing still they have and the distillation process. Super interesting here as I noticed they leave the mush tuns / wash backs open allowing for natural yeasts to enter the process. This essentially will create slightly different batches and I love this. Craft whisky is not meant to be homogeneous and caused me to fall for Willett even further. Like i needed that. Needless to say it was an expensive trip to the distillery shop but who could resist. Looking forward to heading back and catching up with Drew later in the year. On a side note if you haven’t had the pleasure of trying any of the Willett products do yourself a favor…
In the next part look forward to one of the biggest players in the whiskey world a few other random bits amongst the best sandwich we’ve had this side of the equator. What I’d give to do it again. Ooo la la.