Weller, Weller such a dapper fella...of a whiskey that is. It’s no secret among my friends that one of my favourite bourbon companies is Weller. They're kinda like the Star Wars of whiskey. It’s very hard for them to put a foot wrong. Granted, Episode 1 wasn’t amazeballs amazeballs. Just amazeballs but amazeballs is amazeballs in any language. Well, maybe just in English slang. Enough nonsense.
Located just outside of the industrial outskirts of Louisville, Kentucky, Stitzel-Weller Distillery (the full name) sits among green grass and rather imposing, dark, rusty rickhouses. It's famous for Weller (formerly, but we’ll get to that), Pappy Van Winkle, Bulleit and now Blade and Bow. Yes, you probably only saw Ol’ Pappy in that sentence. Unfortunately for you, I’ll be telling you a few home truths about that famous dram on par with spilling the beans on Santa Claus. It’s real if you believe. ;)
Parking the dirty Challenger after the multitude of km’s covered, we had to hustle to make our tour. The excitement was immense as we caught up to the tour starting as we walked in the door. The tour guide was absolutely hilarious. At this stage, we’d heard all the rules of bourbon/whiskey making a million times but this delivery was epic. Also worth noting was that Gil Bouhana - national ambassador of Virgil Kaine whiskey - joined us for this leg of the tour. We covered the stills - yet again Vendome - and then went into those towering, dark rickhouses. Here is where the tour guide dropped some golden information about the wonderful Weller and Pappy Van Winkle Bourbons. Get this...the difference between these two bourbons is simply the location in the rickhouse.
Firstly, for you whiskey newbies - rickhouses are the store houses where the bourbon is aged. Just about all are multi-leveled (with the exception of Four Roses as far as we know). The barrels at the top have greater evaporation rates due to the higher temperatures; therefore they’re ‘hotter’ or come out at a higher proof. The barrels near the walls are more affected by the radiant heat of the sun. The way the distiller would select between Weller and Pappy was an "X" pattern. The barrels in the centre of the rickhouse vertically, horizontally and depth-wise are the magical Pappy barrels. Everything else is Weller. I know what I’d be buying and drinking.
In actual fact, Weller is no longer made at Stitzel-Weller and is now made at Buffalo Trace due to the distillery closing down in 1992. They maintained the same procedures and processes, maintaining the original taste and smell. Rightly so.
At the end of the tour, we finished with a tasting but it was strangely of Bulleit. I enjoy Bulleit like the next bloke, but I’m guessing a lot of people don’t come out to the distillery just to have Bulleit. I assume it’s because the good stuff is in short supply, but hey, it had to be one of the most hilarious tours I’ve been on for sure.
Next cab off the rank was Michter's located under ten minutes away. Reality check. These are pretty much the greatest hits of whiskey for me. I adore Michter's whiskey. Partly for the whiskey and partly for the great staff; namely Nate Woodruff now of @whiskywithaview fame. It’s amazing how these extraneous factors affect the taste of whiskey. It’s happened to me time and time again. A wee sorta magic. I welcome these connections between emotion and the senses in the brain.
“Michter's don’t do tours,” said the girl at reception in the kindest way possible. Seeing a little light disappear from my eyes she said, “wait here”. She returned a few minutes later with a Michter's cap and the Production Manager. We were both surprised he was in his late 20’s but looks can be deceiving. We sat and had a wee chat then he took us to his chocolate factory otherwise known as the whiskey testing lab. There, we put the glass through its paces with some unreleased Michter's whiskey and he was sold. We were chuffed. Hopefully, it wasn’t too obvious on our faces. We chatted a little more about the technicalities of whiskey and then the visit was over. He had to get back to work and so our wee little tour of Michter's was over. Next stop: ribs. For the 114th time.
Fast forward to the next day beyond the meat sweats and we were in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Not heard of it? It’s a golden part of the world that’s on the rise; home to chilled people that optimise the notion of Southern hospitality. It's a great part of the world and therefore wonderful for whiskey. Enter the Chattanooga whiskey distillery. The new kid on the block. Well, kinda.
They have been in existence since 1816 but only started distilling their own stuff in 2015. We’ll see how that turns out but, for now, the stuff from the external producer (MGP), which they age themselves, was pretty good. Such has been the success of their MGP releases since the overturning of the prohibition law making it illegal to distill whiskey in Chattanooga in 2013, that the distillery has already had to expand to larger premises without even a drop of their own whiskey being released as yet! We got to try three expressions and a couple of cocktails in the bar of the experimental distillery which was formerly the actual distillery.
The tour was pretty brief showing us their wee experimental still and aging of a few barrels under the premises. We had a great chat with the staff there; all pretty excited about the future of whiskey in Chattanooga. We were too.
From here Liely and I had one more day with our beloved Challenger before we set off into a true western movie setting sun a couple of kilos heavier, our heads full of knowledge and a heart full of memories en-route to Nashville Airport. We’ve found the American Whiskey scene to more than we could have ever imagined. The stories and the people are part of the cultural fabric of the two states of Kentucky and Tennessee. The massive expansion of some of these distilleries is eye-opening and somewhat exciting, although part of me will miss the romantic notion that my whiskey was made by some old man with his little copper still, using river water and grain from a field out the back. These days are long gone and although the craft remains in an industrial form, my little head-scene does not. We certainly hope, with the worldwide booming interest in American Whiskey, that the deep-rooted, warm Southern culture remains.
That brings us to the last part of the American Whiskey Road Trip (teary). Look forward to the results of our trip in the next year. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge.
Signing off - Denver and Liely