Monday, April 7th was a very busy day at the ADI conference. We loaded up on buses at 8 am from the Seelbach Hotel and headed out into the country. I'm going to break this day up into two posts, so as to avoid a (bigger) monster post.
First stop: Vendome Copper & Brass
I've been to Vendome before, so I mostly hung out by the coffee. Here are a couple of photos, one from this trip and one from the last time I was there. The people at Vendome are always very gracious when we come for tours. However, when we had tried to contact them about our still a few years ago, no one would get back to us. Right or wrong, we got the impression that they were so tied up with the big bourbon distilleries in the area that our project was too small.
Second Stop: Independent Stave Company
If you've never been inside a cooperage, you are missing out. I've been to two now, and they were similar, but actually more different than I expected. This year, we went to Independent Stave's cooperage in Lebanon, KY. Unfortunately, they did not allow photographs within the cooperage, so all I've got is a couple of shots from the outside and in the cafeteria (where we had a nice box lunch, thanks to ISC).
These places are very loud (they pass out ear & eye protection before you go in). New American oak logs (mostly from Missouri) are cut, and then laid on pallets to season in the sun for a few months. Then they are dried to 10-11% moisture levels in dryers and gigantic kilns. Each board is sanded, filed and shaped by one of their employees using a large sander/cutting machine. Some boards are made into barrel heads, and they have a separate production line for heads. A cooper chooses the staves (the individual boards that go into the barrel) for each barrel and lays them in place by hand. Machines then drop on the first rings, and the barrels continue on their journey.
Future steps involve steaming the barrels to make the pliable enough to shape and force on the other rings. The barrels are then dried, and heads are added. Final step - test for leaks. Interestingly, they had about a 25% failure rate at Independent Stave, and a separate line of folks who take those barrels apart to fix them. The guys in these jobs are tough, its hard work.
Just for fun, here are a couple shots from the Bluegrass Cooperage, which we toured a couple of years ago - they let us take pictures inside.
Third Stop: Makers Mark Distillery
Makers Mark has a beautiful campus and facility in Loretto, KY, and they do a great job of conveying their story to consumers who come to visit. However, a few things about my experience there were not what I expected. We were given the exact same tour as other (non-industry) visitors, which means we got a very basic lesson in fermentation and distillation that most of us didn't need or want, plus a whole lot of marketing.
If I had counted the number of times our tour guide had used the phrase "quality bourbon" or "we only make a quality product," I think I would have used all my fingers & toes, and maybe someone else's. She also called us "you people" a lot, which for some reason irritated me (I sometimes am amused when things like that actually bug me, not sure why).
Finally, at the end of our tour, we were led through one of the rickhouses, through a door that led directly to the gift shop. All of a sudden, I thought I was at Disneyland or something.
I think the experience would probably be great for the general Makers Mark consumer, but I was annoyed. I did enjoy the tasting, however, and one of their distillers joined us then.
Final Stop on the Tour: Heaven Hill Distillery
We drove onward to Heaven Hill in Bardstown, KY. They were ready for us, with some great snacks and several mini-tour options (rickhouses, barrel filling ,etc.). They don't actually distill anything at their facility in Bardstown - apparently the still and its building burned down awhile back and they now do their distilling in Louisville. Spirits are trucked in for barreling and aging in Bardstown. There are many rickhouses, as well as a big visitors center and other facilities.
We got to meet Parker Beam, who guided us in a tasting of the Evan Williams Single Barrel and Bernheim's Wheat Whiskey. He was gracious and answered our many questions about how they make their products.
Unfortunately I missed out on the tour of a rickhouse somehow, but I did get to see the area where they fill barrels.
It was a great day of tours, and we headed back to the Seelbach Hotel in Louisville for a free night. More about that in my next post!