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What makes great bourbon. August 17, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
Tags: , , , , , , ,

What do great caves and great bourbon have in common?

Give up? It’s limestone-filtered water.

Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood just got back from a road trip from Pennsylvania through Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, and back through Maryland and West Virginia to Hawk’s Haven, our cottage home in scenic PA. This is on the whole a beautiful route, with lots of mountains and lots of water. But not all the water was beautiful, to say the least. In many of these states, it resembled red sludge.

Not so in Kentucky’s bluegrass country, home to our friend Ben’s maternal Simms family, to thoroughbred race horses, and to bourbon. And also home to many wonderful caves, the most majestic being Mammoth Cave. As a child, our friend Ben spent many happy hours touring the caves, oohing and aahing at the giant stalactites and stalagmites, and stopping at roadside stands to buy smaller versions for my rock collection. (A practice now strictly forbidden.)

But it never would have occurred to me that the action of water on limestone that created the great caves of Kentucky would also have made it possible to produce bourbon, America’s only native spirit. True, the streams Silence and I saw on this part of our trip were crystal-clear. But it was only while viewing the excellent and informative displays at Bardstown’s Bourbon Heritage Center that I finally made the connection. (Thank you, Heaven Hill, for a truly marvelous museum.)

As the label on my prized bottle of Wathen’s Single Barrel Straight Bourbon Whiskey explains, “Pristine water, naturally filtered through Kentucky’s underground limestone deposits, is used exclusively in the 100% copper distilling process. The finest cereal grains—corn, rye, and malted barley—are selected, milled and proportioned to exacting standards to produce a mash that awaits the magic of the fermentation process. The Medley family yeast, a zealously guarded secret handed down through eight generations, is then added to the mash. After double distilling, the whiskey is then stored in the finest charred new white oak barrels and allowed to age unhurried to its peak of flavor.” (The charred barrels are what give bourbon its distinctive caramel color.)

Lest one wonder about the “eight generations” claim, a geneaology of the Wathen and Medley families dating back to the 1720s is thoughtfully provided on the label. Our friend Ben, a Wathen relative whose Kentucky ancestry also dates back to the 1700s, can only approve.

But I digress. Caves, bourbon, beautiful horses: Kentucky’s bluegrass region has it all. Next time you plan a trip that takes you within driving distance of Bardstown, make a point of stopping. Head to the Bourbon Heritage Center for a free tour and tasting (you’ll learn about the different types of bourbon and get our friend Ben’s favorite treat, a chocolate-coated bourbon ball, yum).

Then enjoy lunch or supper at the historic Talbott Tavern, where you might share a table with the ghosts of Lewis and Clark, John James Audubon, Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Jackson, King Louis Philippe of France, or many another luminary who stayed and ate there. Try their scrumptious fried green tomatoes and two of Kentucky’s signature dishes, burgoo (a type of stew) and hot brown (a turkey and cheese dish). Not to mention chess pie for dessert.

The Talbott Tavern has an extensive bourbon selection, including flights, where you can try three bourbons of your choice and compare them. And while you’re in the area, you might want to try the water.



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