Now I’ve had my fair share of really cool experiences in my life, but I have to say that taking a private tour of Buffalo Trace Distillery and then sampling bourbon out of the barrel to choose the contents of a soon-to-be very sought after bottle of Blanton’s ranks right up there with the coolest.
Despite growing up in in the heart of Kentucky bourbon country, I can’t say that I’ve always been a big bourbon guy. In fact, in college and medical school I tried a few sips a few times, and I really couldn’t stand the stuff. Besides, like many other people of Asian descent, I lack an enzyme that helps break down alcohol, leading to a red face after a few ounces of booze, followed by a headache and a quick slumber if I drink even a little too much. I’ll get sick and pass out before I can drink enough to cause me to feel bad the next day, so I’ve never actually had a hangover. On a trip to Ireland 20 years ago, I discovered that whiskey didn’t affect me as adversely as other spirits. A couple of Jamesons and a Tullamore Dew down the hatch, and I was surprisingly energized. Rather than falling asleep, I was the life of the party. Over the years, I’ve actually developed a taste for whiskey, and more specifically, a love of bourbon whiskey, most of which is distilled right here in my home state of Kentucky.
And as a bourbon aficionado, I’ve been blessed to be a partner in Medicinal Whiskey Charity, which has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for hospitals and clinics by selecting prime single barrels of bourbon and then raising funds by selling, auctioning or raffling off the subsequent bottles. A recent collaboration with Jim Beam and a once in a lifetime single barrel of Booker’s netted over $350,000 last year for the University of Kentucky organ transplant program and the UK Children’s Hospital. For the past three years, the fine folks at Buffalo Trace have donated a barrel of Blanton’s to the cause, and last year also pitched in a wonderfully tasty barrel of Colonel EH Taylor.
I was lucky enough to be asked to join the group tasked with helping to choose this year’s barrel of Blanton’s. Here we are before the tour with guide Jimmy on the left, and third-generation Buffalo Trace employee and Bourbon Hall of Famer Freddie Johnson in the middle.
Jimmy led us around, basically showing us the process of producing bourbon at Buffalo Trace. We learned and witnessed how corn (bourbon has to be at least 51% corn) and grains like rye, wheat and barley are cooked with Kentucky limestone-rich water, then fermented over several days in large vats with yeast. The fermented liquid is then distilled, meaning it is heated and evaporated, and the vapor is collected as it recondenses into a liquid. The process is repeated to remove impurities and raise the alcohol content. To be considered bourbon the distillate cannot come off the still at higher than 160 proof (80% alcohol) and cannot be put in the barrel at more than 125 proof. It has to be aged for at least 2 years in new charred oak barrels without coloring or additives. Blanton’s is aged 6-8 years and bottled at 93 proof.
Here’s the sour mash (the leftover solid byproducts of the distillation process), which is repackaged and sold to farms as feed. Our guide Jimmy coaxed me into trying it. While it wasn’t the worst thing I’ve ever tasted, it was sour and chewy and probably nothing I’d want to eat again.
Before proceeding to Warehouse H where all the Blanton’s barrels are aging, we stopped by the bottling and shipping operation.
Here’s Columbus, OH Ob/GYN and MWC partner Dr. Terry Grogg surveying the situation, his mind racing, trying to figure out how he can sneak a couple of cases out to our bus.
Finally, we reached the hallowed grounds of Warehouse H.
As awesome as walking through the rickhouse where all the barrels of Blanton’s on earth are stored, the fun was just beginning, and our barrel selection associate Lance led us through the tasting and selection process. We had 4 barrels to taste, which were diluted to 93 proof so we would be judging on what would eventually go in the bottles.
We each judged the bourbon separately, and chose our top two. When we narrowed our picks to two, we tried them again blindly, and we finally decided on Barrel C, which also happened to be the original top pick, ranked either #1 or #2 by 7 out of 8 of us. While everyone’s palate is a little different, I judged Barrel C to be of medium complexity, sweet with hints of caramel and vanilla. There’s a fair amout of oakiness to it, and a some spiciness, especially toward the end.
Once we decided on Barrel C as our pick, we were able to taste it uncut and unfiltered, right out the the barrel at 117 proof. Absolutely delicious, and an experience I won’t soon forget.
Finally, we signed our barrel as we anxiously await the finished product in bottles over the next several weeks. Bucket list bourbon experience for sure. Cheers!
Dr.Michael Huang is a full-time physician, part-time photographer. For more information about Medicinal Whiskey Charity, please go to the website https://www.medicinalwhiskeycharity.org