Each time I visit Kentucky, I return with a greater sense of self. Though I’ve lived in South Carolina my entire life, Kentucky feels like home. Be it Lawrenceburg, Louisville, or miles of borderless farmland, I always feel welcome, as if I belong. I suppose in my heart I do. Yet despite the obvious, it’s bigger than whiskey or brand fandom; it’s the people I meet and experiences we share that broaden my perspective. Last week was no exception.
There’s a certain thrill that accompanies landing in Louisville. The second you step off the plane it hits you – this is bourbon country. Of course, there’s plenty of Louisville Slugger billboards and Derby-themed shops to grab your attention, but for the most part it’s bourbon. And bourbon was calling my name.
(I’m not sure what the record time from “touchdown to Uber” is at Muhammad Ali International, but I’m confident I’m Top 5.)
Cocktails & Curiosities
After a quick ride downtown, I checked in to Hotel Distil, eager to once again absorb the sights and sounds (and spirits) of Main Street. It had been only a few months since my last stay, but the energy was different this time. The concerns and restrictions of a seemingly never-ending global pandemic had largely vanished. You could feel a renewed wave of enthusiasm – not just for whiskey, but for tourism and social gatherings. It was in this buzzing atmosphere that I set out to Bar Vetti to meet my friend Aaron Goldfarb, and Trevor Bowles and Amanda Humphrey of Maker’s Mark.
If you’re familiar with my blog, you’ve heard Aaron’s name more than once. You might also recognize his work in Esquire, Whisky Advocate, and Bourbon Plus, not to mention the foreword of American Spirit. But more importantly, he’s a trusted confidant and a great resource for ideas. Believe it or not, it was my first time meeting Aaron in person. Years of emails and direct messages, a phone call here or there, but never an in-person until that Monday evening. (The internet is a wondrous thing.)
As for Trevor and Amanda, I’m sure you’re curious … Maker’s Mark? Not Wild Turkey? Affirmative. In fact, Maker’s Mark was my primary destination this trip. For nearly a year I’d contemplated a Maker’s Mark private selection (thanks in part to Aaron). I came close a few times, but never quite nailed it down until this year. After a handful of false starts, our first onsite attempt was canceled due to a sudden snowstorm. That’s Kentucky weather for ya! But it was a temporary setback, making way for a later date with a bit warmer weather.
Bar Vetti was excellent, as was the conversation with Aaron, Trevor, and Amanda. It only felt right to continue the evening’s festivities, so we made our way to Neat. I’ve been to bars specializing in vintage whiskeys before, but Neat is its own thing. While there are establishments with wider selections, particularly those showcasing vintage Scotch, Neat’s focus lies squarely on a diverse selection of bourbon and rye. And if you’re a Wild Turkey fan like me, Neat has you covered. They have 101/8 bottles spanning the 1980s and 1990s, as well as several 101/12 variations. I even had the pleasure of checking two bourbons off my bucket list – a 1982 Wild Turkey 101 and a 1980 Maker’s Mark. (Thanks so much, Trevor.)
The four of us spent the next hour chatting with Neat’s owner, Owen Powell, who not only maintains a sizable collection of rare bottles, but an impressive array of bourbon collectibles. We browsed the displays with Owen pointing out various items of interest, most notably the oddly misspelled “Austin Nicol Bourbor Whisky” export pieces. As you might’ve guessed, we had plenty of humorous theories, but no good explanation as to why these exist.
Following Neat, Aaron, Trevor, and I stopped by Bar Expo, a personal favorite spot, for a brief nightcap. Unfortunately, we couldn’t stay long. A big day lay ahead of us, with an early morning wake-up call to start it off. After a half hour, we said our goodbyes and moseyed back to our rooms.
Head. Pillow. Out.
Loretto & Lawrenceburg
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t regret that last Mellow Corn Old Fashioned. Thankfully, the excitement of a distillery visit has a way of adrenalizing you. (Espresso helps too.) I plowed through my morning rituals as best as a bourbon-battered blogger could and hurried to the lobby to meet Aaron and Trevor.
I can’t tell you much about the drive from Louisville to Loretto. I remember bits and pieces of Aaron and Trevor’s exchanges, but for the most part, I took full advantage of the twilight downtime to catch some extra Zs. (Trevor’s appropriately chill morning playlist was exceptional, by the way.) I slept like a well-fed baby. There was, however, one pit stop to grab sausage biscuits at a gas station in Bardstown. That pit stop and its sausage had an important story. Or, maybe I dreamed it did.
The final stretch on our journey to Maker’s Mark was a stirring, rural left-right combo of steep hills and tight curves. Naptime was over. We pulled into the distillery parking lot greeted by smiling friends. There was Jacob Runge (pronounced run-ghee), who participated in last year’s Starlight selection, my good buddy Ryan Alves, who manages Justins’ House of Bourbon in Lexington, and the one and only Bruce Russell. Naturally, this would be a Turkey fan’s Maker’s Mark private selection.
I can’t say thanks enough to Bruce Russell and Maker’s Mark. It would’ve been easy to simply say no to this adventure. After all, Bruce works for Campari and Maker’s Mark is owned by Beam-Suntory. They’re competitors. But Bruce and Trevor weren’t just willing to make this collaboration happen, they were unwavering champions of the prospect.
There’s a respect among Kentucky’s distillers that’s rare in today’s world. I’ll talk more about that later. But for now, know that it’s genuine. And I’m sincerely grateful for it.
If you’re searching for a bourbon experience that’s polished, yet immersively authentic, check out Maker’s Mark. The grounds are timeless and beautiful. Hell, it’s virtually impossible to take a picture that doesn’t look like a postcard. And though meticulously manicured, the site maintains an early twentieth-century rustic charm that Disney Imagineers might dream of emulating. It’s an enigma of sorts – surreal, yet profoundly tangible.
Trevor proceeded to guide us through the property. The first building reminded me of my grandaunt’s house, complete with heirloom furniture and old family photos. We toured the stillhouse, with cypress fermenters from a bygone era. While these were intended for display, as Maker’s Mark operates modern steel tanks out of public sight, the beer is ultimately distilled, aged, and incorporated into Maker’s products. It was a nice touch, and one of several reasons why I feel Maker’s Mark is the brand closest to the old ways of crafting bourbon. Needless to say, the smell was incredible (and eerily reminiscent of Maker’s Mark’s signature bourbon profile).
We exited the fermentation room, passed the cookers and a still, then made our way to rickhouse A (c. early 1800s). There, we tasted bourbon straight from the barrel. I’ve said this countless times before and I’ll say it again: nothing beats the flavor of barrel-proof bourbon poured from a copper thief. There’s nothing like it. Goofy smiles abound.
With our private selection tasting around the corner, we made a few brief stops on our way. The first was the label press, where each standard Maker’s Mark label is cut by hand via 1935 Chandler & Price printing presses. In this same room, there were various limited-edition bottles on display, most featuring non-red wax and labels with various Kentucky sports and Derby icons.
Next up was the Chihuly sculpture, “The Spirit of the Maker,” which adorns the ceiling of Rickhouse D. Installed in 2014, Chihuly’s sculpture is mesmerizing, as is the colorful light it spreads throughout the racks – illuminating resting barrels in a warm red tone. It’s peaceful – arguably meditative – and one of my favorite parts of the tour. I’ll admit, I’m no aficionado of fine art; moreover, very few pieces move me (I could count on one hand). Yet, I found this Chihuly inspirational. Granted, it was surrounded by aging bourbon. That’s a plus. But honestly, it was motivational, as if something big were coming. Perhaps Bruce put it best when he stated, “I feel like we’re about to get on a ride.”
Metaphorically speaking, Bruce was right. It was time for our private selection. But first, Trevor led us on a quick walkthrough of the Maker’s 46 cellar. I’ve been in plenty of warehouses in my lifetime, but never one blasted into the side of a limestone mountain. And walking in … it was like the closing scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, with bourbon barrels in place of crates. The temperature was cool with a remarkably damp, yet faintly sweet scent. We climbed the stairs to higher racks, and there, tasted cask-strength Maker’s 46 at various stages of secondary maturation (the youngest of which was my favorite). I was smitten by the rows upon rows of barrels, many of which were private selections, soon to be bottled. You could hear the trickle of groundwater, see stalactites of different varieties and lengths, and feel the stillness of the surrounding earth. Truly captivating.
At last, it was time for our selection. The tasting room was immense, with a library of private selection bottlings from years past (we’re talking A LOT of bottles). We took our places at a large table, which before each of us sat roughly ten glasses. If you’re unfamiliar with Maker’s Mark’s private selection process, I highly recommend a Google search. Essentially, there are five varieties of toasted oak staves, each imparting a different flavor profile, via secondary maturation, to cask-strength Maker’s Mark bourbon. The goal is to create your own unique whiskey profile through a custom combination of ten staves. You’re not required to use all five varieties, but you must use ten staves total. If that sounds like a challenge, it is. But I’ll be damned if it isn’t a fun one.
Trevor took his time guiding us through each stave profile as we nosed and sipped along. Once we were familiar with each, we began the blending process. Aaron, Bruce, Jacob, Ryan, and I each took turns filling beakers and testing our blends. It was undoubtedly a team effort, with each of us making certain to craft something different from the other. Sure, there was a slight competitive element to it, but at the end of the day we wanted the best whiskey, regardless of the stave recipe.
After a few rounds of tasting, we narrowed it down to blends 3 (Ryan’s) and 5 (mine). Trevor suggested we swap out a stave from each for a M46 stave, as none of us had employed an M46 stave in our recipes. We did, then tasted those four blends blind (3, 5, and 3 and 5 augmented). In the end, blend 3, dubbed “Loretto & Lawrenceburg,” was the unanimous winner – the perfect combination of a forward sweetness with back-palate complementary spice. Well done, Ryan.
With a final stave combination in hand, we headed to the cooperage to seal and sign our barrel. One by one each stave was placed on a ring in accordance with our recipe. The bundle was then placed into a reclaimed Maker’s Mark barrel, hammered shut, and labeled for a good nine weeks of post-fill slumber in the cellar. We each took turns signing the barrel head, snapping a few obligatory photos, and that was that. My first Maker’s Mark private selection was complete. And I couldn’t have dreamed of a better team. The passion, the professionalism, the fun … each time I sip our whiskey, I know I’ll remember those hours fondly. Thanks, fellas.
But wait! If you thought my Maker’s Mark trip ended there, you’re wrong. In fact, you might as well pour yourself another cup of coffee (or bourbon). The day had just begun.
Non-metaphorically speaking, Bruce was, again, right. This time we were boarding an actual ride.
Picture a vehicle that’s somewhere between a Side-by-Side ATV and the PopeMobile, and you have the “SamuelsMobile.” Truthfully, I don’t recall the name of Maker’s solar-powered rocket shuttle, but damn if that bad boy doesn’t boogie. (Also, it should be noted that Trevor is a California driver.)
We packed into the multi-seat shuttle and set out on a cruise of Star Hill Farm. We zipped past rickhouses, fields, and cows, spotted a family of deer, and thanks to Jacob, learned that a turtle’s species and gender can be identified by flipping it over. (No turtles were harmed on our tour.) We paid a visit to the “Mother Tree,” a multi-century-old White Oak currently being studied by the University of Kentucky and Independent Stave Company. Following our walk through the woods, we stopped by Maker’s Mark’s scenic lake house, which is used for private tastings and events. There were a few more obligatory photos, then we hopped back into the shuttle to grab some lunch.
The food at Star Hill Provisions was fantastic. While my appetite was still rebooting from the previous night’s merriment, I couldn’t have asked for a better meal. The cocktails were equally as tasty, especially the Bardstown Brulot, and it should be noted that each of the cocktail elements, save for vermouth, were crafted onsite by Maker’s Mark. I’m not certain how many distilleries are self-sufficient when it comes to providing a range of cocktails, but it can’t be many.
While I enjoyed the day’s escapades, it was nice to pause for a moment and appreciate one another’s company. It was particularly insightful to hear from Bruce, who offered a refreshing perspective on life in bourbon and what it means to him. He also shared some entertaining stories about his grandfather, Jimmy. Like the time Jimmy led an impromptu distillery tour at Maker’s Mark.
I sat, listened, and realized that the day’s collaboration wasn’t something new. It was merely a continuation of what’s happened in Kentucky for decades. Beams, Samuels, Noes, Russells, the names are different but the bond is a singular kinship by trade. What happens at Maker’s Mark matters to the folks at Wild Turkey, and the same applies to the inverse. It’s a heritage that extends beyond corporate ownership. It’s sweat, blood, and an uncompromising respect for those who’ve spent it. It’s Kentucky. It’s bourbon. It’s what makes the industry special.
With full bellies and a tasty to-go cocktail in hand, we said farewell to Bruce, at least for the day. There was work waiting back at Wild Turkey. Besides, we were winding things down. But we still had one last stop – the lab.
You hear a lot of talk about a potential twelve-year Maker’s Mark. When’s it finally going to happen?We want Maker’s 12! We’ve all heard (probably shouted) these things more than once in our whiskey-enthusiastic life, right? Well, Tuesday, I had a chance to taste “overaged” Maker’s Mark. Let’s just say I’m no longer itching for a mature Maker’s expression. Not that it was bad. Not at all. It was just a touch one-dimensional with negligible vibrancy. I’m sure Fred Minnick will disagree with me. But there was something else I tasted that was interesting – the Maker’s DNA Project.
I commend Maker’s Mark for sticking to their guns on their low (110) barrel-entry proof. Having the chance to try their bourbon aged from a range of barrel-entry proofs (110, 115, 120, and 125), I can say that things are precisely where they need to be. There were redeemable aspects with the whiskeys from higher entry proofs, especially the 120, they just didn’t taste like the Maker’s we know and love. I should also note that Maker’s doesn’t chill filter their products. As stated before, if there’s one Kentucky distillery that’s closest to the old ways, it’s Maker’s Mark.
We concluded our chance-of-a-lifetime educational lab visit and embarked on a short scenic walk back to the parking lot. The day was done. At least, our day at Maker’s Mark. We made plans for an evening in Louisville (to be preceded by a much-needed siesta for yours truly) and hit the road.
North & The Pearl
Naps are awesome. Hell, they’re miraculous. If you disagree with me, you probably need a nap.
I awoke at 6:30 PM, freshened up, and met Trevor outside of Distil for a lift to North of Bourbon. I’d never been to North of Bourbon, but I’d heard great things. It did not disappoint.
Walking into the establishment, I spotted a familiar face at the bar, my friend Dylan Buras. Dylan just happened to be in town with his friend, Jim. Trevor and I welcomed them both to our table, where we were again joined by Jacob and Ryan. As one might expect, we spent the next half hour recounting our eventful day at Maker’s Mark.
The three hours that followed were a whirlwind of social exhilaration (along with some ridiculously delicious dishes and a 1980 Wild Turkey 101). After two years spent primarily at home, it felt wonderful to break bread, toast glasses, laugh, smile, and converse face to face as a group of friends – together, as a whiskey family. I was introduced to Michael Lazar, former manager of San Francisco’s Hard Water. We geeked out over the perceived nuances of tiered rickhouses and their connection to late-nineteenth-century cooperage. I had the pleasure of meeting Andy Thomas and Andy Shapira of Heaven Hill. And then, Pablo Moix walked through the door.
I’ve met my fair share of passionate individuals in the whiskey business, but few, if any, are as passionate as Rare Character’s Pablo Moix. When Pablo is in a room, things are happening.
So in walks Pablo, and the place immediately “levels up” with energy. By this time I was halfway into a booze-infused frozen coffee, so that may have had something to do with it. Regardless, Pablo was a blast (always is). He talked at length to everyone (and I mean everyone), sharing his thoughts on the bourbon scene, his plans for his brand, and, get this, cases of Rare Character Whiskey. Pablo handed out bottles to folks at our table, as well as random bar patrons, walk-ins, and restaurant staff. Put it this way, if you were at North of Bourbon on March 15th from 8:00 to 10:00 PM, chances are you left with a bottle of whiskey.
Trevor and I decided we’d make one last stop before closing out the night, the Pearl of Germantown. Andy Thomas and Andy Shapira met us there, with Pablo and Owen Powell from Neat following shortly behind. I spent the next hour talking to Andy Shapira, who I found fascinating. His big-picture perspective of the industry was in many ways foreign to me, yet entirely informative and relatable. But if there’s one thing he stressed above all, it was a desire for brand collaboration: With so many distilleries sharing histories, and dead labels scattered between, reviving them in our present age of bourbon fervor should be mutually advantageous. And I firmly believe Andy is right. If only the corporations would see it similarly.
We ended our night with a round of L’Encantada Armagnac courtesy of Owen (thank you, sir). I also dosed up heavily on Ale 8, so as not to repeat my AM tribulations. It was back to Distil and a solid night’s rest.
Last day. Turkey day.
I awoke bright and early, threw back my morning espresso, and packed my things. While I was sad to leave Kentucky, I was comforted by the promise of an exciting day. I checked out of Distil and met Trevor for the ride to Lawrenceburg. There was, however, one detour along the way. The night before, Pablo had invited us to his warehouse in Stanford, Kentucky. With two of my own barrels resting there, I thought it might be nice to check in.
As we entered Pablo’s warehouse, I was struck by the sheer volume of his stocks. There were rows of bourbon and rye barrels of various origins and ages. The smell was enticing. As you can imagine, I was thrilled when the power drill came out. 95-5 Kentucky rye, anyone? Sounds like breakfast to me!
But the kicker of the visit was Pablo’s latest arrivals – a set of exotic new barrels from Brazil. Those familiar with Starlight’s “Cigar Batch” bourbon or rye expressions have heard the word “amburana.” If you think American white oak imparts flavor to whiskey, wait until you taste what Brazilian wood can do. The fragrance is significant (and these were dry). We spent the next several minutes nosing each barrel (bunghole jokes included), each showcasing a distinctive variety or character (not just amburana). Heady spice, pipe tobacco, dried fruit, potpourri, the aromas were intense with densely packed notes.
Pablo remarked that the Brazilian barrels were strictly slated for finishing, with no plans for attempting a full maturation (a good thing, in my opinion). So keep an eye on Rare Character Whiskey. Great things are in the works, including a few surprises from a Rare Bird. 😉
Lawrenceburg & Loretto
With a pinch of rye running through my veins and a wallop of excitement firing through my nerves, we hit downtown Lawrenceburg for a bite at the legendary Heavens to Betsy. There we met up with Dylan and Jacob again, and a new face, Wes Milligan. Wes has been a supporter of my blog for some time now, so it was nice to have another friend in the mix.
Meanwhile, across the street at Bluegrass Sabor, Wild Turkey’s Jimmy Russell and Bo Garrett were being honored by Governor Andy Beshear. (Congratulations to both Jimmy and Bo.) Bruce joined us after the ceremony and informed us Jimmy would be waiting at the distillery. I had an awesome bombshell to drop as well – Denny Potter and Jane Bowie of Maker’s Mark would be joining us for the Turkey barrel selection. Oh, and Pablo too. (I take complete responsibility for overbooking the private selection party … with no regrets. Of course, Bruce was a gentleman and let me off easy.)
We arrived at Wild Turkey’s visitor center parking lot to find Denny, Jane, and Ryan Alves waiting for us. After a handful of howdies and introductions, we piled into as few cars as we could and drove across the street to Tyrone’s historic rickhouse A. And there he was, the Buddha of Bourbon himself, Jimmy Russell.
I don’t know about you, but if you’re looking for a good sign to kick off a barrel pick, it’s seeing Jimmy Russell at the rickhouse. He couldn’t stay for long, but just those few minutes to say hello made my day. Shortly afterwards, Bruce pulled up and it was time to get sipping.
The first barrels we tasted were recent additions to the private barrel program. So recent that Bruce didn’t have much information, save for the barrel numbers and dates from the heads. One by one we tapped into the 2012-2013-distilled bourbons (maturation locations unknown). If you enjoyed 2021’s barrels, you’re going to love 2022’s. Averaging eight to nine years, these bourbons showcased a well-balanced core Turkey profile with loads of confectionery spice.
From there we moved on to some holdover barrels from 2020 and 2021. The first was from Tyrone F, which I contemplated as a potential Kentucky Spirit selection. It was followed by a Tyrone E, which had interestingly been abandoned by a vendor (likely due to a Covid closing). It was mighty tasty, but neither the F or the E were exactly what I was looking for. Bruce mentioned there were a few additional barrels on the far side of the building, so that’s exactly where we headed.
It’s impossible to express the joy I felt walking those rickhouse floors, listening to everyone revel in the moment. While I had to keep focus on what I was sipping, as these barrels were for my supporters, I was elated to be a part of the occasion. I’d almost call it an out-of-body experience, if that didn’t sound so damn cheesy. But I was indeed lost in thought and emotion, enamored by the energy of this extraordinary group of individuals.
Of the half-dozen barrels we tasted on the far side of the rickhouse, four stood out. The first was a ten-year barrel from Tyrone E. I immediately discovered aged tobacco notes; Jane found chocolate. And just like that, our first barrel, henceforth known as “Lawrenceburg & Loretto,” was selected. (Thanks for the bookend naming idea, Trevor.)
The second was a fourteen-year bourbon from Camp Nelson. Bruce gave the barrel a strong shake, but the yield was light. He could barely pull whiskey with the thief, but he did (skills, y’all). It tasted like a long lost Master’s Keep – complex and layered with notes of molasses, charred oak, and antique leather. As much as I wanted it, the yield was far too low for my group. Ryan picked it up for Justins’ House of Bourbon, and that was that.
The last two were nine-year barrels aged at Tyrone K. Each showcased a lively fruity quality, complete with sweet zest and herbal-floral spice. They were almost Four Roses like, if that makes sense. Pablo claimed one for his establishments and I the other. My selection should make for a delightful Kentucky Spirit (at least, that’s the plan).
With four selections under our belts, we agreed on revisiting the first barrels of the day. After a few pulls from the thief, and a rag-tag blind tasting courtesy of Ryan, I signed off on one final barrel. Where it was aged, I have no clue. But it was delicious.
If we had departed right then and there, I would’ve been wholly satisfied. But we didn’t. And things only got better.
Ever had fourteen-year, barrel-proof Wild Turkey rye? Me neither, until last Wednesday. Wow … Talk about a flavor explosion! And it wasn’t just one barrel, but two completely different well-aged rye whiskeys. Interestingly, they were the same two barrels I’d tasted back in 2019, but boy had they changed. These profiles, if they ever hit shelves as retail expressions, would make the 2021 Russell’s Reserve 13frenzy look like childsplay. Pure flavor insanity.
We finished our glasses (thanks so much for sharing, Bruce) and said goodbye to Denny and Jane. There was plenty to be done back at Maker’s Mark. The rest of us hung out for a short while to talk about the whiskey we’d just tasted, snap a quick group photo, and bask in the afterglow of our experience. Bruce mentioned that Eddie was back at the distillery finishing up the latest Master’s Keep, which is a throwback of sorts (stay tuned). I asked Bruce to give Eddie my best, and with that we called it a day – a very successful and unforgettable day.
The drive to Louisville seemed to go by in the blink of an eye. But then, Trevor is an easy person to talk to. Looking back, I probably talked his ears off. (Apologies, Trevor.)
We reached the airport, I wished him safe travels and entered the terminal with a ten-mile-wide smile on my face. 48 hours of fellowship, revelation, and awe was over. But just as a fine bourbon is savored long after it’s gone, such was the time I spent in the company of old friends and new acquaintances. Days I will never forget, and whiskey I look forward to sharing.
Before I sign off, I’d like to express my heartfelt gratitude to those who made this trip possible.
Special thanks to Maker’s Mark and Wild Turkey for allowing me the opportunity to participate in these private selections, and for Tony Konja and Shem Coward at Keg N Bottle, and Ryan Alves at Justins’ House of Bourbon, for sponsoring.
Thanks to Bruce Russell, Denny Potter, and Jane Bowie for participating in these informal cross-brand collaborations. I greatly appreciate your time, interest, and sincerity.
To Aaron, I’m sorry you missed the Turkey pick, but our Maker’s selection is surely one to be proud of. Thank you for encouraging me to see it happen.
Pablo, I appreciate you opening the doors to your warehouse for a behind-the-scenes look at Rare Character. I’m astonished by your passion, drive, and lofty goals you’re pursuing, and know that very soon, others will feel the same.
To Dylan, Jacob, and Wes, thank you for your support and enthusiasm. This adventure wouldn’t have been the same without you. And the same goes to all of my readers and Russell’s Renegadesmembers. You make these things a reality, and for that I’m grateful.
And last but certainly not least, to the man with the plan, Mr. Trevor Bowles, thank you, sir. I have no doubt, you’re the best host in the business. Your superb hospitality and impeccable dedication to Maker’s Mark is second to none. Truth be told, I drank more Maker’s Mark on this trip than I did Wild Turkey. I hope you’re proud of that. You should be.