Saturday morning I set out to visit the Jim Beam Stillhouse Distillery, the biggest name in bourbon. I arrived around 11AM and was told I’d have to wait until 1 to be able to take the full tour. I paid $14 for the latest available (2:30) and figured I’d head down to scenic Bardstown and see what could be seen. As I drove down one of the streets that sign caught my eye. It had all the makings of a good time. Complimentary tour and bourbon tasting.
I checked in with the security guard and drove down the winding road to the parking places and headed into the visitor’s center.
I was handed a Barton stamped bung that was never mentioned again and told the complimentary tour would start at noon. The tour began with a bit of a history lesson. Barton is owned by the same company which owns Buffalo Trace. That explains the laid back, complimentary nature of the tour. The 1792 isn’t when the distillery was started, although it wasn’t more than a few years after that. It represents the year Kentucky became a state.
The original distillery went through many iterations, including making industrial alcohol for the US Navy during World War II. The red brick dates from just after the wood buildings and the alcohol fumes ignited and burned everything to the ground.
Barton nearly went out of business during the 80s, but they had valuable bottling capacity and Canandaigua Wine Company (later named Constellation) used the bottling facility and kept the bourbon production going as an afterthought.
The tour guide started at the very beginning of the process. We watched a truck load of rye being emptied into the grain portion of the process. She explained how they bring in the grains, store just enough to keep the still going, process it into the fermenters, and eventually dry and sell the unused vegetable proteins back to the local farmers. The whole process breaks even, which is really cool.
The silver containers above are the fermenters and you can see the semi trailer backed in unloading grain. The tall equipment in the far left of the photo is the beginning of a $15Million upgrade of the grain processing. They’re installing the equipment first and then building the structure around it.
Barton has a couple old, dilapidated stills and only one that they still use.
That large beer still is full of plates with holes in it. The brewer’s beer goes in around the middle, equivalent to the second floor. The mash and unusable stuff falls through the plates and comes out at the bottom and the alcohol goes up and condenses through the try box.
On the third floor we saw the try box. Our guid grabbed a glass and pulled a sample of 140 proof alcohol and passed it around. “Go ahead and taste. Don’t worry about germs. They can’t survive 140 proof”. It was breathtaking to say the least. It actually had great flavor, but it burned for a REALLY long time. Like 30 minutes.
No tour would be complete without checking out the warehouse. It amazes me to see all that capital sitting on the shelves aging. And I love the photos it provides.
Restaurants, organizations, and people with enough disposable income will contract distillers and purchase a single barrel. The master distiller will select possible barrels and the organization will visit and taste, eventually signing their names on end of the barrel they select. Ever drop then is bottled for their exclusive use. The barrels on the left are waiting to be chosen, like dogs at the dog pound.
They’re speeding up. 17 years to go from three million to four, and only nine to get the next million. The market has improved.
Bourbon requires a new barrel each and every time. No reusing them and calling the contents bourbon. It’s actually against some crazy law. But once the bourbon has aged and been poured out the barrel still has value. In this case, wine is poured in and aged to add flavor. That’s what the paint on the end signifies. It’s no longer bourbon. Another thing that amazes me is that the barrels are eventually sold to Scotch distilleries in Scotland. And they benefit from being able to reuse the barrels and get some of the flavors out for their whisky (note the spelling).
Everything on the hill is product being bottled on consignment.
We tasted Very Old Barton and their signature small batch bourbon 1792. Also, Barton bottles a Barton Chocolate Bourbon Ball Liqueur which is to die for. And we were offered chocolate. I’m going to have to visit that tour, too.
Barton 1792 Distillery
300 Barton Rd
Bardstown, KY 40004
P.S. This is a milestone post. Number 100. Raising a glass of 1792 in honor of the work Bella and I have put into this blog. It’s a labor of love, though.