After work on a Saturday I figured I would visit a couple more of the sights along the Bourbon Trail. One within the city limits that promised to be open was Bulleit Frontier Whiskey Experience at Stitzel-Weller.
It’s set in what looks like a residential area, not nearly as picturesque as the area surrounding Woodford Reserve. The grounds remind me of a warehouse district full of dark brown buildings with black stains.
The tour cost $10.60 and was highly entertaining, primarily because of the excitement brought to the tour by the guide. She was incredibly knowledgeable and so excited to be talking about what a subject she clearly loves.
It’s called “Frontier” because it was on the outskirts of the city when prohibition ended and the area was opened up to distillers again. The original folks turned a good business up until the vodka and wine cooler craze killed the Bourbon industry in the 80s. Oh, how I remember the Absolute Vodka and Zima commercials and everywhere I went people had wine coolers. I really hated them. I didn’t realize that had destroyed the bourbon industry. Eventually the Asians started their own craze and distillers could finally make a few bucks and a guy named Bulleit invested in this old property and started distilling bourbon again, calling it Bulleit Frontier Whiskey.
One of the questions was about the dark stains that I didn’t connect to bourbon warehouses. Our guide said she read in a book called “Proof” that the cause hasn’t been determined. Now I have a mystery to follow…
Bulleit has a new distillery located someplace else that is very industrialized, something I’d love to see, but they’re not conducting tours there. This location, besides having the warehouses where the Bulleit Frontier Bourbon is aged, has a small distillery where they can conduct experiments.
The guide spoke of how everybody employed at Bulleit gets to spend time learning the process by working in the experimental still. I learned a few things. The first stage, after fermenting, is essentially brewer’s beer. She joked that quitters stop there, enjoying “the fruit of the barley”, but serious whiskey drinkers start distilling it. Copper is king, providing the best taste, so even if you see stills using stainless steel, they typically have copper linings. The glass and brass window on the left side of the shot above is a Federal regulation. There is apparently a regulation that requires the inspectors to be able to see what they’re making, so they have a pretty window in which the distilled spirits flow. It doesn’t do anything except fulfill a regulation. I remember the one from Woodford…
She told us about how they don’t really waste anything, despite the crazy regulations. For instance, the first alcohol that is formed during the distillation process is not drinkable, so they sell it for cleaning products. After the good stuff is moved to the next process, the leftover mash and slop is sold to farmers to feed their livestock. Probably why the horses from the area are so world renowned.
She took us to a barrel repair room, which was more interesting than I would have expected. Apparently, after the clear moonshine is put into the barrels, it can sometimes leak, requiring repair. The way they do that is simply shove strips of wood in between the staves and sealing it back up. Corn husks were used at one time, but they changed the taste too much.
We entered Mr. Bulleit’s office. He has my dad’s computer.
The highlight is the tasting, of course. How else do you sell your product?
Bulleit is proud of their bourbons and much a great portion of the ryes to meet the new popularity of that type of spirit. The I.W. Harper is sold in Mad Men style bottles and considered a “business whiskey” because it’s smooth, a little less alcohol level, and allows the neophyte drinker to save face by sipping without the grimace. Somebody asked a question that prompted our guide to open a second bottle and give us all a generous second pour. I wish I heard the question so I could use it in the future.
One of the things I learned from her is how much the Feds control the business. The number of times that bourbon is taxed is staggering, leading to about 60% of the cost of a bottle being tax. Yet there is still a market for numerous distilleries. I think there are 1.5x more barrels of bourbon aging in Kentucky than there are people. That’s a bunch.
Bulleit Frontier Whiskey Experience
3860 Fitzgerald Road
Louisville, KY 40216