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My Handcrafted Opinions on Whiskies, Distilleries and Other Related Stuff

Stitzel-Weller, Kentucky, USA

There is no tour here and in fact the distillery has been closed since 1992, although the warehouses and office are still used by one of Diageo’s brands, Bulleit, and it seems it may re-open in some fashion (at least as a vistor center if not a working distillery) in the future.  Located near the Louisville airport I paid a visit (to be precise I stood outside and took photos) because if you like bourbon the chances are you like the Van Winkle line (now made at Buffalo Trace) and this is their spiritual home.  Opened after prohibition in 1935 and acquired by Julian "Pappy" Van Winkle (you couldn't make that name up if you tried) it produced wheated bourbons like Old Fitzgerald, that name is painted on the brick chimney still standing in the grounds of the S-W distillery and which is now made by Heaven Hill, and the W L Weller line after which the distillery is named, and is also now made at Buffalo Trace.  I had the pleasure to meet Preston Van Winkle at WhiskyLive London in 2010 and wheated bourbon, specifically Maker's Mark (which uses same recipe as Julian Pappy Van Winkle used) was my entry into bourbon, just as Ardbeg Blasda was my entry into Islay whisky.  So this was somewhere I needed to see, my bourbon ground zero if you like, and a fitting last stop as I completed the Kentucky Bourbon Trail in May 2012.  Perhaps I will be able to come back soon and step inside when it opens as the Diageo or Bulliet Bourbon Center.  The good news is of course it was free to stand outside and there was no bottling hall visit to endure! 

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The Jack Daniel Distillery, Tennessee, USA

The Jack Daniel Distillery, Tennessee, USA

My birthday treat in 2013 was two distilleries in one day. This was number two, with George Dickel being number one. I did not expect to learn a lot on this tour and Tennessee whiskey has by and large passed me by, but I felt that any self respecting “distillophile” has to see the home of the world's biggest selling whiskey at least once. The basic free tour I took (there is a $10 tasting tour as well) was, as you might expect, slick and well done. It starts with a video, a tour group photo (40+ distillery tours and this was a first for me!) and then a bus ride to the area where they burn the sugar maple ricks for their charcoal and then a walk back to visitors center taking in the cave springs, Jack’s old office, the production areas, including a bottling hall, and finally a warehouse. Well structured and informative this was good way to spend an hour. The tour was focused on Jack Daniel and skipped quite quickly through the technical side of things, but no real surprise there; the tour group was made of people who will probably only see one distillery in their lifetime and the themes and stories played well to the audience. We got to see the safe that Jack kicked in fit of frustration one morning and the subsequent broken toe led to gangrene, infection, less legs than he started life with and eventually death. The tour guide even made the “happy cows around here” joke I hear in about 1 in 3 distilleries. The thing that of course separates JD and Tennessee whiskey from bourbon is the charcoal mellowing (or Lincoln County process) and we spent some time on the tour’s “money shot” ie the charcoaling mellowing room. At end of tour you do get a chance to buy “commemorative bottles that happen to contain whiskey” as Lynchburg is famously a dry county and you can't buy liquor… and I walked away with two expressions I have never seen anywhere else, the Master Distiller and an unaged Tennessee Rye. One thing I had never realized was that the man’s name (and in fact the distillery name) is Jack Daniel. No “s”.   As in The Jack Daniel Distillery. I also did not know that is oldest registered distillery in USA, being registered in 1866 two years before distilling was formally legalized and taxed in 1868.  Do they have a gift shop?  No.  Really they don't have a gift shop at the distillery.  What they have is the town of Lynchburg a short walk away that can best be described as a Jack Daniel's Gift Town.  And if you show your tour ticket when you buy anything over $10 in any of the shops in town... you get a JD shot glass.

I also learned some more about the “Green Label” Old No 7 expression on the tour, which I occasionally see in stores but does not appear in any marketing or websites. Apparently it is a product that is “only available in certain states in USA” and is taken from barrels at the bottom of their barrel houses and has the least interaction with wood due to relatively less temperature fluctuations. The traditional “Black Label” and Gentleman Jack are taken from the middle levels and the Single Barrel comes only from barrels stored at the top level of the barrel house. A quick bout of mental arithmetic suggests this is at best an “approximation” as the relative volumes of the Black label in the market compared to Green Label and Single Barrel suggest that some barrels from bottom and top have to make their way into the blend as well.

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