Bourbon School

Bourbon School

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Being a Kentucky-bred, it’s only natural that I would have an affinity to two things – horses (and those of you who have read my blog over the years know that this is true of me) and bourbon. I’ve said before that I suspect that the first inoculation given at birth in Kentucky involves the development of love for horses and bourbon. While it seems that the love of the equine was immediate, the appreciation of bourbon took some time to acquire.

My heritage (as I have recently learned) is Scottish, and Scotch whiskey was the first brown liquor I developed a taste for. Part of my college education was in London, England where I learned to drink Scotch. It was an integral part of my education.

 displayBlanton’s Stoppers

It wasn’t until I was in my very early thirties that I decided it was time to learn more about bourbon. I was so incredibly lucky that my first foray into bourbon was on a recently-introduced, single-barrel bourbon called Blanton’s. Why was I drawn to this particular bourbon? Take a look at the bottle. Seriously! It was the horse and jockey.

Since both my husband and I have ties to Kentucky, we became very interested in the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. For those who haven’t previously heard of it, the Kentucky Bourbon Trail is a program of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association to promote the bourbon industry in Kentucky. (More about the Bourbon Trail – but keep it brief as it will be in a later post.)


In early April, Woodford Reserve in Versailles, Kentucky held its “Bourbon Academy.”


The Official Bourbon of the Kentucky Derby

Master distiller, Chris Morris, was the professor and there were roughly 30 eager pupils.


Master Distiller Chris Morris

First, we learned a little about the history of Woodford Reserve. It was originally known as Old Oscar Pepper Distillery, but they began distilling whiskey in 1780 on the banks of a glorious stream. The water is so clear and so pure due to the limestone, it was a natural location to start distilling. The distillery building was erected on site in 1838. It is actually the oldest of all the distilleries in the area, although it was closed for quite a while. Brown-Forman bought the property in 1993 and refurbished it to bring it back into operation. The Woodford Reserve brand was introduced to the market in 1996.


THIS is the water that makes Kentucky Bourbon GREAT!


Oldest Building on Woodford grounds – with the barrel delivery system

We started out, by learning about charring the barrels. The amount of char on the inside of new, American white oak barrels is critical to the taste and quality of the bourbon which comes out. We did our own “char” by building a fire inside a barrel. It was a little too windy, but the visual was sufficient to give a greater understanding of how many different levels there are in making a really top-notch bourbon.


Young Mash – Tastes like Breakfast Cereal

We got to stick our fingers into the developing sour mash. It was amazing the difference in the tastes between the new mash (like a bland breakfast cereal) and the final vat (seriously getting sour and looking on top like someone’s pizza). We saw the gorgeous copper stills and learned about how the process of successive distillations makes the clearest, highest quality distillate. Notice, I didn’t call it bourbon yet. At the point where it comes out of the still, it is just alcohol – or “white dog.” It’s the aging in the oak barrels that turns pure alcohol into bourbon and gives it all those marvelous flavor notes.


Aged Mash (almost ready for distillation)


One of Woodford Reserve’s Famous Copper Stills

We learned all about the flavor wheel in an exercise, led by resident chef, Ouita Michel (a James Beard Award nominee). Who knew there were so many different flavors to discern in bourbon? We got to taste different nibbles of food paired with bourbon to see how the flavors changed. I had never thought about considering pairing food with bourbon and how different bourbons would go better with certain food items, but I sure learned a thing or two about that. I’m absolutely rethinking Thanksgiving dinner pairings. I think a good bourbon would pair beautifully with all the flavors in turkey and dressing. I absolutely know that bourbon and pecan pie are made for each other.


The Woodford Reserve Flavor Wheel (Who knew?)

There was also an exercise about being able to recognize different scents in bourbon as well as taste. It was really nose-opening to smell a cotton ball in a glass with different esters on it and to try and discern what the smell was. One of the funniest responses was “my grandmother’s couch.”

We had an outstanding lunch and got to sample several different bourbons and Woodford’s bottled version of “white dog.” All of the bourbons were from Brown and Foreman’s stable of bourbons. Jim and I both favored Woodford’s Double Oaked – a relative newcomer to their offerings.


All Related – Yet SO Different

Upon graduation, we each got our own bottles of Woodford’s flagship Reserve. These were very special bottles as they have our names and graduation dates etched right into the bottles. What a nice touch!

If you ever consider taking the one-day course, I would emphatically tell you to go for it.


Such a Beautiful Place to Go to Class

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Getting “Social” in Lexington

Getting “Social” in Lexington

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Most of y’all know that I’m a born Kentuckian. I like to say that I was inoculated at birth with a love of horses and bourbon. I think that may be a requisite vaccination for all newborns in the Commonwealth, at least it appears that way. All I can tell you is that I have loved horses as long as I can remember, and acquiring a taste for brown, corn liquor came mighty easy.

Every year for my birthday, if at all possible, I sweet-talk my dear husband into a trip to the Bluegrass. That’s not a difficult task as he spent many, many summers in the state visiting his grandmother. Some of his happiest times were spent in my birth-state.

Earlier this year, we had visited and completed the Bourbon Trail (which I will write about in an upcoming blog), so this time it was totally about visiting horses, eating and drinking excellent food and bourbon, and visiting Wallins Creek (where Jim spent his summers) to take photos and gather information for his upcoming model train layout. (Can you see that there will be many different posts on all kinds of subjects in the offing?)


Sunset in the Bluegrass

Our base of operations was Lexington. I never tire of Lexington. The area around Lexington is some of the most beautiful country anywhere in the world. Yes, I may be more than a bit biased, but I have been lucky to travel quite a bit and this is where I choose to come as often as humanly possible. Lexington is surrounded by farms housing the finest thoroughbred horses in the world and the very best distilleries are within a very short drive.

We arrived on my birthday, so we had made dinner reservations at Tonys of Lexington. We had lots of time before our reservation, so we wanted to enjoy a bourbon (or two) in a local bourbon bar. We’d heard about Bluegrass Tavern (with their 450 bourbons), and decided that we’d join the locals and see what 450 different bourbons even looked like. We arrived around 4:30 p.m., but they were inexplicably closed. Hmmm! What to do? Then we turned around and found Parlay Social on the corner right behind us. We decided to go in and cool off and see if they could fill the bourbon bill. (August is more than a little warm in Kentucky.)

“Social” is a great name for this place. We were greeted and made to feel right at home by the cutest bartender. Her name is Kristin, and she’s as nice, social, and informative as she is sweet. We had landed in just the exact right place to try out some bourbons that are, quite frankly, impossible to get in Michigan bars or restaurants.


Kristin – Bartender Extraordinaire – Parlay Social (Check the bottle in foreground!)

Kristin handed us a list of all the options available and it just about made my head swim. There weren’t 450 listed, but there were enough fine options that we didn’t feel as though we missed a thing. They had options to try one or two ounces of some of the best and most sought-after bourbons in the world. Prices (as you can see) were anywhere from $5 all the way up to $112 for one single ounce of liquor. Extravagant? Darn tootin’! It was my birthday, though, so we decided to taste some of them. We shared, so each ounce became half-ounces each. (Wouldn’t want y’all to think we overdid it or anything!)


Side #1 – Parlay Social Bourbon List

Our favorites were Eagle Rare 17-year and Pappy Van Winkle 15-year. I have to say, that if I had to choose one bourbon to drink (and cost was no factor) it would be the Pappy 15-year. It was, without a doubt, the best, most palatable, smoothest sipping bourbon I’ve ever had. Lord knows if the 20- and 23-year are any better, because we sure don’t. One day, I plan to save up so I can find out; but the leap between the 10-year (Old RIP Van Winkle) and the 15-year (Pappy Van Winkle) was like jumping to light speed in the Millennium Falcon.


Side #2 – Parlay Social Bourbon List

As we were tasting some of these beautiful, brown liquors, the shift manager, Oliver, came out to see how we were doing. Again, we were made to feel right at home. Both he and Kristin gave us some suggestions as to places to visit in Lexington. When we told them we had reservations at Tonys, they both nodded and told us we would really enjoy our meals. In a later post, I’ll tell you more about Tonys and the wonderful dinner we enjoyed.


Oliver – Shift Manager at Parlay Social

We actually went back to Parlay Social a couple of afternoons later to tell them what a wonderful meal we’d had, and to try out a couple more bourbons. It was like visiting with old friends. Funny, I know that they get all kinds of visitors and regulars on a daily basis, but we were remembered. That goes a very long way in making one feel welcome.


Back bar at Parlay Social – Check out just SOME of the Bourbons

It’s a given that we will be back to Lexington in the very near future. It’s also a given that we will be visiting Parlay Social again, too.


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