Back on the Bourbon Trail with Markus Eder
On June 04, the time had finally come again. Together with my son Jonas, who has taken over the technical management of our cooperage and sawmill, my colleague and sales manager Ralf Messing and two of my customers, I left the airport chaos in Frankfurt for Chicago. Due to the pandemic, my last visit to the Bourbon Trail, a path through Kentucky along the most important bourbon distilleries in the U.S., now also peppered with many craft distilleries that exude a special, because individual esprit, was two years ago. The name craft distiller or small distiller enjoys a different status in America than in Germany, for example. A craft distiller may have 50,000 bourbon barrels or more; in Germany, you need at least one wooden barrel to indulge the reputation of the noble distiller.
From Chicago, where we couldn’t escape the sights of the city on the first day, we went roadmovie-like in a typical American giant car towards Indianapolis.
Old 55 Destille - Indiana
On the way, my son Jonas organized us a tasting at the Old 55 Distillery in Newton, Indiana. A small farm with two large grain silos and a pickup truck in front of a large hall in the middle of what felt like no-where in the United States. But then….. Eric, a farmer as you’d expect, and his sister run the distillery. They welcomed us with great hospitality and gave us a tour of their distillery. They are fans of German distilling technology and let their whiskies mature in small 100 l wooden barrels made of American oak, for the love of the intensive wood contact, as Eric tells me. Later in the tasting room of the two then the revelation, Eric brought out a bourbon, which is distilled 100% from corn and matured for four years in the small oak barrels before itself. We were simply blown away. I don’t think many whiskey or bourbon enthusiasts have had the pleasure – a real palate pleaser. I couldn’t resist and bought the first bottle on the tour.
We continued via Indianapolis to the capital of bourbon, Louisville. There we visited my friend and business partner Tim, who organizes us, the Wilhelm Eder as a scout the many first-class pre-occupied once selected bourbon barrels and with much patience, the for it many and very rare overseas containers search and book. Here in Tim’s hall, my traveling customers were impressed for the first time by the dimension and the amount of wooden barrels – it should not be the last time. Even I have to admit, we in Bad Dürkheim already have a very very large warehouse by European standards, but Tim is in no way inferior!
We continued to Versailles in Kentucky, across the Bluegrass country, horse country, for all those who indulge in the gallop sport to the currently probably one of the hottest distilleries in the USA. The Woodford Distillery – embedded in a well-kept park. We were guided through the distillery knowledgeably and patiently – as professionals we naturally had many questions about the distilling processes, the maturation and the filling of the wooden barrels. In the Vip Tasting – which I can only recommend to you all – we were then introduced to Woodford’s product range and the differences between the Woodford Reserve and Woodford Double Oak blends. These tastings have run like a red ribbon through our trail week, and again and again it’s about distilling, the philosophy of aging, choosing the right wood barrel. Here in the U.S., it always has to be a 190-liter new American oak bourbon barrel, so that bourbon can later be aged in it. But also, and this is a novelty for the Americans, the finishing of the bourbon, e.g. in wooden barrels from a cognac occupancy or also the post-maturation in a sherry barrel or a wooden barrel from Mizunara oak.
If you are on the Bourbon Trail you have to go to Bardstown, Kentucky! I don’t think there is a community in the world with so many whiskey barrels maturing in huge rickhouses – barrel storage buildings – as in and around Bardstown. Spaciously laid out areas, green overgrown with always fresh grass cuttings, these countless warehouses stand in the landscape, each of them housing the unimaginable number of about 58,000 wooden barrels!
Independent Stave Group
After the visit to Woodford, I then swore my small tour group in on my focus for this stay. In America, too, wooden barrels and staves are needed to store bourbon, which first have to be produced in our sawmill, just like here in Bad Dürkheim. I feel almost married to the Independent Stave Group. For about 30 years now, we have been close business partners – the largest barrel manufacturer in the world and the Wilhelm Eder company from Bad Dürkheim. Here I always get access to a sawmill when I want it – today it was Morehead in Kentucky and the production of bourbon barrels in Lebanon also in Kentucky. Dimensions in technical equipment, know-how and sheer size that we cannot imagine in Europe – and I know very many cooperages on the continent and clay cellars in France. With American meticulousness and efficiency, American wood – Quercus Alba – from Kentucky is processed here, with as little waste as possible, always under the aspect of speed and quality. Not only in the sawmill, but also in the production of the bourbon barrels, barrel staves are joined under high efficiency, barrel heads are assembled, staves are formed into barrels in lightning speed and under piecework and then charred with a very hot flame – charred on the inside, the typical construction method of the bourbon barrels. All barrels are taken countless times up to the final inspection in the hand, further on the conveyor belt to the next station and everything just under the aspect “faster, higher, further”!
We were all struck by the discipline of the workers in the plants and the pride in producing this American product – I think a suggestion that we will also bring back to Germany.
Lux Row Distillery & Maker's Mark
Who’s going to drink all this, Thomas, my customer asks me from the back seat as we drive by on the interstate? In Bardstown, everything revolves around whiskey, from the number of hotel rooms for Bourbon Trail visitors to the whiskey menus at the diner and the drinks that people like to have from 5:00 in the afternoon to get in the mood for these dinners.
Of course, we also stopped by Heaven Hill Tasting and a relatively new distillery, Lux Row Distillery, which impressed us with its spacious grounds, modern interpretation of the architecture and honest bourbons. Phenomenal was here that on a weekday already in the morning at 9:00 o’clock the “store” was full and if one looks at the license plates of the cars, and also this may not be missing in America, – the Chopper on the parking lot, the visitors come from the whole United States to Kentucky on the Bourbon Trail.
But now quickly to the pilgrimage site of the Bourbon Trail – Maker’s Mark in Loretto, Kentucky. You think you’re entering an idyllic valley, it’s all about horses – white fenced paddocks as far as the eye can see – but then in red and black an icon of bourbon. Open wooden mash tuns, of course a highlight for coopers and wooden barrel makers like us, coupled with a guided tour put together for us over almost four hours! No question remained open. At the end of the tour we had whisky chicken on rice – we deserved that on our long tour through the Maker’s Mark.
We will never forget the glass art reenacting the Angels’ Share in one of the warehouses of Maker’s Mark. I can only recommend a visit to everyone – one of the most beautiful distilleries in the United States.
What struck us, as it did on the whole trip, was the friendliness and hospitality we encountered as visitors! I think this is something we can take back to Germany as well.
Jim Beam & Four Roses
Not far from Bardstown is the “must be” on the Bourbon Trail, whether you like it or not but Jim Beam in Clermont is a must see. A small amusement park with restaurants, a guided tour, which can only be done by bus due to the vastness of the area and then of course the merchandising – according to the motto “There’s no business like show business”! At Jim Beam, even though I have visited many times, my mouth is wide open due to the sheer size of this distillery. There you learn how to distill industrially but more importantly how to sell everything about whisky to visiting customers, from notebooks to keychains – an important afternoon for both our customers! Finally, let one number speak for itself – 17 million …. barrels Jim Beam currently has under Bourbon! A number that is also ambitious for the two ambitious guys from Dresdner Whisky.
After our tour at Jim Beam – we couldn’t help it, since we were practically around the corner – we stopped by the Four Roses warehouse. A different world – here is not distilled as at the headquarters in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky but to a cozy bourbon tasting followed by a visit to a rickhouse, we could not say no.
Impressive the contrast to the big neighbor Jim Beam, it was almost cozy, a White Dog (not yet matured distillate) and two honest bourbons. Here the simplicity made the charm of the brand.
Honky Tonk & good bye USA
I noticed during the onward journey, my son Jonas as driver, that my companions the past five days are nevertheless quite in the bones. Overwhelmed by the impressions, full of many not yet known approaches to the subject of wooden barrels and bourbon. With even more ideas in mind, we continued on Interstate 65 towards Nashville.
After exhausting days and so it has selected the coincidence we have us in Nashville on the Country Festival what just to our visit took place on the Honky Tonk the necessary relaxation and a little celebration allowed. Exuberant joy and pure love of life, with this impression we have left Nashville, this time then with the plane via Chicago back to Frankfurt!