On Tuesday, Sept. 12, we camped at Camp Carlson (a military “famcamp” catering to active and retired military persons) located just outside Fort Knox Army Base. Next day we drove to Bardstown, Kentucky to visit the Willett’s Whiskey Distillery. This is a relatively small distillery founded by Thompson Willett in 1936, after the end of prohibition.
Our tour guide, wife of one of the founder’s descendants, pointed out that some 70 percent of the bourbon produced in the U.S. is produced in Kentucky. The Willets distillery produces about 8,000 barrels of whisky annually, much of it sour mash whiskey, but also a considerable amount of rye whiskey. She also said that to be called bourbon, a whiskey must contain at least 51 percent corn ingredients. She also pointed out that Willett’s whiskey is produced almost exclusively using hand tools and manual labor, while most of the larger operations rely on automation and digital technology in their operations. The large distillery next door produces on the order of 60,000 to 70,000 barrels of whiskey annually.
Our tour began as we stepped out of the visitors’ center, where a couple of large grain bins receive the truckloads of corn from local farms. From there the corn is transported by an augur system into the production building, where the corn is first ground into a fine powder. Then the other ingredients, including spring water from underground limestone caves and lakes, yeast and other grains are added in the correct proportion to produce the desired product. This mixture, in liquid form, is pumped into one of four large stainless steel vats, open at the top, which each hold around 6,000 gallons of mixture. A stairway and walkways lead up to a level where you can walk around and take a look at the fermentation process.
The first vat is filled with yellow corn which is bubbling quite vigorously across the entire surface, a circle about 8 feet in diameter. This mixture is not boiling, we are told, because that would spoil the result. In fact, stainless steel pipes coil around the inside of the vats and carry cold water to cool the fermentation process so that it does not overheat. No added heat source is necessary. The second vat is also bubbling, but not as vigorously as the first. The third vat is barely bubbling at all, an indication that the fermentation process is nearing completion. The fourth vat is nearly empty, as the mixture is being drained from the bottom. This process has taken 4 days to reach this stage.
From here the mixture is piped to a copper 2,000 gallon still whose patented design is shaped like a giant Aladdin’s lamp. The mixture is cooked in the bulbous bottom of the still, and the steam of alcohol rises to the top and is separated and piped into one of two stainless barrels, one for the potable alcohol, the other for alcohol not fit to drink. The “good stuff” is sampled to ensure it is of the proper potency (not over 125 proof, the limit according to either state or federal law). The alcohol at this point is clear (“white lightning”) and is poured into oak barrels which hold 53 gallons each and weigh a little over 500 pounds. The insides of the barrels have been singed (burned) to provide a charred appearance and add color and flavor to the contents. The barrels are rolled on what looks like railroad tracks to a loading dock and transported to the large multi-story warehouses where they are stored and aged for 4 years before being bottled and sold. We were told that Willett’s still uses chain-fall hoists to manually raise the full barrels of alcohol up to the various levels of the warehouses where they are rolled onto wooden tracks where they spend their 4 years of aging.
A couple of barrel staves (the curved wooden sides of the barrels) that have held the aging bourbon) have been sawn through to reveal a brown line about three-quarters of the way through the thickness of the barrel wood. This is the depth to which the alcohol has seeped in the 4 years it has been aging. This is where the oak and charcoal flavor has been added. Each barrel loses some percentage of its contents through evaporation (I think around 10 to 12 percent) in the 4 years it has been aging.
At the end of our tour of the operation, we were led back to the reception area where we were each provided a small sample of some of the finished product. I just had to buy one bottle of 114 proof bourbon called “Noah,” in honor of our great-grandson!