May 19, 2012. After leaving the Railway Museum in New Haven, KY I took State Highway 52 a few miles to Loretto, KY to find the Maker’s Mark Distillery. Highway 52 is a winding two lane road through the rolling farm and hill country that makes up this part of the state. At some points you can be doing the speed limit of 55 then immediately confront an “S” turn or a hairpin that slows you down real quick.
New Haven is a town of about 900. Loretto and the towns in between are smaller still. This is quite a revelation for someone like me who grew up where one town blends into another and a street or a highway just takes you to a different, but well populated place.
I followed the signs to the distillery, which seems folded into a small hollow or valley. There is no cell service, a lot of us on the tour tried, so the place seems to be particularly removed from some modern conveniences.
The parking lot was quite full with cars, motorcycles, and small tour busses. Walking from the parking lot to the beginning of the tour the first thing you see is this old fire station and the old gas pump standing beside it.
I can’t tell you if these are contemporary to the distillery, or a display for the tourists, but it was a nice thing to find.
Inside the fire station is this old Bickle Fire Engine. It appears to be fully restored. By its look I would guess it for the early or mid 1920s. It is a woody also! Wood separates the engine from the cab.
Here is a fish eye of the scene. I couldn’t get any closer so these portraits from the front will have to do.
A close up of the hood ornament.
A close up of the siren.
Finally, the turnouts hanging on the wall. My son Aaron who is now the Operations Manager for an Ambulance company was a First Captain in his Fire and Police Explorer Post. He loved the turnout photo in color, but he wanted to see it in black & white so here are two versions of it.
The tour waiting room resembles the living room of a house from the 1940s or 1950s. It could really be a house for all I know. The tour guide said we could shoot all the photos we wanted so I did just that. I had to come back for some of them, but I will try to relate the photos as we saw the sights..
We walked from the living room into a 1950s style kitchen, then into a den. The kitchen shows how the founders wife, Marge Samuels began to wax dip the whiskey bottles. The den shows some of founder Bill Samuels WWII mementos and an old crank telephone. Here are the photos.
The public grounds of the distillery are park like and very well kept. Once out of the building the tour began in we saw this covered walking bridge.
Beyond the bridge we stopped while the tour guide talked. As he talked I got this photo of the old house on the hill overlooking the distillery.
Maker’s Mark is a “small batch Bourbon” whiskey producer. The tour guide explained that generations of the Samuels family have been distilling whiskey. Bill Samuels, a 4th generation member, kept the family yeast strain, but invented a new formula for the whiskey. He began production in 1953 with sales beginning a few years later. The guide also explained that a 6th generation family member still works for the company.
What the tour guide did not explain was the family sold out in 1981. Maker’s Mark has been owned by a succession of larger companies since then and is currently owned by Beam, Inc. Beam is listed on the NYSE and produces many well known liquor brands including Jim Beam, Old Crow, Canadian Club, Teachers, Courvoisier, Harvey’s Bristol Cream and many others.
From this point we walked into the still house. The tower surrounds the column still.
Inside we saw the still which was both hot and not terribly photogenic. We also saw a grain roaster which had no photogenic qualities at all, but for the few of you who are familiar with my background, it had two TEFC C face motors mounted on it. They looked to be about 7.5 & 15 HP.
We also saw these two very shiny copper vats, part of a closed system. All we could see was warm, clear alcohol spurting out of the top into the vats. The tour guide told us at what proof level the alcohol was distilled to, before being pumped to pot stills in another part of the building for a second distilling process. If I recall correctly, the clear whiskey was barreled at about 110 or 120 proof then aged.
The copper vat is part of the story, and maybe a little ahead of things, but that is the order in which we saw the building. The next place we walked into was a room with about 6 old fermenting vats in it. Some of these are over 100 years old, or made with wood that old. Each one is easily 12-15 feet across.
The distillery has others elsewhere, but these were the only ones on the tour. Each vat was in a different stage of the fermenting process. Some of them looked like they were boiling like a witch’s cauldron, but it was really the yeast bubbling off CO2.
The tour guide invited all of us to dip a finger into the vat and taste the mash, which many of us did. The vat I chose wasn’t too far along in the fermenting process so the mash tasted more like bread than anything else. This is probably because the mash is made of corn, winter wheat, & barley.
This being a Saturday only part of the production was going on. From this point we went into the bottling plant, which was very dark, and not in operation. It was too dark to get anything by camera so I let that go.
Next was an old aging warehouse that had only a few barrels in it. The guide explained the aging process. I have shots from the Jim Beam Distillery in an earlier post so I didn’t take out the camera. What the guide said that was interesting was that Maker’s Mark is bottled to taste, not by age. The whiskey must pass through a committee of tasters and nosers, before it is bottled.
A typical batch has a long process before it is allowed to be bottled. Each 53 gallon barrel is filled to 50 gallons to allow for expansion. Each American Oak barrel when filled is taken to the top of one of the aging warehouses. It stays at the top for at least 3 years. Each warehouse is painted black, all the better to warm up in the summers. After 3 years each barrel is brought down to a lower level of the warehouse to finish aging. After about 4.5-6 years barrel samples are taken to tasters and nosers for opinions.
Once the samples pass the committee 150 of the barrels are removed & mixed into a vat for bottling. By the time this has happened each barrel has about 40 gallons left in it, the rest having evaporated.
I asked about what it takes to train a taster or noser. The guide said he knew of no program, but most employees take part at one point or another. He said the committee changes from year to year and so did the number of people on it. It varies on average from 16-20 people. There were immediate volunteers from the tour group.
From the aging warehouse we went into a tasting room. All participants of each tour get a tasting. Maker’s Mark bottles 3 different whiskeys. The first is only for sale at the distillery. It is a clear whiskey with no aging. It is basically a white lightning bottled at 45 proof.
The second is the standard Maker’s Mark whiskey. The third is 46. It is a Maker’s Mark aged the normal amount of time then French Oak is added to the barrel for another 12-18 months of aging to make it smoother. It is named 46 because that is the supplier’s number of the French Oak from their inventory.
I found each of the 3 samples to be excellent. I also thought the Maker’s Mark and the 46 to be superior to the 4 examples of Jim Beam I had tried about 10 days ago. Hopefully that doesn’t offend anyone at the Beam corporate headquarters. Both are company brands and each is made to its own specific formula so an opinion is really up to the consumer. I also found the tour at Maker’s Mark to be more informative than that at Jim Beam.
Once we were done with the tasting we walked into the gift shop, which is a smart way to end a tour. As the clear whiskey is only available at the gift shop I asked if they could ship. Unfortunately, the answer is no. I didn’t want to risk a bottle shipped home in my soft side luggage, even protected by a bubble bag.
Besides whiskey, glassware, trash & trinkets the gift shop also had something called “Bourbon Balls.” They are a bourbon whiskey flavored soft cream candy in a dark chocolate cup topped with a pecan. And they are free. With great restraint I ate only 7!
After leaving the tour I headed back the way I came to stop on the far side of Loretto. In case you think the whiskey business is small time Maker’s Mark has one of their aging farms there. This farm had some 20 aging warehouses. Each is about 6 stories tall and covers an area of about 40×80 yards.
As of this point there is no next post, but something will surely turn up. I expect to be home most of June so maybe I’ll bump into something photogenic then.