If you haven’t noticed, whiskey is really, really hot right now in the spirits world. Don’t tell the curmudgeons that have been sipping their favorite bourbons and ryes since the beginning of time, but these bold, American-made spirits are rapidly becoming the most important liquors in the broader drinking conversation.
There is an incredible amount of history in the making of American whiskey. Prior to Prohibition, it was an important source of income for many American farmers, who sold their grain to distilleries or simply made their own. During Prohibition, whiskey enjoyed a sort of “medical marijuana” status in Kentucky, where over six million prescriptions were written for the sauce throughout the 13 years that distilled spirits and other alcoholic beverages were banned. Now, it’s enjoying a renaissance as curious drinkers sip their way into the intoxicating world of American Bourbon.
There is whiskey made across the country, but its home will always be Kentucky. Bourbon is practically a religion in Kentucky, evidenced by 20-plus distilleries operating in Kentucky at present, distilling over 200 brands of whiskey of all kinds. If you consider yourself a whiskey drinker with any credibility, you should probably plan to hit at least a few of these historic distilleries along the American Whiskey Trail as part of your booze-focused bucket list. You should probably also consider stopping in Virginia to check out George Washington’s historically accurate, working distillery.
After all, there’s nothing more satisfying than understanding the history of what is in your glass.
Amy McCarthy is Paste’s Assistant Food Editor, and recently a huge fan of bourbon whiskey. Tell her your favorite brands on Twitter @aemccarthy.
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Distilling whiskey is actually one of America's oldest enterprises. President George Washington got into the distillery business in 1797, when he hired James Anderson, a Scotsman and distiller, as manager of his massive farm. The distillery has since been recreated just down the street from Mt. Vernon, and produces white and aged whiskey year-round.
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The whiskey at Mt. Vernon is produced today in the same way that it would have been in 1797. A staff of eight, led by Manager of Historic Trades Steve Bashore, fill barrels and rake corn mash by hand to produce each bottle of whiskey.
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The historic Stitzel-Weller distillery, once home to Pappy Van Winkle, is more of a museum to the history of whiskey than a functional distillery, but they're still using some pretty innovative techniques in bourbon. For Blade & Bow, a new Kentucky straight bourbon, the distillery is using a Solera aging system. The Solera system mingles young whiskey with original Stitzel-Weller bourbon from 1992, just before the distillery ceased major operations. In this system, no barrel is ever completely drained, leaving original bourbon in each bottle to mingle with the younger whiskeys.
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At the Wild Turkey Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, fermented whiskey is distilled in a continuous still, which vaporizes the whiskey at a high temperature before it undergoes a second distillation process for ultimate smoothness. This still, made by the Vendome Still Company in Louisville, KY, produces thousands of gallons of whiskey every day at Wild Turkey.
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Wild Turkey, like most bourbon distillers, ages their whiskey in open-air warehouses. The barrels, which are exposed to the elements, will expand as the weather heats up, which infuses the whiskey with flavor characteristics from the charred oak barrels. When temperatures cool, the whiskey mingles back into the barrel as the wood contracts.
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This breathtaking scenery at the Wild Turkey distillery in Lawrenceburg, KY, is called "The Angels' View," which gets its name from the "angel's share," or whiskey that evaporates from the barrel throughout the aging process.
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The whiskey that comes from this copper still at the Maker's Mark Distillery in Loretto, KY, is dubbed "White Dog," or unaged white whiskey. This whiskey goes into barrels for aging to produce classic Maker's Mark bourbon, or is sold unaged as Maker's Mark White Dog.
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The black tar-like substance on the outside of this Maker's Mark barrel is whiskey that has made its way out of the wood's grain, and caramelized on the surface. This seepage produces the incredible smell of a whiskey aging warehouse, a mix between smoky and sweet from the wood and the whiskey.
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This sweet, funky corn mash will, after some time in a still and an oak barrel, become smooth, aged Woodford Reserve bourbon whiskey. Each fermentation tank at the Woodford Reserve distillery in Versailles, KY, holds 7,500 gallons of corn mash that ferments for six days before heading for the still. The average fermentation time in the bourbon industry is around three days, but Woodford Reserve ferments for six in pursuit of a more richly flavored bourbon.
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The Woodford Reserve Distillery in Versailles, KY, has existed in one form or another since the 1800s. It has since been modernized to produce the globally-influential brand that is Woodford Reserve, but much of that history remains in tact, including these original rackhouses where the whiskey is aged today.