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Our whiskey man Jay Erisman works closely with some of Kentucky’s finest and most progressive, creative Bourbon distillers and bottlers. He dives deep inside the flavors of our native whiskey, pulling out the essential character of each recipe, each distillery, each style of Bourbon. It is an absolute pleasure to work with such terrific companies. Read about our labor of love below…
Buffalo Trace Distillery
The earliest reference to the drinking, if not distillation, of whiskey in Kentucky dates to June 12, 1775, when Englishman Nicholas Cresswell, after hunting buffalo (“a sort of wild cattle”) paid a visit to Capt. Hancock Lee at his camp on the Elkhorn Creek. Cresswell records, “Went to Captn. Lee\'s camp, who treated me very kindly with a dram of Whiskey.” No mention is made of where Lee obtained the whiskey, and in all likelihood an early surveyor and settler like Lee would not have lugged a still with him through the Cumberland Gap from Virginia for operation in Kentucky; the whiskey was probably a supply on Lee’s expedition. But Capt. Lee went on later that month to found Leestown, where the Cove Spring empties into the Kentucky River, just barely downriver from present day downtown Frankfort. Distilling would take place on this site virtually uninterrupted to the present day (there was a slight, unfortunate blip from 1919-1930), headed by such giants of the industry as Edmund Haynes Taylor, George T. Stagg and Col. Albert B. Blanton, and Elmer T. Lee. And today, since the turn of the 21st century, the distillery hard at work at this confluence of history—since 1999 it is called Buffalo Trace—ranks as one of the best in the world, the pacesetter of innovation in the Bourbon industry, and a dynamic force in modern American drink.
Buffalo Trace produces the most progressive, complete range of American whiskey available today. Along with well-executed traditional Bourbon brands your grandparents might have drunk like Ancient Age, there is the flagship brand Buffalo Trace, for which the producer tastes every barrel in the batch. They produce the Weller and Van Winkle brands and thus preserve the tradition of wheated Bourbon that begat the Stitzel-Weller and Rip Van Winkle lines and proved influential at Makers Mark. These three whiskeys—Ancient Age, Buffalo Trace, and W.L. Weller—comprise three distinct Bourbon grain bills, two with rye and of course the wheated Weller family. They also make a riveting straight rye, Sazerac, at six years old, and—for what it’s worth because we are, after all, about whiskey on this page—a from-scratch, organic all-corn vodka.
As innovators, their Master Distiller Emeritus Elmer T. Lee back in 1984 created Blanton’s, the first single barrel Bourbon—an event which forever changed the Bourbon industry—and today they bottle an additional four different single barrel brands, including an eponymous bottling in honor of Mr. Lee. In 2002, their Antique Collection, an extremely coveted annual release of five whiskeys, burst like a bombshell on the Bourbon scene, particularly George T. Stagg which stands, Zeus-like, above the fray, a whiskey which at approximately 15 years and at full barrel proof, rates as one of the greatest Bourbons ever produced and, like a 1961 first-growth Bordeaux, belies the notion that Bourbon can’t make old bones in the aging warehouse. Beginning in 2006 Buffalo Trace began releasing their Experimental Collection, an ongoing exploration of the future of American whiskey, drawing on several thousand barrels of experiments laid down at the distillery—new charred French oak, rice and barley whiskey, wine finishes, double barrel aging, all sorts of stuff. In 2009 they purchased the Tom Moore (i.e. Barton Brands) distillery in Bardstown, bringing yet another distillery into the fold for a total of four distillery installations (along with the micro pot-still they have installed at Frankfort, and the A. Smith Bowman distillery in Virginia). And they reacquired, at long last, Old Taylor, the whiskey brand bearing the name and likeness of the great E.H. Taylor, for which they have big plans. In terms of progressive Bourbon business philosophy, pretty much the rest of the industry can be clearly discerned in Buffalo Trace’s rear view mirror.
But this portfolio, all about American whiskey and its history and its future, is not for me the most remarkable thing about Buffalo Trace. It’s the spirit with which they charge into a brave new world of Bourbon, even the courage they display in developing new products and trying new ideas. They listen to their customers; they respond to consumers (George T. Stagg itself was developed at a customer’s suggestion). As a retailer, they allow me not only extraordinary freedom in bottling my own barrels for The Party Source, but allow me to get inside the warehouse and the quality lab and the regauging room to craft my own experimental whiskey. Imagine the confidence, the fearlessness required to grant such access! They do not, as some larger liquor companies do, sit entrenched behind a stalwart label, buying brands for their market share, waiting for the next conglomerating multinational dissolution and merger. They are owned by a family business, Sazerac, out of New Orleans; they have partnered with Julian Van Winkle to supply him in his own richly endowed family heritage with whiskey. It matters to Buffalo Trace that they own the keys to Old Taylor. For these reasons, at this time and until further notice, I rank them first among equals in the Bourbon business.
Buffalo Trace Distillery at once preserves tradition, and advances the cause of new whiskey. How fitting, how American, that the Kentucky distillery borne up on a kindly first dram in the year before the Revolution should today work in the uttermost vanguard of American whiskey. With one foot they stride into the 21st century, followed by a legion of newly impassioned, ever more informed and thoughtful whiskey drinkers. The other foot…stands firmly planted on that river bank in 1775, in the track of a buffalo on the trace, carving a native whiskey out of the wilderness.
Four Roses Distillery
Two thousand and ten marks 100 years of distillation at the striking, yellow Four Roses distillery outside Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. It’s amazing to me, though, that when I came to The Party Source in 2001, few whiskey brands on our shelves were so reviled as Four Roses, which at the time, as master distiller Jim Rutledge puts it, was a “rotgut blended whiskey.” Yet today, this one-of-a-kind distillery has come out of nowhere, rocketed to the tips of the tongues of Bourbon lovers worldwide, acclaimed as one of the best distilleries of them all, and setting a furious pace at winning the hearts and minds and livers of the most discerning of Bourbon cognoscenti. What happened, Four Roses? When did you get so…good?
In fact, from 1910 Four Roses has never, not even during Prohibition, ceased to make outstanding Bourbon whiskey, and after Prohibition it was the biggest selling whiskey in America. But from the early 1950s, then-owners Seagram chose to market the straight Bourbon overseas, while selling to Americans only a blended whiskey, the aforementioned yellow label of increasingly diminished quality. A generation of Bourbon drinkers grew up knowing Four Roses as that rotgut whiskey their fathers drank. The dissolution of Seagram in 2002, and the subsequent 2003 sale of the Four Roses distillery and brand to Kirin provided a happy ending to a story the likes of which usually ends poorly for the whiskey involved. Had the Four Roses brand been sold off and the building (a National Historic Landmark) liquidated, it would have been an irretrievable loss for whiskey lovers. Four Roses, you see, is the most unusual of all Bourbon distilleries.
Four Roses makes Bourbon differently from anyone else. They employ two grain bills, called “OE” and “OB”, each of a tooth-rattlingly high rye content (20% and 35% respectively). Even more unusual, they use five different strains of yeast (V, K, O, Q, and F). Most distillers use only one yeast strain, in the interest not only of simplicity and expense but also due to the challenge in maintaining consistent character and style. And Four Roses’ warehouses are unique as well; only one story high, they minimize the profound effect of warehouse location on whiskey flavor which characterizes the tall warehouses found elsewhere in Kentucky.
The benefit of Four Roses’ approach is found in the wide range of flavors at their disposal. Whiskeys made with the V yeast emerge from the barrel with a spicy, quite rounded character, while K yeast contributes a powerful body and F yeast a minty note. The recent OESO offers a persistently dry flavor with unique notes of cherry skin and vanilla. These ten different whiskeys are married together in varying proportions to make up the broad Four Roses portfolio. The new-old Four Roses Yellow Label straight Bourbon (the rotgut blend is, mercifully, gone forever) includes all ten recipes, and might be the best 80° proof Bourbon on the market. The innovative Four Roses Small Batch (and if ever a whiskey deserved the term “small batch” it is this one) uses only four, while the limited edition, barrel proof Mariage is crafted out of a different recipe each year.
I can compare somewhat the emergence of Four Roses and its especially rich, fulsome yet spicy flavor to the revolution in wine over the last quarter century. Generally speaking, for many years the great red wines of Europe—Bordeaux, or Barolo, for example—offered glorious flavor, but only after years of aging have softened a backward, tannic, hard-edged profile; furthermore, many vintages were marred by poor weather. But from the mid-1980s, wine drinkers discovered New World wines, crafted with new techniques in superb climatic conditions that eliminated the crapshoot of European weather. Like the New World wines of California and Australia, Four Roses is riper, fruitier, softer than other Bourbons while at the same time delivering a wallop of classic rye spice. While other Bourbons are sometimes notably oaky, even tannic, the new charred oak barrel sometimes seems to disappear inside the flavor of a Four Roses whiskey For a whiskey drinker weaned on rough-and-tumble Bourbons or too-mild blended whiskey, tasting these Bourbons can be a revelation akin to the discovery, by America’s wine drinkers, of California Merlot in the 1990s, full of you’ve-never-tasted-Bourbon-like-this moments.
And Four Roses takes a back seat to no one when it comes to getting that whiskey flavor directly into the tumblers of whiskey lovers. In January 2009, I began working with Four Roses to release all ten of their whiskeys under a new Four Roses Barrel Strength label. This collection, the first two of which were released in early September, a sort of whiskey reference library, in time will present the whole fantastic range of Four Roses flavor, allowing devotees the opportunity to craft their own special vattings. Our Barrel Strength range lets you taste the genetic building blocks of Four Roses whiskey, in the full glory of an extra-aged, barrel proof, unfiltered format.
This leads me to another point about Four Roses: their courage, passion, and confidence not only in their product but in the people who drink it. When I first met Four Roses at the September 2006 Kentucky Bourbon Festival, they had just released Small Batch and were taking baby steps in becoming more open to new ideas. I released the first private bottling of Four Roses Single Barrel the following May, and in the years since this team of Kentuckians and Japanese have only opened their doors wider to Bourbon drinkers. Few distilleries grant such open access to the jewels of their warehouses.
Yet that’s part of the Four Roses character, too. For nigh on 50 years, veterans of the Seagram days such as master distiller Jim Rutledge, manager Al Young, director of distillation John Rhea and others have been possessed of a conviction that they made a great, great whiskey. Yet virtually no one even in Kentucky, let alone the other 49 states, knew about it. Under the beatific ownership of Kirin, not only has the brand persevered but has soared to previously unimaginable heights. With the possible exceptions of Frankfort’s Buffalo Trace, and Scotland’s Bruichladdich, I can’t think of any distillery over the last decade that has so rapidly risen from the depths of near obscurity to the top of the charts. I’ll raise a glass to that, Four Roses…make that, ten glasses.
Heaven Hill Distillery
Few distilleries in the world have, in the last 4-5 years, so elevated their status in the eyes of serious whiskey drinkers as Heaven Hill. Owned by the Shapira family since its founding in 1935, this (second largest in Bourbon, behind only Jim Beam) large international conglomerate runs their American whiskey business with all the care and attention it deserves. Heaven Hill has made some fine whiskey for many years, but until lately also were known for bottling a huge range of younger, 80 proof Bourbons. Suffice to say they were not the first choice of the hippest Bourbon cognoscenti.
That all changed with the release in 2007 of the inaugural vintage of Parker’s Heritage, a limited edition selected by Master Distiller Emeritus Parker Beam. This 13-year-old barrel proof, unchillfiltered Bourbon displayed the full glory of Heaven Hill’s extensive warehouses. The 2008 Parker’s Heritage clocked in at an astonishing 27 years of age, and even more astounding was the freshness of this Bourbon Methuselah. For 2009, Parker released “Golden Heritage,” a vatted history of his 50 years in the Bourbon industry featuring whiskey from the five decades of his career: 2000s, 1990s, 1980s and 70s and 3% of a 1968 vintage whiskey. Clearly Heaven Hill can age with the best of them. Alongside this project, Heaven Hill has explored the upper age limit of rye whiskey as well. Their Rittenhouse rye has seen bottlings at 21, 22, 23, and 25 years old, all of them crackling fresh and proving that rye has a somewhat different aging curve than Bourbon. These progressive bottlings have considerably raised Heaven Hill’s profile with connoisseurs.
Heaven Hill ranks with Buffalo Trace for the breadth and breadth of their whiskey portfolio. Along with their mainstay rye recipe Bourbon, they craft a wheated Bourbon for the Old Fitzgerald line; a straight rye for Rittenhouse; and Bernheim the only straight wheat whiskey in living memory. There are a number of terrific values in the HH lineup, like Elijah Craig 18 Year Old Single Barrel, which features in the Party Source Private Barrel program. And plain ol’ Heaven Hill six year 100 proof is a heck of a bargain at just $9.29 a bottle.
The original Heaven Hill distillery in Bardstown burned down in 1996. Today Craig Beam, Parker’s son and following in his footsteps as master distiller, operates the Bernheim distillery in Louisville, where two big column stills crank out whiskey 24/7. Despite the size of their business, Heaven Hill very much retains a family atmosphere. I am happy to have them in the fold and continue to find the best they have to offer.
You may have seen the battalion of bottles on the top shelf in aisle 10A, bearing the name “Willett” over a heraldic family crest. Indeed, there is a family involved here, one of the last such businesses in the Bourbon industry. Yet if you rang the phone in Bardstown and asked to speak to Mr. or Ms. Willett, you would be disappointed, for the operator’s name now is of Norwegian, not French, descent. Even Kulsveen, a native of Norway, purchased the Willett Distillery in 1984 from his father-in-law Thompson Willett and since then has slowly restored it while also running a bottling business, Kentucky Bourbon Distillers. Mr. Kulsveen’s son Drew heads up production, while daughter Britt and son-in-law Hunter Chavanne covers sales and marketing.
Kentucky Bourbon Distillers is responsible for a swath of Bourbon brands, including Noah’s Mill, Rowan’s Creek, and Pure Kentucky, as well as a number of privately owned labels such as Pogue. KBD functions rather like an American version of a Scottish-style independent bottler. They purchase barrels of young whiskey from several Kentucky Bourbon distilleries and age it in their warehouses at Willett, high atop a hill just south of Bardstown. The whiskeys age here, sometimes for many years, until turning into one of the many KBD brands.
There are two different Bourbon labels which carry the Willett name. One of these is Willett Pot Still Reserve, released in 2008; this bottle is shaped after the gleaming copper pot still at Willett, more on that later. The other Willett-named whiskey is the white label with the coat of arms, the “Willett Family Estate.” This label is reserved for single barrel bottlings, and this is the one that has proven so interesting at The Party Source. Willett is fully independent (actually, along with Heaven Hill, it’s the only Kentucky distillery still in the hands of the founding family, even if it’s not operational at present). They don’t answer to shareholders, executives, suits or beancounters. This means they have the freedom to offer full custom hot-rod bottlings to The Party Source. They will bottle anything I want under any specifications. Single barrel? Check. No chill-filtration? No problem! I positively revel in the ability to bottle these unfiltered, barrel proof Bourbons. And perhaps the most interesting aspect is that, since they acquire their stocks of whiskey from several (though not all) of Kentucky’s distilleries, the Kulsveens can offer many different styles of Bourbon. It’s great fun to taste our lineup of Willetts and try to guess the distillery that made it.
About that pot still, the Kulsveens have been very slowly restoring the distillery to operational status for what seems like forever. The distillery was founded in 1935 by Thompson Willett, whose family origins in Bourbon date back to post-Civil War. The distillery produced Bourbon until the early 1980s. The original column still and doubler are still on site, but the rest of the equipment—fermenters, cookers, etc.—are long gone. The gorgeous pot still was installed in 2007, and includes a fractionating column on top of the pot. When the Kulsveens light it up, hopefully in 2010, they will have the remarkable ability to mix their several stills in any configuration they like. It looks like those hot-rod Bourbons are going to get even faster.