There seems to be a holiday for everything these days, but a holiday dedicated to bourbon is one I can definitely get behind. Today we celebrate National Bourbon Day – a holiday to honor the history, culture and taste of “America’s Native Spirit.” We pride ourselves on our wide selection of bourbons to fit every palate. But our biggest pride comes from our BHG Private Selection program.
The thing I love most about bourbon is that no barrel is alike. I have always said that every barrel is like a thumb print or a snowflake with a little booze involved. If you’re looking to find one specific barrel, identical to another, good luck. It ain’t gonna happen my friends. That’s what actually intrigues me about this program, however. I’m so excited to crack open a barrel every pick to try the next new flavor, expression, or mouth feel I’ve never experienced before. When making a pick, there are several factors that come into play. I look for something new to me, our team, and our guests. I want to share it with everybody. I want unique. I want that juice in your glass that makes you think – hmmmmm. I look for complexity. I look for that little something different which sets it apart from the standard bottle you’d find in a liquor store or perhaps your favorite restaurant. Everybody wants what’s hot. The bourbon boom is based on what’s new, and what they can get that nobody else can. For me and our team, that is The BHG Private Selection program.
We can provide a barrel of bourbon that no one else in the world will ever have, has ever had, or will ever have again. It’s a very personal experience for us and for the guest. It’s fun, man! It’s just getting into that barrel and really thinking about it what you are tasting…
- What is the entry experience?
- How long is the finish?
- What flavors pop up and when?
- Is it a shallow flavor or does it have length?
- Is it straight forward or complex?
- Does it hit you in the back or the front of the tongue?
- Is it spicy or sweet?
- Have I tasted this before?
Now, let’s be honest…bad bourbons do get made. Just because it’s a single barrel bourbon doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going be a good barrel of bourbon. Every master distiller in the land wants to say they nail it every time, but they’ll be honest and flat out tell you they don’t. By the time we see and taste those, the distilleries we work with have rolled out barrels designated for the single barrel program. They have tasted, dissected, and designated them for single barrel selections. These are special barrels chosen specifically for us to try, fall in love with, and share with our guests. In the end its like “Show me whatcha got [distillery], I’m your first judge. We’ve got 30 cases of that brown, beautiful liquor coming our way. I’ll pour for everyone else though, and they’ll be your second to 10,000th judge.” That’s what makes it fun.
Our selections are picked with care, crafting a spirit that exudes our love for that little bit of history in our glass. Myself and a team of bartenders, servers, chefs and BHG corporate team members travel to different distilleries around bourbon country, hand-selecting and crafting bourbons to be sold exclusively at OBC Kitchen and other BHG restaurants. So to honor National Bourbon Day, here are my top three BHG Private Selection personal favorites and their stories.
WILD TURKEY KENTUCKY SPIRIT
I’ve tasted a lot of bourbon in my time. A lot of people think I’ve done it all, but you always have to start somewhere. For this pick it was the first time I had ever been to the Wild Turkey distillery. Our group walked into their architectural award-winning gift shop, and we were amazed that waiting for us is, none other than, Eddie Russell. Eddie is the current master distiller, and son of Jimmy Russell. Now, Jimmy is probably the most prominent, in my opinion, living bourbon icon in the world right now. Eddie takes us through the plant, shows us the tanks, the stills, the bottling facility, and everything in between. I mean, they have a real class operation in Lawrenceburg, KY. The real fun happens though once we get into the rick houses. Eddie shares such a passion for what he does and he’s telling us stories about his father Jimmy and how his dad’s best friends were Elmer T. Lee (Buffalo Trace), and Booker Noe (Booker’s Bourbon), and Parker Beam (Heaven Hill Distilleries), whom have all passed on. Jimmy is the last of the “four bourbon horseman.” A living icon and legend for sure.
Now mind you, we were picking out Russell’s Reserve at this point. We’ve cracked open about five barrels to taste, and Eddie is telling us stories about when he was a kid. How Booker, Elmer and Parker would roll up to the distillery and Jimmy and they would have a pint of what they thought was good from their stock. These bourbon legends would trade notes, and maybe catch a buzz – a very cooperative and collaborative community back then. Now I’m a romantic, so it may have been the bourbon, but I did get a bit weepy hearing these stories. Next thing you know, Jimmy Russell walks into the warehouse…and I’m thinking this is awesome. Best. Pick. Ever. We’re trying this beautiful expression of Russell’s Reserve, we pick out a great barrel, and as we’re wrapping things up we get a little nosy and peek around the corner. Hidden away are these barrels that are set aside for Kentucky Spirit private picks. We didn’t come to pick out Kentucky Spirit that day, but being the bourbon enthusiasts we were, we couldn’t help but ask “Can we uh…can we try some?” Eddie was like “Well…Okay, sure.” He pops open a couple barrels, and reluctantly provides us with a few glasses. At this point, the bus is waiting to take us back to the visitor’s center. We know we’re in a bit of a hurry, but we’re sipping on this and I’m thinking we have stumbled on to something amazing. All of us looked at each other, and it was a special moment. We had to have this particular barrel. Long story long, we end up getting our favorite Kentucky Spirit barrel out of the ones we tried and we did it in like 15 minutes. There was no fun story about his dad or the process or some rich history. It was literally “these are some barrels, these are the last of these barrels for the rest of the year, here are some good ones, get on the bus.” Three months later these cases of Kentucky Spirit roll in and we crack it open, try it again and really get a chance to savor it. This was the best accidental pick we’ve ever made, and I think, in the history of BHG. This was two years ago in July and it’s still to this day one of my favorites – the story, the build-up, being rushed, and then actually getting to sit down and enjoy it and really appreciate this Kentucky Spirit. It’s fitting, because that’s what it is, it’s the spirit of Kentucky, man. It’s a lot of fun.
SMOOTH AMBLER SINGLE BARREL
This was a fun pick. Even all the way out in West Virginia. I gathered a team, which included our best palates and bartenders. The crew and I jumped in a van at 6am to hit the road for a four-and-a-half-hour drive through the prettiest land America has to offer. The season was late fall, driving through the hills of Eastern Kentucky and Appalachia. We experienced beautiful landscape, beautiful people, and beautiful stories. So, we’re driving through the hills, dodging coal trucks, bending around the turn, and speed traps. It was nothing like I’d ever seen before (and the Mayor’s dad was “the guy” in Pike County). Smooth Ambler, once we arrived, was a couple of buildings, a gift shop/distillery, and a view to admire via postcard. John Foster and John Little gave us a quick tour (because there wasn’t much to tour), covering distillation/production, aging and supply. Then, they take us back to the warehouse that’s maybe 30 yards behind the building. We walk in the door and it’s not what you traditionally see in the pictures – the big ricks or the barrels stacked on top of each other, eight stories high. Smooth Ambler is a one story warehouse, maybe, ten to fifteen thousand square feet. There are barrels on the floor and on steel shelves. Now, Smooth Ambler gets to go and select the best barrels from MGP (Midwest Grain Products of Indiana). We pick out ten samples to try. [Time Machine, rewind to two years ago in November, we got this particular/kick-ass private selection. The following year, low and behold, that same single barrel was named by Whisky Advocate “Single Barrel of the Year.” MGP was also named “Distillery of the Year.” What? The Mayor’s pick is the best in the land?!].
To recap, we walked in, and this was the winner and didn’t even know it yet. The program that would top all other programs invited us in the door. John, had a drill, and he says “Alright guys, this is pretty easy. Here’s how you read the barrel head. This is this recipe, how old it is, and this type of whiskey. Point out a barrel, I’ll drill it, fill it, and we’ll move on.” He would go up to a barrel, drill into it with a cup to catch the whiskey, plug it back up, and then we’d go on to the next one. We picked out ten samples in about 30-45 minutes. He’s got a fold-up, long table set up and we put the ten samples of whiskey on that table. He says “Alright guys, I’m gonna give you an hour. I’m gonna leave you alone. I’ll let you do what you do, taste it, go through it, make your notes, pick something. If you need more than an hour, I’ll be back, we’ll check in, then we’ll have lunch afterwards.” That was Smooth Ambler.
The group and I just got to sit there for an hour with these ten samples we just picked in what looks like a hodge-podge warehouse with barrels everywhere. We get to tasting. What I love more than just tasting and drinking bourbon is sharing that experience with our team members and creating a tasting panel that we trust. If you bring a mixed variety team – men and women, novices, enthusiasts, someone who likes rye whiskey more than bourbon or bourbon more than rye – you build a foundation of tasters to get a really good variety of bourbons. With this particular panel of tasters, everybody knew their bourbon so I kinda let them drive the bus. I was just the facilitator and wanted to see what they could come up with and they came up with an incredible pick. We call it our Cow Barrel because Smooth Ambler was well-known for their rye whiskys in their single barrel program but they had discontinued that program just before we got there. Their last single barrel of rye they called the Unicorn Barrel. We wanted our own little BHG touch on the pick we selected, not to poke fun but just to kind of have fun. It’s a very basic label, it says Smooth Ambler, it doesn’t even say BHG. It’s just a dark picture, like a stamp of a cow and then has our private select pick on its hoof. And we call it the Cow Barrel. They had this beautiful unicorn in mid-trot, very prominent image on their label, and we just had a big ol’ cow. But it’s another one of my favorites because it’s just such a simple story that ended with some really good bourbon.
MAKER’S MARK partnered with RHINEGEIST BREWERY
My Favorite. This was the very first pick from Maker’s Mark with BHG, and one of the first few picks that anybody ever in the history of Maker’s Mark. We were given the chance to pick a private barrel, and guide a program that will go down in history as “rad.” They (Maker’s Mark) had just started a program, and, believe it or not, wanted our help to pilot the experience. Our notes from this pick helped design future picks and the way that they ran them at Maker’s Mark. This was pretty cool, especially considering how big Maker’s Mark was. Our feedback helped them design their private barrel program.
And thus begins the Bourbon Genesis. We got together with our friends at Rhinegeist Brewery, and included them for an opportunity to pick out this unique barrel-finished whiskey that was different from any other private barrel selection program on the market. Bluegrass Hospitality Group didn’t want to stop there though. I wanted to fill that barrel with some beer, unlike any other. Pretty awesome, right? So, Rhinegeist Brewery sent their team, Justin Handshoe and Luke Cole. We all got on a bus, and teamed up with the best and brightest of our BHG leadership group: Brian McCarty, Bruce Drake, John McNamara, Virgil Covington, and Russ Thomas. Once we got there, the bourbon experimentation consumed, er….began. – it was, check in and let’s do your pick. We were one of the first to participate in the program, and took full advantage of it. We have faith our bourbon is strong.
First, a quick back story. Maker’s Mark creates a bourbon the best way they can possibly distill, age, and barrel over time. Now, at the beginning of this post, I mentioned a bourbon being like a thumb print or a snowflake. Maker’s Mark throws that theory out of the window. They thrive on consistency. It’s going to be slightly different barrel to barrel but they want every single one to be the same so they can provide that constant, quality bourbon that tastes great to everyone on the planet. Since they make their bourbon so well and so consistent, the only way to change it is you have to add a finishing product to it. Maker’s Mark uses wooden staves to alter the final product (by creating grooves, introducing to convection heat, baking, etc.) through flavor staves they submerge into the bourbon for 9 weeks after initial aging. Five staves create a large number of flavor profiles. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but those five staves can create 1000+ different flavor profiles of that individual bourbon. To speed this process up in the selection, we work like scientists in a lab, mixing and matching bourbons already created from each stave profile to find the perfect bourbon equation. The result is a unique private selection. That’s not it though…
They broke us up into two groups, BHG and Rhinegeist, with each group working on different bourbon combinations. Both of our groups decide on a bourbon that we have determined spectacular, and then we met in the middle to determine the combination of our two picks. BHG and Rhinegeist, at that point, created the final product, keeping in mind what would taste good as a bourbon and as a barrel to age beer. This experience was literally a beer and bourbon pairing made in heaven. That is why this pick was so much fun. There are so many facets, so many spokes in the wheel, but at the end of the day this is what Rhinegeist and BHG came up with together. The marriage of the two selections into one created one really good bourbon. We could get technical and scientific about it, but in the end, the bourbon tastes awesome. That was the beauty of a project like this one.
Every bourbon has a history but every person has their own story and experience with every bourbon they taste. This National Bourbon Day, whether you consider yourself the bourbon beginner or the “spirited” expert, join me in honoring this holiday and raise a glass to beginning and continuing your bourbon journey.