Saturday, October 19, 2013

Your Barrel Is Ready

I started this blog three and half months ago on my 45th birthday with a pledge to the world (or the dozen or so people who have read this thing so far) to spend the next five years broadening my horizons through travel. I vowed to visit at least two new continents and go to at least one place that would have totally freaked me out in my first 45 years. I got off to a pretty good start a week later by spending a week and a half in Germany and Austria, two places I had never visited. A week after returning from that European trip, I was in Las Vegas for the 15th time. Last weekend, I took another trip.

So after a 15th trip to Vegas (which is by now somewhat routine), this must be some exotic destination, right? And that's absolutely correct, if you consider Kentucky an exotic destination.

This is not my first trip to the bluegrass state. I visited Memphis, Nashville and Kentucky on a music and bourbon themed vacation in 2006 and as part of that trip I took a whirlwind ride in whatever rental car I had picked up (probably a red Grand Am; somehow I'm partial to those when renting cars) to what then was all seven Kentucky bourbon producers in three days.

Either when I was in Kentucky in 2006 or shortly before I visited or maybe even right after I got back, I signed up to be a Maker's Mark Ambassador. The point of being an Ambassador is to spread the word about Maker's Mark bourbon and recruit others to buy and enjoy their bourbon as much as we as Ambassadors do. When you sign up, you get an official Ambassador card, receive yearly holiday gifts and get invited periodically to local Maker's Mark events sponsored by the distillery. You also get your name engraved on a brass plaque and placed on a barrel of bourbon in their warehouse. Through the Ambassador page on the Maker's Mark website, you can track the aging progress of the barrel.

This past summer, I received an invitation to visit the distillery as a guest and hand dip some bottles featuring bourbon from my barrel. After seven years, my barrel was ready.

Now I knew this was  probably a total marketing gimmick. It was seemingly nothing more than a ruse to get me to drive ten or so hours across Virginia, West Virginia and most of Kentucky to buy a couple of bottles of bourbon. But I didn't care. This only happens once, right? I knew I couldn't miss this invitation. So after a day of driving through rain and sun; a trip down Diamond Caverns (Mammoth Cave was closed thanks to our elected officials); a trek through the woods at Dinosaur World; a spontaneous trip to Nashville; and a couple of nights at the Wigwam Village No. 2 motel (seriously), I found myself back in Loretto, Kentucky at the Maker's Mark distillery as a distinguished guest to buy some bourbon with my name on it.

We got to the distillery a little before noon and from the moment I walked through the door of the visitors' center, I knew my preconceived notion that this was all a marketing gimmick was way off. From the greeting when I walked in the door ("Welcome, Mr. Ambassador") all the way through me hand dipping my bottles into that famous Maker's Mark wax, the staff through the experience made me feel like a VIP every minute I was there.

We started our journey with a tour of the working parts of the distillery (I got a special little medal with a name tag; it's the small things in life sometimes) which took us from the still house, through the label printing shop, inside one of the rickhouses where the bourbon is aged and finally by the bottling line. After the bottling line, we spent some time tasting the bourbon starting with the White Dog that gets put into the new charred oak barrels then on to Maker's Mark and finally Maker's 46, which is standard mature aged Maker's Mark which is then re-casked for several months with a few charred French oak barrel staves to impart a different flavor than regular Maker's Mark bourbon.

As I mentioned earlier, I'd visited seven distilleries in Kentucky before in addition to Jack Daniel's in Tennessee so I already knew how bourbon was made. But I appreciated the refresher now that I've been drinking bourbon for a while (when I visited in 2006 I was pretty much a novice). I didn't recall that Maker's Mark rotated their barrels for consistent flavor in every barrel, which explains the lack of a single barrel or small batch product from this distiller. I also hadn't been really taught how to taste bourbon properly, which we got some excellent instruction on during the tasting. For the record, I liked the Maker's Mark product the best, which surprised me because I really thought I liked the Maker's 46 best after the first sip.

After the tasting came the best part: me picking up my customized bottles after a seven year maturing process. Since a picture is allegedly worth a thousand words, I think that process is best told through a few carefully selected pictures. You are about to go through 10,000 words very quickly.

The blank canvas of the unlabeled Maker's Mark bottles.
Adding my custom labels.
Labeling complete. 
Apron on!
Sleeves on!
Dip No. 1. 
Dip No. 2.
Applying the special Ambassadors' only seal to the top of the bottle.
Bagged and ready for home.
One of the bottles I dipped is now safe among the other bourbon bottles on my kitchen counter but this one is more special than the others. It was personally created and transported back by me. Along the way from a label-less bottle of brown liquor to the moment I left the distillery, the staff at Maker's Mark made me believe this experience was something special which it absolutely was. To be honest, when I first got the invitation to visit, I had very little intention of going. But good friends convinced me that this would be worthwhile and a ton of fun and they were right on both counts. I will likely never go back to Kentucky again but then again I thought that when I drove out of the state in '06. Maybe I'll have the opportunity to go back again, perhaps when one of my friends finds out that their barrel is ready.

Home sweet home!

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