I have big plans for my social isolation down on the farms. As I wrote elsewhere, I have planted my seeds & trees and it is too early to cut the weeds. My new idea – a split rail fence. I have a bunch of logs left over from the last harvest and I can drag them out with my ATV. I am not talking a long fence, mind you, just enough to look cool and give me lots of good exercise and a project to do. If old Abe can do it with those primitive tools at his disposal, I can do it.
Now, I do question my current motivation. Yesterday was a “beer free day” down on the farms. Today I am back home & this day is not. I noticed that my estimation of the ease of my projects increased with each once of the golden liquid. I admit that I may not finish, but I figure I can start.
How hard can it be? I have an axe and I used to know how to use it. The logs are pre-cut and dried out.
I have a theory about boozing and America’s expansion. Imagine the situation on the frontier in Tennessee. The local guys are consuming the local corn improved into a liquid form and they start to talking about adventure in Texas. They have heard of it but they do not know too much about the details. How hard can it be? Sure enough, there are dangerous Comanche and it is not part of the USA, but – hey – how hard can it be? Before they know it, some are hold up in the Alamo and others are shortly avenging them at San Jacinto. This was repeated a thousand of times, big and small, all over the West, and the places where these guys went became the United States of America.
I told the people of my district that I would serve them as faithfully as I had done; but if not, they might go to hell, and I would go to Texas.
I know this sounds disrespectful, but I think we underestimate this sort of motivation. Scientists now think that beer was invented before bread, and there is certainly no doubt that whiskey was important on the American frontier. The plans made under the influence are sometimes fulfilled as commitment extend beyond.
I pity the fools who drink so much that it ruins their lives, but similarly I pity those who have never partaken and never understood that their contemplation has more than one speed, and the forward and backward are not the only options.
Bourbon is a gift of the oak tree. More than half of whiskey’s flavor & all of its color comes from the oak in the barrels. The whiskey is taken in and out of the wood as it ages and matures. The taste of Bourbon is the taste of the oak forest. I think that is beautiful. We went to the Old Forester distillery in Louisville. Since it was a tree farmer convention, Old Forster seemed appropriate, although we would prefer something like “experienced but still energetic forester.”
They make whiskey at their downtown location and also have a cooperage. The barrels need to be made of new white oak, so there is a big demand for that wood.
We are a little worried about the future of white oak. It is common now, but most oak forests are middle aged to old growth. The new generation is not coming up in sufficient numbers. A big reason is that maturing of forests of eastern North America. Oaks need light and disturbance to regenerate. It takes 30-80 years to grow a white oak tree, so we need to act now so that Bourbon drinkers of the future will benefit.
George Washington was good manager and smart investor. He diversified his crops and always looked for profitable enterprise. Among them was a grist mill and – partially based on the – a distillery.
Washington: A Man Who Appreciated Good Spirits Washington was fond of wine and spirits. He also favored porter beer. He opened the grist mill and distillery later in his life. It soon became a big profit center. We did not learn much about Washington’s booze making enterprise when I was in grade school. There was some effort to keep the whole story obscure, as temperance movements, & even prohibition came to prominence. It wouldn’t do to have the father of our country a prominent boozer and booze maker.
Washington was an extraordinary person. We know Washington the general, Washington the president, even Washington the explorer & surveyor. Washington the builder and practical businessman seems way too much for one man, but this is also a very impressive part of this life, and it was the source of most of his joy. In a less revolutionary time, he would have been content to work his farm and industries. Even as president, he got regular, detailed reports from his plantations (plural) and industries.
We know a lot about how Washington ran the place by these reports and Washington’s replies. He never stopped running the show and it was clearly his passion.
The Distillery Reopened The distillery was reopened in 2007. They asked for donations from the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States and within a few hours had millions of dollars in donations. Good PR. The distillers were able to figure out recipes for Washington’s whiskey by looking at records of the types of grains that went into it. The first batches of whiskey were not good; they are learning and improving.
Whiskey Flavor is Mostly Oak and Char Newly distilled whiskey is clear and not very good. Whiskey takes years to age to get its flavor. MOST of the flavor (60%+) and all its color comes from the wood in the barrels. At temperatures rise and fall, the whiskey is absorbed by the wood and released. Whiskey barrels are always made of white oak and for American whiskey they can be used only once. There is a brisk after market for barrels. Some of them are used by Scotch makers, who do not have the new barrel requirement, and lately some are sold to craft beer brewers. The need to age whiskey is one of the barriers to entry to new distillers, since they have to wait some years to sell product. In Virginia, you can get decent, but not good, whiskey in two years. The minimum for reasonable smoothness is four years. Standard is seven and you can go to about ten years to get the best. It takes longer in places like Scotland because of the cooler weather. Scotch is not much good until it is at least 12-years-old and gets it best at around 18. After that it becomes more expensive but not much better.
Setting the Mash We got to watch the distiller “setting the mash.” They mix the grains with nearly boiling water and stir it all together. Then they let it cook, i.e. start to ferment. Sweet mash relies on new yeast to make the product. Sour mash, which is more common, takes some of the mash from earlier batches. Sour mash can have a more consistent quality. More details about the distillery are at this link.
What is art? Setting the mash is a form of performance art and the act of making whiskey in the traditional way is an art in itself. Consider what it means to create art. We can appreciate paintings and sculpture for the finished product that we can see. But more of the art is related to its production. That is the “act of art” and the act of creation is often more meaningful than the creation itself. Creation of something like whiskey is meaningful to the creators and those around them.
Part of finding meaning in life, as search we should all be making, is working toward excellence and a state of flow, where things just fall into place. We have all experienced this but find it hard to express. What we are doing is less important than the rigor we put into it. A craftsman finds this meaning in making his furniture, pottery, beer or whiskey and seeking excellence in the production. You may seek intellectual excellence. I find great meaning in my forestry. Whatever it is, it is important that it be challenging and NOT all under our control. That is the art. We are responding to changing conditions to create the end we have in mind. The people working at the distillery are artists.
My first picture is me in front of the wheels that work the grist mill. Next are from the distillery. the techniques and tools are like those of Washington’s time.
It is hard to buy Christmas presents for me. I know that I have everything I want that the kids could reasonably give me. So it is nice to get “consumables”. I do enjoy trying different sorts of whiskey and beer. I really cannot tell the difference in detail, but it is fun to try. The picture shows what the kids bought for Christmas. I have begun to work through it.
Of course, the big reason that it is fun to tour is because I get to be with Chrissy in new situations. You can see in my first photo when we had supper at a nice Italian place. The second photo is from the Navy Pier on Lake Michigan. As we walked back along the pier, I mentioned that this scene reminded me of Lake Michigan (I was thinking of Milwaukee). Chrissy made fun of me, pointing out that maybe it reminded me of Lake Michigan because it WAS Lake Michigan.
We stayed in the Chicago suburb of Elmhurst. It is an “trolley suburb,” i.e. one built around trains and transit. These are pleasant suburbs, since they are fairly dense near the train stations. This one featured restaurants and beer gardens, surrounded by leafy suburbs.
We also toured the Quincy Street Distillery. They make a variety of spirits there, including various sorts of whiskeys and gins. The owner and manager, Derrick Mancini, was clearly an enthusiast for his profession. He explained how the system worked. The key to flavor is aging. Whiskey acquires flavors from the wood in the barrels. If they use smaller barrel, it ages faster, but produces a less mature whiskey. We did the tasting. Chrissy liked the younger whiskey. We bought three bottles, each of the different sorts.
As I listened to Mr. Mancini and perceived his love of what he did, I thought about the future of work. We have passed through the machine age, where we need to mass-produce standard products. Maybe we can do products the are also in their own ways works of art.
Chrissy and I went to visit the Chrissy & I went up to visit the Catoctin Creek Distilling Company in Purcellville. You can follow the link for details. They make small batches of rye whiskey and brandy, all from locally sourced products. They try to make it a closed loop process. For example, the leftover grain (after the whiskey is made) goes to local farmers, where it is fed to cattle and, according to the tour guide, the meat ends up at the “Market Burger” restaurant across the street.
I am not a great connoisseur of whiskey, although I have learned that I like some more than others. Generally I like bourbon better than rye. Most of the decent bourbon brands are okay. I am not sure I could really tell most of them apart. Scotch can be good, but it depends much more on the brand. I am not fond of brandy, but the Catoctin Creek folks make a brandy called “1757” (the year Loudoun became a county) that is very good. But since I cannot tell very much by the taste, I like the stories. I know that many of the stories are not true, but I like them still. The story of the Catoctin distillery is one of a local business trying to make an ecologically friendly booze. I like that.
The tour was interesting and short. I have been on distillery tours before . We went on the Kentucky Bourbon Tour a few years back. But I learned something interesting. the spirits come out in three groups: the head, the heart and the tail. The head is too strong and that is the stuff that will kill or blind you. The heart is the part they make into whiskey. The tail is too weak to be used directly, but at the Catoctin Distillery they use it as the base for a gin they make. After the tour we had the tasting. As I said, the “1767” brandy was good. My second favorite was Roundstone Rye 97. It was a little too strong. The 97 refers to the proof.
After the tasting, we went over to Market Burger across the street. They were very good, old fashioned burgers. We didn’t notice any of the whiskey flavor in meat that they might in theory have picked up from the whiskey grain feed. Purcellville is a nice little town. It is the start of the W&OD bike trail.
The Kentucky Bourbon Trail connects six Bourbon makers in Northern Kentucky. It is a very pretty drive and you get the added benefit of visiting distilleries and tasting their whiskey. We stopped only at Jim Beam and Wild Turkey. I think you might need a couple of days to do the whole thing, not least because you probably could not drive if you visited all the distillers in one day, even with the very small samples you get. Below is the center of the district, Bardstown, Kentucky the “Bourbon capital of the world.”
Bourbon is a true American product. The Congress declared Bourbon to be America’s native spirit and there are specific requirements for making it. For example, it must be at least 51% corn. In early American times, distilling bulky corn and other grains into whiskey was the best and sometimes the only way farmers on the distant frontier could get their products profitably to markets across wilderness with no or bad roads. Bourbon can be made anywhere in the U.S., but around 95% is made in the State of Kentucky, near where this sort of whiskey originated. Northern Kentucky has good water for making whiskey because of its limestone and limestone soils that filter water and make it “sweet.”
All Bourbon must be aged in new white oak barrels. The barrels can be used only once, after which they are sold to Scotch whiskey producers and makers of other alcohol products. They are charred inside. The raw whiskey – called white dog, this is as far as they get when they make moonshine or white lightning – is clear and essentially flavorless. No artificial colors or flavors may be added to the finished whiskey. During the seasons of the aging process (the aging barns are not heated or air conditioned) the whiskey expands and contracts soaking up woody flavors and color from the wood and charcoal of the barrels. When you take a drink of Kentucky Bourbon, you taste the forests, creeks and at least four and maybe ten years’ worth of Kentucky seasons. Below shows Kentucky along I -64.
We bought a couple of bottles of whiskey at Jim Beam. I got a bottle of Jim Beam Black. It is older than the white label and has a noticeably smoother feel. If you want to drink Bourbon, this is the one I recommend. I keep around a bottle of “Old Forester” because I like the name, but the Beam Black is better. We also got a bottle of a new product called “Red Stag”. It is not officially Bourbon because it has some cherry flavor added. At the Wild Turkey distillery, we got a bottle of rye whiskey. This also was technically not Bourbon. It tastes a little more like Scotch. You can see below the distribution of grain in two Jim Beam products, Basil Hayden and Knob Hill. I don’t like the Basil Hayden. It is a little too harsh. Knob Hill is good, but a little too pricey, IMO.
We should all drink responsibly, of course, but I think we should all drink a little. Beers, wines and whiskeys are deeply embedded in so many of our traditions, both in the creation and in the consumption of the products. There is just much more than the schluck going on. I suppose you could have specific health or religious concerns, but besides that, it is a silly person who refuses a drink when offered.
Above is Booker Noe, the grandson of the eponymous Jim Beam. Booker created the modern Jim Beam distillery. His son, Fred is the 7th generation of the Beam family to run the business. If you look in back of Booker and below at the ginkgo tree in the front yard, you notice the black bark. This is caused by a fungus that grows on the surfaces around distilleries because of the evaporation from the whiskeys. The lost alcohol is called the “angel’s share” and in humid climates it feeds the fungus. It makes it look like there has been a fire, but it is evidently harmless to the trees.