Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail: A Pilgrimage To The Maker’s Mark Distillery

maker's mark bourbonI’m not much of a bourbon connoisseur. In fact, before a recent road trip to Kentucky where 95% of the world’s bourbon is made, I had no idea what distinguished bourbon from regular old whiskey. But when in Rome, do as the Romans do, so I decided to visit the Maker’s Mark Distillery, reputedly one of the best stops on Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail.

The distillery is a 25-minute drive, along a windy country road that dips and turns along a pastoral landscape from Bardstown, a distinctive small town named the “most beautiful small town in America” by USA Today this year. Along the way we passed some pitch-black Maker’s Mark warehouses that resembled a disused prison complex and one of them reassured us that we were just three miles away from some sweet Kentucky bourbon.
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The distillery is set across a large complex that makes for a nice walk on a sunny day. There are a host of buildings, each painted dark brown and adorned with shutters the same shade of red as Maker’s Marks distinctive red wax bottle seals, which are hand dipped on the premises. (You can buy and dip your own bottle in the gift shop.)


maker's mark distilleryThe tour used to be free, but it now costs $7, which is still a bargain considering the fact they offer guests a chance to sample three bourbons and learn about a product that’s a deeply entrenched part of Kentucky’s culture.

The Samuels family, which founded Maker’s Mark, and scores of other Scotch-Irish distillers, fled to Kentucky from Pennsylvania after George Washington imposed a whiskey tax in 1791, sparking the Whiskey Rebellion. The whiskey tax went uncollected in Kentucky, then a frontier state, as no one had the will to enforce the law or prosecute those who ignored it.

Our tour guide, Jacqueline, told us that a nearby lake served as the base for the product.




“Why are there so many successful bourbon distilleries in the state of Kentucky?” she asked. “Here in a six county radius, we happen to sit on top of a very rich limestone shelf, that limestone filters our water making it iron free and calcium rich. Perfect for distilling whiskey with.”

maker's mark distillery fermentation roomAnd what makes bourbon different from regular whiskey?
To call it a bourbon whiskey it must have at least 51% corn, in the recipe – Maker’s Mark uses 70%. It must also consist of only grain, yeast and water, with no artificial flavors or colors; it has to be aged for at least two years in new, charred, oak barrels; and it has to be distilled at no more than 160 proof, barreled at no more than 125 proof and bottled at at least 80 proof.

Many of the technical details went over our heads, but we enjoyed having the opportunity to dip our hands in the vats in the fermentation room and were stoked to have a chance to sample three of their products: the 90 proof Maker’s White, which is only available at the distillery (thank God), regular Marker’s Mark and Maker’s 46, which Jacqueline described as “bourbon on steroids.”


We were instructed to taste the Maker’s White first and for good reason – the stuff is nasty.

“I like to look at all your faces as you’re tasting the Maker’s White,” Jacqueline said. “I can tell if you’ve had moonshine before, you know the Maker’s White isn’t that bad.”


maker's mark liberal conservativeBut the Maker’s Mark and the Maker’s 46 were complex, with long, sweet, smooth finishes that lingered on the front of the tongue for a long time. I felt like I was still tasting them well after my insides were already warmed and my mouth felt a little numb, as though I’d just gotten some Novocain at the dentist. But on the way out, rather than getting a toothbrush and some floss, we were given a nice piece of chocolate – a sweet ending to our introduction to the world of Kentucky bourbon.



[Photos by Dave Seminara]

Craft foods calling: nationwide schools, seminars and workshops teach you how to launch your own business

craft foodsMost children don’t dream of selling cheese or hacking apart animal carcasses when they grow up, but it’s a popular fantasy for many adults. Like most romantic-sounding culinary vocations, making craft foods and beverages can be hard work, and a risky business enterprise. “No matter how passionate someone is about their product,” says Heidi Yorkshire, founder of Portland, Oregon’s Food by Hand Seminars, “without business skills, they’ll never survive.”

Yorkshire, a small business consultant and former food and wine writer, was inspired to launch Food by Hand in 2009 because she saw a niche. “Our courses are mini-apprenticeships in running a sustainable business.” Past curricula have included butchery and craft distilling.

Food by Hand offers two-to-three-day intensives that teach the “craft and business of artisan food.” While the courses are designed for prospective business owners, they’re open to anyone wanting to know more about handcrafted foods.

[Photo credit: Flickr user mystuart]craft foodsFood by Hand has an artisan cheese program that teaches everything from tasting, buying, storage and shop design to creating a business plan. The course is led by esteemed Portland cheesemonger Steve Jones, the son of a Maytag Dairy herdsman. Additional instructors include an expert on business planning and a tax specialist.

Jones has been in the business for over 17 years and is now on his second retail cheese venture, Portland’s Cheese Bar. He’s an industry badass and the winner of the 2011 Cheesemonger Invitational (yes, it really does exist and let me tell you, as a cheesemonger, it’s a pretty intense occupation and competition).

Food by Hand’s fourth annual seminar on The Craft and Business of Retailing Artisan Cheese will be held in Portland from May 30-June 2, 2012, and costs $1,795 per person; a $1,595 early enrollment tuition fee is available if paid in full by April 1. Click here for details on how to register.

In Spokane, Washington, Dry Fly Distilling’s aptly named Distilling School teaches their “farm to bottle” ethos (they use only locally, sustainably-grown raw ingredients in their vodka, gin, bourbon and whiskey) in two-day and one-week courses designed to “provide a variety of hands-on training opportunities to aspiring distillers.”

Opening in Oakland’s Jack London Square in April is the Food Craft Institute. Supported by sponsors and partnerships with some of the Bay Area’s most renowned artisan food organizations, farmers and food artisans (some of whom are also the instructors) the new school aims to “reinvigorate the creation and success of artisan food craft business in the U.S. through a combination of…training courses steeped in technical techniques along with a rigorous entrepreneurship program.”
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It’s easy to poke fun at the overuse of words like “artisan” and “handcrafted,” and even I cringe when I hear naifs dreamily speak of quitting their six-figure tech jobs and buying a goat dairy. The reality is that unless you put in the hard time doing internships and learning the business end of things — and that’s assuming you have real, honest-to-god talent and passion — you’re not going to succeed at any food business. Having seed money or disposable income doesn’t equal good product.

On the positive side, my former employer, a Seattle cheesemonger, did her homework and spent two years interning, developing a business plan and taking Jones’ workshop as well as making him her mentor. Her business has been a success from day one. If you’re serious about getting (food) crafty, you can run a viable business. Just don’t think it’s going to be easy.

Kickstarter
and incubator kitchens such as San Francisco’s La Cocina have helped many craft food businesses get off the ground. If you’re considering a career in this industry, I highly recommend these and similar programs as resources. And don’t forget: craft foods make excellent travel souvenirs.

[Photo credit: lamb, Laurel Miller; cheese, Flicker user Mitchmaitree]

Why start a craft food business? Because you “can pickle that.”


Fall festivals: five delicious ways to celebrate

fall festivalsThere’s something really depressing about seeing the last of the tomatoes, corn, and stonefruit at the farmers market, the withering vines in my neighbor’s gardens. But fall is also an exciting time for produce geeks, what with all the peppers and squash, pomegranates and persimmons.

If you love yourself some good food and drink, here are five reasons to welcome fall. No matter where you live in the North America, at least one of these is guaranteed to be coming soon to a town near you.

1. Hit a harvest festival
From the hokey (corn mazes, hay rides) to the downright debaucherous (late-night live music and beer gardens, camping in orchards), harvest festivals are a blast, no matter what your age. A great harvest festival will include delicious food; local craft beer, cider, or wine; farm tours and seminars; a children’s area and special activities; live music, and, if you’re lucky, a beautiful, bucolic setting in which to experience it all. Some festivals run the span of a weekend, providing an opportunity to take in more of the educational offerings.

Below are some of my favorite festivals, all of which have an educational component to them. Should you find yourself in Northern California in early October, it’s worth a detour to attend the famous Hoes Down Harvest Festival (Oct.1-2) at Full Belly Farm in the Capay Valley, near Davis. It’s one hell of a party (there’s also a top-notch children’s activity area, so little people will have fun, too); definitely plan on camping in the orchard and bring your swim suit; the farm is located beside Cache Creek.

Other great celebrations of fall: Vashon Harvest Farm Tour (Sept. 25), Vashon Island, WA; CUESA Harvest Festival (Oct. 22), Ferry Building Farmers Market, San Francisco, CA; Annual Harvest Festival, Sustainable Settings (mid-Sept.; date varies, but mark your calendars for next year!) Carbondale, CO.

September 22nd, from 7:30-9pm, the 16th Annual Harvest in the Square is being held in Union Square; online tickets are still available until tomorrow at noon for what is one of New York’s premier food and wine events. Some general admission tickets will be available at the event for a higher price.

[Photo credit: Flickr user zakVTA]fall festivals2. Check out Crush
In North America, the wine grape harvest is held in September or October, depending upon weather patterns. In Napa Valley, “Crush” has just started, and with it, fall colors on the vines; barrel tastings; special winery tours, wine-and-cheese pairings, and up-close-and-personal views of the Crush itself. Even if you’re not an oenophile, it’s by far the most beautiful time to visit Napa and it’s neighboring wine region, Sonoma Country. For Napa wineries and event listings, click here. For California’s Central Coast wine region events, click here.

Check out wine harvest events in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, Washington state’s Yakima and Walla Walla regions, and British Columbia’s Fraser and Okanogan Valleys (go to Wines of the Northwest for events calendar on all of the aforementioned); for New York’s Finger Lakes, Hudson Valley, and other regions go to Uncork New York!

3. Go apple pickingfall festivals
With apple-growing regions scattered all over North America–from Virginia and Pennsylvania to New York, Washington state, British Columbia, and California–there’s no shortage of opportunities to attend festivals or U-picks. This traditional fall pastime is a fun activity for kids and supports the local economy and foodshed. Put up apple butter, -sauce, or freeze a pie for Thanksgiving, but be sure to save enough for winter (all apples and pears are placed in cold storage once the growing season ends, so the fruit you buy later in the season won’t be freshly picked). Store in a cool, dry, dark place. P.S. Don’t forget to buy some cider doughnuts if they’re available.

Please note that due to unusual weather patterns (aka “global warming”) this past year, the harvest is delayed in many parts of the country, including Washington. Check with local farms before heading out.

4. Visit a cidery
If you prefer your apples fermented, there are some excellent craft cideries throughout North America. The tradition of craft cider distilling hails from Western Europe, but domestically, the hot spots are the Pacific Northwest (including British Columbia), parts of the Midwest, and the Northeast.
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5. Feast at a farm dinner
For food lovers, few things beat dining outdoors in an orchard or pasture, surrounded by the people and ingredients that made your meal possible. Farm dinners are a growing national trend; they may be hosted independently by the farm (Washington’s Dog Mountain Farm, Colorado’s Zephyros Farm, and California’s Harley Farms Goat Dairy are my picks) or hosted by companies like Portland, Oregon’s Plate & Pitchfork and Boulder’s Meadow Lark Farm Dinners. Many farm dinners are fundraisers to help protect local agricultural easements or wetlands, but your participation also supports the farm and local foodshed.

Farm dinners are also held at wineries, distilleries, craft breweries, mariculture farms, and creameries; a tour should be included. The best part, however, is when the guests include everyone from the local cheesemaker, rancher, fisherman, or winemaker, to the potter who made the plates. It’s both humbling and gratifying to meet the people who work so hard to ensure local communities have a safe, sustainable food supply.

[Photo credits: grapes, Flickr user minnucci]

Wine Tasting Room Etiquette

Daily Pampering: The Ardbeg Double Barrel Experience

Ardbeg Double Barrel Gift Box
Ardbeg USA is offering a travel package that scotch-lovers won’t want to miss — that is, if they can come up with a cool $20,000.

This chocolatey bespoke leather rifle case repurposed as a gift box for two single cask bottlings of 1974 Ardbeg Single Malt Scotch Whisky (so you can taste the difference between casks), as well as silver chalices, tasting notebooks and matching Omas pen, is just one of the perks of the Ardbeg Double Barrel Experience. Beyond tasting the peaty, seductively floral notes of the “ultimate Islay single malt,” purchase of this hand-made gun case includes a VIP trip for two to the Ardbeg distillery, complete with a private tour and a private tasting with a member of the whisky creation team.

The trip includes airfare to the isle of Islay, airport transfer to and from the hotel, accommodation, two breakfasts, one lunch and one dinner. To contact an Ardbeg representative with your interest, call 212-251-8200.
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Want more? Get your daily dose of pampering right here.

[Photo credit: Annie Scott]

Enter to win a “cuisinternship” in Oregon

Ever wondered what it’s like to be a winemaker, brewmaster, or cheesemaker? How about a rancher, chocolate maker, fisherman(or woman), or a liquor distiller? Here’s your chance to find out. Seven lucky winners will be given the opportunity to apprentice in their chosen professions, helping out with all the duties of the job and learning the ropes from the pros.

The Oregon Bounty Cuisinternship contest runs until September 18 and aims to highlight the variety and quality of food and drink produced locally. The internships take place around the state, covering the Pacific coast, Willamette Valley, Mt. Hood, Eastern Oregon and Portland. The brewing intern will be mixing barley and hops at Full Sail Brewing and the apprentice chef will be prepping dishes at Le Pigeon Restaurant. Each apprentice will receive airfare from his or her home city to Portland, six nights of lodging, a five day apprenticeship, and $1000 cash to cover meals and other expenses.

To enter, compose a 140-character statement on why you should be chosen for the apprenticeship, along with a two-minute video explaining why you are the best person for the job. You can submit one entry per category, but you can apply for as many categories as you wish. Entries must be received by September 18 and the winners will be announced on September 30.