Monday, April 22, 2024

A Train Ride to a Distillery? Yes, Please!


For special events, you can park at the Kentucky Railroad Museum
in New Haven and ride the train to Log Still Distillery.
Okay, I'm a sucker for a train ride.

Log Still Distillery’s premier event venue, The Legacy, kicks off its Southern Supper Series on Friday, May 10th. Lee Brice performs that night at The Amp, Log Still's concert venue. You can drive to Log Still and park at the venue if you want, but for a $20 up-charge you can park at the Kentucky Railroad Museum in New Haven and ride a vintage train to Log Still. At the end of the evening, the train takes you back to New Haven. The ride is about seven miles and offers "a scenic view of Kentucky’s landscape." Ticket information is here.

Wait! You can take a train there? How is that possible?

As you may know, Log Still is an entertainment complex that happens to include a whiskey distillery. It is about 50 miles south of Louisville and about 140 miles north of Nashville. 

Log Still is the work of Wally Dant and other members of the Dant family. They chose the site for many reasons. Their ancestors made whiskey there before Prohibition and many living family members grew up nearby. But the people who built the first distilleries there, which included members of the Beam, Head, and Pottinger families as well as Dants, chose the site in part because it was located on a new branch of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad, the Lebanon Branch, which opened in 1857.

Although regular service on that line ended in about 1987, the tracks are still there. The section going northwest out of New Haven, toward Boston (Kentucky, not Massachusetts) is maintained by the Kentucky Railroad Museum, which uses it for excursions. (The museum was originally located in Boston.) Log Still is in the other direction, at what the railroad called Gethsemane Station, a reference to the nearby Abbey which, apparently unbeknownst to the railroad, spells it Gethsemani. Distilleries all along the Lebanon Branch were the railroad's biggest customers.

Back in the day, of course, you could get the train in Louisville, Frankfort, or Lexington and ride to Gethsemane, Lebanon, New Haven, Athertonville, and many other places. The main line connected Louisville and Nashville. Athertonville had its own, short branch that connected it to New Haven. North of the Lebanon Branch there was another branch for distilleries called the Springfield Branch. That's the line the Kentucky Dinner Train uses, starting in Bardstown.

Some of Kentucky's distilleries still have rail access for shipping grain, new barrels, and empty bottles in, and full bottles out. Only Log Still, and only for special events, has passenger service. (Which, by the way, includes cocktail service.)

The Kentucky Dinner Train goes as far as Chapeze Station before heading back to Bardstown. The  Chapeze Distillery used to be there (it played Czechoslovakia in the movie "Stripes"). What's left is now part of Beam's Clermont complex, which is where all their visitor attractions are located. The train doesn't stop there but it could. Beam's bigger distillery, named for Booker Noe, doesn't welcome visitors but it's on the Lebanon Branch, close to where the Kentucky Railroad Museum excursions turn back to New Haven. 

Many other distilleries have train tracks near their sites, even though in some cases they haven't been maintained. How cool would it be if you could do the whole Kentucky Bourbon Trail by train?

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Step In, Step Up


What to try next?
Today, most of what you see and read about bourbon and rye is focused on limited editions, finishes, and other mostly premium expressions. That's fine if that's what you're into, but it's a nightmare for newcomers trying to get to know the category. Too often, things you are told to try, when you try to try them, are hard or impossible to find, or too damn expensive.

On top of that, producers these days are expanding the envelope with different tastes and experiences that may be fine for what they are, but they are such outliers they just confuse someone still trying to understand the category.

What's a newbie to do?

It's easy to make the rounds of the major brands and their main expressions, a little Jack, a little Jim, some Evan or Elijah. There is nothing wrong with that. What I call "Step In, Step Up" is a slightly different approach. The idea is to introduce yourself to a distillery or brand family by selecting an expression that has some or all of the following characteristics.
  1. It is a step-up from the entry level expression.
  2. It is usually available.
  3. It is a decent value.

A perfect example of this paradigm is Jim Beam Black Label. It is significantly better than white label, a little higher proof, usually available in any decent-sized store, and the upcharge is modest. It goes for about $25 a bottle. In most stores, it will be right next to White Label.

In the Heaven Hill family, you can start with the standard Evan Williams Black Label, but the 1783 expression is a little better, a little higher proof, and in that same $25 range. 

These step-up expressions used to have age statements in the six- to eight-year range, but 'better' still usually means more age, which is evident in side-by-side taste comparisons.

If you want to get away from mega-producers, consider The Representative, a straight bourbon from Proof and Wood, a smallish independent bottler. It won a big award from Whisky Magazine. Yes, the liquid is from MGP, but it's bottled in 20-barrel batches at 115° proof, aged at least 4 years, and widely available at about $50. 

I'd like to include more small producers on a list like this but it's difficult because they tend to have limited distribution. There is also the price. No small producer, whether they're a distiller or not, can compete with Beam Suntory, Heaven Hill, or Brown-Forman on price. I used to tell people the challenge was to find something better than Evan Williams Black Label for the same or a lower price. I no longer say that because it can't be done! If you ever want to drink anything other than Evan Williams Black Label, then you'll have to get used to paying more for whiskey that isn't necessarily that much better.

So, back to the mega-producers. Like Jim Beam Black Label, Beam Suntory has other entry-level step ups hiding in plain sight. Basil Hayden is Beam Suntory's version of a high-rye bourbon, but it's the same distillate as Old Grand-Dad. Like Basil, the standard Old Grand-Dad expression is 80° proof, but right there on the shelf next to it is the much better, and only slightly more expensive, Old Grand-Dad Bonded. If you're really lucky, next to that will be the even better Old Grand-Dad 114.

Another old reliable is Brown-Forman's Old Forester. It is the product that launched the company in 1870. It is the same recipe as Woodford Reserve. They make a lot of noise about their limited editions, but standard Old Forester is a solid, full-bodied bourbon, at 86° proof, for about $25, with the step-up to 100° proof for just a few dollars more.

Which brings us to the two Gems of Lawrenceburg that never disappoint, Four Roses and Wild Turkey. Four Roses Single Barrel is about $50, but that's the one you want. Wild Turkey 101, bourbon or rye is hard to beat at about $25. 

This advice, I should repeat, is for people just discovering American whiskey as something to drink. It won't enhance your credibility on Instagram.

But if you have some suggestions for bourbons or ryes that meet the "Step In, Step Up" criteria, feel free to include them in a comment below.

Wednesday, April 3, 2024

Online Sleuths Solve Bourbon Movie Mystery


Warren William and Alice White in "Employee's Entrance" (1933).

"Pre-code" refers to movies made between 1927 and 1934, before strict enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code (also known as the Hays Code). Pre-code movies featured more sexual innuendo, profanity, promiscuity, and other controversial themes than later films. Such licentiousness would not return to celluloid until the 1960s.

I love pre-code movies.

This one, "Employee's Entrance," is the story of a big city department store struggling to survive in the early years of the Great Depression. It has an "Upstairs/Downstairs" quality, depicting owners and management but also front-line employees. 

When "Employee's Entrance" was released in 1933, National Prohibition was still in effect, yet when ruthless department store president Kurt Anderson shares a drink with Polly, a store employee, he pulls from his desk a pint of Old Taylor Bourbon.

Later in the film, the store throws a big party for employees. Champagne flows freely. No one comments on Prohibition one way or the other. During the party, many of the characters become happily, or not-so-happily, drunk. 

After Roosevelt and the Democrats swept the 1932 elections, it was assumed Prohibition was finished, but it was still in effect when "Employee's Entrance" was released.

During Prohibition, Old Taylor was sold, legally, "for medicinal purposes only." The bottles looked like this.

A Prohibition medicinal pint of Old Taylor Bourbon, in its original box.
It is a different label from the one in the movie. Now, producers change labels all the time, and it's possible that the movie label was a different release. It's also possible the bottle in the movie was a prop, a mockup created by the film's art department, but it seems unlikely they would make a fake label for a real brand.

After I watched "Employee's Entrance" a few weeks ago (and I recommend it if you get the chance. It's a hoot), I captured the above picture and posted it on Facebook. All I wrote was, "From 'Employee's Entrance' (1933). Look what they're drinking." That began a conversation about the bottle's provenance, initially assuming it was a legal Prohibition pint, then noticing the difference between the bottle in the picture and the known Prohibition pint above.

Then someone provided the answer.

A pint bottle of Old Taylor bourbon, made in Canada,
and likely smuggled into the U.S. for illegal sale.
Only so much detail can be gleaned from the movie screen capture, but this looks like the same bottle. What is it? Look closely. It was made by Consolidated Distilleries Limited in Canada. Talk about verisimilitude? Of course, ruthless department store president Kurt Anderson would have access to bootleg liquor, smuggled from Canada.

I've written here before about how Mary Dowling hired Joe Beam to make Waterfill and Frazier bourbon in Mexico. Joe Beam's nephew, Guy Beam, did something similar in Cananda. This Canadian Old Taylor is attributed to a gentleman from Covington, Kentucky, whose name is partially obscured. The idea behind these cross-border distilleries was that the manufacturing was entirely legal. The product could be made and sold legally in the state or province where it was produced. That took the producer entirely out of the equation. The person who bought the whiskey, legally, and exported it into the United States, illegally, committed the crime.

Nevertheless, despite its legal manufacture, you can't necessarily trust everything on the label. Was it bourbon? The law making bourbon whiskey a distinctive product of the United States was still several decades in the future, so that's not an issue. In Canada, as part of their normal whisky production process, distilleries make a corn distillate very similar to bourbon, which they then redistill to near neutrality before aging in used barrels. 

Was this that bourbon-like intermediate distillate? Maybe, it's impossible to know. The only bottle we know about is empty.