Bourbon and Bluegrass

I woke up at Miguel’s Pizza on April 19th to rhythmic drizzle on my tent. The rain was soft, and light peeked through my insulated plastic cocoon. The sounds of the Red River Gorge had been incredible since our arrival Monday night. Bernie Krause, founder of Wild Sanctuary, an organization that explores natural soundscapes, has an amazing TEDtalk called “the voice of the natural world.” Sitting in my tent that morning, I could not help but think of one of his quotes. He said, “when you’re in a rain forest, where the density and diversity of wildlife are the greatest, you will always hear critters entering the soundscape each day in a structured order, almost as if following Darwin’s timeline of evolution: insects first, then amphibians, then reptiles, then birds, then mammals.” While the Red is only receives around 50 inches of precipitation a year (a location must average at least 80 inches per year to be considered a rain forest), his words could not have been heard more clearly beginning with the section of crickets. The low croaks of frogs in the nearby pond, added the bass line soon after. A yellow billed cuckoo, robin, and morning dove added avian woodwinds, while squirrels chattered along in tune.

I rolled over and packed my bag. Nate and I were planning on another strong day of climbing, this time at the Graining Fork Natural Preserve. Unfortunately, our plans were quickly foiled. As I stepped from the tent, the previously gentle precipitation thickened to a sheet of dollops, soaking me within the minute it took me to reach the pavilion. While we were eager to climb, Nate and I agreed to head towards Nashville early. There we would meet our friend Jessi. Climbing in the downpour would not have been fun for anyone.

The rain dissipated as the morning continued. It was over 80℉ by midday. The early departure from the Gorge, allowed us leeway to explore the back roads. As we emerged from the lowlands, the trees slowly petered out, and grassed hills began butting up against the clearing blue sky. I always knew Kentucky as the Blue Grass State though, I had never given it much thought until Nate and I found ourselves west past the Daniel Boone National Forest. Even within the confines of our aluminum chariot, we could feel the vibrancy and vitality of Spring. Thoroughbreds patiently munched thick pastures. Yellow flowered meadows covered perfectly painted spring landscapes.

With time to spare, Nate and I took a detour through Dansville where we discovered Wilderness Trail Distillery, a small new locally owned bourbon operation. While the bourbon will not be released until December of this year (it takes 4 years to officially age a Kentucky bourbon), Nate and I were given a tour by marketing director Jared Smith. Smith had a fit build and tanned skin. He spoke with a strong articulate southern accent that exuded excitement and knowledge of the distilling process.

Yeast was a main point of topic, as Wilderness Trail Distillery also owns the lab FermSolutions, a research and development lab that provides 20% of the yeast for all alcohol in the US (including ethanol). 4000 gallon vats of slow bubbling corn, wheat, barley mash were at the center of the distillery warehouse. The smells undoubtedly reminded me of baking homemade bread as child.

All ingredients, outside the barley (though by next year Wilderness Trail hopes to change that), are sourced within four miles of the distillery. Outside the yeast, the limestone filtered water, seemed to give Jared a strong sense of Kentucky pride. Continuing the tour, Jared showed us the white oak casks, that, again, were harvested and cooped in Kentucky. We continued to the copper percolator system that filtered whatever liquor they were making to a higher proof. Jared grabbed a small cup of Rye Bourbon, straight off the percolator, that was 127 proof. I was initially intimidated by the high alcohol content but, a single sip opened my eyes to the smoothest whiskey I have ever encountered. It was rich and complex, full of palatable flavors that will only be enhanced by barrel aging. I could have sat there and drank that rye whiskey in the sun the rest of the day.

After finishing the tour, Nate and I were treated to a liquor tasting. While Wilderness Trail will be best known for its bourbon, they currently sell Blue Heron Vodka and Harvest Rum. Though I have never been a vodka drinker, Blue Heron is not only drinkable but flavorful and enjoyable, even without a mixer. As one of the four unfiltered vodkas on the market today, Blue Heron holds many of the flavors that are lost in other vodkas percolation processes.

While the vodka was enjoyable, Harvest Rum is a liquor that is truly exciting. Most rum is made using cane sugar as the main fermentation component. Instead of importing caned sugar from Florida or the Caribbean, Wilderness Trail uses locally sourced sorghum, a North African grass that can grow up to twelve feet tall. It was often used throughout the US until caned sugar became more readily available to the every man in the early 19th century. Wilderness Trail ages Harvest Rum in recycled bourbon casks giving the liquor a smoky molasses flavor.

At the end of our taste testing, we had the privilege of interviewing Jared right outside the visitor center. We looked over the rolling hills and delved, again, into Jared’s extensive bourbon knowledge. You can listen to the interview below.

Now, I don’t know too much about bourbon or Kentucky or the limestone water that makes Kentucky bourbon so special but, I sure know way more about it after talking to Jared. Listening to another person talk about their passion is a remarkable gift. I am so very grateful for the opportunity to have discovered Wilderness Trail Distillery and to meet Jared. While Kentucky might not be a top destination on most traveler's list, with the Red River Gorge, the Blue Hills, and the bourbon trail, it certainly should be.

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