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Connecticut River Valley, New England, United States

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Traumatic, Exhilirating Tour with Freddie

Arrived at Buffalo Trace at 1025, the first tours began at 10, on yet another beautiful day. As we pulled into the driveway several tours were at various places on the grounds but Freddie was standing with a group of three men and two women in front of the gift shop. I walked up and greeted him laughingly chiding him for not remembering me--after all this is my fourth visit! I don't want to think how many people he has given tours to over the years. Freddie is the third direct generation to work here and a cousin of his grandfather's was the first family member to work for the distillery. I asked if he were about to embark on a tour and, if so, if we might join them. He regretfully told me that his was the hard hat tour and that we needed to call ahead for it. But he graciously escorted us into the gift shop and informed the lady organizer that I was a repeat visitor and to get us set up for the next tour, which would start at 11. Bill and I decided to look around the gift shop and were checking out some really smart fleece vests for him when Freddie returned and said his group had invited us to join them. We were thrilled and off we went by 1030. Little did I know what lay in store but I am happy I did not, for I surely would have passed up a really wonderful experience, frightening though it was. For those of you who don't know, I am terrified of height and it never occured to me that it would be a factor. The tour started innocuously enough--walking along spoke of the history of the oldest distillery in the country and how it was one of a very few allowed to function during prohibition--both as a wareouse for the products of other distilleries which had been put in a concentration camp--Buffalo Trace--by the government and as a manufacturer of medicinal spirits! One could, with a prescription, obtain bourbon and other distilled products during prohibition and, with the cooperation of one's physician, even select one's favorite brand of libation--this one works best for me,Doctor! One could obtain a pint every few weeks for one's condition and naturally anyone else in the family with a condition of one type or another would need a prescription,too. Amazing how many sick relations people had! He also spoke of the taxation process and free houses. As we passed several old buildings he explained what they were used for and what the plans are for them now. The big white building is to be revamped and I believe will once more be part of the processing. The building at the end of the alley which is half brick, half stone was where Dickel was distilled after prohibition before they returned to Tennessee. It is also the building in which Freddie played as a child as his grandfather worked. I did not take a picture of the clubhouse this time but adjacent to the plant is a lovely landscaped park. It is open to the public and this Saturday there will be an Easter Egg Roll there. It is also a site where weddings etc take place and where the family who owns the plant throws various company events. Two years ago, Freddie's father at age 92 was honored by having one of the main gathering rooms in the clubhouse dedicated to him with a plaque and all. The occasion was the rolling out of the 5millionith barrel of whiskey--they put a single barrel into a special rick house--the world's smallest--which is large enough for one barrel. Ten years later, and 999,999 barrels later, it is rolled out and tapped for a big party. I was there four years ago and had hoped to be there for the 5 millionith but didn't get back in time. I would have loved to see his Dad. He said it was the only time, other than when his Mother died, that he saw his father cry--at the dedication of the room to him. Freddie said the family is so good, they honor employees and past employees while they are still alive and able to enjoy the honor along with friends and family. His Dad is still going strong and has at least one shot of bourbon a day! We continued among the old buildings and saw where the power for the plant is generated. Since I was last there the honchos have decided to reuse their byproducts ,both solid and gaseous ,to generate power. They were selling the materials to cosmetic firms etc but now they redirect them through a souped up fuel injected big engine into the boiler and reclaim almost all the material --saves them a boatload in fuel costs and is cleaner. They still sell the solids to pet food manufacturers among other places. We came to the grain elevators where he spoke of the type of corn used for the distillation process and said that the new genetically engineered corn is not doing the trick so they have hired farmers to grow the old white corn that works best. He also spoke of the grinding of the corn and said there are two ways of grinding--the old grist mill grinding wheels which some of the distilleries in the area use and a flat flaying process which does cause sparking and is used here. He had heard the process criticized by other distillers as charring the corn and ruining the flavor so at one of the company gatherings, where there were several master distillers from several distilleries he asked what the difference was and which was better. He said a knowing grin passed over their faces but they admitted that the process was not the issue--both were just fine--it was the size of the particle produced that was important. 7/64's of an inch is the magic number, I think. Anyway, too large and the material would not break down sufficiently by the end of the fermentation process and too small and the particles would clump like flour in lumpy gravy. Can you imagine the trial and error that has been gone through over the years to figure some of these things out? We then entered the building next to the elevator--there were several large steam vats there where the corn was undergoing pressure cooking and then he turned and went up five stairs, through which I could see, then five more and then five more and onto the floor above which was a grating like a fire escape. I started to shake and became frozen in place as he showed us the moving contraption which could be moved along tracks to various apertures in the ceiling through which corn or barley or wheat could be accessed. Then the contraption is moved back over the pressure cooker below and the grain is released to it. Shortly thereafter we walked across the room to an innocuous looking door above three steps which led out onto the roof--to look at the Kentucky River --and the story of how the kegs were taken by flatboat down to New Orleans. There was a very large barge grounded across the way and one of the fellows said that's been there for years--make an offer--it is quite rotted but not as old as one would imagine but new to Bill, since barges were not prevalent on the Ct River. The Hudson River has always had barges so I recognized it from my vantage point holding onto the building for dear life and looking over my shoulder. I needed Bill to reenter the building before me since as one went in the door--to the right was a low railing that didn't look able to prevent me from falling to the floor below and in front was open space and to the left that flimsy grating floor! He stood so he blocked the front and right and I turned toward the wall looking straight ahead and not downward. Was relieved when Freddie led us across the floor toward the stairs we'd ascended but almost died when he continued up two more flights. Once more we were on grating but here the room was filled with huge vats placed rather closely together and though they descended the full three stories below us I was able more or less to keep my eyes firmly on the fermenting brew and my hands on the edges of the vats. The smell was redolent of grain fermenting but because carbon dioxide is the chief gaseous product the room is very well ventilated--with fans and suction air ducts carrying away the gas. Each vat had bourbon at various stages of fermentation from violently " boiling" highly active yeast to quiet lactic acid covered and therefore fatty looking brew. When the materials are ready to be removed it is done by a fractional division process--the fatty top layers drawn off into one set of pipes, the product drained into other pipes and the dregs removed from the bottom when all the rest is gone. Then the stainless steel vats--and there were several empty, which I was warned by two of the men on the tour NOT to look into--are cleaned from the top using hoses at very high pressure. Then the process begins once more. From this room, we moved up a few stairs into a really nice small room with a cement floor containing smaller fermentation vats for other products.This room was dedicated to one of the old timer heads of the company but I was so happy to be on solid ground, even 3 and 1/2 stories up that I must admit I didn't pay too much attention. Although in this room was the beautiful copper still and testing overflow barrel. We then walked through a small hallway which was obviously on the side of the building but since the brick wall was on the right and the passageway was covered on the left and overhead and I knew I was on a roof I was fine. Momentarily! All of a sudden we had another flight of stairs and though covered I could tell they were out in space and then a long passageway through which I just about ran and started hyperventilating. Bill was behind me and one of the ladies in front--she kept up a rapid pace and when the passage terminated in another flight of stairs she urged me to look forward only. I got to the top and there was a quick left turn onto a grating landing--I almost died but she said no--you're on the roof now just a couple of steps up into this room. By the time I got into the room--I'm breathing hard now, just remembering--I could not catch my breath, I could not move from the spot I arrived in and I could not look down for now we were in another building five stories up on a grating floor. I felt dizzy and grasped but lightly the buffalo head spigot at my side. There was the beer vat in front of me and Freddie was speaking of the fact that what now existed really was a beer--just a fermented highly alcoholic white beverage. White Lightening! Which they now sell in the gift shop. He spoke of how this is where the master distiller comes to test the product for clarity, uses his hygrometer to test for density and also tastes as well as feels the product to determine whether it is fit for barreling. At last I was able to focus and am grateful that Freddie and the others just simply ignored my situation and carried on without fuss. Now, Freddie pointed out the camera that is a video cam and that one can access on the web. He said that this is why the tour members must be over 18, since if the feds saw underaged people now tasting and feeling the beer the onus would be on the tour guide as well as the distillery. At this point he put the whiskey into our hands and said we could do as we wished with it. I said I wasn't sure it was a good idea for me to imbibe and they laughed and said maybe it would help me get down easier! I did put a touch on my tongue--evaporation was almost instant and the little bit burned going down quite a lot. He then had us rub our hands together and smell--corn! Again--yeast! And as the last of the liquid evaporated a slightly oily feel which I rubbed into my hands making them smooth and soft--the residual oils of the lactic acid --a fatty acid--formation. Such a simple process of anaerobic oxidation of a mash of grains and distilled water containing high concentrations of limestone produces such a complex substance! At last I thought we must go down now--the product is produced--but no, Freddie had one more stop--another open roof--but this time the guys warned me to stay put at the door and I did. Then Freddie, with me standing right behind him at the top of the stairs, stopped to discuss something else but by now I was totally shot--I could absorb no more and as we stood there I once more was getting agitated. After what seemed forever he headed DOWN the stairs. I let everyone go before me and with Bill blocking the view of the huge factory windows at each landing and the drop off over the railing I managed to get to the ground floor fairly rapidly and without stumbling. As we walked into the alley way I realized we had covered at least four buildings and the connecting tunnel I'd seen at the beginning of the tour high over my head was the one through which we had passed. One of the fellows said take a picture --that is where you've been--aren't you proud of yourself. And to tell the truth--yes indeedy--but I'm not taking that tour again. Nevertheless, I am so happy I did--other than the irrational fear it was sooo interesting and unlike anything I've ever seen. Especially, since I taught this process for years in physical science and chemistry and now, for the first time, I saw it in use on a very large scale. Wow! We returned to the gift shop and were astounded to find that it was 1:30!!!!! Three hours--incredible. Another tour awaited Freddie--when does he eat?? And so we were turned over to another fellow for tasting. I tasted one of their expensive bourbons--don't ask which--I don't know--but it was only ten years old and not as smooth as the Evan. They don't let you taste Blanton's, nor do they sell it in the gift shop but that is one I'm going to treat myself to this year. I purchased a bottle of Buffalo Trace, their signature brand as well as that fleece for Bill. In my fatigue and relief I forgot to buy any of the Rebecca Ruth candies made with BT but I'm going to call today or tomorrow and have them sent to me. They are the best! After a quick lunch at Applebee's we hit the road taking I 64 to avoid Lexington. I know that 60 goes right through the center of town and I knew that Bill would have a tough time with that. Once past the city we got off the Interstate and took 60 through the lovely town of Mount Sterling and on into Owingsville, where General Hood's home had been for sale in 2006. It is occupied now and looks as nice as ever--across from the Post Office. 60 is a beautiful road and the landscape is wonderful it is however in Eastern Kentucky and the lay of the land is more than rolling and the road is twisty, narrow and has no guard rails. After the stress of the tour I told Bill I couldn't handle any more fear and to please return to the Interstate. You KNOW I had to be really strained to ask for that--I HATE Interstates, the traffic and the trucks but it was less stressful for my frayed nerves!On we continued Northeasterly to Catlettsburg,Ky where the 26th largest refinery in the country is found. It covers 650 acres on the Western bank of the Big Sandy River and has the capacity of 212,000 barrels per calendar day! Once across the Big Sandy we were in West Virginia in Huntington and the worst Chinese take-out I've ever had in my life! Where's the bourbon when you need it?


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