#7.1 Dramming around begins

Road-trippin in the US

How a bad weather day throwed us into the world of whisk(e)y!

So, how did a couple of Italians, whose families’ drink of choice has been wine for (probably) generations, get caught into the fabulous world of whisky? Well, thanks to a road trip in the United States South and to a very nice host. But let’s not go ahead of ourselves and proceed in order.

Before 2016, we did not have much idea about what whisk(e)y was nor how it was made. In 2015 Gianluigi moved to Illinois, right in the middle of mid-west. One evening, a friend poured him something that he never forgot, something new: a Laphroaig. That prompted him to purchase a couple of scotch bottles (two because he first bought a Glenfiddich 12y, thinking that it would have been the same…how dare him!). Besides that, not much…whisk(e)y was just another spirit. Teresa was a bit more experienced (so to speak), as from time to time she would end an evening with friends with peated whisky instead of amaro.

Comes 2016, Teresa arrived to Illinois for the summer holidays. We had decided to take a road-trip, our favourite style of vacation. This time, a really big one: the mighty South! From Illinois down to Kentucky (through Indiana), Nashville, the Appalachian Mountains, Charleston SC, Savannah GA, then straight West to New Orleans, up to Memphis, St. Louis, and back to Illinois.

First stop: Louisville, Kentucky (KY)…you probably already see where this is going. At the time we were still using AirBnB (later we decided to stop because of the increasing cost of living that this and other short-term rent companies are causing to locals, who struggle to find affordable flats, in particular in cities like Edinburgh) and we stayed in a typical American suburbia house, hosted by a very nice couple. While having a relaxed chat in the evening, he poured us some bourbon and suggested us to take the exit 112 from the Interstate 65, because there were a few open distilleries just 10 to 15 minutes away. We looked at each other and thought: “why not”?

The day after came, and the weather was not exactly a delight. So, a further reason to take a few hours for the “bourbon detour”. First, we tried the farthest from the highway, the Heaven Hill Bourbon Heritage Center, in Bardstown. We were unlucky there, as the tour had just left, but a tasting would have started soon enough. In the meantime, we could admire the huge rickhouses on the rolling hills outside the visitor centre.

Rickhouses at Heaven Hill.

The tasting was very informative, covering the history of the distillery and all the brands they had acquired, in particular after the prohibition era. The line-up was made of four drams, the first one (a rye) promptly necked by Teresa despite the guide telling us to take a wee sip… of course Gianluigi shared his afterwards. There was also an Elijah Craig bourbon, while the final dram was a very “woody” example of how, sometimes, too long maturation can go wrong. At the visitor centre, we spotted the Kentucky Bourbon passport, which we both took and put the Heaven Hill stamp on.

A new challenge ahead: getting all the distillery stamps!

We tried our luck at the next distillery: Four Roses (actually, the warehouse and bottling plant in Cox’s Creek). Again, no luck, the tour had just started, so we did the tasting, again. We had their three main bourbons for the (ridiculous) price of $5.00: the Four Roses Bourbon, Small Batch and Single Barrel. While Teresa loved the latter, Gianluigi preferred the middle one, but overall we were surprised by how good it was (Gianluigi in particular, as he remembered a drunken night of over a decade earlier fuelled by an unpleasant Four Roses bourbon).

Back in the car, we headed towards the third and last distillery (for now), Jim Beam. Here we were finally able to take the tour (hurray!).

Our very first distillery tour!

It was a great experience, the guide was very funny and prepared, a great start for newbies like us. We could understand how whiskey is made, and walk inside one of these huge rickhouses we kept seeing around, and all the rules of bourbon and rye (>50% corn/rye, new oak barrels, etc). At the end we could choose two or three drams in their huge product range (great favourites, Baker’s and Knob Creek).

What we could choose from.

Here, by trying several expressions next to each other, we could fully appreciate how bourbons (and whisky in general) can be very different despite being produced on the same site. And in this moment, folks, the seed of our curiosity towards whisk(e)y was first planted in our mind, taste buds, and heart, paving the way to what would have happened next.

[If you are only interested in our whisk(e)y journey, you can skip the rest and go to the second episode. Otherwise keep reading about our road trip]

The trip continued not as smoothly as we would have liked. Nashville was great, although the Music Broadway was a bit too fake for us (in three out of four bars we entered the band played “Sweet Home Alabama”, in all four “Take me Home, Country Roads”). That was compensated by an early morning visit to Jack White’s Third Man Records store and a delicious fried chicken lunch!

Happy guy at Third Man Records.

The Appalachians and the Smokey Mountains were also great. After driving through Chattanooga and before the Blue Ridge Highway, we stayed near Sylva (NC) where our friend Matt (if you want to know all the coolest things about plant ecology, he is the guy! here his website and podcast) brought us to taste delicious beers at the local Innovation Brewing.

After a detour to Charlotte (NC) to pick up two Pearl Jam tickets and before visiting the stunning Charlestone (SC), we had our first setback: bed bugs! We left the motel (clearly too randomly picked) in the middle of the night to avoid being eaten alive (fortunately we had not opened our luggage to avoid our clothes smelling like cigarette…not sure about calling that luck). But the real issue happened the day after: 10 minutes before reaching our (more carefully picked) motel right outside Savannah (GA), we got rear-ended by a distracted lady on the highway! We were intact, the car not so much, and we had to spend half of the next day trying to get another one from the closest open (it was Saturday…) car rental branch. Thankfully this didn’t translate into a huge financial issue, as we were covered by the roadside assistance insurance. Since then we have always included it in our rentals!

That was the last bad thing happened to us during the trip (hurray!).

Teresa hugging the King in Nashville!

Savannah was truly gorgeous, a shame we could not stay more. At one point we were having a beer on the river side, and a guy asked Gianluigi if he could take a picture him and his gilrfriend. “Of course”, the prompt reply. The phone was filming a video, however, and when Gianluigi was about to tell the guy, he realized that the guy was proposing to his (soon) fiancé. Gianluigi could not hold back a loud “holy s**t!”, ruining the proposal video forever. Teresa laughed at the idea of the two showing it at the wedding.

After driving through the Florida Panhandle (if for any reason you happen to be in Fernandina Beach, close to Jacksonville, get a sandwich at the Hola! Cuban Cafè: OMG!!!), we finally arrived at the most awaited stop-over: New Orleans.

Amazing live music in NOLA!

We both fell in love with the city, its atmosphere and the music which seems to permeate every bit of life. Even Gianluigi, contrary to Teresa not a big jazz fan, couldn’t stop speaking of how great that was, in particular after a concert at the Preservation Hall. Following NOLA, another music city: Memphis, one of the cradles of Blues, with a capital “B” (and the best pulled-pork we have ever had!).

Spectacular Missisipi river side in Memphis!

Final stop: St. Louis, once an important industrial centre, now a tale of two sides: it is staggering, and frankly very sad, the difference of livelihood between neighbourhoods, sign of deep inequalities (to be fair, that was a constant of all cities we visited during this and other trips in the US).

What about the other KY distilleries? Well, you’ll have to wait until next week. Stay tuned and sláinte!

Kentucky Bourbon Distilleries – Links

[No summary box this time. We visited these distilleries almost 6 years ago, so we figured it’d have been too out of date.]

Author: Dramming Around

A pretend-to-be-young Italian couple on a quest to discover whisk(e)y distilleries and their golden nectar

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