After a day spent touring Four Roses and Buffalo Trace, as well as visiting the former Old Crow and Old Taylor distillery sites, I was ready for an evening out in Frankfort on the last full day of my vacation. Faced with a 15 hour drive home the next day, the plan was to take it easy and get to bed early that night; just a drink or two at Capital Cellars (where I’d had lunch that afternoon) and some dinner and another whiskey or two at Serafini.
The sun had already set by the time I got back to the hotel from the day’s adventures, and then I went for a swim and spent a bit of time organizing my belongings to facilitate a quick escape in the morning. Needless to say, I got kind of a late start heading out on the town. As I mentioned in my previous post, Capital Cellars has a very laid-back, café-like atmosphere. It’s a nice, quiet place to have a drink, but you don’t really feel like you’re at a bar there, at least not in the traditional sense.
After asking about a few whiskeys that were listed on the menu but not visible on the shelf (they were sold out; I seem to have a knack for picking unavailable items on whiskey lists), I inquired about the Van Winkle Family Reserve 13 year old Rye. It was on the shelf but not the list, so I was curious about the price. My interest was lost at $40 though. Don’t get me wrong, if a bar is going to keep Van Winkle whiskeys around for any length of time, they have to price them steeply. That particular whiskey just wasn’t appealing to me at that price.
I decided to go out on a limb and asked the bartender for a suggestion in the $25 to $30 range from their collection of about 70 bottles. He reached for the 17 year old Wild Turkey Master’s Keep, but was interrupted by the second bartender who felt that there where better whiskies in the same price range. She suggested a Limited Edition Yellowstone bottling, and he deferred. It was a bourbon that was definitely to my liking, but proper tasting notes were never taken as I had become engrossed in conversation with the staff. I’ll take a moment to detail the history of the brand though.
Yellowstone bourbon is named for the national park, and the brand was established shortly after the park was established in 1872. It was originally a product of Taylor & Williams, a wholesale whiskey firm based in Louisville, KY. The whiskey used for Yellowstone was first sourced from several distilleries but the brand grew in popularity and at some point in the 1880’s its production and bottling was contracted out to the Cold Springs distillery in Gethsemane, KY. In 1903 Taylor & Williams merged with the owner of the Cold Springs distillery, J. B. Dant.
The distillery was renamed after its Yellowstone brand and 1910 the company absorbed an adjacent distillery owned by Minor Case Beam. The combined sites continued to operate under the Yellowstone name and members of the Beam and Dant families were involved in its operation until Prohibition.
The brand was re-established by members of the Dant family after Prohibition when they built a new Yellowstone distillery outside of Shively, KY. In 1944 that distillery and the Yellowstone brand were purchased by Glenmore Distillers. By the 1960’s Yellowstone had grown to be the best selling bourbon in Kentucky. Finally, in 1991, Glenmore was purchased by Guinness and the Shively plant was closed. In 1993 the Yellowstone brand was sold to Heaven Hill and the closed distillery was sold to Florida Citrus Distillers, who started using it to produce wine and vinegar. Heaven Hill quickly sold the Yellowstone brand to the David Sherman Corporation.
David Sherman established his company in 1958 but in 2006 it was renamed to Luxco, reflecting a shift in ownership among its founding families. Until recently the company operated exclusively as a non-distiller producer. Their products (both whiskey and other spirits categories) tend to occupy the bottom shelf. Even Ezra Brooks and Rebel Yell, which are their more well-known brands, can barely aspire to the middle shelf. When the company purchased the Yellowstone brand in 1993 they contracted its production out to Heaven Hill, but I have read that whiskies from other sources may be in the mix as well.
Then, at the end of 2014, Luxco announced that they had acquired a 50% stake in the Limestone Branch distillery. The focus of that partnership is to reinvigorate the Yellowstone brand. Brothers Paul and Steve Beam established their Limestone Branch distillery in 2011, in Lebanon, KY. They started with a focus on “moonshine” style products, with a vision to expand and add properly aged whiskeys in the future.
The Beam brothers are descendents of Minor Case Beam on their father’s side and the Dant family on their mother’s side. One of their uncles actually had a copy of the original Yellowstone bourbon recipe. Teaming up with Luxco allowed them to quickly expand their operation and since 2015 they have been distilling whiskey for the Yellowstone brand using its original recipe.
It’s likely that the low-quality incarnation of Yellowstone that has long been sold by Luxco will be eliminated when the new version comes of age. In the meantime some transitional bottlings of Yellowstone have come out using better quality sourced whiskey selected by the Beam brothers. What I tasted at Capital Cellars was the first of those; the 2015 Limited Edition bottling. It’s a 105 proof bourbon, priced at $105 a bottle, which commemorates the 105th anniversary of Minor Case Beam selling his distillery to J. B. Dant. 6000 bottles were produced and the end result is a marriage of 12 year old rye-based bourbon, 7 year old rye-based bourbon and 7 year old wheat-based bourbon.
Later in 2015 they introduced Yellowstone Select; a bourbon priced at $50 a bottle, which is a marriage of barrels aged for 4 years and 7 years. Luxco is also currently constructing a $35 million distillery in Bardstown, which should go into production late in 2017 and will be the new home of their Rebel Yell and Ezra Brooks brands, among others.
Feeling pangs of hunger before I was ready to depart from Capital Cellars, I asked about ordering an appetizer. It was a good bit after the 8:00 cutoff for ordering food, but the staff was kind enough to put together a Smoked Salmon Carpaccio plate for me. After my snack I was ready to wander down to the other end of the block for the main course.
Serafini is an upscale establishment with an Italian influenced menu. White table linens in the dining room bring an air of fine dining, but the bar area has a more casual feel. The bar itself is small, with only four or five stools, but it’s backed up by several high-top tables. The back-bar is densely packed with bottles, featuring upwards of 150 selections of American whiskey.
I’m not usually one for pairing whiskey and food, so I had a local beer with the baked salmon, which was quite good. After studying the list and inquiring about a few unavailable whiskeys (again) I finally settled on a glass of 2015 Old Forester Birthday Bourbon, which was a 12 year old bottled at 100 proof. I wrote pretty extensively about the background of the Birthday Bourbon series in this post, if you’re curious.
The 2015 vintage has big aromas, featuring ample leather and oak. The nose is sort of hot, in a volatile sense. It punches above its weight, bringing plenty of flavor and heat for its given proof. Dark and brooding on the palate, it’s quite dry with lots of fiery spice notes and struggles to stay in balance. Further contemplation reveals more complexity with hints of mint, charred oak, cinnamon, teaberry and subtle dry, dark berry fruit all emerging before it gets through the long, warming finish.
Now, one would think that would have been the end of my little whiskey adventure; but the real adventure was only about to begin…………