On the last night I would be staying in Frankfort, Kentucky, I was at Capital Cellars a little beyond their official closing time of 9:00. By the time I made my way over to Serafini it was probably getting close to 9:30, but fortunately they serve food until 10:00. Once I had settled in with dinner and a beer, the server who had originally waited on me let me know that her shift was ending and that she would be passing my care off to the closing bartender.
At some point he struck up a conversation and enquired about where I was visiting from and the nature of my journey. When I mentioned that I was a whiskey tourist he excitedly told me that I should introduce myself to a gentleman who was part of a group of people sitting behind me; he was the second biggest whiskey collector in the county. I was intrigued, but I was also in the middle of making tasting notes for the Old Forester Birthday Bourbon I was sipping on. Not only that, but the group seemed rather large and boisterous and I was feeling semi-introverted, so I decided not to mind the barman’s suggestion.
As time passed, the group dwindled down to the gentleman in question and just a few others. The bartender seemed to know him well and was quite insistent that we meet, finally taking it upon himself to facilitate an introduction. I conceded and made my way over to the high top tables in the bar area. We found common ground with our shared interest in whiskey pretty quickly. The initial conversation was about our respective collections. My Scotch-heavy, 100-plus bottle quiver was admittedly humble compared to the nearly 1000 bottles of mostly American whiskey he had amassed. He was, however, impressed that I still had a mostly full bottle of E. H. Taylor, Warehouse C Tornado Surviving bourbon, and also seemed appreciative of the rare single malt holdings I mentioned; a 33 year Bruichladdich Legacy and an Ardbeg Airigh Nam Beist among them.
His collection had great depth and breadth, even though a very high percentage of it came from the Buffalo Trace distillery. The one that really caught my attention though was an A. H. Hirsch 16 year old (this is the famous bourbon that was distilled in 1974 at the Michter’s Distillery, near Schaefferstown, PA). The best I could do was mention the notable releases that had already come and gone from my collection; the 10, 12, 15 and 20 old Van Winkle bottlings, the Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection Rediscovered Barrels (17, 19 and 21 years old), and each of the Antique Collection expressions.
The conversation eventually meandered over to my home state. He was exited to learn that I was from Vermont, mentioning that he had visited Burlington over the summer as one of his children was looking at UVM as a prospective college. He had actually eaten dinner in the sister restaurant of the one that I work in and had stayed in the hotel it shares a building with. His trip also included a visit to a whiskey bar I’ve sat at more than once, where he and his wife polished off their bottle of Warehouse C Tornado Surviving bourbon.
It was getting late on a Thursday night, and new friend then asked what I was doing for the next couple of days, intimating that an invitation to examine his collection over the weekend was forthcoming. Sadly, I had to inform him that I was leaving for home in the morning. The clock was nearing midnight, but I needed to be patient to see where this might go. He needled me a little more about the possibility of sticking around a bit longer, but there was no way to extend my stay as I really had to show up for work on Saturday afternoon. I’m not one to try to invite myself over to someone’s house, especially someone I hardly know, but given the circumstances it didn’t seem inappropriate to suggest that I was willing to go see the collection that night, as long as that was amenable to him, and more importantly to his wife.
With spousal approval, my plans to get a good night’s sleep prior to the 15 hour drive home were blown apart. They explained that their house was quite a few miles outside of town, along some winding, narrow back roads. I agreed to follow them carefully after fetching my car from the other end of the block, and we were off. Much like Vermont’s capital city, Montpelier, you don’t have to drive very far out of Frankfort before finding yourself on a dirt road that feels like it’s in the middle of nowhere.
We eventually arrived at our destination and I was welcomed into their spacious, modern home. After a few brief pleasantries were exchanged, glassware was retrieved and a bottle of Thomas H. Handy Rye appeared seemingly from nowhere. The label showed it to be at 132.4 proof, indicating that it was from the 2012 release. We sipped on that beast of a whiskey as the conversation continued on.
At some point, the question was posed; “So, do you want to see the collection?” Of course I did! We made our way to the cellar where two tables (each roughly the size of a ping-pong table) were covered with boxes of whiskey bottles, and more were on the floor for a lack of a better place to put them. Some were packaged individually, others in cases of up to 12 bottles. There seemed to be an endless supply of Pappy Van Winkle 15 year and 20 year bottles. I believe every vintage of the Antique Collection was represented as well as every release from Buffalo Trace’s Experimental Collection and Single Oak Project; multiple bottles of many, if not all of them. Bottlings from the Frankfort-based distillery dominated the collection, but there were plenty of rare and special selections from other American distilleries too.
Then came the grand question; “So, what do you want to drink?” Two weeks earlier I had set off in search of whiskey adventure, but never could have imagined myself in this scenario. With so many splendid choices before me, that was no easy decision. It would have to be something I had never had before, and something I was unlikely to have the opportunity to taste again. I pondered briefly before coyly stating “A. H. Hirsch.” My new friend shook his head and said apologetically “I’m sorry, I can’t open that.” I smiled and told him that I had assumed that would be the answer, but I had to ask. “So, what else do you want to drink?” was the follow-up.
I started sliding bottles out of boxes to examine labels and soon gravitated to the short, 375 ml Experimental Collection bottles. I came across the Rediscovered Barrels bottlings, which I had purchased myself back in 2011. Then I pulled a few that had been made with oats and rice in their mash bills and remembered seeing some not-so-great reviews of them. Finally, something caught my eye; the 23 year old Giant French Oak Barrel bottling (at 135 gallons, this is about 2.5 times the size of a typical bourbon barrel). With my host’s approval, we went back up to the kitchen to crack it open.
We discussed how amazing it was that any American distiller was initiating such experiments back in 1989, and I noted that I had seen a recently filled (maybe 2012) barrel of the same size on the first floor of Warehouse C during my tour of Buffalo Trace earlier in the day. After sipping our way through a healthy pour of that whiskey, a mason jar of clear liquid mysteriously appeared on the kitchen counter. This was allegedly white dog from a distillery somewhere in Kentucky, and from a run that will be used for a special bottling at some point in the future. I have doubts as to the legality of such things, so I’ll only say that is was quite delicious (at least as far as un-aged spirit goes) and leave it at that.
The gentleman’s better half had retired to bed by this point, and our conversation drifted on to the Single Oak Project. He opened a cabinet that was filled with different bottlings of it, all arranged in a lattice style rack, and told me to pick one. Not knowing one of these from the next, I had no idea which one to pick. I was pretty sure the one bottle from this series I had at home carried a double digit number, so I picked #171 just to ensure I didn’t taste something I already had. Just for the record, barrel #171 is a wheat based bourbon which was entered into the barrel at 125 proof and aged in a warehouse with wooden floors. The barrel was charred to #4 and its staves were from the top of the tree, course grained and seasoned for 12 months.
Around 2:00 in the morning the cell phone call came from upstairs; it was time for my generous host to go to bed. All too aware that I may have overstayed my welcome, I apologized (the call had somehow gotten onto speaker-phone), thanked her for their kind hospitality and promised to be out the door in the few short minutes that it would take to finish the whiskey in my glass.
The ever-polite man of the house saw me out, and while we were on the front porch he presented the Experimental Collection bottle we had opened earlier, telling me to take the rest of it. Not wanting to take advantage of the kindness of someone who was at least moderately intoxicated, I politely refused. He insisted and I refused again. By the third offer he was pushing it into the open pocket of my jacket and I finally caved. He did have more than one bottle of almost everything in his collection, so at least knowing that made me feel a little better about accepting it. And, of course, I can now make proper tasting notes to go along with this post.
The nose has lots of shoe polish and saddle leather, subtle vanilla and a delicate hint of fragrant spice.
There’s a maple syrup like sweetness up front, which is soon joined by, and eventually surpassed by round, complex spice notes which are warming but not fiery. Teaberry, vanilla and a touch of nuttiness join the fray as well. The oak becomes more prominent late in the finish, but not to the point of being overwhelming.
The spice notes seem to be primarily from the French oak, but with a minor influence from rye grain as well. This is really good and interesting without getting too exotic.
Interestingly, this bottle is labeled as “whiskey” rather than bourbon, even though it is made with one of Buffalo Trace’s bourbon mash bills. The French oak does not disqualify it from that designation, but the barrel entry proof of 130 does.
Thank goodness for modern technology; I only had to touch the saved location of the hotel I was staying at in my GPS and the Garmin’s little purple line guided me safely out of the wilderness.
My departure the next morning was only slightly delayed, but I did have to take a brief detour through the Buffalo Trace Distillery Shop to pick up a bottle of Peychaud’s barrel-aged bitters for a friend. This was a distillery exclusive offering that had been aged in former Sazerac Rye barrels for 140 days and was selling for $17 for a 5 oz bottle.
There was a nice unintended consequence to that little task. If I had left for home from the hotel, the GPS would have put me on I-64 as the quickest route over to I-75. But since I was starting from the north side of town, I was instead led east on US-460, which goes right by the old National Distillers plant at the Forks of Elkhorn. The former home of Old Grand Dad, that facility is now the site of Jim Beam’s bottling operation and finished goods storage, as well as a small number of aging warehouses. It was great to get a little more historical perspective on the way out of town.