Very Old Barton is hardly the less expensive Makers Mark alternative we were led to believe. This false knowledge was passed on to us by a pleasant 50 year-old lady (unsolicited, she told us her age and that she was on her second marriage), which we bestowed the moniker, Ole Barfly. We were wide-eyed and willing to sponge-up any knowledge from the locals. It was not our quest to simply brush over Bourbon Country, hitting a few distilleries and calling it a day. We wanted to get to know the landscape, the people, and, of course, the bourbon intimately. Even with that mission statement, how were we so easily duped as to think there was a magical whiskey that we were told was a worthy adversary to Makers Mark and can be purchased by the gallon cheaper than a handle of Makers? (The mere fact that you could order it by the effin’ gallon should have thrown a red flag.) We were told to order Very Old Barton, or VOB as “the locals call it,” and we followed suit.
It was to be a sending off of sorts for Joelseppi. The ex Italian soccer star was preparing for fatherhood, which I hear does not lend itself to many booze-based treks. We were to travel to Bourbon Country with some smoked Polish sausage, green magic drink, trail mix, minimal camping gear, and less of plan. More than anything, we had sibling memories and inside references in spades.
Maker’s Mark has a symbol on every bottle that consists of an “S IV,” a star, and a circle around it all. The first part stands for Sullivan (as in Bill Sullivan, founder of the bourbon) and 4th generation of commercial distillers (as his forefathers distilled, but not Maker’s Mark). Jim Beam has Booker’s, named after late master distiller, Booker Noe. He wanted to put his name on a uniquely high alcohol-content bourbon (it varies, the one we tried was 130 proof). There are also names out there like Elijah Craig, Evan Williams, and our hyped up, VOB. It reminded me of the line in Up in the Air, when Anna Kendrick’s character remarks, “Men get such hard-ons from putting their names on things.” That line has always made me wonder. I do not necessarily agree nor disagree with it, but Bourbon Country reeked of men wanting to leave their mark and the line lingered in my head. It made me think of Joelseppi’s future soccer phenom to-be. Will he wear the #9 like his father and carry on the great heritage of our soccer family? Certainly he is the only foreseeable hope, as nothing is coming from yours truly.
We rode through the rolling hills and backwoods streets on our second day, with eventual goal being the Woodford Reserve Distillery, some 40+ miles off. The roads wrapped around what were surely property lines, as there was often no other reason for a 90 degree (or more) turn on routes which we assumed were 55 mph (there was little signage to backup this theory). It was fertile green all over, even shining its color through the thick clouds that loomed, reminding us of the previous night’s storm. From reading maps, GPS, and observing the roadside signs, 60+% of Kentucky roads are labeled as 60, 61, or 62. We were not able to associate any logic to the labeling of these routes, as they pointed to every degree of the compass. My best guess was that they were inspired by the Roman Empire and all roads led to… Louisville?
The warehouses that store whiskey barrels are foreboding. – one look would suggest a prison or concentration camp. They stand taller than most any other structure in their environment, juxtaposed against the lush, undulating countryside. We found them imposing and fascinating. Out of the 58 pictures I snapped in Bourbon Country, 52 of them were of the warehouses. They are plain jane and unapologetic. Many of them are painted black, due to a black fungus that grows on upon the walls – a by product of the distilling process. “Its not mold,” assured a host at the Barton Distillery, upset that people accused the fungus of being a mold. I suppose pride is relative. Inside these mastodons, lie rows upon rows of barrels, stacked five stories tall upon wood framing. Being from a time where steel and concrete dominate the building process, I never quite trusted the wood timbers I walked beneath – wondering how many tons of whiskey were stacked above me and half certain that they were due to collapse at any moment of their maturation. Most of the time my fear was distracted by the sweet smell of the bits of aging bourbon that seeped through the barrels during the aging process and propagated the building with an intoxicating aroma.
The combination of their stark, intriguing appearance and practical, old-fashioned insides made the warehouses a symbol of the trip. Much of Bourbon Country is rough and not aiming for aesthetics on the surface, but warm and pleasing when you open it up. The first locals we stumbled across (outside of the Sling Blade old-timer who took our money for the campsite) did not initially reveal themselves to be the sweet Southerners we came to expect. Yet, after a few words, we were exchanging stories and soon finding out how old and what marriage they were on. And all of this came with the famed hospitality and manners – stereotypically polite, like a Japanese father with a camera. It was a grand introduction to the natives and proved prophetic for a lovely and flawless (save for some food choices) journey of Bourbon Country.
The Hill Top Inn sits right off (a) Route 62, overlooking the 1792 Ridgemont Reserve Distillery, responsible for VOB. Game 3 of the NBA Western Conference Finals was going down that night. We stopped in the bar earlier to see when they close (because: A. We wanted to watch what was supposed to be the premier match-up of the playoffs, even though it looked like the Spurs had it in the bag. B. It was due to pour/hail that first night and we were tent camping.). The bartender told Joelseppi that they close at 10pm… unless people were watching the playoff game, then they would stay open. As the rain surrounded the Hill Topper (as Joelseppi kept calling it), we drank VOBs over ice while hashing over old times and new. When the “dining” area emptied, we moved to the thinning bar and talked it up with the staff. We commented on the horse-racing channel that was on one of the flat screens. We learned that some people – people deep in the hills that provide not only bourbon, but thorough breads as well – simply watch horses run in ovals without having money on the outcome. Or maybe that was just another example of our ignorance, as we drank down VOBs, unknowing of the wrath they would bring in the morning.