I reckon it is creeping up on 10 a.m. – the hot autumn sun is just chasing the chill from this converted garage – when I first dip a finger into the almost 90-proof (45-per-cent alcohol) booze trickling off the copper still. The liquid has some wicked, not-ready-for-bottling flavours: Do I detect notes of model-airplane glue, exploded Bic pen and overripe fruit?
This is the art of spirits distillation: taking what are called the “heads” and “tails” cuts off the distilling run and saving only the “hearts,” the clean-tasting portion that is free of most undesirable chemical compounds. It’s something I turn out to be pretty good at, and just one of the complex set of skills taught at Louisville’s Moonshine University, an intensive immersion in the business, science and art of distilling.
Over a week, my classmates and I strain to do the complex calculus of a mash bill formula (a spirit’s “recipe” of grains, water and yeast), study oak-barrel aging and take crash courses in everything from bottles and labels to government compliance. One afternoon is spent in the next-door beverage lab Flavorman, testing our palates and boning up on commercial beverage development. We learn what it takes to build a distillery, down to the last explosion-proof electrical outlet and steam valve.
My class, the third so far at Moonshine U, is made up of restaurateurs, dot-com success stories, engineers and even a physician. The common thread: We all yearn to spend the second half of our working lives crafting spirits. Also in attendance are a surprising number of good ol’ moonshiners who have been making illicit hooch and want to go legit. I am one of only two women. “A girl distiller who wanna make rye!” crows one of master-distiller instructors, with apparent delight at the curiosity of it all.
I have previously trained in gin and vodka making, at Dry Fly Distilling in Washington state. But studying here in Louisville, the centre of the American bourbon trail and home to some of the most venerable distilleries in the United States, is akin to an aspiring tech entrepreneur enrolling at Stanford.
Everything is nearby: My personal holy bourbon trinity of Maker’s Mark, Jim Beam and Woodford Reserve are each within an hour’s drive, and at least a dozen distilleries I’ve never heard of dot pretty country roads lined with white fences, cornfields and stately horse farms. We meet icons of the industry, including legendary Wild Turkey distiller Jimmy Russell, who’s been making bourbon “longer than y’all been alive.” We even visit Vendome, an old-school Louisville metal works where we covet the shiny copper and stainless-steel stills being welded and forged by hand.
At night, a motley group of us (including my new pals Motorcycle Jerry, Bearded Steve and Bearded Bob, who looks like he belongs in ZZ Top) explore downtown Louisville. At one end of its quaintly restored, immaculate Main Street is 21C, an art-inspired boutique hotel that would not be out of place in New York or Berlin. At local-food pulpit Harvest, in the hip NuLu district, a bona-fide farmer visits our table to see how we like our Southern-comfort meals. (I like my buttermilk fried chicken with smoked peppercorn gravy just fine.)
We conduct important “research” at various bars, trying the preprohibition Seelbach cocktail (bourbon, bitters and Cointreau mix topped with champagne) at its stately namesake hotel, which is where the fictional Buchanans married in The Great Gatsby. The entrance to a hidden bar lurks behind a painting on the second floor.
My favourite spot turned out to be the Silver Dollar, whose slogan (“Whiskey by the Drink”), neon sign and honky-tonk atmosphere seem to have anchored the slightly frayed Clifton neighbourhood forever, even though it only opened last year. I drop a crisp Benjamin Franklin on two shots of brown elixir: a 23-year-old Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve bourbon and a cask-strength Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye, rare birds of the North American whisky world. At each stop, we get our Urban Bourbon Trail passports stamped, working toward the completion prize that one waitress wryly calls “the most expensive T-shirt in Kentucky.”
At the end of the week, I leave with a suitcase stuffed with souvenirs (including Kentuckyaki teriyaki sauce and vanilla extract from Bourbon Barrel Foods) and a four-inch binder that is the Rosetta Stone of distilling.
I’ve learned more than how to make distilled spirits. I might just have learned a new way of life.
IF YOU GO
It’s not cheap, but the week is beyond valuable. Moonshine University’s next five-day distiller course runs March 17-21 (with an optional session on March 16 on building a distillery). The cost is $5,750 (U.S.), with early-bird registrants eligible for tuition discounts or free stays at the legendary Brown Hotel. Shorter “enthusiast” classes (on moonshine, bourbon, gin and more) are also available. 801 South 8th St., Louisville; moonshineuniversity.com
What else you can do
Complete Louisville’s Urban Bourbon Trail and fill your print or electronic (app available for iPhone or Android) passport to score a T-shirt and a Citizen of Bourbon County certificate. The only T-shirt with more street cred comes from completing the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, a passport (print only) to eight distilleries, all within easy reach of Louisville. bourboncountry.com; kybourbontrail.com
Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby, is only open for spring and fall racing seasons, but the Kentucky Derby Museum is open year-round, as is the Louisville Slugger Museum, complete with the world’s biggest bat leaning outside. Derbymuseum.org, 704 Central Ave.; Sluggermuseum.com, 800 West Main St.
Where to stay
The Brown Hotel is a Georgian Revival gem. Must-dos include noshing a Hot Brown sandwich and a rare bourbon at the lobby bar. Rooms from $209. 335 West Broadway, Louisville; brownhotel.com
The other grand dame of Louisville’s hotel scene is the Seelbach, now a Hilton. The Oak Room restaurant was a favourite of Al Capone; the hotel’s gilded rooms inspired pages of The Great Gatsby. Rooms from $229 (U.S.). 500 South Fourth St., Louisville, seelbachhilton.com
21C Museum Hotel reveals a slick and design-savvy interior behind a vintage facade on West Main Street. Rooms from $200 (U.S.). 700 West Main St., 21cmuseumhotels.com
Where to eat
Harvest is a farm-to-table restaurant with an outstanding bourbon selection includes tasting flights that are a perfect (and affordable) introduction to single-barrel, long-aged and other unusual varieties. 624 East Market St., Louisville; harvestlouisville.com
The Silver Dollar is a gastro-pub that looks like a honky-tonk: dishes like porter-braised lamb shank, fried catfish and the spicy barbecue grilled chicken thighs are a cut way above usual pub grub. GQ named it above the best whisky bars in the U.S. 1761 Frankfort Ave., whiskeybythedrink.com