South City Kitchen‘s executive chef, Chip Ulbrich, recently traveled to Kentucky with Fifth Group Restaurants’ beverage director, Vajra Stratigos, to hand-select a bourbon commemorating South City Kitchen Midtown’s 20th anniversary. Here is Chip’s personal account of his journey to the Woodford Reserve Distillery…
Vajra and I flew into Lexington in the morning and were met by our liquor rep. She drove us the one hour trip to Versailles in a light drizzle and fog. The air was moist and cool. The distillery is located in the rolling hills amongst the horse farms of the rich, famous, and not so famous. Scattered around the property are the barrel houses, all connected by a miniature railroad track that they roll the barrels on from the distillery by hand.
We first entered the fermentation room, warm and smelling of grain, yeast and alcohol. The aromas enveloped us like a blanket filling our brains with moist breadiness. There were vast wooden vats filled with fermenting grain at various stages of open-top fermentation. Dipping our fingers into the mix yielded a porridge sort of oatmeal on steroids taste, wicked good!
On to distillation: three gigantic copper pot stills stand over the barreling machine. Triple distilled! The clear liquor runs through a series of valves and is measured and evaluated by a real person until it is right, and it then sent down to the barrels.
[Woodford Reserve] is one of the only facilities that make their own barrels and sells barrels to many other distillers and businesses. They toast then char the inside of the barrels until they are just right, fill the barrel with clear liquor and send them on their way to the barrel aging house.
The barrels are rolled by hand to the different houses and stored on racks at varying levels and left to age. The process involves many cycles of heating and cooling the houses, over and over again to force the bourbon into the pores of the oak and back out again to create the flavor and color desired. Almost 40% of the bourbon is lost to the “angel’s share” through evaporation and seepage into the oak which means we would be marrying 2 barrels to make our 1.
The barrels that we tasted were selected from different levels of different houses and from different years. When we arrived in the tasting room, the table was set up with a multitude of single malt glasses, water, note pads, and of course, half pint bottles of bourbon. Each had a hand-typed label with the information for that particular barrel. We first tasted the bourbon from 8 individual barrels to narrow it down to our favorite 6. I was surprised to find out that we wouldn’t be swallowing the bourbon, only swishing and spitting, as it was so strong (120-140 proof) that running it over your palate would ruin you for the rest of the tasting. That proved to be true, as the first taste just about blew my sinuses out. After that initial shock, we settled down and selected our 6 favorites. The distiller then made 6 different blends, and we came up with our final selection. He proofed it down with fresh water, and we tasted it to see what the final outcome would be like and approved.
[Finally, we] drove back to Lexington and flew back home to await our batch.
This Woodford Reserve Kentucky Straight Bourbon and Double Oaked Whiskey from this hand-selected barrel will be sold exclusively at South City Kitchen Midtown in honor of their 20th anniversary. Come in and try it for yourself! Don’t forget to wish South City Kitchen “Happy Anniversary” while you’re there!
Here are some photographs from Chip’s trip: