Woodford Reserve’s bourbon warehouse can make you feel mildly inebriated. It’s warm, it’s dark and it smells invitingly boozy. The other stone buildings in the Versailles, Kentucky (pronounced Ver-SAY-ils), distillery add to that sensation.
Giant copper stills and 20-foot-high vats made from cypress give off a complex aroma of grain, fermenting mash, toasted wood and alcohol.
This is the best-smelling story I’ve ever reported.
Kentucky is bourbon country, making 95 percent of that particular drink. And bourbon country is a good place to be right now because bourbon is enjoying a revival. Last year, US sales of Kentucky bourbon, Tennessee whiskey and rye rose almost 8 percent, to $2.9 billion. Theories as to why include everything from better marketing to consumers’ new affection for top-shelf drinks.
There’s a problem, though. Despite the fact that bourbon production has increased 170 percent since 1999, distillers are having trouble keeping up with demand.
That’s because it takes a really long time to make bourbon. Making it goes roughly like this: Mix finely ground grain with water and add yeast to create mash, which then ferments. The fermented mash gets distilled into spirit. Distilleries pour that into new American oak barrels, which have been charred on the inside, and then store it for anywhere from four years to two decades. This barrel aging gives the bourbon its color and distinctive flavor as natural changes in pressure and temperature move the spirit in and out of the wood.