On a cold day in late January 2017, I was invited to participate in a private barrel select at Barton 1792 Distillery in Bardstown, Ky. The owner of Louisville Party Center, Jamie Masticola, was looking to stock his already impressive shelves with a store label expression of 1792 Full Proof; when asked to be on the selection panel I pounced on the opportunity without hesitation.
Our day started with an hour drive from Louisville to Bardstown. This is a drive I have made countless times but one that I never grow tired of as the chosen route is not the interstate but rather the winding, rural, two-lane roads that meander through the old barns, horse pastures, and bucolic churches that remind me of a Norman Rockwell painting.
Once we arrived at the distillery – nestled on the north bank of the Beech Fork River and a stone’s throw from the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History – we were greeted by the wafting aroma of mash in the crisp air as well as several friendly employees. After exchanging pleasantries, we were given an extensive and instructional tour of the facilities, which included everything from the grain depository to the bottling process.
Peering in side-by-side fermenters, one with day-old mash and the other with four-day-old mash, it was easy to see and smell the difference that a relative few hours make in the chemical interaction between the yeast and sugars. Following the pipes that exit the fermenter, we made our way to the beer well and then on to the 26th floor column still.
At our next stop, we took a sample of the high wine, or white dog, straight from the beautiful Vendome Copper try box. The new make had all the characteristics of juice straight off the still and was surprisingly sweet and smooth for unaltered 125 full proof whiskey. From there we went to Warehouse H – a traditional 7-story aging warehouse – and the main reason for our visit that day.
Patiently awaiting our arrival were four beautifully aged barrels of 9-year-old 1792 juice designated for their Full Proof expression. Ready to lead us through the selection process was Josh Hollifield, Visitor Center Manager for Barton 1792. Armed with a two-foot copper thief, we took turns extracting precious brown water samples from each of the four barrels. After transferring the bourbon from the thief to pint-sized flasks, we made our way to the bottling facilities where we witnessed an impressive labyrinth of mechanized conveyor belts, label applicators, and bottle fillers. Juxtaposed with this modern contraption was a relic bottler reminiscent of what may have been used to bottle Don Draper’s swill. While all of Barton’s other labels were filled using the modern roller coaster-like contraption, we came to learn that all the 1792 expressions were filled six at a time from the mid-century filler and then corked and packaged individually by hand; old school!
Following the bottling facility, we ventured back to the visitor center where Josh had everything set up for our blind tasting of the four samples we had pulled earlier (samples were tasted SFB but will be cut to 125 proof before bottling). The five panelists saddled up to the tasting bar and began to nose, taste, score, and rank the soon-to-be Louisville Party Center store select.
After we compared our rankings, it was clear there were two top contenders. To break the tie, we would need to drink more! We had to first take a break, however, to let Josh reset the tasting glasses; more importantly, we needed to let the effects of 130 plus proof ebb from our palates.
Back at the bar, we were determined to select the juice that the patrons of Louisville Party Center would find most enjoyable: something robust, with a complex finish, that hit on the traditional staples of a good bourbon. As a group, we were eventually able to crown our #1 juice with a margin of 4 to 1. Even the lone dissenter admitted that it was a very close contest.
Now that the winning barrel had been determined, it will be rolled to the dump station and queued up, cut to 125, bottled, and delivered to Jamie’s store. The whole process should take about 12 weeks, and man, I cannot wait to buy a bottled of the 1792 Full Proof brown water.
The day at Barton 1792 Distillery was an awesome experience; from the detailed distillery tour to the selection process, it could not have gone better. I’d like to thank Josh and all the employees who welcomed us so warmly as well as Jamie for inviting me to be a part of the barrel selection.