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Labrot & Graham: Learning the process to historic Kentucky Bourbon.

By mary gallagher

On one of my visits to Kentucky I visited the Labrot & Graham distillery, the Bourbon Homeplace. It is the oldest, smallest and slowest working of the nine Bourbon distilleries now in production in the commonwealth and dates back to 1812. What is a visit to Kentucky without Bourbon?

The name “Bourbon” comes from Bourbon County, Kentucky, which, in the 1700’s, covered a large portion of Kentucky and was a point of departure for whiskey moving down the Ohio River to the West and New Orleans. The product name was later shortened from “Whiskey from Bourbon County” to “Bourbon Whiskey”.

It wasn’t until 1964 that Congress passed a resolution declaring Bourbon “…a distinct product of the United States.” Now no whiskey can call itself Bourbon unless is:
* Made in the United States
* Distilled at less than 160 proof from fermented grain mash
* The grain recipe must be at least 51% corn
* The product must be stored in new, charred, white oak barrels at no more than 125 proof
* Nothing can be added to the final product except pure water

After visiting the famous Calumet Farm home of Alydar, we continued past miles of beautiful thoroughbred breeding farms, until reaching the carefully restored 42 acre facility of Labrot & Graham. Picturesquely sited here on Glenn’s Creek, with its well over 100 year old classic designed stone buildings. Many historians consider the Labrot & Graham property to be the finest example of early distillery architecture remaining in America today.

Our tour guide pointed out that Bourbon distilling and thoroughbred breeding, Kentucky’s most famous products, are both based on the same natural element – limestone water. The Bluegrass Region of Kentucky sits atop a huge limestone aquifer and for centuries, the limestone formations have acted as a filtration system removing unwanted minerals, such as iron, from the water and adding calcium. The calcium in the water reacts very favorably with the yeast during production of Bourbon, making for a better whiskey. This same calcium-rich water also promotes strong bones and good bone conformation in horses, resulting in the center of the thoroughbred breeding industry being located in Central Kentucky. Throughout our stay, as we drove through the countryside and towns, the use of limestone and its occasional outcroppings were easily evident.

Kentucky’s abundance of white oak trees, limestone water, fields of corn and other grains, plus hot summers and cold winters – made it perfect for the production of Bourbon. The art of crafting buildings and fences of stone was brought by the Scottish and Irish who built these distilleries.

At Labrot and Graham, the original section the Distillery Building is the oldest building on the property with the first section constructed in 1838, and additions through the years. The millstone over the front door was mounted in 1938 on the 100th anniversary of the building’s construction.

The process of making Bourbon begins with the selection of fine corn, rye and malted barley, milled and then cooked with limestone water. As in making sour dough bread, some of the prior batch is used as a “sour” starter for the next.

This mash is then pumped to the cypress fermentation vats where yeast converts the fermentable sugar into alcohol called “distiller’s beer.” The yeast imparts unique flavor characteristics to the spirit. The mash ferments for three to five days, best not to rush the process.

Walking into the Distillery Building to start the tour, one is engulfed in the aroma of “sour mash”. I’ve had the dubious “honor” of tasting the various stages of whiskeys, beers and bourbon over the years and take it from me the end product is the only one worth consumption.

One friend from Tennessee speaks of growing up and always smelling mash throughout the countryside in the busy days of moon shiners working stills.

The original old-country artisans who directed construction of these buildings crafted their whiskey in copper pot stills. Today Labrot & Graham, is the only distillery in Kentucky still making Bourbon using copper pot stills, in the traditional method.

Copper is an excellent metal for use in distilling. It’s sanitary, an excellent heat conductor, and also reacts favorably with alcohol vapors, imparting unique qualities that make for a superior whiskey. In Scotland and Ireland, pot stills are still used today for distilling Scotch and Irish whiskey. With each distillation, more impurities and water are removed from the liquid.

Finally, the “high wine” is pumped into the “spirit still,” where it’s distilled a third and final time, resulting in a 158 proof product. At this point, we are through distilling and the clear “new spirit” is ready to go into barrels.

The 158 proof “new whiskey” from the spirit still is pumped into this tank and reduced to 110 proof using demineralized water.

Labrot & Graham buys barrels from Bluegrass Cooperage, in Louisville, Kentucky. The barrels are critical in the maturation of Bourbon. They use only 70 barrels a week, and are very picky about their quality. One of the whiskey distilleries I visited in Scotland many years ago produced a smaller number of barrels each week and their buildings were tiny. The tour was early on a February morning, mist floated through the valley and the tastings were generous so one didn’t notice the chill.

Barrels here are made of white oak, the standard for all Bourbon distillers because of its availability in Kentucky, its strength, its sugar content, and other excellent properties for maturing whiskey.

When white oak comes to the cooperage, it’s very rough and must be planed smooth. Then it’s cut into 28″ to 31″ staves, sanded and tapered. It requires skill and experience by the Cooper to make the staves fit snugly within this iron circle because the barrel must hold together without the benefit of nails or glue. At this point, the staves in the raised barrel are permanently bent into shape using steam.

Next the barrel is toasted for approximately 22 minutes using radiant heat to caramelize the sugars in the wood. These caramelized sugars produce the sweet vanilla taste and caramel aroma one tastes and smells in Bourbon.

The barrel is then set on fire for about 20 seconds. This forms a layer of char about 1/8 of an inch in thickness on the inside surface of the barrel. The char layer is what adds to the rich amber color of Bourbon.

The barrels are moved to Warehouse C, built in the late 1880’s and the oldest surviving stone aging house in the U.S. The whiskey in the barrels goes into the warehouse clear and leave some years later a rich amber liquid known as Bourbon. At Labrot & Graham they pay no attention to the calendar when it comes to deciding when each barrel is ready to be bottled. That is left up to the palate of Lincoln Henderson, Master Distiller, and Dave Scheurich, the Plant Manager. Between the two of them, they have over 60 years of Bourbon distillery experience and they decide when the product inside gets bottled. Everywhere we went on this tour, I was reminded of the long history of the buildings and a business in place for almost 200 years. Such a comparison to our fast life style and disposable society.

One of the most famous devotees of James Crow’s whiskey was Kentucky statesman, Henry Clay who lived only a few miles from this site. Clay would visit every year, before returning to Washington, to select a few barrels of Crow’s finest. He kept these barrels in a closet in his Senate office to, as he called it, help “lubricate the wheels of government.” Clay’s office was a popular gathering spot for the Senators. I’m not in the Senate but most of my friends are devoted to the Labrot & Graham bourbon balls that I’m ordered to bring back after every Kentucky visit.

The facility also is available for small private meetings or a group experience at the Labrot & Graham Conference Center. The Creekside Room, the Center’s larger space, opens to a spectacular fieldstone terrace overlooking Glenn’s Creek. Weather permitting, and it was beautiful the day we visited, this terrace is perfect for receptions, dinners, or informal gatherings and casual relaxing.

Special Holiday Event: Woodford County Chamber of Commerce CHRISTMAS AT LABROT & GRAHAM”, November 18th – December 20th. Join us for the Sixth Anniversary of our festive holiday lunch. Our Chef-in-Residence David Larson creates gourmet meals from his own award-winning recipes. While you are here, visit our Gift Shop for unique one-of-a-kind holiday gifts from the Bluegrass. Then tour our historic distillery and see how Woodford Reserve is handcrafted. Lunch is served Tuesday – Sunday, 11:00 A.M. – 2:30 P.M. Reservations are required and may be made by calling 859-879-1953 after October 10. Cost: $24.95 per person plus tax and gratuity.

Located near Versailles, Kentucky, Labrot & Graham is nestled in the gently rolling hills that comprise the heart of Bluegrass horse country. Although horses surround the property, mechanized travel is within easy reach – the Lexington airport is just 15 minutes away and they are less than an hour from the Louisville International Airport. From I-64 take the Frankfort/Versailles exit. Turn south towards Versailles. Travel for 2.6 miles to Rt. 3360 (Grassy Springs Road). Turn right and follow this road until it ends. Turn right onto McCracken Pike to the Labrot & Graham Visitors Center.

Call (859) 879-1812 for information.
Open Tuesday – Saturday 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.
Tour Times : 10 a.m., 11 a.m., 1 p.m., 2 p.m., & 3 p.m.

Open Sunday 12:30 p.m. – 4:30 p.m.
April – October
Sunday Tour Times 1 p.m., 2 p.m., & 3 p.m.
Closed Major Holidays

Nearby attractions: The Kentucky History Center, The Kentucky Horse Park (my all time favorite horse museum and everything under the sun related to horses.), Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill (we stayed here, did a fascinating tour of the buildings and grounds, this is really experiencing history), Harrodsburg, Kentucky, Birthplace of the West, The Headley-Whitney Museum. Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate, Keeneland (The most beautiful track and setting I’ve ever seen. A manageable size with historic stone buildings you feel the history surrounding you.), Lexington is also wonderful to spend a few days or use it as your base for a weeks visit.

A Whiskey Primer

Although the whiskies described below may share some characteristics none qualify as a true Kentucky Bourbon.

Tennessee Whiskey: This straight whiskey must be distilled in Tennessee from a fermented mash containing 51% of any grain, usually corn. After distillation, and before going into the barrel, the whiskey is filtered through charcoal. Jack Daniel’s is the leading producer of Tennessee Whiskey.

Rye Whiskey: Rye whiskey mash must contain at least 51% rye; distillation must be no higher than 160 proof, and the whiskey must be aged in new charred oak barrels. The flavor of Rye whiskey is distinctively different from Bourbon.

Blended Whiskey: The distiller blends at least 2O% 100-proof straight whiskey with any other whiskey, neutral spirits or both. Blended whiskeys are bottled at no less than 80 proof.

Single Malt Scotch Whisky: Any Scotch described as “Single Malt” must be entirely the product of a single distillery located in Scotland, and is distilled only from malted barley.

Blended Scotch Whisky: Blended Scotch contains a variable proportion of blended malt and grain whiskies. A good quality blend may contain more than 10 different products in its formulation.

Irish Whiskey: Irish whiskeys are usually blends of single malt and single grain whiskeys produced in Ireland. Although both Irish and Scotch whiskies are primarily based on barley, Irish whiskey lacks the “smokey” flavor found in Single Malt Scotch. This results from the fact Irish distillers dry their barley in smokeless rather than peat-fired kilns.

Canadian Whisky: Canadian whiskies are composed mainly of high proof, light spirits blended typically with about 10% straight whiskey. Canadian whisky must be at least three years old but is usually aged longer.

Japanese Whiskey: Japanese whiskeys generally resemble Scotch malt whiskies in both character and method of production. Peat-fired kilns are used to dry the barley. The spirit is distilled in pot stills.

Confused about labels? Variations on the Bourbon Theme.

The special terms used on Bourbon labels provide clues to the differences between products. Here are a few of those descriptors.

Small Batch: The distiller selects a limited number of barrels for mingling to create this Bourbon. The size of the batch varies by distillery.

Single Barrel: This Bourbon is from a single barrel. The master distiller determines which barrels are selected for bottling. The product is drawn, filtered and bottled, one barrel at a time.

Barrel Proof: A barrel-proof Bourbon is taken directly from the barrel and is not cut with distilled water to reach a desired proof level.

Straight Bourbon: This term means the Bourbon has been aged at least two years in new, charred, white oak barrels.

Sour Mash: The distiller blends a portion of the grain mash from a previous fermentation (“spent beer”) into the new batch. This previously used mash tends to be slightly acidic, or “sour” and helps assure product consistency from batch to batch. The final product, however, does not have a sour taste.

Bonded Bourbon: This Bourbon is produced at one distillery during one distilling season, aged a minimum of four years and bottled at 100 proof. It’s stored at a Treasury Department-bonded warehouse, so taxes are paid when the Bourbon is shipped.

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