Part 1 of Dancing with Bourbon examined how the Woodford Reserve Distillery (WR) incorporated the Dance Step of Hunger in its tour for visitors. Most sites focus on the interpretive design Dance Steps of the Head (meaningful information), Heart (memorable experiences), and sometimes the Hands (tangible skills) while totally ignoring Hunger (flavorful remembrances) – what folks take home in their bellies. WR skillfully provided Hunger opportunities both during the tour and at the Glenn’s Creek Café. How about other distilleries? What are they doing? While in my hometown of Lexington, Kentucky I stopped by the James E. Pepper Distillery (JP), a recently restored historic site, to check out the bourbon tour and see how they incorporated the Hunger Dance Step…and, of course, to taste their product.
A Bit of Background
Listed on the US National Park Service’s Registry of Historic Places, the James E. Pepper Distillery was once the largest producer of spirits in the United States.
Built in 1878 by James E. Pepper, grandson of Elijah Pepper, who originally owned the Woodford Reserve location, the JP Distillery closed in 1958 and sat idle for 50 years. Renovation of the site began in 2008, on-site whiskey production started in 2017, and tours were initiated in July 2018.
Here’s the question…
Can a site offer too many opportunities to put things in the stomach? The JP tour offered twice as many Hunger opportunities as Woodford Reserve. Is this OK or is it too much of a good thing? First, I decided to ask the JP Visitor Center Manager, Marjorie Amon, a couple of questions about the mission and purpose of the organization (other than selling bourbon), and the goal for the tours.
There is no JP mission statement, but the overarching purpose is to make a “really good spirit and to have the distillery become a tourist destination.” As for the tours, Ms. Amon stated there are four goals:
#1: For visitors to have a good time
#2: To educate about bourbon and the site
#3: Experience the brand and help build a sense of loyalty toward the project and product
#4: Develop a personal connection between the tour guides and the visitors
Goal #2 has more to do with the Head; goals #1 and #4 have more to do with the Heart; goal #3 has a more direct relationship to Hunger and a bit with learning a skill (Hands).
A Taste of James E. Pepper
Pepper’s location in an urban, warehouse district is in stark contrast to the rural, bucolic setting of Woodford Reserve. This formally tough part of town with abandoned buildings is now a popular destination as part of Lexington’s Historic Distillery District boasting several restaurants, a local ice cream maker, an active bar scene and, of course, the old brick distillery with its smokestack and iconic “1776” water tower. If you listen carefully you might even hear a bit of nature as a gurgling Town Branch rushes passed the property, though the sound is often drowned out by traffic noise and the 4:00 pm blast from the adjacent limestone quarry.
After a bit of James E. Pepper history (a topic for a different post) and what makes the Kentucky water perfectly suited for bourbon, we entered the working end of the distillery. Here we learned about the 5-Step Process for making bourbon but with a twist of grain. Sitting on an old mill stone were four containers holding the corn, rye, barely and malted barley used in the JP distilling process along with samples of the grains still attached to the plants. As we passed around the dried stalks and the containers our tour guide encouraged us to open the containers, smell the contents, pour a few grains into our hands, and chew on them…taste #1 (hmm – or are these 4 different tastes?).
Next, we headed upstairs to the fermentation room with its four shiny, stainless steel vats. Two of the vats held “mash” that had been fermenting for various lengths of time – 1 to 5 days. We were encouraged to smell the contents and then dip our fingers into the liquid and compare…tastes #2 & #3.
Although I personally did not have a problem reaching into the vats, I did wonder if this was the best (and most sanitary) way to get us involved. After all, I am putting a finger in my mouth and might even use the same finger to taste another vat. I talked to Ms. Amon about my concern. First, because of the distilling process (high heat and alcohol), contamination was not a concern. Second, she assured me the local health department had approved this practice. Finally, they purposely designed this experience into the tour because it can be fun to do something you think you shouldn’t do – to do something naughty – like putting your finger in the cookie dough.
JP uses a copper column still to distill the alcohol from the mash. This method produces a clear liquid called low wine (115 proof) or high wine (150 proof), that eventually goes into the charred, oak barrels to age. Much to my surprise we gathered around a barrel with the “White Dog” and received a small JP tasting glass to take as a souvenir and to use for the rest of the tour.
Our guide modelled how to carefully sip this very strong “moonshine” and what we might expect during the tasting process. A couple of small sips and a splash of water were more than enough for this sample of “white lightning”…taste #4.
To cleanse the palate and demonstrate how the clear “wine” matures over time in a charred, white oak barrel, a sample of JP’s rye whiskey from a first batch in 2014 was removed directly from the barrel and poured into our tasting glasses. What a difference time in a barrel makes…taste #5.
The brick, windowless tasting room with high ceilings was certainly appropriate for the urban, warehouse setting of JP Distillery. Two stools were set around each of the 6 wooden whiskey barrels that served as tables, each setting had a napkin, 2 glasses for tasting and a piece of locally made “whiskey chocolate” (rye-soaked walnuts in a soft chocolate center covered with a dark chocolate coating). Two bottles of the Pepper product were ready for pouring on the server’s barrel.
Our first pour was the traditional bourbon. After using our sense of smell and sight to examine the liquid we all took a sip…taste #6, followed by a bite of the chocolate treat…taste #7. Next, we each received a pour of the rye whiskey to examine and drink…taste #8. I finished the other half of my whiskey chocolate and asked for another sip of the bourbon to compare one more time with the rye – no problem…taste #9.
Our tour guide ushered us back into the entrance area and we stood along the wooden bar where all the current products were available to sample. I tried the 10-year-old bourbon…taste #10, the rye aged in sherry casks (#11), a malted barley rye (#12), and one more taste of the signature bourbon (#13). It was all fun and relaxing. The conversation flowed back and forth between the staff and visitors as we compared flavors, likes and dislikes. Full disclosure: My friend and I bought a bottle of the 10-year-old bourbon.
Unfortunately, there are no opportunities to purchase food at the James E. Pepper Distillery other then a box of the whiskey candies. I don’t know what is on the menu of the restuaruants in the Historic District but the ice cream shop offers a Bourbon Honey ice cream as one of its flavors.
Back to the Question…
Did the James E. Pepper Distillery Tour have too many opportunities for Hunger or just enough? Let’s take a look at the third tour goal again…to experience the brand and help build a sense of loyalty toward the project and product. I certainly felt ample opportunities were offered to experience the brand from “grain to glass” and everything in between. I drank the mash, the “wine”, a rye from an early barrel, two – no, three drinks in the tasting room, and four more at the bar (Don't worry, these were small pours and I was not driving). Plus I ate a chocolate and some grains. Was it too much? Perhaps the better question is – Did the act of putting something in our stomachs enhance the site’s mission, the goals of the tour, and provide a strong visitor takeaway?
Of course we would expect some kind of tasting at a distillery, but I was especially impressed with the time and effort Ms. Amon and her guides took incorporating the Hunger Dance Step throughout the tour. JP Distillery does not have the deep money pockets, the air of sophistication, nor the country charm of a Woodford Reserve (a Brown & Foreman product). By including the Dance Step of Hunger the experience provided both a personal and sociable feel as we all drank together. Did the visitors have a good time? I think so. The Hunger and Heart Dance Steps worked together on this goal because the tour would not have been fun without a sense of taste. Besides, I liked leaving with flavorful remembrances in my belly.
I plan to return to Woodford Reserve and James E. Pepper in future posts as they provide some great examples of the dos and don’ts for the other Dance Steps of Mission, Message, Image, Welcome, Orientation, Guide, Head, Heart, and Hands…Cheers.