Dec 042013

I’ve enjoyed touring Scottish distilleries as well as wineries around the world, but had never visited any American distilleries. We thought that this needed to change and found ourselves in Kentucky late September 2013 to visit some parts of the Bourbon Trail. We based ourselves in Louisville and visited five distilleries over the course of a few days – here are my thoughts on each of them.

Buffalo Trace

Kentucky Bourbon Trail Kentucky Bourbon Trail

Buffalo Trace makes a wide variety of bourbon with several different lines represented. Their budget Buffalo Trace is excellent value, typically close to $20/bottle. Things get a bit more expensive from there, with Eagle Rare and Blanton’s being the more premium versions, and then quickly escalate into ridiculous collector prices with their antique collections of Sazerac, Wller, Eagle Rare, Staggg, and Handy Sazerac.  However, even those can’t touch the ultra ridiculous frenzy over the ever elusive Pappy Van Winkle.

Located in Frankfort, the small capitol of Kentucky, the Buffalo Trace distillery is somewhat off on its own from some of the other large distilleries. Distilling began on the grounds sometime before 1773, so in addition to being picturesque, the area has a lot of history.  Buffalo Trace’s tours are all free, which is pretty amazing when one considers each of their many tours per day finish with generous pours of their white dog, base bourbon lines, and sweets.  Our tour guide was a second generation worker and had a genuine love for the company and its history. The only negative thing I could cite them for was a video included on the tour which was a little too long & marketing heavy. Note that the default tour does not go behind the scenes to the mash or other areas – in order to see those areas one has to sign up with those specific tours in advance, which is highly recommended. This was one of my favorite spots to visit, as the grounds were lovely to walk around and the staff extremely friendly.

Woodford Reserve

Kentucky Bourbon Trail Kentucky Bourbon Trail

Though Woodford Reserve releases limited editions they are mostly known for their base bourbon, Woodford Reserve, or the more premium version, Master’s Collection.  Woodford is a relatively new brand (1996) on a very old site. Located just south of Versailles, distilling started on site around 1780 and the main stone distillery building was built in 1838.  Though a well known brand I was surprised to see just how small these facilities were – the fermenters, bottling and storage is all housed within the older historic stone buildings.  Woodfords tour was the most organized we went on – a bus ride down and headsets to hear the guide, however the tour also costs $7.  Disappointingly the tour only includes a taste of their main line – Woodford Reserve. Though one can can talk up some of the gift shop folks for a taste of the double oaked if they display enough interest and seem like buyers, it would have been nice to try some of their other items not easily available, like their recent foray into malt whiskys.  This site is one of the prettiest that we visited, and is a worth a visit to see the landscape and distillery alone.

Four Roses

Kentucky Bourbon Trail Kentucky Bourbon Trail

Four Roses has been around as a brand since 1888 and the mission style distillery building was completed in 1910.  Four Roses has had a bit of a roller coaster ride over the years – very popular the 1930s-1950s, the brand and product diminished in quality up until being revitalized over the last decade or so.   I was excited to visit the Four Roses distillery as their single barrel bourbon holds a special place in my heart.  Though the tour was free, and the pours (almost too) generous, unfortunately this didn’t keep a special spot in my heart.  Their use of multiple yeast strains is interesting, but the the Four Roses facilities are industrial feeling and the tour started with a marketing video.  The experience simply wasn’t able to full compete with some of the others we visited.

Willett Distillery

Kentucky Bourbon Trail Kentucky Bourbon Trail

Willett Distillery reminded me of a winery in Napa valley – aesthetically pleasing, artisanal, and focused on visitors a key driver of sales.  Home to a gorgeous pot-still and a pretty view, the distillery has plans to open a B&B on site and I’m sure they will do well for themselves.  The tour has a small fee associated with it, but I thought it was well done and worth the fee.  The tour finishes with a taste of their standard bourbon (which I’m not the biggest fan of, though their bottle is very pretty), in addition to what ever other lines they have available.  I tried several different kinds and brought home two bottles of their 4 year old rye which I was very impressed with.  Note that their facilities are fairly new here – if you see the Bourbon family tree you will notice that their line is associated with other producers for the older varieties.  Time will tell what older spirits from their wonderful new pot-still actually taste like.

Heaven Hill

Kentucky Bourbon Trail

We had a short visit to the new Bourbon Heritage Center at Heaven Hill Distilleries.  I wasn’t particularly impressed, but I can’t say I gave them a full chance either as we did not take the full tour.  It seemed a bit overly commercial for my liking, kind of like a booze Disneyland.  The prison style metal warehouses surrounding the facility did little to encourage any generous thoughts of craftsmanship, though I’m sure that is completely unfair and unjustified on my part.  While I’m not a huge fan of many of their brands, Josh tried a number of their older releases of Elijah Craig and came away impressed enough to buy a bottle.  Long story short, don’t just take my word for it.

Final Thoughts on the Bourbon Trail

I didn’t know quite what to expect for our tour of bourbon country, but I came away quite satisfied with the trip.  It seems that even though plenty of cash has flowed into the industry it has not significantly corrupted it; the bulk of the people working that we met are genuinely passionate about their craft, and they enjoy sharing that passion with visitors.  If you are in the area and have even the slightest interest in spirits, I highly recommend taking at least one tour.

Nov 072013

two harbors and cactus Diver in kelp starfish and kelp California Spiny Lobster

Last weekend we went to Two Harbors on the isthmus of Catalina Island with the PowerScuba group. We had gorgeous weather and the diving was great. More photos can be found here: More photos of diving and hiking at Two Harbors, Catalina Island

It has been a number of years since I’ve been out, so I was surprised to learn that the dive boat which was dedicated for the site (the Garibaldi) had been dry-docked for a while. This means that any diving happening here is from boats coming from Long Beach/San Pedro area on the mainland, or coming up from Avalon area. This makes it much more difficult to organize dive trips with Two Harbors as a base as there is no local boat to help service divers. One never knows the whims of the CIC, who dictates what happens for much of the island.

Two Harbors always feels like a quiet rustic getaway, but that is partially because of the time of year that we show up – in late fall. By this time of year most of the moorings are empty, a far cry from the 4th of July when almost every harbor on the island is pushed into overflow and the island is packed with people. This time of year we are able to stay in the overflow temporary staff housing, which has a bit of a trailer park/work camp feel to it. The cabins are all close together and offer a meeting area for cooking and gathering, so it feels a bit like going back to camp as a grown up. This is one of my favorite places to visit, and my favorite time of year. Needless to say I really enjoyed the trip and meeting folks from PowerScuba. I can’t wait to go back!

Oct 242013

Last fall we took a road trip through some of the South West – I’ve finally got around to posting photos from the first part of that trip to Zion National Park. We were very lucky with the timing as some of the fall colors were starting and the trees were not yet bare. There was yellow colors in the canyon, mostly around the river. The upper road going east out of the canyon was a sea of gorgeous yellows and reds in the river washes, absolutely beautiful set against the tan and red rocks.

We caught a lovely sunset at Canyon Overlook Trail one eve and stayed late to watch the colors disappear. Everyone else at the overlook had already walked back so we quietly wound our way back on the trail in the dark. As we walked we noticed a single bighorn sheep walking on the ridge in front of us, framed by the rising moon. He seemed content to pose for photographs but just then we met some bighorn sheep not ten feet in front of us on the path. Both groups had been walking quietly so several bighorns were very surprised at how close we were and trampled off through the underbrush. The others jumped to a ledge above us and kept a close eye on us as we walked by. It always blows my mind how one can have these intimate experiences by following an easy walking path just a few miles from a major road.

Photos of Zion National Park in fall colors

Jun 082013

It has been interesting to watch the ongoing strife and turmoil that has been shaking Turkey. We were there for two weeks in March & April and had a chance to speak with a number of people in different locations. To a certain extent it has been hard to reconcile the strength of reaction given our conversations and the views shared, though some of the seeds of the reaction were easily visible.  Our time in Turkey was marked by three main themes when we spoke with people:

Ongoing tensions between secular & traditional Turks – Due to reforms driven by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Turkey has a modern history of being open to different forms of religious worship, or no worship at all compared to the rest of the region.  The majority of the people we spoke with (bias of English speakers) identified as Muslim, but not devout and in many cases, non-practicing.  They had plenty of scorn for the clerics and traditionalists and dismissed their political power as buy-outs & giveaways to segments of the population. They felt that their options & lifestyles were under threat to a certain extent.

The Turkish economy is (or was) great – We saw a lot of new development and construction as we navigated the country.  In general all of the folks that we spoke with said things were good and life was getting better for everyone.  Despite Turkey’s run of growth there is increasing worry that the economic growth and stability in Turkey has been fueled unsustainable by outside lending. Sound familiar?

Turks are happy to be separate from the Euro – Without prompting people would mention how proud they were that they were doing better than the Euro zone, and that they were very happy to have not joined the Euro.  The financial crisis appears to have given confidence to going it alone.  Perhaps the growth experienced in the last five years was amplified by the troubles in Europe and investors looking for (and paying more for) opportunities in Turkey.

Time will tell how far the current unrest will last, both sides don’t appear to be backing down and are further instigating the other.  I wouldn’t give up hope soon – Even now it is very common to see Atatürk bumper stickers and tributes.  Turks are proud of their country and consider it unique and a model for other countries to follow.

Apr 212013

Scotland Scotland
Photos of Scotland

We spent a little less than week in Scotland in the summer of 2012 as an “add-on” from a another trip to London and Scandinavia. I wasn’t terribly well planned but was very enjoyable; funny how that works sometimes. The country is small but the winding roads off main routes mean distances are generally slow to cover. Even so, it worked well that we stayed in Edinburgh as our base and took day trips and tours around the country.

Edinburgh is a lovely mixture of a city – lots new, lots old. The most popular point of the city is arguably the Edinburgh castle, and with good reason as it is well preserved and serves as the focal point of the city. I highly recommend walking through Holyrood Park and Arthur’s Seat to catch a sunset or sunrise. Not only because the view of Edinburgh castle is incredible, but also because we ran into some entertainment. Two bagpipers had setup on one of the paths and were practicing in the rain and enjoying the acoustics of the rocks. Few things have ever been as special for me than watching the city glow under a pink sunset in the rain while accompanied by a local soundtrack.

It is easy to get around by Edinburgh black cab, bus, or walking. As with most European cities the train station is located in the center of the city and it is easy to travel to major destination points that way (more on that later). To get a full taste of the country though you need to either rent a car or use touring companies. We took several small group tours to explore the highlands while visiting castles, lochs, distilleries, and towns. Though we encountered wet weather most of the trip all of our excursions were very enjoyable.

We also took the commuter train to explore Glasgow by day trip. The trip by train was fast and relatively inexpensive as the cities are not terribly far apart. Anna and I both enjoy Charles Rennie Mackintosh‘s work (Art Nouveau) so it was a must visit for us, including lunch at one of his tearooms. Despite the relatively close distance between Glasgow and Edinburgh they each have very distinct attitude. The cliche adage is that Edinburghers say Glaswegians are rough about the edges, and Glaswegians see the Edinburghers as snobs. I can’t remark too much on that as it was such a relatively short visit but I found that Glasgow felt much more like a vibrant new-world city than Edinburgh, which felt a bit more like a well curated museum piece in places.

It was a short but very packed and enjoyable trip. Scotland very easy and relatively cheap to visit if you are in London already, so consider it if you are already going to be spending any time in the UK.