September 16 – 28
With some time to kill before our next tour, we made our way back north to Bardstown and after some debate, and driving around looking at options, settled on Lee’s Famous Recipe Chicken, which specializes in chicken, homestyle sides, and biscuits. After the sale of Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) in 1964, Lee Cummings (the nephew of KFC founder Colonel Harland Sanders) began developing his recipe, later to be known as “Famous Recipe.” In 1966, Cummings, along with Harold Omer, started “Harold’s Take-Home” in Lima, Ohio, where Cummings first introduced his Famous Recipe Chicken.
In 1981, Cummings sold the chain to Shoney’s Restaurants in Nashville, Tennessee and they continued to operate Lee’s along with their own Captain D’s and Shoney’s Restaurants until 1995, when Lee’s was sold to RTM Restaurant Group in Atlanta, Georgia. In May 2003, the chain had 29 company-owned locations and 125 franchised locations. In October 2003, Lee’s Famous Recipes Inc. purchased the chain from RTM and in April 2013, Famous Recipe Group LLC purchased the chain from Lee’s Famous Recipes, Inc.
Being one of the first in line in our group, I ordered a chicken pot pie and was advised, much to the dismay of those behind me, that it was the last one. That pie and a diet Coke brought my tab to a very reasonable $7.79 and except for being a bit of the salty side, it was quite good. After lunch we killed time walking the streets of downtown Bardstown, and then made our way to our last tour and tasting of the day at Heaven Hill Distillery.
Founded by several investors shortly after the repeal of Prohibition in 1935, they included a member of the Shapira family. As the company developed, the five brothers of the Shapira family bought out the other investors and descendants of the Shapira brothers own and operate the company today. All of the Master Distillers at Heaven Hill since its founding have been members of the Beam family. The original Master Distiller was Joseph L. Beam, Jim Beam’s first cousin. He was followed by his son, Harry, who was followed by Earl Beam, the son of Jim Beam’s brother, Park. Earl Beam was succeeded by the current Master Distillers, Parker Beam and his son, Craig Beam.
We arrived at the property and checked in, thinking that we had just booked a tasting. We were pleasantly surprised to find that a mini tour of sorts was included, essentially a visit to the closest barrel house. A complete tour was not available as, in November 1996, Heaven Hill’s production plant (distillery) was almost completely destroyed by a fire that started in an aging warehouse and spread to other buildings and vehicles. Over 90,000 barrels of flammable bourbon were consumed, creating a “river of fire” that flowed from the warehouses.
From one account of the fire: “Flames leapt hundreds of feet into the air and lit the sky throughout the night. Witnesses reported seeing whiskey barrels explode and rocket across the sky like shooting stars … a two-mile long stretch of the creek that supplied process water to the distillery was set ablaze for a brief time.” The total loss in whiskey and facilities was later valued at $30 million. In order to continue making their Bourbon, Heaven Hill’s yeast needed be recovered.
The entire supply, a proprietary recipe from the first fermented batch in 1935 that had been handed down for generations, was kept in the distillery. Though badly burned, the distillery building wasn’t destroyed completely, and Charlie Downs, distillery supervisor at the time, and Parker Beam rented a bucket lift to see if they could get to the fifth-floor yeast refrigerator. “And when we opened the door, we couldn’t believe it! There it was, still cold!” Downs recalled. “We immediately took it to a few ‘safe locations’ where it could stay alive.” The most secure spaces? The refrigerators in Charlie and Parker’s own kitchens.
The company survived the next several years through the provision of production capacity by its fellow local bourbon labels, Brown-Forman and Jim Beam, until its purchase and adaptation of the Bernheim distillery in Louisville from Diageo in 1999. While fermenting, mashing, and distilling occurs at the new distillery, aging, bottling, and shipping still occur in Bardstown.
As we toured the barrel house closest to the visitor’s center, our guide explained that unlike at Maker’s Mark, the barrels in each house here are not rotated, meaning those closest to the top of the barn experience the most evaporation (the angel’s share). This also means that each barrel has its own individual characteristics, presenting a unique profile if you are bottling from that barrel.
Heaven Hill has 17 unique brands including among others, Elijah Craig, Evan Williams, Heaven Hill, Henry McKenna, Larceny Bourbon (a very good $24 choice), and Old Fitzgerald Bourbon. We finished up our tour of the barrel house and adjourned to the visitor’s center for our tasting. It went along the same lines as the others, again quite entertaining, but with one critical difference. This time each tasting setting included a glass of water and an eye dropper.
After tasting our first sip- of each offering, we were then asked to add a drop or two of water to the glass because as a recent study by chemists at the University of Sweden has shown, adding water to whiskey boosts the concentration of flavor compounds at the surface of the drink, bringing more of those rich aromatics to the nose as we sip. Which is why many of us add ice to our whiskey when consuming it, particularly those large square or round cubes one now often finds served to them in bars. Or make in our own freezers at home.
We concluded our time at Heaven Hill and made the drive back up to the Drury Inn. As with the day before, lunch for me had been filling enough and the others agreed we’d just hit the happy hour food offerings downstairs again, which in the overall scheme of things worked out OK, leaving money in the food budget for a big meal out the next day, our last together.
For this day’s adventure, we would start off closer to the Drury Inn and head into downtown Louisville for a bit of culture before enjoying our last tasting and tour of the trip. This would be my second trip to the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory, the first having been twenty years ago when, on a family vacation with sister Bev and her two boys Jed and Dillon, we spent a few nights at Doug’s then home east of town. We will cover this visit and more in our next post, so stay tuned.
Lee’s Famous Recipe Chicken: https://www.leesfamousrecipe.com/locations/kentucky/bardstown
Heaven Hill Distillery: https://heavenhilldistillery.com/
Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory: https://www.sluggermuseum.com/