You know you’ve had a remarkable trip when you carry your journey beyond its destination. As my final plane touched down in Tuesday’s early morning hours, I was happy to be home. And as physically exhausted as I was (still am), I found it difficult to catch quality sleep. I couldn’t stop thinking about my time away – particularly my time at Starlight Distillery. But more on that later.
Truth be told, today’s post isn’t relative to Wild Turkey, at least not directly. That being said, I owe certain thanks to Wild Turkey for the events of the last two days. While it’s important to stress that the whiskey community exceeds a single brand, were it not for the support of so many dedicated individuals – all sharing a love for Wild Turkey – there would likely be no trips for me to Kentucky, Indiana, or any other location associated with this hobby. For that, I’m sincerely grateful.
Chess with Pappy
I arrived in Kentucky on Sunday afternoon. Needing a ride to my hotel, I downloaded the Uber app in the airport. Minutes after installation, I was taking my first Uber. (I come from a small town.)
After settling into my room, I ventured a brief trek to Justins’ House of Bourbon on Market Street. Naturally, I was in awe of the glass cases showcasing legendary whiskeys from days gone by (some pre-Prohibition). Though not my first time visiting Justins’, it was my first time visiting the Louisville location. I was greeted warmly and treated with a courtesy flight thanks to Ryan, Song, and Jennifer.
First up was a 1969 Old Crow Chessmen decanter. It was possibly the best decanter bourbon I’ve ever tasted – that is, until the 1984 Wild Turkey with Poults was poured. The sheer level of complexity and balance with each of these bourbons was extraordinary, though I appreciated the spicier finish of the Turkey slightly more. (Go ahead – call me biased.) After savoring these epic rarities in Justins’ speakeasy (and fighting off a serious urge to nap on their comfy leather sofa), I decided to give the fifteen-year Pappy Van Winkle a try. It was my first time tasting Pappy 15, and I’ll have to admit there was a part of me that wagered I’d be unimpressed. That part lost the bet.
For the record, Pappy 15 is an excellent bourbon – well-aged and entirely satisfying. Would I pay more than retail for it? Probably not. Would I pay retail price for it? Probably so. Regardless, I’m grateful for the opportunity. Thank you, Justins’ House of Bourbon.
After sampling a few additional whiskeys (the Old Forester 117 was noteworthy), I purchased a souvenir tasting glass and a wee bottle of Maker’s Mark for a potential nightcap. Yes, I had some Wild Turkey 101 in my room, but who buys a glass without buying whiskey? By the time I left, hunger had beaten the best of me so I mosied over to White Castle (they’re known as Krystals in my neck of the woods). Sadly, it was drive-thru service only. I seriously debated ordering via drive-thru by foot (I consider that idea bourbon inspired), but relented and grabbed a snack back at my hotel room instead.
What to do next? See the city, of course! I proceeded to walk Main Street. Being a late Sunday afternoon, most establishments were closed. No worries. I could still take in the sights and enjoy the cool fall weather. And that I did.
Louisville is a fascinating city – a curious mixture of southern charm and midwestern vigor. I assume the downtown life is much busier during the weekday hustle-bustle, so it was pleasant to have a little quiet and space. I felt I was able – even in that short window of time – to whimsically connect with my surroundings.
After an hour or so, the sunlight waned and I felt a proper dinner was in order. But, just as I’d reached my hotel’s block, a curious arrangement of four letters caught the corner of my eye … EXPO.
Some of you might recall my “Adopt a Bartender” series. One of the bartenders featured was Meagan Northcutt, who tends Bar Expo in Louisville. So, I dropped in and chatted with her and bar manager, Ryan Le Claire. I mean, you can’t stay in Louisville without ordering an Old Fashioned.
I must say, Expo’s Old Fashioned genuinely surprised me. I’d never had an Old Fashioned crafted with Mellow Corn before. Damn, it was something else! I just had to get the recipe. I did (thanks Meagan), and I’ll share it with y’all now. (It’s a must-try.)
2 parts Mellow Corn
¼ parts simple syrup
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Garnish with a fresh orange peel
After my liver’s fair share of lubrication, a hearty meal was necessary. I opted for Repeal’s “Brush Creek Ranch Wagyu Burger” – oh, and the chocolate mousse. As you can imagine, sleep was inevitable. And … crash.
Going into a whiskey barrel selection, there’s always a handful of unknowns. Going into a whiskey barrel selection at a distillery you know very little about, there’s a helluva lot of unknowns. While I’d done some preparatory research and sampled a few single-barrel selections courtesy of my friends Scott and Robert (thanks fellas), nothing could prepare me for what I’d actually experience in Indiana.
Monday’s alarm sounded at 7:00 AM sharp. There’s nothing quite as jarring as a pingy iPhone alarm after a day of spirited enjoyment. I hit the snooze a time or three, then rushed to ready-up for the ride to Borden. After a tasty breakfast burrito at Aloft, I jumped in the car with Ryan Alves from Justins’ to join our group, Russell’s Renegades, at Starlight Distillery.
It was a perfect day – perfect weather, perfect temperature, perfect perfect. After a brief time on the interstate from Louisville to Borden, we wound our way through rural roads and uphill driveways. If you’re imagining Starlight as an easily spotted tourist attraction off a main highway lined with shops and signage, think again. Traveling to Starlight Distillery reminds me of traveling to my mother’s farm. And that’s exactly what Starlight is – a farm in the middle of farmland.
Yet, to say Starlight Distillery is a farm isn’t doing it justice. Starlight is a self-sustaining community. There’s a market, bakery, restaurant, ice cream shop, cheese factory, children’s park, countless crops, orchards, vineyards, beehives, and so much more. Oh, and how could I forget? There’s a winery and distillery, too. 😉
I could write for hours about the history of the land, the Huber family (seventh-generation strong), and everything wonderful Starlight has to offer (truly something for all ages). I could, and probably should one day, but my focus with this post lies in the distillery experience. After all, this is a whiskey blog. Sure, it’s a Wild Turkey focused blog, but please bear with me. There are some insightful correlations ahead.
After a brief rendezvous with our fellow group members and a few words of welcome from proprietor Ted Huber and single barrel coordinator, Andrew Jerdonek, we started with a walkthrough of the winery. We browsed the cellar containing casks of wines of various varieties and ages, viewed the grape processing and pressing facility, and witnessed the German made CARL brandy still in action (including a sample of fresh new make). Outside of the historic land and the Hubers themselves, the winery is arguably the core of modern-day Starlight. They’ve been producing wine commercially since 1978, and it shows in their hands-on, detailed vine-to-bottle operation.
After the winery, we moved on to the grain distillery. The warmth from the pot and column still filled the room – thick, enveloping heat – enough to remind you that a great deal of sweat goes into making quality spirits (and that’s only the stillhouse sweat). After snapping a few photos, I was sure we’d transition to the rickhouses for a tasting (it’s never too early for bourbon). I was wrong. We’d get there, but not before a grand tour of the Huber property.
Better than Disney
With a rush of excitement and a pinch of adrenaline, we loaded up in three side-by-side ATVs and headed out to see the land. And what beautiful land! We visited corn fields, peach orchards, fields of blackberries, strawberries, pumpkins, and soybeans, even a cut-your-own Christmas tree lot. On one stop, I pulled a Pink Lady apple from a branch (with permission, of course), took a bite, and instantly realized my grocery store’s wax-coated produce was undoubtedly second class. Towards the end of our excursion we stopped in a serene vineyard, where Christian Huber, Ted’s son, shared some thoughts about Starlight and his family’s heritage.
When Christian spoke, everyone listened. His connection to the land and Huber legacy – even in his twenties – is profound. It was a testimony to his realization of responsibility, not only to the six generations preceding him, but to generations of Hubers to come. Yet more than carrying on, there was a tonal shift when the conversation turned to distilling. From his father’s role in amending Indiana’s distillation statutes to the influence and guidance of the late Dave Pickerell, there was heart. This was Christian’s passion; it was palpable and infectious.
We wrapped up our tour on the banks of an idyllic pond overlooking the rickhouse that would soon host our barrel selection. Andrew suggested we gather for a group photo, and with the assistance of Amanda Kesterson, we did just that. Then we each took turns making our best attempt at an Ansel Adams photo of the pond and rickhouse. Chuckle if you want, but you’d try too.
Four Grains and Finishes
At last, the moment had arrived. It was time to taste some whiskey. As we entered the rickhouse there was an energy in the air – an innovative energy. In many ways, it was the polar opposite of the traditional wood/clad rickhouses you find at Wild Turkey, such as Tyrone’s A (c. 1894). Although it lacked the feel and smell of a late-nineteenth-century construction, it held an undeniable zeal of pride and potential. The ever-changing result of the Huber family’s distilling dreams – their hopes and accomplishments – rested on rows of multi-tiered racks. I felt privileged and thrilled to partake – even more so when I received my tasting glass.
The bourbon began to flow … The first few barrels, aged in Kelvin cooperage, if I recall correctly, were what I’d classify as “on-profile” four-year, four-grain Starlight bourbon. Impressive for the age without doubt, but nothing ignited us collectively until a few barrels in. By the time we reached the Canton cooperage barrels, things were warming up significantly. At that point I admittedly lost track of many of the barrels’ details (so please forgive me if you’re reading this, Christian). I remember debating two barrels of straight bourbon – one that had aged beside the wall and another with heavily toasted heads – but before hard decisions were made (sampling a rye in the interim), Christian, perched high above us on the racks, suggested one more bourbon to try.
The moment the words “107 barrel entry proof” were spoken, I was eager to give it a taste. After all, Wild Turkey employed a 107 barrel entry proof until 2004, and many (including me) feel it contributed significantly to the profile of vintage Wild Turkey bottlings.
And there it was – a unanimous winner. Looking around the room, it was all smiles and nods. There was no need for debate or blind comparisons. We found the bourbon we were looking for.
With one barrel in the books, we decided to move to finished whiskeys. Ted and his son Blake joined us as we tasted sherry finishes, port finishes, an atypical wine finish or two, and my personal favorite up to that point, an armagnac finish. Some were bourbon, some were rye, but as I’m writing this, I’m having a difficult time remembering much outside of the joy and satisfaction of the overall experience. There was a VDN (vino de naranja, or Spanish orange wine) finished bourbon that stopped all of us in our tracks, but what really sealed the deal was a VDN finished rye that Ted recommended. He was right. It was incredible.
Two barrels in the books and we were ready for the coup de grace: “Cigar Batch” bourbon. If you’ve never tasted Starlight’s Cigar Batch offerings, you’re missing out. Cigar Batch is a name given to the distillery’s whiskeys finished in Brazilian amburana barrels; the flavor profile imparted by the exotic wood is unique to say the least. There’s fresh pipe tobacco, potpourri, floral honey, and a plethora of otherworldly spices. It’s unlike any whiskey out there. If provided a chance to taste it, do not pass it up.
Torn between two Cigar Batch barrels, we took a well-deserved break to eat lunch, a meal graciously provided by Starlight (as if their hospitality needed an upgrade). As you probably guessed, they make fantastic pizza. Apparently, doing things right is a universal theme at Starlight. Our group used the time to clear our minds and get to know one another better. I was even treated to some ice cream (thanks Jacob). What can I say? I’m a sucker for chocolate chip.
Waffle cone in hand, we made our way to the conference room for one last piece of work – choosing a Cigar Batch bourbon. With two glasses before us (unlabeled to eliminate leftover bias) we spent the next few minutes nosing and tasting. I relied heavily on aroma, as my palate was admittedly fatigued. The votes were cast and we had a winner by a clear majority, though truthfully, each barrel was more than worthy of selection.
Three barrels in the books, one eventful day I’ll never forget. After wrapping up the Cigar Batch comparison, we headed over to the gift shop to browse the wares and say our goodbyes. Some left with baked goods, some left with whiskey, but everyone left with smiles. After a few parting words with Christian and my amigo Scott (thanks for the cigars, sir), Ryan and I headed back to Louisville. I had a plane to catch. That being said, I did have a few hours to kill, so stopping by Justins’ to sample their latest Four Roses Single Barrel selection didn’t sound like a bad idea (OBSV is underrated, by the way).
Later that evening, I was en route to South Carolina. Home – you can’t beat it. All the same, it’s comforting to have great friends and quality whiskey when you’re away. I can’t say thanks enough to the individuals who took time out of their lives and work schedules to join me at Starlight.
To Amanda, Breanne, Clay, Cooper, Jacob, Kevin, Matt, Mike, Ryan, and Sean, you have my heartfelt gratitude. It was an absolute pleasure spending time with each and every one of you. Y’all were an amazing team. Let’s do it again one day. Ryan … couldn’t have done this without you, buddy. Speaking of which, thanks to Justins’ House of Bourbon for sponsoring our barrel selections, not to mention the generous welcome. And last but certainly not least, thank you to Andrew, Scott, Starlight, and the Hubers, Ted, Blake, and Christian, for the opportunity of a lifetime.
If you live in the Louisville area, I strongly encourage you to visit Starlight. Bring your loved ones – your young and old ones – there will be plenty to do and cherish. If you don’t live close to Kentucky or Indiana, look for Starlight’s bottlings at your local wine and spirits shop. And if they don’t carry Starlight, be sure to request it from the store’s manager. Distribution may be limited, but word of mouth is a powerful thing. You might also try online vendors like Bourbon Outfitter, Keg & Bottle, or Seelbach’s. It’s possible one or more of those retailers carry Starlight expressions on occasion. Regardless of the means, it’s surely a name to look out for. Finally, you can learn more about Starlight straight from Christian and Blake Huber thanks to Weekly Whiskey.
Before I wrap up, I have one last thank you to share. I’ve said it before, though it bears repeating. To my Patreon supporters – none of this would be possible without your support. This blog, these barrel selections, they rest on your graciousness. I’m lucky to have such a wonderful group of ladies and gentlemen – friends. You have, and always will have, my very best.
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