Note: The tour of Copper & Kings was complimentary for my party and me.
On my last few trips to Kentucky, my crew and I have not done much in the way of activities. When you’ve been going for ten years or so, you’ve done all the tours and seen pretty much all the sites so my inclination is to just kick around town or the hotel and not do a bunch of driving here and there. In other words, we fell into a rut.
This April I decided to do more. I scheduled two day trips for us. The first was to Frankfort (more on that later), and the second was to Louisville. In the latter, I scheduled a tour of the Old Forester Distilling Company (Brown-Forman’s excellent answer to the Evan Williams Experience), a lunch with award-winning bourbon journalist Maggie Kimberl, and then a tour of Copper & Kings distillery.
For the second year in a row I had forgotten that the Louisville Marathon is that Saturday morning and as a result many of the streets downtown are closed off to vehicular traffic. Despite this we managed to sucessfully navigate through the streets of downtown Louisville by car and then by foot to make our way to Old Forester Distilling Co ahead of schedule.
Lunch was a different story. I had neglected to call ahead to our chosen lunch meeting
place and when we met Maggie there, the wait was forty-five minutes. That wouldn’t work, so Maggie told us to all jump into her minivan and she took us to a popular restaurant near Copper & Kings called Butchertown Grocery. Their wait was even longer but they told us to go down the street to a newer, smaller place called Naive. They had seats and good food, drinks, and service.
After that, we bid farewell to Maggie and walked to Copper & Kings. A winding path through repurposed shipping containers (containing a gift shop and restrooms) runs from the front of the property into a courtyard that occupies the space in front of the main building. The space is set up for outdoor events and includes a bar, a firepit and a large tent (in case of rain, I assume). Just about everything is orange.
Our tour group assembled in the large tent (it was raining) and we got a brief opening talk from our tour guide Margaret. She gave us the basics about what brandy is and told us a little about the According to Margaret, before prohibition there were 400 or so brandy distilleries in the US. Very few survived and many of those that did, make sweet, dessert brandies. That is not what Copper & Kings makes. They aim to make brandy for bourbon-drinkers. The distillery began operations in 2009 and opened to the public in 2014.
Margaret then led us through the courtyard into the first floor of the main building by the stills. They had three steam-heated alembic stills at the time, with one on the way, all manufactured by Vendome. The smallest is Sara (50 gallons), followed by Magdalena (750 gal), and Isis (1,000 gal). Their newest still, Rosemary (2,000 gal), had not yet been delivered when we were there. In case you were wondering, all the stills are named after women whose names appear in Bob Dylan songs, mostly in songs from his 1976 album Desire. Rosemary appears on the prior album Blood on the Tracks. I would have gone with Patty Valentine, but what do I know? According to Margaret, the stills are currently run around the clock but vary according to the phase of the moon. Distillation takes shortest during a full moon, longest during a new moon. I know that sounds like baloney, but it’s based on data compiled over the years by former C & K employee Alan Bishop. The difference is not great but it does exist, especially during a “super moon”. Alan is currently master distiller at Spirits of French Lick in French Lick, Indiana.*
No fermentation takes place at the distillery. All the wine, cider or whatever that is destined for the stills is feremnted elsewhere and taken to the distillery. The grapes (Columbard, Muscat Alexander, and Chenin Blanc) are sourced from California and the apples from Michigan. Yeast strains are chosen on a year to year basis.
After looking the stills over, Margaret took us down to the cellar in which brandies were
aging in a bewildering variety of cooperage. The brandy destined for C & K’s core line are aged in ex-bourbon casks originally from Heaven Hill, makers of Evan Williams, Elijah Craig and many more. The rest were aging in ex-sherry, ex-Cognac, mead, beer, wine, cider and many many more. There were even a few barrels of oddball spirits that C & K has acquired over the years, presumably for future releases. The barrels are obtained through Kelvin Cooperage in Louisville.
Copper & Kings practices something they call sonic aging. This has nothing to do with an elderly hedgehog. It’s the practice of placing speakers (20 total including five sub-woofers) in the cellar and cranking the volume up to get the spirit moving and increase the amount of contact between the spirit and the barrel. Appropriately enough, they were playing My Morning Jacket while we were there.
We then moved upstairs to a large, lounge-like
space to sit down and do some sampling. I tried their 5th anniversary brandy, called A Song for You, a high-powered gin and a delicious barrel-finished absinthe. We all tasted each other’s samples as well, and the biggest standout of those was an unusual distillery-only pear brandy. I didn’t end up going home with that but I kind of wish I had.
After the sampling, we all headed to the rooftop bar for a cocktail and a good view of Louisville and the solar panels on the roof. Sustainability is a big concern for Copper & Kings. In addition to the solar panels, they have planted a monarch butterfly garden that doubles as run-off mitigation and offer anyone who rides a bicycle to the distillery 50% off the price of a tour.
That was the end. Our guide Margaret was wonderful, and if I have any complaint, it was that everything was a little too orange. Don’t get me wrong, as a graduate of Broad Ripple High School and Anderson University I have great affection for the color, but it got to be too much. Anyhow, a tour of Copper & Kings is recommended.
I also recommend stopping at Butchertown Market after your tour for some light souvenir and candy shopping. We did and got some good stuff. Check it out!
*Big thanks to Alan for answering my question via FB messenger and to Maggie Kimberl and Steve Beam for connecting me with him!