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Maker's Mark distillery is bourbon lovers' nirvana

The oldest continually running distillery in the world is based in a tiny Kentucky town. Its product? One of the most loved liquors of all.

At the Maker's Mark distillery in Loretto, Ky., there are six of these fermenting tubs. Each can produce 4,800 bottles worth of bourbon every four days. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

LORETTO, Ky.--If you're the kind of person who likes to partake in the occasional glass of bourbon, this tiny town might just be your kind of heaven.

Loretto, about a 90-minute drive south of Louisville, is home to the Maker's Mark distillery, a fully functioning facility that turns out thousands of bottles of the booze each day.

As part of Road Trip 2008 on Sunday, after driving to Loretto along a series of lush green roads dotted with horse farms, charming houses, and plenty of wide-open space, I found myself signing up for a tour of the distillery, eager to see how the golden-brown liquor is made.

This facility has a lot of history. First opened in 1805 by Charles Burks, the distillery later became the property of the Samuels family. For decades, the family produced T.W. Samuels whiskey. In 1953, a grandson who felt that the liquor was too harsh began producing his own bourbon here.

But no matter who's making the booze, this is the world's oldest continually operating distillery, according to my tour guide, Nicole.

A sign outside the Maker's Mark distillery explains its history, which dates back to 1805. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Making Maker's Mark bourbon starts with a mixture of grains: 70 percent locally grown corn, 16 percent red winter wheat, and 14 percent malted barley.

The grain mixture is put through what is called a roller mill, which gently crushes it into a powder form. The powder is then put into a nearby mash tub and blended with water drawn from Maker's Mark's own 10-acre spring-fed limestone lake.

In the mash tub, the mixture is cooked down over three and a half hours, producing a sweet mash that is then pumped into one of a series of fermenting tubs in the adjacent room.

There, distillers take a starter sour mash culled from a previous batch--this allows Makers' Mark bourbon to be classified as a sour mash whiskey--and blend it here with the sweet mash that has come out of the mash tub in the next room over. The fermenting tub is filled two-thirds deep with the sweet mash, to which 150 gallons of yeast made daily at the distillery from a five-generation-old family strand is added.

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Finally, a second layer of sweet mash is added, and then the whole thing is left to sit and ferment in the tub, which is more than 100 years old and is 12 feet wide and 12 feet deep, for four days.

The point of this process is that it processes the sugars in the mash, and it is the sugars which produce the element of the liquor that everyone really cares about, the alcohol.

After four days, there are 9,300 gallons of sour mash in each of the tubs, and the next step is to take the mash and filter it through a contraption that steams it, allowing the alcohol to rise up through a series of plates, where it cooks, separating the alcohol.

The alcoholic vapor rises further up through the chamber and gets trapped at the top. Then, it is drained out and sent to a pair of copper tanks, where it is distilled again, producing a clear liquid that's 65 percent alcohol.

The countless gallons of mash left behind after this process are collected and sent to nearby cattle farms, where the mixture is given to cows as feed.

"That's why happy cows don't come from California," Nicole joked. "They come from Kentucky."

All told, each fermenting tub produced 9,300 gallons of mash, which in turn are used to make up to 4,800 bottles of Maker's Mark.

After several steps in the distilling process--grinding three kinds of grain, mixing the powder with water, fermenting the resulting mash and then steam cooking the mash to create alcohol--the 120-proof liquid emerges in these copper tanks. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

At this point, the clear liquid from the copper tanks is put in barrels for a long aging process.

These barrels, which are produced by a local company called the Kentucky Cooperage, are flash-burned inside for 40 seconds before being delivered to Maker's Mark. That's because the charring process brings out the natural sugars from the wood, caramelizing them.

Once the bourbon is put in the barrels, where it will age for between five and eight years, depending on the batch, it begins the long, slow blending with the sugars from the wood, creating along the way the flavor and color that bourbon lovers know so well.

All of this is done in one of 22 of the company's warehouses, either here at the distillery, in town nearby, or in another town not far away. The idea is to ensure that even if one warehouse is destroyed in any kind of accident or disaster, the entire supply isn't destroyed along with it.

All of the warehouses, plus the distillery and the bottling plant, are a dark gray color. The idea is that by making the buildings dark, it warms them, speeding up the aging process. This is a method employed by some other bourbon distillers as well.

After five years and nine months in the barrels, the bourbon is tested for the first time to see if it has matured. Some batches will be ready at this point, while others will need additional time before being ready.

The distillery building at the Maker's Mark headquarters in Loretto, Ky. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

On average, the process takes about six years, but some batches take up to eight.

All told, there are about 220,000 barrels being stored at any given time, but each day--except Sundays--many of those barrels are being opened and their contents are being poured into bottles.

Unfortunately for me, I visited the distillery on a Sunday, meaning I didn't get a chance to watch the bottling happen. Instead, they treat the unlucky folks to a video of the bottling process. Perhaps the most disappointing part of this is not being able to see the signature move that distinguishes Maker's Mark, at least from a marketing perspective, from other bourbons: The hand-dipping of each bottle into vats of hot red wax, a step that applies a unique wax seal to each bottle.

Lucky for me--and you--we still had one opportunity to see this happen.

And that was in the gift shop where, if you buy a bottle of the booze, you can do the hand-dipping yourself.

I couldn't resist, even though I'm not much of a bourbon drinker myself. The recipients of this booty know who they are. Let's all hope I can get the bottles back home successfully. Otherwise, I'll be carting 120-proof pants away from the airport.

Please stay tuned to the rest of Road Trip 2008, both on this blog and on my Twitter feed and on my Qik channel.

Maker's Mark maintains 22 warehouses. Each stores dozens of barrels of aging bourbon. Daniel Terdiman/CNET