Maker’s Mark Distillery Tour

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It says something that we arrive just minutes after the office opens and there are already two full groups of about 40 people placed ahead of us.  Not to worry; Maker’s Mark is staffed for this, as evidenced by our tour beginning 15 minutes after they opened, for a tour that lasted about an hour and fifteen minutes not including time in the “gift shop.”

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Like others I’ve visited, Maker’s is  located in a vale of sorts, accessed by an unlikely approach of several very rural roads.  Originally built around 1805 and operated as Burks Distillery, William Samuels Sr. bought the shuttered site in 1953.  His family had made whiskey for six generations, and he wanted to make a finer whiskey than his family’s recipe, which was reportedly burned.   The secret, they say, is Kentucky’s limestone filtered water.  But each distillery has its own tweaks.

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The site itself has a somewhat charming topography, not too unlike Tolkien’s Shire.   The process of making whiskey is essentially the same as others, except that they replace rye grains with red winter wheat.  Roll the grains in a mil to reduce the bitterness, add the limestone water, add in corn and let it cook in one of three low flow cookers, lower the temperature, add the red winter wheat, cook it some more, add malted barley, and cook it some more.  The process takes 3.5 hours.  Then add it to the fermentation vat, add a strain of yeast held by the family for six generations, and wait for the starches to turn to sugars. You don’t get to see any of that, of course, only the spiffy equipment.

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After the first day of fermenting, that’s when you have what is called “distiller’s beer,” which is then pumped into a column copper still.   Steam turns the alcohol portion to vapor, takes it up to a condenser, and viola. Except that Maker’s double distills it, through a pot still in their basement, to put the taste “more forward on the palette,” sweeter and less better.  And thus Maker’s White.

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Below is a reminder that the place that supplies both old and modern tastes may be located in a very old building.

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The tour guide gives frequent nods to Samuel’s wife Margie, who helped design the bottle, came up with the wax seal idea and method, designed the shutters with the bottle cutouts, and even the name, noting that on the bottom of other bottles was the glass maker’s mark.  

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Next stop is the labelling shop, where three 1930s presses are used to the tune of 60,000 labels per day with the desired perforation qualities.   I hope they have backup machinery stored somewhere else…


Next step was Warehouse A, with skinny windows reportedly made to prevent people from sneaking barrels out.  This is the oldest of their warehouses and smallest, holding 4,000 barrels.  Others nearby are up to 7 stories and hold up to 50,000 barrels.  

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About those barrels, to be legally termed a bourbon, distillers can only use barrels once, they have to be charred, and they have to be made of oak.   They obtain the barrels from Independent Stave company, who ages the barrels nine months and one “Kentucky summer” to remove the bitterness from the wood.   They’re then flame roasted on the inside for caramelization.  Once assembled and delivered, they’re filled with alcohol from the still, cut it with water at 110 proof, then deposit the barrels at the top of the warehouse, where they remain for three Kentucky summers, the heat of which causes alcohol to work its way more vigorously into the wood of the barrel.  

At end of third summer, key employees taste the barrels, as they don’t “grade” by barrel age.  When suited, they return the barrels to the bottom of the warehouse to age further, where they gain color, for a total of 5.75 to 7 years until maturity.   At that point, 378 barrels of similar age are merged to form a batch, where the taste is checked again.  As the brewery is part of a conglomerate, the spent barrels are shipped to a sister company in Scotland for aging Scotch whiskey. 

Then we approach “the cellar,” for the story, and sales pitch, for Makers 46 and Maker’s Special Blend.   Samuels, Jr., approaching retirement, wanted his own “brand.”  So he took Maker’s Mark, and working with the stave company and the master distiller, came up with an additional flavoring system.

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You take the top two rings and the barrel head off the barrel, insert 10 French oak staves (aged 18 months and lightly flame seared) into the barrels, rebuild and fill the barrels, and age them for nine weeks in “the cellar,” a new building that is temperature controlled at 50oF.

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The stave manufacturer termed the inserted staves as profile 46, or, as they were solely made for Maker’s Mark, Maker’s 46.   And, the third generation also wants his stamp.  So, instead of 10 staves of like kind, they will let “industry partners,” like restaurants, tweak the profile to their own liking.  The current Fall blend includes two Baked American Puro, four Maker’s 46, two seared French Cuvee, one Roasted French Mocha and one Toasted French Spice.

We then toured the bottle filling line, which is unremarkable except for the hot wax melting station, where employees hand dip each bottle, rotate it once or twice horizontally, then turn it vertically to allow the drips.  

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One surprise of the tour was a Dale Chihuly exhibit, built right into the ceiling of a passageway from The Cellar to, I think, the frequently promised tasting.

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And, on to the tasting.

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The Maker’s White just burns, being grain alcohol, and the others are enjoyable to varying degrees of flavor and the extent to which you like your drink neat.  You get a couple sips per, for anyone who wants to count.

As far as swag goes, they have it.  I don’t drink bourbon except very rarely, but… there’s a father-in-law and guests at my Christmas Party.  And, there’s the opportunity to dip your own bottle of bourbon, so… yeah.

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Overall, a great tour!

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Public Image Ltd–Live at Variety Playhouse

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In full disclosure, this isn’t a concert review but more of a collection of observations from a non-fan.  The offer of a free ticket was presented, so it was an opportunity for great Thai and some beers followed by a concert at my favorite Atlanta concert venue, starring none other than John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, who rose to fame as the lead singer of the Sex Pistols.

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I’m old enough to remember that band, at a time where “classic rock” was being challenged by disco and punk for a generation demanding something different.  To Lydon’s credit, his band would become significantly influential for bands that followed, even if less audacious.  After that band ended, he formed Public Image Ltd, or PiL, a chronologically accurate “post-punk” band, whose T-shirts and bumper stickers I’d seen but never given much attention. 

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Today, Lydon is a static figure on stage, limited to a narrow vocal range but with an abundant vibrato and perhaps some electronics for effect.  Based on the many gathered to hear him, it’s exactly what they expected.  For me, I don’t need to rush out to collect his music, but to give credit where it’s due, music has come a long way since guys had to sound like girls to make it in pop music, and Lydon’s five minutes of fame stretched far longer than most.   How that happened I’ll leave to the high-brow music writers, but I’d credit it to an audience tired of mainstream music or, more simply put, an antidote to, say, the Bee Gees.

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That said, the attitude and posturing that accompanied his music in his heydey is nowhere on show today.  Frequently peering to the stand to find the lyrics, it looks to me like another aging rock star, making a living because he earned his fans and because he still can.   That’s okay – there are numerous elders in rock that I see all the time; it works for artist and audience.  In this case… just not me.  But, the entreaty to join the group at the show was to say “You can check Johnny Rotten off your list…”  (implied: “…of aging rock celebrities before they pass away”).  Check.

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His guitarist was the focal point for me, Lu(natic) Edmonds.  First, just from appearances, should he need a change of career, he has a singular face that, with a few memorable lines, could have been a fan favorite in Game of Thrones.  He kind of catches the eye.  In addition to two guitars, he also played a “saz,” or more specifically, a Turkish baglama, (similar to a lute), only converted from acoustic to electric use (add perhaps fuzz pedals).  The instrument’s three strings were apparetnly tuned to G-D-A to allow a slide hit barre chords. The musician, the instrument’s appearance, and the sounds he made were the star of the show. 

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I enjoyed the music.  The lyrics I understood were simplistic, though often indecipherable, and it didn't’ seem to matter as the audience joined in frequently and gave tribute with the typical fist pumps.  For me, after a long travel day from Dallas and an unsettling landing amid Hurricane Michael on my return to Dallas, I opted out early into the encore to “enjoy” the weather and the drive home.

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Setlist:

  • Deeper Water
  • Memories
  • The Body
  • Disappointed
  • Warrior
  • The One
  • Corporate
  • Death Disco
  • Cruel
  • I’m Not Satisfied
  • Flowers of Romance
  • This is Not a Love Song
  • Rise

Encore:

  • Public Image
  • Open Up – Leftfield
  • Shoom


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Aaron Lee Tasjan–Karma for Cheap

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I’ve been a fan of Aaron Lee Tasjan since I caught him live at a music festival in 2016.  Great songs, great voice, great band.  Afterwards, I went shopping and got his first two solo CDs.  They were mixed bag at first impression, but the songs grew and grew, and finally I came to appreciate a cleverness in the lyrics and widely ranging song structures.  Last year, he released leftover tracks on Born at an Early Age, again full of his wry observation, humor and general positivity about life.  Good stuff.  a4221650117_10-e1536254833189

So I was really  looking forward to Karma for Cheap, the title itself suggesting he would keep pace with his knack of writing keen observations, but I was hoping he would capture them them on disc with his muscular touring band.  Ah, well, about that.  Not so much.

Instead, with a style previously considered “Americana” (perhaps the middle ground between country and rock?) and somehow likely shocking folks who have a stylistic expectation when they watch “Bluegrass Underground,” Tasjan released a pop record in an era where pop is irrelevant outside of a movie title track or commercial jingle.  As it turns out, noting that the Nashville scene was absent a psychedelic influence, he steered his band to the Beatles, as well as their influencers such as Roy Orbison or those influenced by them such as Tom Petty.  No fault there, really, as the Beatles can be heard as a strong influence in his earlier albums, and he puts those skills to good use as every song is an enjoyable change of style and phrasing. The band, and in particular guitarist Brian Wright, adorn his songs perfectly.  So what’s not to like?

Well, “If Not Now When.”  It’s a simple song, and there’s no room in it for his lyrics to flourish.  And despite the variety of influences, too many of the remaining songs are interesting for a couple listens then lose attention because the lyrics just don’t warrant it.  The whole comes across as a bit kitschy as he has proven he doesn’t have to retread others’ musical ideas.   

Of all the songs on the CD, “End of the Day” is probably the best, definitely the one I’d want to hear live without the polished production.  “The Truth is Hard to Believe” is a close second, with “Heart Slows Down” coming in third with its strong Petty-ish chorus. 

Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty to like.  He’s an emerging artist, despite his journeyman credentials.  But, listen to the selected songs that made the “Bluegrass Underground” cut if you have the time.  There are three not-so-old songs that speak “artist,” but “If Not Now When” sticks out like a sore thumb…  a song anyone could make.  Ah well, the rest is yet to come. 

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Self-healing Metals

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“Self-healing metal” sounds cooler than it really is.  But, I’ll like it a lot more if it gets my daughter a Ph.D.   So, let’s make some sense of it.  The term itself expresses the goal, which is to find alloys that can heal from the nano-cracks that are caused over time and thereby avoid failures or extend the useful life of the object, with possible additional benefits for safety or resource conservation. 

On to the physics:  When a stress (force) is applied to a material, a strain in some spatial dimension will occur (length, angle, volume), and when the force exceeds the elastic limit of the material, it causes permanent dislocations in the microstructure after.  If additional stress is added, the material will reach its ultimate strength at which it breaks.  That’s easy, like bending and then snapping a branch.

So, let’s apply that to steel.  Austenitic steels, which include high levels of chromium and nickel and low levels of carbon, usually have high corrosion resistance and are highly formable, and thus they are the most widely used grade of stainless steel.  But even these get stressed.

Rather than the permanent dislocation in the microstructure, imagine a “phase change,” in this case a martensitic transformation, where atoms shift very slightly in a simultaneous, cooperative movement or flow.  How much is very slightly?  A distance of less than the atomic diameter. 

That martensitic phase can be tricky.  TRIP steel, (a trade term for TRansformation Induced Plasticity) is a high strength alloy that has only one shot at being formable.  Once that part is manufactured and formed, it is mostly martensitic and can be brittle (but also strong, taking significant force before it breaks suddenly – I.e. no bending). If it’s a part that has to sustain high loads repeatedly, it’s bad news. The martensitic phase will crack, and those cracks propagate and lead to failure.

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Above: A scanning electron microscope (SEM)

As a general note on fatigue: usually, the loads are not particularly high.  It isn’t such a danger to have that brittle phase there temporarily.  Micro-cracks form for a lot of reasons, and it’s the growth of those cracks that matters more.  In a brittle material, it’s harder to form dislocations and easier to grow cracks.

The first goal, then, is to find an alloy that would remain formable but undergo the martensitic transformation under stress but also back-transform when the stress is removed (super elasticity).   So, stress a metastable austenitic material (alloy), and rather than causing permanent dislocation of atoms, the metal changes to the martensitic phase where the atoms flow slightly until the stress is removed, at which point they return to their original positions.  Basically, you don’t worsen cracks wherever they are.  That dislocation of atoms also causes a slight volume change, which helps compress the tips of those microcracks which helps in stopping them from propagating. For an application, imagine a metal part subject to vibration and the cyclical states of stress and no stress.

The second goal is to further find identify an alloy that, aside from it’s elasticity, is also strong, as super elastic materials usually are not that strong and have limited application. 

That’s the science, and then there’s the laborious process of figuring out the properties of various alloys at a scale where even a scanning electron microscope (SEM) can only provide clues regarding topography and diffraction changes.  Thus she’ll also use a transmission electron microscope (TEM) which has atom-by-atom resolution for better visualization…  Harvard may be thought of as more of a liberal arts school, but they she’s trying to borrow theirs as it is newer.  How does that happen?

Also in play are atomic force microscopy (AFM), which allows a clearer view of topography changes, nano-indentation (pictured above)  which requires exacting aim, and other spiffy gizmos which allow the devoted to study a material surface area of 50 nm2 while attempting to identify alloys with optimal behaviors in regard to temperature, stress, strain recovery and residual stress.

With no guarantee.  Such is scientific investigation.  Useful side discoveries welcomed.


Picoindenter

The indenter above is positioned within the SEM to study the material.

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This is a tiny diamond indenter tip that, when viewed at 18 millionths of a meter, looks a bit unwieldy, if not oppressive.  Jackie is aiming for the very small lighter gray dots  (superelastic phase) in the larger darker gray areas.  The manufacturer’s website has more info if interested.

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The above is one the samples she’s processed, helpfully described as “It’s shiny.”  Some alloys are very expensive and purchased from others; some she makes herself I think.

Now that you have the “textbook” case, let’s turn to her advisor’s YouTube video, where my daughter attempts to put on her “No, really, I’m a scientist” face and otherwise demonstrates good humor and an optimal office chair roll.

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