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The Amish & The Snack Capital of the World


My friend, Nick Pironio, oft spoke of a marvelous land filled with as many pretzels as one could eat and where beer had only one name—lager. This marvelous land was Hanover, PA, and the only beer on tap was Yuengling. Unfortunately my travels wouldn't take me far enough north to go to the Yuengling brewery, but I would be able to make a few stops in the heart of the The Snack Capital of the World.

Heading west from Philadelphia on the shoddy (yet expensive because of tolls) Pennsylvania Turnpike, the air turned a little sweeter. This area has an abundance of companies making candies, baking pretzels, and salting chips. Utz, Snyder's of Hanover, and Wise are just some of the big names that can be found in the area, but there are scores of mom and pop chip and chocolate companies around each corner as well. Our first stop was the Julius Sturgis Pretzel Company.

The Julius Sturgis Pretzel Company is located in Lititz, a town small town in the Pennsylvania Dutch country. We chose the Julius Sturgis Pretzel Company because Utz and Synder's of Hanover tours didn't allow pictures or were not available Friday afternoon (not to mention that Sturgis pretzels are delicious!). Megan was also super-excited about the tour because they let you twist your own soft pretzel!


We just about passed the bakery (you can't miss the giant pretzel out front) and went inside to inquire about the tour. Nobody was out on the streets, and it didn't look like anyone was inside the bakery. I got the feeling that tour was not taken very frequently, and that we had wasted time driving through Lititz. We found a lady serving pretzels from behind a counter and inquired about the tour. To my surprise she said the 2pm tour was full and we would have to wait until 2:30. Not only were the tours actually running, they were filling up with people! We wandered around the shop and lobby looking at old advertisements, newspaper articles, and pretzel making equipment to kill time until our tour started.


Right before 2:30, a heard a herd of shuffling feet as they piled back in the bakery lobby. Our tour guide gathered those of us waiting for the next tour (another 15 people had joined us) and took us back into the bakery. After explaining a little about the history of the Sturgis family and how it spawned multiple pretzel companies (reminded me of how the Jim Beam family spawned multiple whiskey distilleries when we did the The Bourbon Trail), our guide started instructing us on how to fold the perfect pretzel.


Our guide mixed in some pretzel history (stories about German monks and children's bedtime stories), some pretzel traditions (how "tying the knot" now refers to getting married), and some pretzel jokes (check out his shirt in the picture below, you can get a feel for his sense of humor wearing the "Old & Salty" shirt). Megan bragged about her pretzel being the best in the entire group, but we all got certificates indicating we passed pretzel twisting school.



Next we walked over to the giant brick ovens that were used to bake the pretzels. The guide informed us that soft pretzels begin to go stale 30 minutes after they come out of the oven, so to truly appreciate one you need to eat it still warm (makes you think twice about the soft pretzels at sporting events that sit on the rack for hours at a time). Hard pretzels were made by baking them a second time by storing them on the second story to reuse the heat from the ovens located below. Based on the temperature and humidity outside, it could take anywhere from 1 day to a week for the hard pretzels to finish baking.


Just as the guide was wrapping up the tour, our soft pretzels came out of the oven. I have NEVER had a pretzel this good. My mouth is watering just remembering how it tasted.


I sampled a variety of the hard pretzels, including some of the "experimental" flavors (like garlic pretzels and hot cheddar pretzels, mmmmm). I could have stayed there for a week, especially if a beer had been available. Megan was eventually able to drag me back to the car so we could continue the trip.

As a mentioned above, we were not only driving through the Snack Capital of the World, but also through the Pennsylvania Dutch country, home to the Amish. Since we had left the turnpike and were driving on smaller roads, we frequently passed by the Amish riding in their buggies. Most of us are familiar with the Amish as the people who have decided to give up worldliness (electricity, tv, computers, cars) in order to strengthen their relationship to God. I was somewhat surprised at how frequently we saw them riding on the streets and working in the fields.


The countryside was beautiful as we made our way further west. Rolling fields, silos, and barns stretched out in front of us. Philadelphia seemed a million miles away in this rural countryside.




Our travel through Snack Central was not finished just yet. Having got a taste of salt, it was time to even it out with a taste of sweet. And what place is sweeter than Hershey, Pennsylvania?


In Hershey, everything related back to the chocolate company. The street lights were Hershey kisses. The sign on every barn and silo was branded Hershey. Every street sign pointed towards the Hershey Theme Park.


When I was a senior in high school, we visited Hershey on the way up to a Young Life Camp in New York. I remember having a good time at the amusement park, and remembered everything smelling like chocolate. Megan and I didn't have time to ride the rides, so we opted to take a tour of the chocolate factory instead.

Upon entering the Chocolate World, my excitement quickly drained. This place was way over-commercialized. You could make your own candy bar in the Chocolate Lab, you could ride a trolly through the chocolate factory, and you could participate in the 4-D theater—all for $25 a pop. The majority of the floor space in Chocolate World was dedicated to buying CostCo size boxes of chocolate (and even a 25 lb bar of chocolate), but the prices were higher than at the grocery store back home. I was briefly in my own personal heaven in the Reese's corner, but there were no free samples.


They did have a free factory tour ride, which was supposed to simulate how chocolate was made. It matched the rest of Chocolate World in its commercial-ness, complete with singing cows and a picture your could buy of yourself on the ride upon completion. There wasn't anything authentic about Hershey, and I was about 20 years too old to appreciate anything in Chocolate World.


Megan and I grabbed a handful of free white-chocolate kisses and got back in the car. We still had to drive halfway across Pennsylvania to get to our next destination, Latrobe (and then on to Pittsburgh)!

Posted by Mike.Flynn 13:26 Archived in USA Tagged museum tour local_food Comments (0)



sunny 78 °F

Only 1 of the original 13 colonies did not touch the Atlantic Ocean, but it was also the center of the emerging nation politically and geographically. It is the birthplace of cheesesteaks and soft pretzels. Somehow, this state got the entire nation to watch a rodent predict a late winter or early spring. Megan and I are headed to Pennsylvania!


Philadelphia is the largest city in Pennsylvania, and arguably the best (just kidding Pittsburghers). Philadelphia does have a pretty cool view when driving into the city from the south. The downtown skyline is visible while the Phillies and Eagles stadiums fill the foreground (it was especially cool at night).


One thing immediately jumps to mind when I think of Philadelphia. You might be thinking obnoxious sports fans, cheesesteaks, or the Liberty Bell, but I can't help but remember the greatest underdog story of all time—Rocky. Our first stop is the Philadelphia Museum of Art.


We could see the museum from the hotel room (at the end of the road heading in the 2 o'clock direction) so it wasn't a far walk. Flags from every country lined the side of the road (I'm not sure why). There was a fountain in front of the museum with plenty of statues, Megan couldn't resist posing.



It was about 6:00 in the morning, and the only people around were either homeless or people working out on the steps. Some were doing yoga and stretching exercises, while others ran up and down the steps. Getting into the Rocky spirit, Megan challenged me to a race up the stairs.


Upon reaching the top, Megan and I danced around, did a little shadow boxing, and high-fived one another. However one thing was missing, there was no statue of Rocky at the top! Try to differentiate between Rocky, Megan, and me in the following pictures:




From the vantage point on top of the steps, we spotted the new location of the Rocky statue. After walking back down the steps and over to the statue, Megan dared me to shout "Adrian" while posing for a picture. What you can't tell from the video is that there is a stoplight 15 feet from the statue where 20 cars had stopped on their morning office commute. Needless to say, they all turned to stare at me.


After getting our Rocky fix, Megan and I crossed through downtown to reach our next Philadelphia destination, Independence National Park. Philadelphia played a huge role in the forming of the United States. Its central location among the first 13 colonies made it a convenient place for the founding fathers to meet. Both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were signed in Philadelphia. Philadelphia initially served as the nation's capital, and several presidents had homes in the city. Independence National Park is a preserved area in downtown Philadelphia that contains Independence Hall (the building where the documents were signed and original home of the Liberty Bell), President Washington's house, the First Treasury of the US, a number of era-representative buildings, and the town bar.

Our first stop was the Visitor Center so we could empty our bladders and get a ticket to enter Liberty Hall (you have to be escorted through Liberty Hall at a specified time). The Visitor Center had people dressed up in late 18th century attire, including slaves. People played instruments from the time, and a couple demonstrated common crafts like stitching (it was a little reminiscent of when we were at Colonial Williamsburg). It was a little weird to see US Park Rangers walking around with their wide brim hats, but I guess they wear the same outfit whether they are in downtown Philadelphia or at the Grand Canyon. There were some hints of modern day Philly too, like the Philadelphia Phanatic!


We had about 2 hours before our scheduled tour of Liberty Hall, so we decided to walk around the park. On the way to see the Liberty Bell, we passed by George Washington's house.


Well, we passed what was left of George Washington's house. You could see the foundation 15 feet below ground behind a plexiglass wall. The space on top of the foundation was dedicated to a display about George Washington's slaves. It was an interesting display because it didn't mention anything about George Washington specifically, just whatever information they had about the slaves that Washington owned. It seemed like the display was better suited for a Civil War era park instead of a Colonial era park. However, it wouldn't be the last time slavery was discussed during our time at Independence National Park.

The Liberty Bell was located right next to the foundation of Washington's house. Just about every kid knows the story about how the Liberty Bell was the grandest bell in the world and how it cracked when it was rung to announce the signing of the Declaration of Independence (although none of that is 100% true). Regardless of the true story of the bell, I was intrigued to see it. Unfortunately, so was just about every other person. People were waiting to see the Liberty Bell in a non-moving line that stretched around the side of the building (surprisingly, foreigners made up 75% of the people in line).


Seeing bell wasn't important enough to wait an hour in line, so Megan and I continued walking towards Independence Hall. Upon reaching the end of the Liberty Bell building, I saw that waiting in line to see the Liberty Bell was a complete waste of time. The entire end of the building containing the bell was made of glass! Anyone who wanted to see the bell could easily do so without waiting a minute in line. I guess the only benefit of going in the building is to get a little closer or get a better picture with the bell (tip to anyone who wants to do this, they have a perfect replica of the bell in the Constitution Center, and no one will even know that it isn't the real Liberty Bell). Megan and I listened to a short story about the bell, got a picture, and moved on.


Since we still had about 90 minutes until our tour started, Megan convinced me to walk through the rest of the park to see the Rose Garden. The crowd disappeared as soon as we passed Independence Hall. It seemed that most people stayed in the portion of the park between the Constitution Center, Visitor Center, Liberty Bell, and Independence Hall. I tried to follow the map to the Rose Garden, but there were no signs on the cobblestone streets. After wandering through several different gardens, we finally reached the Rose Garden. There was only one bush in the entire garden with roses, and Megan was not impressed.


We walked to the end of the park, passing by the First Bank of the US, the first US Treasury, several statues, and a variety of historical buildings. The building we really wanted to see was the watering hole of the founding fathers, the City Tavern.




The City Tavern was closed when we walked by, but it does open for lunch and dinner every day. It would have been cool to get a beer at the same place George Washington once did, but not even the founding fathers grabbed a drink at 9am in the morning.

We headed back to Independence Hall to get ready for our tour. Unfortunately Independence Hall was getting renovated, so the exterior view of the building was not quite authentic.


The inside however, was kept as authentic as possible. There are two main rooms, one side is a court room and the other is the gathering room where the delegates met. Each room only had furniture from the late 18th century, some of it being the actual pieces that were used by the delegates (such as George Washington's chair and Thomas Jefferson's walking stick).

The first room we entered was the courtroom. The guide told a story about how the seal of England used to be on the wall, but once the Declaration of Independence was announced, it was ripped from the wall and burned in the street. You can also see the cage that the accused man used to stand inside while making his case. Thank goodness the court system has evolved, no one would ever appear to be innocent when pleading their case from within a cage!



The next room, the Assembly Room, is where all the real action happened. We got a good dose of history on how the delegates were gathered here to debate the Declaration and later the Constitution. The guide went into a long story about how North and South Carolina initially refused to sign the Constitution because it would have ended slavery. I was shocked, I had never imagined slavery was a dividing issue for our country from day 1. Eventually the references to slavery were removed from the Constitution, and it was signed by everyone. The guide pointed out where each delegate sat, and described how the windows were screwed shut to prevent the listening ears of the press from reporting the proceedings until they were finished. At the front of the room sat the chair with the carving of a sun where George Washington presided over the conference, in which Ben Franklin commented "I have often looked at that behind the president without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting. But now I... know that it is a rising...sun."


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After the tour completed, Megan and I made our way back to the car. It was nearly lunch time, and I was starved. I was told there are two options for lunch, Geno's or Pat's, the two most popular cheesesteak places in Philly. We drove out of downtown and decided on Geno's based on a local's recommendation. I ordered an "American With", which means an American-cheese based cheesesteak with peppers and onions. Listening to the next 50 people that ordered, I realized that the most common order was the "Whiz With", a cheesesteak that uses cheez-whiz (which ironically isn't real cheese).




Our day through Philly was over, but our trek through Pennsylvania was just beginning.

Posted by Mike.Flynn 02:45 Archived in USA Tagged museum historical tour local_food world_heritage_site Comments (1)

The Bourbon Trail


overcast 65 °F

Kentucky is a beautiful state, one that I absolutely love driving through. You get a taste of the Appalachian mountains before arriving in the rolling hills in the center of the state. Rustic barns and horse farms dot the countryside, and a multitude of rivers and lakes make this state a scenic wonder. Kentucky is the birthplace of many important men, namely Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, and ME!


Kentucky is also the birthplace of most of the bourbon that travels across the world. There are more barrels of bourbon in Kentucky than there are people! There is so much bourbon in Kentucky, that some distilleries only distribute their bourbon internationally and totally skip the domestic market. Megan, Greg, and I aim to tour six of the bourbon distilleries located in central Kentucky, a pathway called "The Bourbon Trail".

Before we get started, a little foreword on bourbon itself. Bourbon is a special type of whiskey which can only be produced in the United States (in 1964 Congress named bourbon the native spirit). Bourbon is whiskey that is aged in a brand new, charred oak barrel, made from a mash consisting mostly of corn, and has no added flavors (the only flavoring after distillation comes from the oak barrel). How can there be such a variety of bourbon if they all have to follow the same procedure? Distilleries use different combinations of grains to make the mash (stuff that is fermented and distilled into moonshine), but the real magic comes from the oak barrels. A lot of the distilleries use barrels from the same manufacturer, but they vary the amount of time the whiskey is aged in the barrels, how the barrels are positioned in the warehouses, and the blends of different ages of whiskey to create the unique flavors.

We left Somerset (where my grandma lives) and drove north two hours to reach the first distillery, Wild Turkey.


In college we called Wild Turkey the "Kickin' Chicken" due to the involuntary leg kick after taking a drink of Wild Turkey 101 (hence me doing the Kickin' Chicken dance in the picture above).

It felt a little weird to be waiting on the front porch of the distillery at 9am to start drinking straight bourbon, but we weren't the only ones. About 10 people sat around the small porch waiting for the doors to open. Megan opted for the seat of honor.


A little after 9, the doors opened and we were directed to sign-in for the tour. It was a short drive over to the new distillery (in 2010 Wild Turkey built a new distillery to allow for increased production). Once we got within a half mile of the distillery, you could smell the bourbon. My mouth watered in anticipation of tasting it, while my stomach flipped with the thought of taking a shot. We pulled up to the distillery just as a grain truck was offloading a new shipment of grain.



After a quick video about Wild Turkey, our tour guide began the tour around the distillery. We saw the yeast production room (nothing special there, it was just a room) before making our way into the fermenting room. At least 12 30ft tall fermenters sat in the giant room. The corn and grain mix is steeped and boiled to release the stored sugars and enzymes. Yeast is added to the mixture, which then feeds on the sugar to produce carbon dioxide and alcohol. This is the same exact procedure that a lot of breweries use to make beer, which is why the distilleries often refer to the liquid at this stage as beer mash. You could feel the heat coming off the fermenting "beer" as we stood above the fermenter.



Since the room with the fermenter is not temperature controlled, most distilleries shut down during the hot summer months. The heat in the rooms is just too much for the yeast to work properly. I leaned over the vat and took a big whiff, and it nearly knocked me off my feet. There is no oxygen above the tank (with all the CO2 bubbling up) and you get a nose full of alcohol (it reminded me of the feeling after taking a stiff shot!). We left the fermenting room and walked to take a look at the still.


The still is what actually extracts the alcohol from the fermented "beer". Sophisticated heating techniques evaporate and condense the alcohol from the mixture. You could actually see the clear alcohol running down the first still and going into the secondary still. This is "moonshine" or "white lightning", but instead of adding a piece of fruit to add flavor, the distillant is stored in oak barrels. We walked out of the distillery and over to the filling warehouse. Here barrels upon barrels waited to be filled. Greg tried to "wheeze the juice" from one.


Here is a video of the barrels being filled.

From the filling room, we drove over to look inside one of the warehouses. These things were huge, and there were a lot of them. It takes around 3 days to create the mash, ferment, distill, and barrel the whiskey. The whiskey then sits in a barrel in a warehouse for at least 4 years, and often 6, 8, 13 years or longer.


Inside the warehouse was nothing fancy, just racks and racks of barrels. In the middle of the warehouse, you could look up and see how high the barrels were stacked.



Throughout the years as the bourbon sits in the barrels, it moves in and out of the pores of the wood through the charred layer. The summer heat opens the wood so that that the bourbon can penetrate, and in the winter the barrel contracts to move the bourbon through the other way. Over time, the flavors of the wood and auburn color is extracted. Wild Turkey has 6 different brands of bourbon, all of which use the exact same mash recipe and age in the same barrels. The only thing that is different is where the barrel is stored in the warehouse. Some zones in the warehouse promotes the bourbon to move more throughout the oak than others, and this is what creates the different flavors.


After leaving the warehouse, it was time for the tasting! Wild Turkey allowed us to have 2 shots of whatever we wanted, so Megan, Greg, and I coordinated so that we could try as many different bourbons as possible. First we tried Wild Turkey Rare Breed, which is barrel proof (meaning it is bottled straight from the barrel without adding any water). Bourbon has to be at least 80 proof, but often distilled water is added to bring down proof. Rare Breed is not cut with water, but instead is very full flavored. We then sampled Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit, which only uses one barrel to bottle (it is not blended with bourbon from other barrels). This is one of the bourbons that had a specific location in the warehouse. We also sampled Russell's Reserve (Jimmy Russell is the master distiller at Wild Turkey, and this bourbon is aged a little longer than the others), Wild Turkey 101 (my favorite from college), and Megan tried the Wild Turkey American Honey (which isn't a true bourbon since flavors are added after it comes out of the barrel).


On the way out of Wild Turkey, Megan stopped to feed the Wild Turkey some Wild Turkey.


It was about a 20 minute drive to Woodford Reserve. We had about 8 hours to tour 6 different distilleries spread from Lexington to Louisville (about 3 hours to drive between all the distilleries), and the Wild Turkey tour took about an hour and a half. Needless to say, we were behind schedule. The drive to Woodford Reserve was beautiful. We drove through back roads lining horse farm after horse farm.


Woodword Reserve was pretty scenic. Woods and horses surrounded the distillery, and their warehouses were covered in stone instead of wood.



Woodford Reserve is the only distillery that charges for its distillery tour, so we decided to skip it to save some time. We walked through the gift shop (surprisingly the bourbon they sell on site was more expensive than the stuff I could get at the ABC store back home) and took a seat at the tasting bar. Woodford Reserve only gives a single shot of their bourbon, and there wasn't nearly the presentation we had at Wild Turkey. Still, the three of us went through all the steps to get a taste for the bourbon (my leg didn't involuntarily kick at all). After about 30 minutes of taking in the scene, we hopped back in the car to head to Four Roses.


Four Roses had the look of a Spanish Monastery, distinctly different than the back country feel of Wild Turkey and Woodford Reserve. I had never heard of Four Roses, but I am not the most refined bourbon connoisseur. The lady that was doing our tastings informed us that Four Roses had been around for 100 years, but only until recently only shipped overseas (they are now in 47 states, all the contiguous states except Alabama). Four Roses was delicious, nice and mellow. We sampled a single barrel (bottled from only a single barrel), a small batch (bottled from a select number of blended barrels), and their yellow label. I will certainly be looking for their brand next time I buy bourbon.


The tasting room had a series of charts and a mockup of the distillation process. We smelled the various grains they had on display (wheat, rye, and barley) so that we could identify them in the next bourbon tasting. Greg took the opportunity to try and educate us on the distillation process (everything that he had learned from the Wild Turkey guide). Greg's lecture was filled with lots of jokes and giggling, meaning either the bourbon making process can be humorous, or the samples were starting to take their effect.


It was a 2 hour drive to the next distillery, which gave us time to eat our lunch and see a little more of the countryside. Once again, we took twisting and winding back roads. We knew we were getting close when the smell of bourbon filled our noses. We had arrived at Maker's Mark.



The tour was similar to Wild Turkey's tour, just not quite as big. We found out that Maker's Mark rotates their barrels in the warehouses (the warehouses were all painted black to absorb more heat), which contrasted how Wild Turkey kept the barrels in the same spot throughout the aging process. Maker's Mark Bourbon is different from their second brand, Maker's Mark 46, in that additional charred oak staves are added into the barrel at the end of the aging process for an additional 46 days for additional flavor and color.



At the end of the tour, we got to sample both of Maker's Mark bourbons.


Maker's Mark's trademark is the wax sealed bottle. At the end of the tour, if you buy a bottle of their bourbon, you can dip it in the wax yourself. Greg wasn't passing up the opportunity, so he got first in line to dip a bottle. After putting on the apron and gloves, he stepped up to the wax and dipped his bottle. It was pretty cool getting to see the hand-dipped process.

They also sold the Maker's Mark 46 staves that had been soaked in bourbon. They smelled like bourbon, and they suggested you cut them up to use on the grill to add a little extra flavor. I bought 5 to use for the 4th of July.



The next stop was the home of Evan Williams Bourbon, Heaven Hill Distilleries. Heaven Hill is the largest independently owned distillery, and the black label Evan Williams is the most popular in the US and across the world.



Heaven Hill was set up a little bit differently than the other distilleries. Heaven Hill has a Bourbon Heritage Center, a museum-like visitor center detailing bourbon and how it is made. There were displays that allowed you to smell moonshine, bourbon that had been aged for 6 months, and bourbon that had been aged for 6 years.



The had old stills on display and descriptions of how bourbon had affected the life of Kentuckians. The museum was definitely more kid friendly with interactive panels. Heaven Hill also offers a variety of tours, none of which were leaving within the next hour. Bourbon tastings are only allowed at the end of the free tour, so we instead sampled the Heaven Hill barbeque sauces. It was a shame we didn't have more time to wait for the next tour.



We went outside and looked around the Heritage Center. Warehouses were in every direction, and you knew that they were all filled with barrels of bourbon. Each barrel holds about $10,000 to $20,000 worth of bourbon, and with a warehouse holding hundreds and hundreds of barrels, every warehouse had over $1 million of bourbon just sitting inside.


The last distillery of the Bourbon Trail was Jim Beam, which was another 30 minutes down the road.



The Jim Beam tour was more of a historic tour. Instead of taking you through the fermenting and distilling processes, you instead go through Jim Beam's house, see the family pictures, and see a toy distillery that actually works.


The Beam family was one of the earliest bourbon distillers in Kentucky. As a result, they didn't stick to just one distillery. Cousins and brothers each opened their own distilleries, sharing the knowledge passed down along the lines. One of the Beams started Heaven Hill, and other Beams could be seen in the histories of the other distilleries. As we walked out of the house, the tour guide pointed out the pump that they used to use to get the water to make the bourbon. Greg teased that bourbon would come out now, and the guide told him to try it out.


Although it looked like Moonshine coming out, it was still only water.

The tour continued to see the original still used by the Beam family and the original distribution method. The Beams would keep their the bourbon on site, and people would bring their own containers to buy the whiskey. The container was weighed after it was filled to determine the cost (50¢ per quart, 75¢ per quart for aged bourbon).



The guide also pointed out the trees around the distillery. He said the one of the by-products of the distillation process causes the trees to turn black. The trees themselves aren't harmed, but occasionally Jim Beam has to polish the tombstones located in the cemetery across the street.


We walked through one of the Jim Beam warehouses, and it looked very similar to the warehouses from the other distilleries. Jim Beam also rotates their barrels, but uses barrels from different zones to create certain brands. I knew what was coming after the walk through the warehouse, the tasting!


Jim Beam didn't actually offer their Jim Beam whiskey at the tasting, but instead let us sample the top shelf brands. We got to try a Knob Creek single barrel (which was super smooth) and Basil Hayden Small Batch (which was also fantastic). The Jim Beam tour guide was very personal, and even offered suggestions on other distilleries to try out while we were in the area.


Overall, I was very impressed with all the distilleries. They were all very open about how they make their bourbon and how their bourbon process may be different from other distilleries. No guide claimed their bourbon was the best or even their bourbon process was the best, but instead just promoted the idea that all bourbon can be appreciated. It was refreshing to not have to hear them slander one another, like I had to sit through when we went on the beer tours in Wisconsin.

We had one last stop before heading back to Somerset. Jim Beam sits right on the edge of Fort Knox. Fort Knox was built when Franklin Roosevelt outlawed American citizens from owning gold bullion and gold coins (everyone had to sell their gold to the Federal Reserve). Fort Knox is now the second largest collection of gold in the world (second only to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York in Manhattan, which was robbed in one of the Die Hard movies). Fort Knox has held other valuables other than just gold, like the US Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, the Magna Carta, foreign royalty jewels, and even a supply of morphine during WWII.

You can't actually go into the Bullion Depository at Fort Knox (for obvious security reasons). In fact, you are not allowed to even approach the gate or the fence without repercussions. Instead, you have to pull off on the highway that runs past Fort Knox to take pictures. The three rows of fences certainly screamed, "STAY OUT".



Our run down the Bourbon Trail was over, but we had successfully visited six distilleries in one day. We even get an official t-shirt for completing the trail (which has yet to come in the mail)!

Posted by Mike.Flynn 05:56 Archived in USA Tagged beer museum tour brewery local_food Comments (0)

Hoover Dam


sunny 70 °F

With our time in Sin City over, Megan and I headed along the highway out of Las Vegas towards Arizona. The flat Las Vegas landscape gave way to sharp, brown hills surrounding the city. The was little vegetation, the ground mostly made up of exposed, sandy dirt. The dry landscape was a stark contrast to the largest man made lake in the United States lurking on the horizon, Lake Mead.

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The road took us along the western edge of the Mojave Desert. You are blinded to the fact that Vegas is located in the middle of a desert when you are on the strip, but leaving the bright lights of the city, the desert stretches as far as the eye can see.


The desert was not our reason for leaving Vegas. 45 minutes down the road, we pulled up to our first stop, the Hoover Dam!


The dam is humongous, but most of its size is hidden from you. The dam is almost as thick as it is tall, over 2 football fields thick at its base. The dam doesn't go straight across the canyon, but instead curves into the lake to help support against the weight of the held water.


The water stored in Lake Mead is used by Nevada, Arizona, and California. The dam provides electricity to even more states. You can walk across the damn and peer down both sides of it. In fact, the highway used to run across the dam until just a few years ago! As impressive as the dam was from the outside, I had to get my engineer on and see the dam from the inside.

Megan and I purchased our dam tickets to go on a dam tour, and the park ranger promised we'd have a dam good time. We got in the elevator at the visitor center and went straight down to the bottom of the dam. Our first stop was to see the massive 50ft tunnels cut into the walls of the canyon that feed water through the generators.


It is a little hard to see, but there is a massive pipe in the background. This pipe went directly underneath our feet. The force of so much water running through the pipe caused the entire room to vibrate, and the air was filled with a humming sound. Our guide talked about how the dam functioned, 4 intake tubes take the water from the lake, split it between the turbines, and then releases the water out the bottom of the dam. We went back to the elevator, went up 1 stop, and then proceeded to the generator room.


You can see the Nevada side of the Hoover dam (the damn is located half in Nevada, and half in Arizona). The windows on the left allow daylight to come in at the bottom of dam, while the wall to the right is made up of hundreds of feet of concrete. The dam looked pretty fancy on the inside, several artistic designs and granite chips making up the floors. We were ushered back through the rock walkway, and back into the elevator to go back up to the top of the dam.


A lot of engineering had to be put into the construction of the dam. For instance, they couldn't just pour the entire slab of concrete at once. It would take over 125 years for the heat to dissipate from the curing concrete, and the resulting stresses would leave the dam cracked and unusable. Instead, they poured the walls a few inches at a time and cooled each block of concrete with refrigerated water. The pipes used by the dam were too big to transport, so they had to build the steel factory on site to make the pipes. The water had to be diverted around the construction site, so tunnels had to be created through the walls of the canyon. It was pretty impressive.

We went up to the observation deck and got some of the best views of the canyon. Megan was a little nervous leaning over the railing (look how tightly she is holding onto the railing). I was able to get her close enough to the side of the wall to get one picture. You can see the Hoover Dam bypass where the cars now travel. Looking below you can also see the state line painted on the dam marking the division between Nevada and Arizona.


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We walked to the back of the dam to see Lake Mead up close. The water level was not close to the top (the lake can be 660 feet deep), but the water does rise close to the top of the dam during the spring melt (the water can only get to 4 feet from top before water is diverted around the dam). You can see the intake towers in the background.



After walking across the dam, we turned around went back to the car. Our destination for the night was Flagstaff, Arizona.


It was all uphill to Flagstaff, which sits at an elevation close to 7,000 feet above sea level (5,000 ft higher than Las Vegas). Snow was scattered across the ground, and there was a distinct chill in the air. The area wasn't really mountainous, but the highest peaks in Arizona are located in Flagstaff. We arrived in early evening, and since we had run out of daylight, we decided to go to a place best visited at night time—Lowell Observatory.


The observatory is located on top of a hill overlooking Flagstaff and presented a nice view.


Lowell Observatory is part museum, part research facility, and part hands on. They have some gigantic telescopes scattered across their campus, and they let you go into the different observatories to see them.


The Lowell Observatory is best known for first discovering Pluto, so it was a hit to their ego when Pluto was demoted to non-planet status. Percival Lowell also spent a large portion of his career studying Mars. He theorized that Mars had series of canals which could be used to prove that live once existed on Mars.

The observatory had setup the telescopes so we could see star clusters, nebulae, and other astral bodies. The didn't just show them to you, but the astronomers talked about what exactly you were looking at and why it was unique. They were very eager to answer questions, and you tell the were enthusiastic about looking into the sky. After walking between the various telescopes we made our way back to the car and back into the city for dinner. We needed to get some rest, tomorrow we hike into the Grand Canyon!

Posted by Mike.Flynn 14:28 Archived in USA Tagged desert museum tour Comments (0)

Beer, Cheese, and the Green Bay Packers!


sunny 20 °F

Eager to take a trip before the winter holidays, Megan and I decided to spend a weekend away. Where did we decide to go to escape the North Carolina cold? To a place WAY colder, Wisconsin!


When I think of Wisconsin, I think of 3 things: beer, cheese, and the Green Bay Packers. Milwaukee was once the home to four of the world's largest breweries (Schlitz, Blatz, Pabst, and Miller), and was the number one beer producing city in the world for many years. Wisconsin produces more cheese than any other state. When it comes to football, Wisconsin has one of the most popular and successful teams, the Green Bay Packers. The chance to have a fresh brewed PBR or High Life, eat some tasty cheese, and talk about football was enough for me to brave the frigid temperatures.

We didn't waste much time to cross the first item off the list. As soon as the rental car had been acquired, we headed off to the Miller Brewing Company for our first beer tour!


Arriving in Miller Valley, I drove straight into the heart of the brewing complex. My eyes were eagerly scanning the buildings we passed (which included the original Plank Road Brewery) when I almost got smashed between 2 tractor trailers leaving a distribution center. Megan suggested that we find the visitor center before our tiny rental car played chicken with a truck again. We checked in at the front desk of the visitor center to sign up for the next available tour. The tour was free, and the next one started immediately!

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After a short video (which was similar to the Coke entrance video, a 10 minute advertisement on why their product was the greatest on the planet) we left the visitor center and walked to one of the bottling and packaging warehouses. Unlike the tour of the coke factory, we got to see the actual equipment and workers preparing the beer. The tour guide was very informative on everything that was happening in front of us, including what each piece of equipment was doing. The line foreman even took the time to come over and answer any questions we had. All the sugar coating and advertising seemed to have remained in the visitor center, as our guide and the foreman gave us honest and straight forward answers about the beer process here at Miller (which was refreshing and said a lot about the culture at Miller).

Next we walked over to the brewing complex, where we had to walk up 5 flights of stairs to see the tops of the kettles where the beer process was started. Giant copper tanks stood in rows (we could only see the tops). Chatting with the tour guide when walking back down the steps, I found out that Miller employees are given free beer and have beer in their break room. What a great place to work!


From there we walked into the distribution warehouse. It was enormous. In fact, it covered the area of 5 football fields, and it was completely filled with beer (over 500,000 cases). Every case in this building would be shipped out in the next 24 hours. I was surprised to find out that the majority of this beer would be going to Chicago alone. That's a thirsty city!


The coolest part of the tour was next. We were led down into the caves beneath the Miller Brewery. It was here that the beer was originally stored. It had an old, authentic feel. Original tools from 100 years ago lined the wall and Fredrick Miller's personal beer collection was displayed in a case towards the back of the cave.


We left the cave and walked into the tasting room, which was set up like an old pub. A waitress brought us 3 different beers (Miller Lite, Miller High Life, and Leinenkugel's Seasonal). Megan and I made friends with two Milwaukee natives currently living in California who were back in town visiting relatives. After explaining why we would choose to come to Wisconsin in late November, we got the low down on how to make the most of our Wisconsin trip. After finishing our beers, we headed back to the visitor center to pick up the car and leave Miller Valley.

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After checking into the hotel, Megan and I headed down to the Milwaukee River to walk along the river walk. Our next destination was Lakefront Brewery for another beer tour. Lakefront Brewery supposedly had the best brewery tour in Milwaukee, and it was conveniently located right off the Milwaukee River (not the lake like the name suggested).


While we waited for the tour to start, we hung out in a heated outdoor seating area sampling some of Lakefront's beers. Our tour guide was certainly more animated than the Miller tour guide had been, and the tour was definitely geared more towards entertainment (the Miller tour guide also hadn't been drinking). We shuffled around the brewery as the tour guides joked with one another. We didn't learn as much about the beer making process or see any of the equipment in action, but our sample glasses were filled up at several points throughout the tour (a nice bonus). They also had some souvenirs from the old Brewers ballpark. It was obvious that the brewery had a passion for Milwaukee and for beer. The tour concluded with a French woman from our tour group singing along to the Laverne and Shirley theme song.

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We walked upstairs above the brewery to take part in another Milwaukee tradition, the Friday Fish Fry. Stemming from the city's strong Catholic heritage (an older Catholic tradition was to abstain from meat on Fridays, especially during Lent), most restaurants offer a fish special on Friday night. We chose a fish fry that had live polka music and encouraged dancing. We sat at a table with some locals, ate some delicious fish, drank some more Lakefront beer, and then began to walk back to the hotel. Our walk back to the hotel presented a good view of downtown lit up at night.

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We woke up early the next morning to get a good start on our road trip. We were headed north along Lake Michigan to visit Green Bay, home of the Green Bay Packers! Farms spread out on both sides of the road once we left Milwaukee. It started to feel like we were actually in "America's Dairyland" just like all the license plates advertised.


After about two hours, we arrived in Green Bay. I exited the little highway and started to make my way through town, blindly following the directions I had printed off Google Maps. When the directions told me to turn into a neighborhood, I figured that I used the wrong address. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a gigantic stadium loomed over the houses. We had arrived at Lambeau Field.


One side of Lambeau Field is enclosed in an area called The Atrium. The gift shop, Packers Hall of Fame, and various restaurants were located here. It was also the starting point for our tour.

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Our guide was a Green Bay native who had been a season ticket holder for forty years, and he had a strong passion for the Packers. He knew everything there was to know about the team, and he proceeded to pass all the knowledge to us. We walked around the Atrium, took in the view from the luxury box, and then headed down to the field level. We walked around the corner of the locker room to the tunnel that lead to the field. The guide lined us up, and then told us to run down the tunnel and out towards the field. As you made your way through the tunnel, speakers hidden in the wall simulated crowd noise and the PA announcer. "WELCOME TO THE FIELD....YOUR....GREEN BAY....PACKERS!!!" Just as you exited the tunnel, the stadium burst in thundering cheers. It felt like you were running out of the tunnel to a full stadium and everyone was cheering for you. It was awesome.

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After walking around the edge of the field, we made our way back into the warmth of The Atrium. From here Megan and I headed down the steps to check out the Packers Hall of Fame. There was a ton of Packers stuff down here, but it was definitely geared towards diehard Packer fans. We watched a film about the history of the Packers (much of it was a repeat from the tour), and then walked through room after room of Packer memorabilia.

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One part of the Hall of Fame was especially entertaining. They had a portion of the wall surrounding the field set up to simulate the famous Lambeau Leap. We each did several leaps pretending we had just scored the winning touchdown, and some attempts were better than others. Here is one of Megan's leaps:

After walking through the Hall of Fame, we started to make our way back to the car. We stopped for one last photo opp to mimic two of the greatest coaches in Green Bay History, Curly Lambeau and Vince Lombardi. I also added a picture of how close the stadium is to the neighborhoods. Just across the street are family homes, many with encouraging messages painted on their fences (such as "In McCarthy We Trust" and "Go Packers").

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After a quick lunch at Chili John's (supposedly the place where John Madden frequents when he is in Green Bay), we were on the road again to Sheboygan. My coworker with family in Wisconsin told me that Sheboygan was the place to get the best brat in Wisconsin. Having roots in Cincinnati, I can certainly appreciate a good brat. An hour's drive south brought us to the "Brat Capital of the World".

When I mentioned it was cold in Wisconsin, I wasn't kidding. It was a cool 30° F in Milwaukee the first day, and even chillier that night. However, when we arrived in Green Bay, the bank thermometers displayed 12° F, in the middle of the day! When we got out of the car in Sheboygan, the frigid temperature was emphasized by the strong wind coming off Lake Michigan. Megan covered up as much as possible before she agreed to take a walk along the water. On a sunny Saturday afternoon, we were the ONLY people walking around the city. I guess most people had the sense to stay indoors.

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We walked along the Sheboygan river, then cut through town to get to a park on Lake Michigan. Several signs were spread along the trail to tell the story of Sheboygan's shipping past. At one point, Sheboygan was expected to be the next Chicago or New York since so many immigrants arrived through its port. That never came to fruition as people started traveling by train. Eventually the ship building industry and fishing industries died down as well. A ship recovered from Sheboygan's heyday was displayed along the walk, and the empty marina reinforced the fact that no one in their right mind was out in this weather.

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After completing a circuit on the trail, we headed back towards the car. Conveniently located across the street from where we parked was a local bar. Deciding to rest our legs and get something to drink, we moseyed on in and took a seat at the bar. I realized why no one was outside, Wisconsin football was on TV. Megan and I had hoped to catch a glimpse of the NC State vs. UNC football game on back home, but there was no way I was going to ask the TV to be turned away from the Wisconsin game (despite Wisconsin being up by 4 touchdowns). We each tried a couple of the local beers, and then we decided it was time to head to dinner.

We had picked a German restaurant in Sheboygan, Al & Al's Stein Haus, to get some authentic food for dinner. The place got great reviews, but was not very crowded when we sat down. We ordered an appetizer of fried cheese curds (a recommendation from our friends at the Miller tour). When the chef brought them out, he recognized us as being from out-of-town (I have no clue how). He chit-chatted about his knowledge of Raleigh, and then recommended we get the Bavarian platter. I opted for a brat sandwich, but Megan couldn't resist the temptation of a sample of nearly everything the restaurant offered.


It was delicious. After taking our time through dinner, we begrudgingly left the warmth of the restaurant and headed to the car to begin the drive back into Milwaukee. A dash light I had never seen before blared for the entire drive back. I think it was the indicator for "it is too cold outside to be doing anything."


The next morning we had a couple of hours to kill before our flight left town. We drove through downtown to take in some of the sights (it was drizzling, and we had enough walking the day before). We saw where the Bucks play, and we saw the tall buildings at the heart of downtown. We still had time to kill, so we decided to drive out past Miller Field (where the Brewers play) to see The Domes.

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Arriving at The Domes, I definitely had a flashback of the Pauly Shore movie BioDome.


The Domes are three large structures that support different biomes. One of the domes had a Christmas theme, and several people were inside taking Christmas card pictures. Another dome had a desert climate and was filled a variety of cacti and other desert plant life. Megan said that the Latin names made little sense (and she took Latin for 4 years) and decided to start giving more logical names, such as "Curly, Spiky Cactus" and "Long, Hairy Cactus". Thankfully that little game ended quickly when she ran out of adjectives to describe cacti. The last biome was the rain forest.

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The Domes were a good way to kill an hour, but I secretly wished that the Miller Tours operated on Sundays. We left The Domes and headed back to the airport to catch our flight home. Our trip through Wisconsin was over, but it had been a great time.

Posted by Mike.Flynn 08:53 Archived in USA Tagged beer tour brewery local_food professional_sports Comments (0)

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