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The Gearboat Chronicles

Hells Canyon On the Rocks: A Bourbon Tour

Is an unexamined bourbon worth drinking? Probably, but why risk it when you can satsify your thirst for knowledge and adventure on a bourbon appreciation, adult education and wilderness vacation combo trip. “Hells Canyon On the Rocks: A Bourbon Tour” is devoted to exploring the wonders of Kentucky elixir while also exploring the deepest river gorge in North America on a whitewater rafting expedition. With food to write home about among rare scenery on a voyage of bourbon discovery, this the kind of continuing education Hemingway would approve of.


The study of bourbon is a serious matter and requires a proper learning atmosphere. This 3-day floating seminar takes place on the Snake River in Hells Canyon, home to some of the biggest whitewater rapids in the country. As classroom settings go, this remote canyon provides bourbon lovers the solitude needed to really concentrate on their sipping and studying each night, with expert instruction and flights of bourbon as learning aids.


Instructor Jordan Felix, of Multnomah Whiskey Library in Portland, Oregon, shares his knowledge of bourbon and other fine spirits acquired during his career that began in Australia at the ripe age of 16. After fine-tuning his bar tending skills in New York, Felix now oversees the Whiskey Library and was named one of 2015’s Best New Mixologists by Food & Wine Magazine. Felix provides well-rounded bourbon background and education for trip participants while honing in on their individual preferences so they might discover new favorites.

2016 will be the third season of specialty bourbon trips offered by river outfitter Winding Waters River Expeditions of Joseph, Oregon. Owner and operator Paul Arentsen hails from the bourbon homeland of Kentucky and began the bourbon-focused trips with friend Jason Brauner, owner of Bourbons Bistro in Louisville, KY.

Brauner’s first outing as an adventure bourbon specialist inspired a group of rafters/bourbon connoisseurs to book a bourbon pilgrimage to Kentucky in order to purchase an entire barrel for their private collection. Brauner arranged an action-packed 3-day schedule including distillery and barrelhouse tours, visits to historic locations linked with bourbon heritage, dining and sampling bourbon along the way.

Visits to the historic Buffalo Trace, Willet and Four Roses distilleries ended with the thoroughly enjoyable process of narrowing down the possibilities for their personal barrel from Four Roses. The selection process began by drawing samples from ten aged barrels with the whiskey thief, tasting and debating to narrow the contenders down to two final barrels. The impressive start and smooth tongue of a 106.5 proof bourbon was up against a 126.5 proof bourbon with a relatively hot start but incredibly smooth, satisfying finish in the chest. The bourbon pilgrims are not revealing their ultimate decision, but Jason at Bourbons Bistro will have bottles of the final selection and can pour you a sample to see if you agree with the choice.


Pursuing your own bourbon education aboard the Hells Canyon whitewater tour takes you in rafts along the imposing cliffs and open canyons of the Oregon-Idaho border. Full-bodied rapids add splashes of whitewater during the day, followed by a smooth finish each evening in deluxe campsites where bourbon-inspired meals are served riverside.

Winding Waters River Expeditions has grown a strong fan base for their attention to great food on their wilderness outings. Farm-fresh eggs, produce from the garden, homegrown pork and local grass-fed beef anchor their menu ingredients – a departure from old-time river fare that leaned heavily on hunger as a sauce.


Insider knowledge on the craft of bourbon production is complimented by outdoor knowledge from the river guide staff who share geologic, wildlife and historical insights on the Wild and Scenic Hells Canyon National Recreation Area. Bighorn sheep, black bears and bald eagles are among animal celebrities commonly seen in the canyon.

Participants in “Hells Canyon On the Rocks” will be able to say they went to the wilderness because they wished to taste bourbon deliberately, to see if they could not learn what it had to teach and not, when enjoying bourbon, discover that they had not enjoyed the best stuff.

Cost of the three-day river trip and bourbon seminar is $1295, including all meals from departure to return from the river, transportation to and from the river and all that marvelous bourbon.

Learn more about “Hells Canyon On the Rocks,” bourbon instructor Jordan Felix from Multnomah Whiskey Library and Jason Brauner from Bourbons Bistro.