In Kentucky, Bourbon is a religion. They have plenty of real religion here, too, but based on the statues, plaques, and other honorifics on every corner and wall, Bourbon is second only to Jesus.
Any whiskey fanatic owes it to himself to visit at some point America’s most hallowed home of the stuff: Bourbon country. And for three days I’ve been soaking up the angel’s share myself on a pilgrimage of sorts before heading back to California.
Bourbon does not have to be made in Kentucky, but “Kentucky Bourbon” does. And in fact, 95 percent of America’s Bourbon is made here – in just nine distilleries situated between Louisville and Lexington. When you visit Bourbon country – affectionately known as “the Bourbon Trail” – you can stay in either hub. We picked Louisville, as the city’s a little bigger and more flights are available to the west coast.
If you’re planning a trip to the land of Bourbon, here are some things to think about before you go.
Bourbon country is quite a different experience than, say, visiting Napa’s wine country. In California, wineries number into the hundreds and you’ll find them located often just a few hundred yards from one another. You can spend all day visiting Napa wineries and never venture more than a few miles from your hotel.
In Kentucky you will need a car and you will be putting in two long days to cover the ground required if you want to see even six of the state’s nine distilleries. We did all nine (except one which isn’t open to visitors now) in two days, and if you’re dedicated and plan things right, you can do it too. Just prepare yourself for long treks, as getting from one to another usually means a drive of 20 minutes to an hour.
Driving in Kentucky can be confusing thanks to a dearth of signage and a wealth of two-lane country roads, but we managed the trip without just the map in the back of Bourbon Review magazine (a copy was in our hotel room), a printout of the KDA brochure, and an iPhone for use in a pinch. That said, pre-planning your trip with Google Maps or a GPS will probably cut down on the missed turns and the arguments over who doesn’t know where whom is going.
The good news: Most of the tours and tastings (yes, you get to sip Bourbon at every stop) are totally free, but you’ll need to time things carefully, as most tours start on the hour, and it can be tough (though not hard) to get a tasting if you don’t go on a tour. If you don’t have time to take a tour, just tell the visitor’s center staff and ask if you can have a nip or two solo or with another group. Make sure you know each distillery’s tour schedule well in advance. Calling ahead will help, too.
The distilleries can be neatly divided into two groups: Northeast (nearer Lexington) and Southwest (nearer Louisville). We did the four northeast ones – Buffalo Trace, Woodford Reserve, Wild Turkey, and Four Roses – on day one; we did the five southwest ones – Jim Beam, Barton 1792, Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, Heaven Hill, and Maker’s Mark – on the second day. I’ll have comments about each later on.
To make the visit a little more interactive, the Kentucky Distillers Association has created a “passport” you can take with you on the Bourbon Trail. Only six distilleries are current members – Buffalo Trace, Barton 1792, and Kentucky Bourbon Distillers are currently not. But that doesn’t mean you can’t visit, and in fact you should, especially Buffalo Trace, which has arguably the most interesting tour in the state. Anyway, get the other six distilleries to stamp your passport, mail it in, and the KDA will send you a t-shirt for your efforts. (It’s a gimmick, sure, but a fun one.)
And so we get to the nine distilleries. I saw them all, one way or another, and while a few of my experiences were sometimes unique and (sorry, folks) unavailable to the non-media visitor, mostly I saw the same things you’ll see when you go. I hope that these comments will prepare you for the trip – and let you know where your tour time is the most wisely invested. They are presented in the order we visited them.
Buffalo Trace – It was an absolutely perfect first stop at this mega-brand which produces many hallowed Bourbons, including George T. Stagg, Blanton’s, and Sazerac. We prearranged to attend the “hard hat” group tour of this factory-like environment, which takes you much further into the production process than any other tour we experienced. How far? How about letting you dip your fingers into the mash fermentation tanks so you taste what pre-Bourbon is like? (I won’t spoil the surprise.) From watching the corn truck unload its haul to sipping white dog straight off the still, you’ll see it all – though if you want to see the barreling, warehousing, or bottling process you’ll need to take a different tour (which is not a problem; as most of the other distilleries focus on this part of the process the most heavily). Afterwards you’ll taste a few spirits. I nabbed an Eagle Rare Single Barrel, a great way to start the day. Call ahead and get on the “hard hat.”
Woodford Reserve – Kentucky’s smallest distillery and the heir to Maker’s Mark’s crown as the Bourbon with cachet. Woodford is a unique distillery in that everything is distilled in beautiful copper pots, and a tour will take you through some really beautiful buildings and grounds and may include a nuzzle by the distillery cat, said to be the reincarnation of the distillery’s original owner, Elijah Pepper. We had a wonderful and lengthy private tour that included some employees-only areas and a wealth of knowledge, but the group tours seemed just as thorough. Note: Woodford costs $5 to tour. Lunch is also available here (a rarity at distilleries).
Wild Turkey – We were late and a little lost and missed the tour at Wild Turkey, but the video we got to see instead was a nice intro to the brand’s six bottlings, which of course I’ve had many times. Wild Turkey is huge and has just opened a new distillery, which looks quite modernized compared to its old, mothballed facilities across the street. Very nice and generous folk in the visitor’s center.
Four Roses – Day one ended not with a whimper but a bang at Four Roses, where we spent nearly three hours on a private tour after everyone else had left for the day. A company rep took us through the distillery – which wasn’t actually running (note: many distilleries shut down during the summer months because the local stream or water source, used for cooling the mash, is too hot), showing off a mix of old school equipment and computerized operations. But the real fun came after, when we retired to the lab and sampled over a dozen whiskies from various Four Roses barrels and bottles – its 10 recipes are famous, and famously confusing – as well as Bourbons from competitors. The discussions we had about the history of distilling in Kentucky – and the corporate intrigue that goes on behind the scenes – was a real highlight of the trip.
Jim Beam – Day two began at the massive home of Kentucky’s top-selling Bourbon brand, but it’s also the home of some hot, premium brands like Baker’s, Booker’s, Basil Hayden’s, and Knob Creek. There’s more of a museum environment here than a factory one, and though we skipped this tour we took a spin around the grounds solo to see the sights. The receptionist said we should taste with a returning tour group, but a rather surly tour guide frowned on this, so we took off instead for the next appointment, sans whiskey.
Barton 1792 – Formerly Tom Moore Distillery, Barton has just re-opened a quaint visitor’s center and is relaunching tours now. Unlike most distilleries we visited, this one was virtually empty, and our group included only two other people on it. Barton’s stills weren’t running on this day, and while the tour had less depth than the others we visited, it was a quick one and a good introduction to the brand, culminating in a taste of Very Old Barton ($7.50 a bottle at the local drugstore!) and 1792 whiskeys.
Kentucky Bourbon Distillers – A bit of a cult distillery – Willett, Noah’s Mill, and many other artisan brands are made here – but KBD was clearly not prepared for visitors when we pulled up to its under-construction grounds and a few pairs of skeptical eyes. We high-tailed it out to our next stop pretty quickly. I know KBD has been open in the past and may be open for tours again in the future.
Maker’s Mark – Owing to its location, normally this would be the natural last stop on the trail due to its distant location, but a later appointment at Heaven Hill made this diversion a better fit, time-wise. Maker’s Mark is an anarchic zoo of a distillery, its legions of stroller-pushing fans clamoring to wander the (quite lovely) grounds and dip their own bottles of Maker’s in red wax. We skipped the tour and crashed the tasting area (both original Maker’s and Maker’s 46 are offered) after having lunch at the on-site café.
Heaven Hill – Our last stop looked like a bust as I had goofed up our appointment and the place was packed with visitors, but while waiting I got to listen in on a group tour of the huge “Heritage Center” that takes you deep into the origins of Bourbon on the frontier. (Additional tour options are also available; two are free but a three-hour “deep dive” into whiskeymaking will run you 25 bucks.) There are literally tons of awesome memorabilia here, and you can easily take it in by yourself – but you’ll need to get on a tour if you want to taste, and Heaven Hill gives you some good stuff, including old Elijah Craig and/or single-barrel Evan Williams. We pulled some strings and got into the really good stuff, including Rittenhouse Rye, two wonderful Parker’s Heritage Collection whiskeys, the burly and heavily-wooded Evan Williams 23 Year Old (available only in Japan and one shop in London), and finishing off with perhaps the best Bourbon I’ve ever sampled, the $500-a-bottle William Heavenhill, an 18-year-old single barrel that’s simply outrageous in its goodness. Heaven Hill has about a dozen bottles left at the distillery if you want one.
And that’s it! Kentucky’s friendly residents do everything they can to make the Bourbon Trail experience fun and interesting, and we found everyone to be welcoming and gracious hosts for all of our visits. No doubt you will too.
One final note: If you’re staying in Louisville, don’t miss the companion Urban Bourbon Trail, which invites you to visit six bars that each offer dozens of Bourbons. Similar to the regular Bourbon Trail, if you get six stamps from any of the 14 bars included on the trail, you’ll get another t-shirt… and you’ll see plenty of history and probably find tons of whiskeys you’ve never heard of along the way.
Bring on the photos… apologies for the massive volume of them. Many/most of these pictures courtesy Susanne Bergstrom.
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