I don’t understand why the Bourbon Trail, which flows through the rolling hills, bluegrass meadows and tourist-friendly cities in central Kentucky, took so long to be established. The trail is as fundamental to understanding the Bluegrass State as limestone is to the creation of whiskey. As Dave Pickerell, vice president of operations and master distiller for Maker’s Mark, says, “Bourbon is the place where folklore and heritage and history merge, so as to become indistinguishable.”
The Bourbon Trail, in other words, makes perfect sense as an introduction to Kentucky. The route imparts knowledge of the state’s past, economy and culture with every scenic mile, and those who venture into any of the seven bourbon distilleries along the way or revel in the horse culture that fortifies the region do not need to drink or gamble to appreciate the wonderful marketing tool that Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail will soon become.
More than 200 bourbon distilleries existed in Kentucky in the early 20th century, and perhaps the establishment of an official tour of seven of the remaining 10 distilleries in the state was delayed due to pressure from the religious right. This is, after all, the Bible Belt, and I was surprised on my journey to see a giant billboard along the road that declared, “Hell is Real.” Now, however, official state-sponsored signs promoting the Bourbon Trail also exist along the interstates. Evidence of the contradiction that is Kentucky abounds, since tobacco, alcohol and gambling (in the form of horseracing) historically and currently make up a huge percentage of the state’s economy, and yet not a drop of bourbon has ever been distilled within the present boundaries of Bourbon County, Kentucky.
I learned dozens of such facts on my trip and after talking to master distillers, listening to tour guides and watching the bourbon-making process in seven distilleries — from corn delivery to bottling — I believe I’ve earned the apprentice-distiller status. Most probably won’t immerse themselves so thoroughly, choosing instead to visit two or three of the establishments, and then exploring the area’s other worthy attractions. Or they can do what I did — act like a sponge.
Bourbon is America’s only native spirit, and it resulted from a fortunate accident. Traditional whiskey makers from Pennsylvania moved south to avoid a tax George Washington levied on their liquid livelihood (a tax that fomented the Whiskey Rebellion), and these distillers replaced the rye that was the dominant grain in traditional whiskey with the abundant corn that was raised in response to the Corn Patch and Cabin Rights Act of 1776. Yet only after a Southern Baptist minister, the Reverend Elijah Craig, decided to age, then ship, the liquor he produced in white-oak barrels that had accidentally been charred by fire did whiskey serendipitously become bourbon. Craig loaded his barrels for transport down the Ohio River in Bourbon County, so the barrels received a Bourbon County stamp. During the aging process and transport to New Orleans, the charred wood imparted color and flavor to the whiskey, and soon Crescent City imbibers began demanding “Bourbon County whiskey.” The name was shortened, and an industry was born.
However, whiskey aged in charred barrels isn’t necessarily
bourbon. By law, bourbon must be made from a fermented mash of at least
51 percent corn and must age a minimum of two years in charred white-oak
barrels that cannot be reused for bourbon production. The bourbon
cannot have any color or flavor added to it, unlike other whiskeys, and
all the water used by bourbon distilleries has been leeched of iron by
Kentucky’s ubiquitous limestone. Each distillery swears its unique and
highly protected batches of yeast impart unbeatable flavor to its
products. Yet since each taster’s palate is different, and since
bourbon’s characteristics must be discovered, explored and savored by
the tongue, writing about bourbon is as absurd as to use Thelonious
Monk’s famous assessment — “dancing about architecture.”
I began my bourbon excursion in Louisville, where the events
surrounding the Kentucky Derby infused the air with an energy I’ve never
felt elsewhere. I wandered down the pulsing Fourth Street Live!,
downtown’s prime people-watching destination and home to Maker’s Mark
Bourbon House & Lounge. The classy establishment was filled with
revelers sipping the namesake beverage and enjoying themselves. The
lounge is a logical place to begin or end a Bourbon Trail excursion, and
trailblazers who like to sip their potent potables in historically rich
surroundings should sidle up to the bar in The Seelbach Hotel. F. Scott
Fitzgerald used to frequent the bar, and he’s believed to have based
the bar in The Great Gatsby on this dark, smoky establishment. Both
Maker’s Mark Bourbon House & Lounge and The Seelbach Hotel are part
of the new Urban Bourbon Trail, a route of six restaurants and bars in
Louisville that each have selections of at least 50 bourbons.
Colonel Michael Masters seems like a literary character. He lives
in the picturesque bourbon capital of Bardstown, about a half hour south
of Louisville, and this Southern gentleman mingles bourbon and history
in delicious tales that he colloquially imparts to imbibers who visit
his Chapeze House (502-349-0127, www.chapeze house.com),
where they’ll sample Kentucky’s best bourbon. The regal house, circa
1803, imparts class to the proceedings, but when the Colonel serves
samples of the state’s premium spirits, then waxes poetic about the
ethereal aspects each intimates to the palate, a visitor can almost get
light-headed from the reverence the Colonel displays for Kentucky’s
finest. Just don’t ask him to choose a favorite.
RVers who camp only minutes away in lush My Old Kentucky Home State Park (502-348-3502, http://parks.ky.gov/findparks/recparks/mo)
may choose to play a round of golf on the adjacent, well-manicured golf
course before setting out to determine which distillery tour — and
which bourbons — they like best. At Jim Beam’s American Outpost, a short
drive west of Bardstown in Clermont, visitors can explore the grounds
of the world’s largest bourbon distiller at their own pace, since the
tours are currently self-guided. Jim Beam’s quantities are staggering;
the company stores 1.8 million barrels of bourbon in its rickhouses, and
a barrel holds 53 gallons. The tour, however, is of manageable
proportions, and in addition to touring the historic T. Jeremiah Beam
Homestead, seeing the county’s oldest, and the world’s smallest, working
still, visitors can sample a bourbon ball and two small-batch bourbons.
Then they can take home a replica poplar bung like the ones used in
those 1.8 million barrels.
To receive the best overview of the history of bourbon, travelers
should spend time at the Heaven Hill Distilleries Bourbon Heritage
Center (502-337-1000, www.bourbonheritagecenter.com).
The tour of the distillery is not as hands-on as other tours along the
Trail, but the Bourbon Heritage Center does such a fine job explaining
the bourbon-making process in easily digested sips that travelers who
skip this destination in Bardstown are either foolish or grew up in
Kentucky and learned all this stuff in grade school.
Maker’s Mark Distillery, in the small town of Loretto, about 20
minutes southeast of Bardstown, receives my vote as the distillery to
visit if there’s only time to explore one. The property itself is so
beautiful that if the company produced widgets, travelers would still
stop by. Black buildings are highlighted by shutters painted Maker’s
Mark red, and the shutters feature cut-outs of the company’s distinctive
bottles. The native Kentucky trees, the stone walls lining the stream
that flows through the grounds, the covered bridge and the drive-up
Quart House — the oldest standing package liquor store in North America,
circa 1889 — perfectly complement the intimate tour visitors receive.
Maker’s Mark is directly responsible for bourbon changing from
traditional, barely drinkable firewater into modern premium products to
be savored by sophisticated palates, since the company was the first to
introduce a high-end bourbon in 1958. Other manufacturers implicitly
acknowledge the double-digit growth of premium and super-premium bourbon
by allowing tourists to sample their small-batch and single-barrel
bourbons, as opposed to those whose recipes haven’t changed for many
generations. And, despite another distillery’s claim to the contrary,
the site of Maker’s Mark is home to the oldest operating bourbon
distillery in the world, according to the Guinness Book of World
Records. The license to draw water from the creek for the purpose of
distilling bourbon was granted September 6, 1805.
The name Four Roses may be familiar to people seasoned enough to
have been around when it was the largest selling bourbon in the country.
A series of bad business decisions by Four Roses’ previous parent
company made it nearly impossible for younger people even to hear of the
first-rate products made in Lawrenceburg, let alone to buy a bottle.
Only a sliver of Four Roses’ sales occur stateside, so travelers who
want to try a product that is most likely unfamiliar to them — and those
who appreciate a well-run, hands-on, fully accessible tour — should be
sure to view the Spanish Mission-style architecture and experience the
hospitality and quality Four Roses delivers.
Other than Jim Beam, Wild Turkey probably has the highest
name-recognition of the distilleries on the tour. Overlooking the
Kentucky River in Lawrenceburg, the Wild Turkey Distillery offers a
behind-the-scenes tour that befits its multi-generational imprimatur. A
little rough around the edges, but still informative and flavorful, this
tour is a must for anyone who savors the namesake 101-proof bourbon
presided over by that famous bird.
The only location that sang its unparalleled virtues while
bad-mouthing the other distilleries’ tours or products was Woodford
Reserve Distillery. For an operation that tries to position itself as
the highest-end, most exclusive distillery on the tour, this haughty
approach was beneath the beauty of the grounds and the quality of the
product, and perhaps the powers-that-be will rectify this unprofessional
presentation before more tour-takers are offended.
Offense, however, was nowhere to be found on my tour of Buffalo
Trace Distillery. In fact, this was a pleasant experience all around,
and Buffalo Trace is the most conveniently located and family-friendly
distillery, situated only minutes from the attractions of Frankfort,
Kentucky’s capital, and offering root beer to children or those guests
who don’t drink. One- and two-hour tours grant different levels of
investigation, and one of the aspects of Buffalo Trace that most people
will find particularly interesting is that it did not close during
Prohibition, making it the oldest continually operated distillery.
Prescriptions from that era for “medicinal” whiskey are on display, as
are a variety of old, defunct brands. Yet Buffalo Trace delivers far
more than novelty, since its bourbons have garnered a host of
prestigious awards over the last few years.
Along the Bourbon Trail I learned about semi-permeable membranes,
low wine, white dog, the double-distillation process, the inert
characteristics of tidewater red cypress and how many seconds it takes
to impart a Number 3 char to a white-oak barrel — about 40. I learned
that bourbon-making is both a science and an art, that the
premium-product sales are growing at double-digit rates, that George
Washington produced rye whiskey and that Abraham Lincoln’s father
accepted whiskey as partial payment for the sale of his Kentucky farm.
And yet as fascinated as most travelers will be by the Bourbon
Trail, they will do themselves a disservice if they don’t visit the
Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington. This establishment defies a one-word
description, since museum, showground and petting zoo don’t come close
to defining this comprehensive presentation of all things equine, and
the name Kentucky Horse Park simply isn’t grand enough. I spent 20
minutes admiring the statue of and reading the plaques about Man o’ War.
Guided trail rides, trolley rides, the history of the species, a
parade of 50 breeds, and 260 paved, water-and-electric sites in the
campground are only a few of the reasons to visit the Kentucky Horse
Park’s 1,200 acres. Anyone who has ever placed a bet on a horse and all
fans of opulence should sign on with Shaun Washington for his Unique
Horse Farm Tours (800-678-8813). Washington drives an air-conditioned
van through Bluegrass Country, along scenic back roads to private horse
farms so ornate that many of the barns are worth more than a million
dollars. The horses inside, of course, are worth far more.
As my Bourbon Trail tour wound down, I realized that the Trail
couldn’t have been established any sooner. People in Kentucky understand
that everything has to age just so — be it a lively 3-year-old
Thoroughbred or a 12-year-old single-barrel bourbon.
Louisville Visitors Bureau, (888) 626-5646, www.gotolouisville.com.
Historic Bardstown, (800) 638-4877, www.visitbardstown.com.
Jim Beam, (502) 543-9877, www.jimbeam.com.
Maker’s Mark, (270) 865-2099, www.makersmark.com.
Four Roses Bourbon, (502) 839-3436, www.fourroses.us.
Wild Turkey, (502) 839-4544, www.wildturkeybourbon.com.
Woodford Reserve, (859) 879-1812, www.woodfordreserve.com.
Buffalo Trace, (800) 654-8471, www.buffalotrace.com.
Kentucky Horse Park, (800) 678-8813, www.kyhorsepark.com.