No doubt about it—central Kentucky is Bourbon Country. Steeped in over 200 years of history, the essence of Bourbon flows from the area’s limestone-rich water, which is essential to its production. It springs from the ground, in the corn required to constitute at least 51% of the spirit.
The spirit of Bourbon, however, is most deeply rooted in people—the distillers who make the stuff, the bartenders who mix it and, of course, the visitors who drink it.
For travelers to Bourbon Country, finding the best place to taste is the real adventure.
Perhaps choose a quaff straight up while winding down a distillery tour, the caramel fragrance of the rickhouse still lingering in the air. Maybe Bourbon is best enjoyed on the rocks at one of the historic hotel bars. Or perhaps it’s shaken into a cocktail, flanked by a plate of locally made duck prosciutto.
Here’s a potential itinerary for a Kentucky Bourbon Trail journey, with a singular goal: capturing the history, character and diversity of what makes Bourbon and the place in which it’s made so special.
Day 1: Bardstown and Loretto
Starting from downtown Louisville (recommended as the home base for this outing), head to Bardstown and make your first distillery stop Heaven Hill. It offers a large Bourbon Heritage Center, a comprehensive exhibition on the history of the spirit and a tasting room that’s shaped like a Bourbon barrel. This is a great place for an orientation, either with a complimentary 30-minute Mini Tour, or if you can spare the time, the (also complimentary) 90-minute Deluxe Tour of the indoor and outdoor facilities. Both conclude with a tasting session, as most of the distillery tours do. Even if you skip the tour, the gift shop is one of the best you’ll find, with a wide array of rare and unusual bottlings.
Next stop: Head to nearby Loretto to visit Maker’s Mark. The distillery is certainly scenic on its own, with shiny copper stills and an opportunity to dip your own souvenir bottle in Maker’s signature red wax. But, if you’re lucky, you may also share a tipple with Chairman Emeritus Bill Samuels Jr., who reversed his retirement in June expressly to hang out at the distillery, drink Bourbon and share tales with visitors. At the bar, keep an eye out for Maker’s Mark Mint Julep, a liqueur sealed with vibrant green wax. It’s rolled out annually for the Kentucky Derby, and it has limited distribution in just a handful of states.
In the evening, return to Louisville and indulge in drinks and dinner at one of Wine Enthusiast’s Best 100 Wine Restaurants of 2011, Proof on Main, for locavore-friendly fare and wellmade cocktails like The Gold Rush, made with Woodford Reserve Bourbon, honey syrup and lemon juice.
If you plan to hit the Bourbon Trail in 2013, don’t miss Michter’s forthcoming production distillery in the historic Fort Nelson Building. Located in downtown Louisville, directly across the street from the Louisville Slugger Museum, this facility will produce single-barrel rye whiskey and small-batch Bourbon and is slated to open in the spring of 2013.
Day 2: Lawrenceburg, Versailles
Just when you start to think that all distilleries look alike, the Spanish Mission-style architecture at Four Roses in Lawrenceburg is a welcome change. Autumn is too late to see the red roses that wind along the grounds, but the legend of the label’s name still charms visitors. Shortly after the Civil War, founder Paul Jones Jr. became smitten with a Southern belle and proposed. To signal her acceptance, the belle adorned her ball gown with a corsage of four roses. About 20 minutes up the bluegrass byway, you’ll arrive at Wild Turkey. From the visitor’s center, a bus will drive the half-mile up to the new distillery that opened this year, as well as provide the trip back for an optional tasting session.
After a quick lunch in town, continue on to Woodford Reserve for one of the most intimate and interesting distillery tours available to the general public. Although Woodford is one of the only distilleries charging admission, it’s worth the $5 for a onehour tour. Expect to wind past the impressive 7,500-gallon cypress wood vats, bubbling madly like hot tubs full of oatmeal, through the cool and quiet barrel-aging building. You’ll also see how a barrel is opened and dumped for filtering through screens to remove any char that has loosened from the staves. The barrel dump is not part of many tours, and you may have a chance to sample whiskey fresh from the barrel.
Reflect on the day over a drink at the vast mahogany expanse of the Seelbach Hilton Hotel, which boasts a wide array of top-shelf Bourbons. Ask nice-ly, and the bartender will tell tall tales about the days when F. Scott Fitzgerald drank here.
Day 3: Clermont, Frankfort
Today, it’s on to the big daddy of the Bourbon scene—the Jim Beam distillery. Although their official distillery tour won’t debut until 2012, visitors today can visit T. Jeremiah Beam’s home, the distillery grounds, and its oldest barrel warehouse, where the whiskey is aged.
It’s eye-opening to compare the volume here in comparison to smaller operations. For example, hundreds of barrels are emptied here each day, compared to about a dozen at Woodford Reserve; the bottling room presents an incredible assembly-line din, as 300 bottles a minute roll off the line. Despite the factory-like presentation, Jim Beam has a number of small-batch Bourbons under its umbrella, including Knob Creek and the rye-spiced Basil Hayden’s.
Wind it all up at the Buffalo Trace distillery in Frankfort. Since it’s not on the official Bourbon Trail, the crowds tend to be smaller and the tours generally get high marks, as do the wide array of Bourbons in the gift shop.
Still thirsty? Finish the day with a drink at edgy 732 Social in the East Market District. Perch at the bar and let one of the inked bartenders select a drink like the Bourbon-based Old Maple Sour (Old Grand Dad, maple syrup, orange, lemon, Demerara syrup, egg white, vanilla and maple bitters).
What is Bourbon?
Bourbon is the only major liquor category that is required to be 100% made in the United States. Strict regulations govern every aspect of production, including the grain recipe, known as the mash bill (at least 51% corn), how it’s aged (in charred, new American oak barrels), how long it’s aged (at least two years), its strength (no more than 160 proof off the still, and no more than 125 proof in the barrel) and additives (water only, no colorings or flavorings, unlike Scotch). Yet, even with all those rules, distillers find ways to get creative by crafting single-barrel and small-batch Bourbons.
A Note on Distillery Tours
Information on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail can be found at . If visiting the official Bourbon Trail of six distilleries, pick up a “Passport” card and get it stamped along the way. Collect all six stamps and get a free T-shirt. Be sure to call ahead so you don’t miss the guided (and usually free) tours, which are often the only way to see the distillery. The last tours usually are around 3 or 4 pm.
If you miss a tour, you still can wander the distillery’s grounds and browse its gift shop, which is always worth a look. Bypass the coasters and aprons, and head straight for the hooch. Look for bottlings that may not be on offer at your local liquor store.
If you’re starting from downtown Louisville, it’s about a one hour drive to the distilleries.
By Van: Distillery tours are available from Mint Julep Tours, recommended for those who plan to imbibe along the way.
By Car: Two essentials for drivers: a GPS system (you will get lost) and tunes for the highway-driving portion of the trip. Once off the highway, drive with care—this is horse country and sometimes the roads are narrow and winding. Be aware that the Bourbon Trail is a fair sprawl (don’t expect to do it all in one day), and is marked with hard-to-see brown signs.
Where to Stay
All of the following hotels are centrally located in downtown Louisville, making any of them a solid choice for your stay while exploring the Bourbon Trail.
The Brown Hotel: Opened in 1923, and renovated and reopened in the 1980s. Lavish and very Old South.
The Seelbach Hotel: A grande dame hotel built in 1905, but thoroughly refurbished. Enjoy the signature Seelbach Cocktail at the bar (Bourbon, Cointreau and bitters, topped with Champagne), and check out the elaborate Bavarian-style Rathskeller in the basement.
21C Museum Hotel: A boutique hotel in the style of the W chain, with artwork in the hotel lobby, and within easy walking distance of attractions like the Louisville Slugger Museum.
Bars & Restaurants
Consider downloading the free iPhone app from JustAddBourbon to guide you through the “Urban Bourbon” trail of nine bars and restaurants.
732 Social: More than 70 Bourbons and ryes, plus classic and craft cocktails galore. The menu includes cheeses and charcuterie, as well as larger Southern heritage-inspired plates like the “Big Ass Ribeye.”
Proof on Main: Look for outstanding wine and Bourbon lists to pair with seasonal dishes. The crowd includes lots of suits, including some from the Brown-Forman headquarters across the street.
Bourbons Bistro: Part of the Urban Bourbon trail. More than 130 Bourbons are available at this bistro, and flights are encouraged. Hosts monthly Bourbon dinners. Call for a taxi—it’s three miles from downtown Louisville.
Notable Bourbon Bottlings
Can’t make it down to Bourbon Country? Here are some delicious Kentucky finds to try at home.
This double-rye, 80-proof spirit is light and drinkable with a spicy bite. Try it as 7th generation Jim Beam Distiller Fred Noe recommends: with ginger ale and a squeeze of lime.
Blanton’s Original Single Barrel
Aromatic, rich and flavorful, with deep orange and caramel flavors. The gold thoroughbred bottle topper is a playful reminder that Kentucky is also horse country.
Pleasantly sweet sticky-toffee flavor. It’s mellow and smooth, reasonably priced and a top choice for mixing into cocktails.
Elijah Craig 12-Year-Old
Butterscotch candy flavors so strong you can almost hear cellophane unwrapping, tempered by wood and spice tones.
Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve
Aged nine years, 120 proof, with a long caramel finish. An excellent choice for a Manhattan since it will stand up to vermouth.
Maker’s Mark 46
At the distillery, they refer to this as “Maker’s Mark on steroids.” Despite the candylike almond fragrance, it’s dry and biting, with oak, strong tea and cigar tobacco flavors.
Michter’s US*1 Small Batch
Lovely deep honey color; mellow with balanced caramel sweetness.
Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve
A little more expensive, but worth it. Dark, spicy-sweet, deep vanilla aroma and it tastes just like it smells.
Wild Turkey 81 Proof
New to the market and touted for its mixability. Pleasantly spicy bite, lively woodsy and orange peel notes and a toffee-like finish.
To read about barrel techniques, click here.