We have a full-day drive from the East Coast, across Delaware, Maryland, West Virginia and into Kentucky. Two stops for gas and two extra for food and coffee. Destination: Kentucky bourbon country situated around Bardstown, Louisville and Versailles, locally pronounced “Vur-SALES.” Duration: Two days in transit, three on the ground.
With me are two veteran drinking buddies. The two of them have recently ridden cross country on their motorcycles, but they have humored me by agreeing to take a car this time, probably because they want to bring back several bottles of bourbon booty.
While there are many wine country destinations in the U.S. — Napa Valley, Oregon, Long Island, the Finger Lakes — Kentucky’s bourbon country in the north central part of the state is the only hands-down recognizable spirits destination in the U.S. Although any state can make bourbon if they use the right proportion of corn grain and the correct oak barrel regime, if you say “bourbon country,” you can only mean Kentucky.
There are 73 distilleries and counting in the state, some producing only bourbon, but many also churn out other whiskies, even vodkas and gins. The official Bourbon Trail consists of 14 major distilleries, most owned by beverage conglomerates such as Beam Suntory, Brown-Forman, Sazerac and Constellation and each producing more than one brand. There is also a Bourbon Trail Craft Tour of 13 smaller distilleries.
It is almost twilight when we arrive in in Bardstown, where we quickly set up field offices at the Jailer’s Inn Bed & Breakfast. Soon we are ready to have dinner and sample a few bourbons.
We shake off our road dust next door at the historic Old Talbott Tavern where we catch a flight chosen from dozens of bourbons on the tavern’s by-the-shot menu. While we have a few scheduled appointments, we want to see — and taste — which additional distilleries to visit.
The next morning, we prepare for a day of heavy bourbon tasting with a hearty Jailer’s breakfast prepared by innkeeper Paul McCoy — French toast stuffed with cream cheese and fresh fruits and (what else?) a rich bourbon sauce in place of maple syrup.
Our first distillery visit is Jim Beam, a venerable name in bourbon country. Like many of the large bourbon producers, Beam also makes other brands, including Knob Creek, Basil Hayden’s and Booker’s. An hour later, the tour ends at the bar with choices of shots and cocktails.
Next up is a National Historic Landmark, Buffalo Trace, which has operated since 1787, producing medicinal spirits during Prohibition. Recently, an abandoned distillery — “our Bourbon Pompeii” —was excavated on the site. We finish with shots of Trace and sister brand Eagle Rare.
The beautiful campus at Maker’s Mark is spread across a tree-covered hillside with winding walks between old and new buildings. Bourbon has to be at least 51 percent corn, and Maker’s recipe or “mash bill” is a typical 70 percent corn, 16 percent wheat, and 14 percent malted barley.
Maker’s is known for its mane of red wax, dipped by hand after the liquor is bottled. Many distilleries sell personalized bottles, allowing visitors to emboss a wax capsule or have their name, or a giftee’s name, engraved on the bottle — even make plans to blend their own barrel.
Woodford Reserve is famous for its traditional wood fermentation vats and its gleaming pot stills. It blends spirits from these stills with those from tall column stills at another site. “We’re the only one in the U.S. to distill three times,” our guide says. “We stole that from the Irish.”
History is alive in bourbon country, where whiskey has been made both legally and illegally since the late 1700s. The Yellowstone brand, founded almost 150 years ago, has passed through several owners and is now being re-purposed as a craft brand by Limestone Branch.
Psychoanalyst Kaveh Zamanian said he may have needed a shrink himself when he went down the rabbit hole by starting a distillery in Louisville (aptly named Rabbit Hole). Now, it’s a must-visit destination for all bourbon freaks. Not only does it make good whiskey, the distillery’s open architecture is groundbreaking.
Another new distillery in Louisville, Angel’s Envy, is named after the whiskey that evaporates while aging in oak barrels, the “angel’s share” that wafts heavenward. The distillery also makes cow shares — spent grain used as cattle feed. “We pre-marinate them,” says our guide.
All in all, we road warriors toured six distilleries, visited a couple more tasting rooms, and dined at several good restaurants on our tour of Bourbon Country. On our drive back east, we begin honing tall tales, talk about a return trip in a few years — and drink nothing but black coffee.
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