Buoyed by both a burgeoning craft cocktail culture and increased demand from abroad, the American whiskey industry is at an all-time high. Far from becoming faceless conglomerates, however, the whiskey distilleries of the South retain their rich character, time honored traditions, and dedication to making spirits that reflect the American way of life. To help promote and celebrate these enterprises, many of them entwined with the history of their hometowns.
The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS) created the American Whiskey Trail, an entertaining and educational journey into the cultural heritage of spirits in the U.S. We recently had the opportunity to travel on part of the Trail in Tennessee and Kentucky, visiting some of the country’s most iconic distilleries and sampling their products along the way.
American whiskey is big business. In 2013 over 18 million nine-liter cases of bourbon and Tennessee whiskey were sold in the United States, generating over $2.4 billion in revenue for distillers. Over the past five years, high-end premium and super-premium brands have driven much of the category's growth. In all, premium revenues have gone up 31 percent and super-premium 104 percent. Of course high-end spirits are perfect for sipping neat, but mixologists have also increasingly used them to make marvelous versions of classics like the Manhattan and Mint Julep. As part of the Whiskey Trail, DISCUS has also overseen the restoration of George Washington's distillery at Mount Vernon.
Photo Courtesy of DISCUS
“Historically speaking, we are in a golden age for American Whiskeys. There is more diversity of styles, and experimentation and innovation from producers large and small, than ever before. For whiskey consumers in the US and around the globe, this translates in world class drinks with new flavors and styles at every price level," said DISCUS Senior Vice President Frank Coleman. "For cocktail enthusiasts, this means the revival of classic recipes utilizing historic-style products, such as ryes and locally-produced malts that, in most cases, had been lost to industry-crushing devastation of the Prohibition Era. In 2013, for the first time in memory, every single style of whiskey grew in the US market. [When the data comes in] for 2014, no doubt this trend will continue [to grow] as consumers continue to flock to the quality and authenticity of the category.”
Here’s a guide to the wonderful stops we made; and be warned, reading this will make you thirsty. First, a note on the difference between bourbon and Tennessee whisky. Bourbon, as you may know is a spirit distilled from a fermented mash of at least 51 percent corn and stored in new charred oak barrels for at least two years, bottled at no less than 80 proof.
Tennessee whisky is essentially bourbon that undergoes an additional filtering step known as the Lincoln County Process, meaning it is filtered through or steeped in charcoal chips before being put into the casks for aging. The process is named for Lincoln County, Tennessee, which was the location of Jack Daniel's distillery at the time it was the process was first established. Tennessee whisky can only be made in Tennessee and Kentucky bourbon can only be made in Kentucky. Contact each distillery separately to arrange your own visit; at some distilleries tastings may also be available.
Photo Courtesy of George Dickel
George Dickel — Tullahoma, TN
Nestled in Cascade Hollow between Nashville and Chattanooga in Tennessee, and hence a Tennessee whisky distillery, George Dickel has been making whisky by hand in small quantities since 1870. Dickel, which now has a portfolio of eight whiskies including a popular rye, is the only Tennessee distillery to chill its spirit before the charcoal mellowing process. This stems from founder George Dickel’s discovery that whisky made in the winter is smoother than that made in the summer. The extra step is said to filter out oils and acids. The distillery and visitors center are very quaint and charming.
Photo Courtesy of Jack Daniel's
Jack Daniel’s — Lynchburg, TN
The oldest registered distillery in the United States, Jack Daniel’s is the best-selling American whisky in the world. The iconic squared off bottle with the black label has become an international icon, and over 11 million cases are sold annually around the globe. Despite its incredible popularity Jack Daniel’s has been made the same way for 140 years in Lynchburg, Tennessee, and the distillery itself has lots of historic appeal. You can even visit Jack’s original office as well as the mountain spring that first drew him to the spot in 1875.
Photo Courtesy of Maker's Mark
Maker’s Mark — Loretto, KY
Introduced in 1958, Maker’s Mark, with its distinctive bottle dipped in red wax, is renowned the world over. The distillery it occupies in Loretto, Kentucky on the banks of Hardin’s Creek was established in 1805 however, and it’s a National Historic Landmark, the oldest working distillery on its original site. Though he retired as president and CEO in 2011, the legendary Bill Samuels, Jr., one of the most outspoken and entertaining personalities in American whisky, still holds sway over the operation. Maker’s visitors’ center has stations where guests can dip their own bottles and the distillery is very picturesque.
Photo Courtesy of Jim Beam
Jim Beam — Clermont, KY
Jim Beam is the world’s top selling brand of bourbon whiskey and one deeply steeped in tradition. Since 1795, seven generations of family distillers have produced it in the state of Kentucky, and the brand now has facilities in Clermont, Boston and Frankfort. Fred Booker Noe II, Jim Beam’s great-grandson, is the current master distiller, and recently oversaw the filling of the 13 millionth barrel. At the Clermont distillery visitors can tour the plant grounds, a working rackhouse (storage facility) and The Hartmann Cooperage Museum where bourbon barrels are made. Jim Beam also produces a collection of delectable small batch bourbons, including Knob Creek, one of our favorite tipples.
Photo Courtesy of DISCUS
Woodford Reserve — Versailles, KY
Like Maker’s Mark, Woodford Reserve is a relatively new brand with lots of history behind it. The distillery is housed in a National Historic Landmark in Versailles, Kentucky—the heart of horse country—built in 1838. Fully restored, the Labrot & Graham distillery is now home to Woodford’s famous copper pot stills. The official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby, its rich, mellow flavor profile helped along by deeply toasted barrels and extra aging was designed to appeal to connoisseurs of cognac and helped put bourbon in a class with the world’s finest spirits. It’s Master’s Collection of limited edition bottles is highly coveted.
Photo Courtesy of Wild Turkey
Wild Turkey — Lawrenceburg, KY
Wild Turkey Master Distiller Jimmy Russell is the longest-tenured, active master distiller in the world, having been at the job for an incredible 60 years. Introduced in 1940 to appeal to gentleman hunters (hence the name), its offerings now include 81 proof, 101 proof, Rye, Kentucky Spirit, Russell's Reserve, and Rare Breed. Russell also pioneered the flavored bourbon category in 1976 with the introduction of American Honey. One of the best-selling American spirits in the world, the iconic brand’s new visitor’s center in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky is a must-see.
Photo Courtesy of Bulleit Bourbon
Bulleit Bourbon — Louisville, KY
The newest stop on the American Whisky Trail is the “spiritual” home of Bulleit Bourbon in the Stitzel-Weller distillery, where the brand now proffers its Frontier Whisky Experience. Located in Louisville and originally opened on Derby Day in 1935, it’s where Bulleit founder Tom Bulleit maintains his office. Introduced in 1999 with a relatively high rye content and longer aging, the brand actually traces its history to 1830 when Tom Bulleit’s great-great-grandfather Augustus Bulleit distilled his first batch of whisky. Bulleit and its rye variant have become extremely polar with both consumers and bartenders, and one sip is enough to see why.
When it comes to accommodations while on the American Whiskey Trail, it's best to stick to major cities like Nashville and Louisville, as those will have more options for luxury hotels. We recommend The Hermitage Hotel in Tennessee and The Brown Hotel in Kentucky. In Louisville, R&R Limousine can provide car service to and from the distilleries, or look into Signature Transportation Services' limos in Nashville.