America’s Native Spirit can be made anywhere in the U.S. and still be called bourbon but some 90 percent is Kentuckian. In the Bluegrass State, there are, as every tour guide says, more bourbon barrels aging (nearly 5 million) than residents (4.5 million).
In 2012, the Kentucky Distillers Association launched the Bourbon Trail Craft Tour. It’s essentially a map of seven micro-distilleries to complement a similarly self-guided tour of seven larger ones. Each has its own passport. Fill with stamps for a free T-shirt. That achievement briefly intrigued. Assessing geography and open hours, however, led us to five, plus one not on the sanctioned trail.
Per federal law, bourbon is whiskey consisting of at least 51 percent corn produced at each stage within a range of proofs (too high or low and you’re back to whiskey) aged in new (one-time use only) white oak barrels. Throughout the trail, you’ll hear about Kentucky’s mineral-rich limestone water but there’s no bourbon without a barrel.
A barrel is really an ingredient. Without it, you’d be drinking White Dog, the clear grain distillate (aka moonshine) that enters a barrel. What exits is brown (darkest when aged longest) and hopefully multidimensional. Whiskey is pretty simple. It’s a function of recipe, barrel, warehouse, and time.
Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve bourbons are made in limited quantity at Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, along with other lauded labels—Blanton’s, Eagle Rare, E.H. Taylor, George T. Stagg. They’re not pouring or selling anything Van Winkle there, but following a walk through the park-like property’s architectural timeline of two centuries of distilling, you can sip up to three ½-oz tastes of other products including the distillery’s namesake.
Tasting laws are strict. Fortunately, these counties are now wet; Woodbridge was dry on our first visit over a decade ago. They’re also flowing with another type of spirit.
Prior to our first trip to Bourbon Country I had heard of Jim Beam, and little else. Fittingly, Jim Beam’s Fred Noe, the company’s seventh-generation Master Distiller is the great-grandson of Jim who protected their yeast (think sourdough bread starter) by driving it back and forth to work in a jug. They’ve used that same strain since 1935. You can see the jug on the tour at the company’s American Stillhouse in Clermont, under padlock.
We’ve also been to Maker’s Mark (actually, twice), the first distillery to reach out to visitors. At the time, people said ‘what the heck are you doing’ when they put a lot of money out just for show. That’s what people did for horses, not bourbon. But every year they sold everything they made and the rest of the industry took notice.
We moved on to Willett Distillery, where Johnny Drum, Willett, Noah’s Mill, and other small-batch bourbons are made. Production here is 20 barrels a day, compared to Beam’s 5,000 or so. Entering the fermenting room, we noted seven uncovered 10,400-gallon tanks of bubbling brew—beer before liquor, literally.
At Wild Turkey, we meet Jimmy, legendary Master Distiller, more than 60 years in. Similar to our other tours, we enter a massive, unfriendly-looking warehouse (think prison or horror film), holding some 20,000 barrels. These “rack houses” can have a 50-degree temperature variance between top and bottom floors. That’s part of the mystique of bourbon: Most warehouses are heated and cooled by nature’s whims, resulting in barrels of differing nature. The challenge is to blend and create a consistent taste.
Reaching for a visible wet spot on a barrel our guide says, “Leaks prove bourbon is getting into the most porous parts of the wood. That’s how you get the syrupy goodness.” As the weather changes and the wood expands and contracts, the bourbon flows in and out. Mostly it stays in. The greatest amount of loss is attributed to evaporation and referred to as Angel’s Share.
Bourbon needs to be in the barrel for two years to be bourbon, but most are aged for six or more. At a loss rate of about 5 percent a year. No wonder ghosts linger about. You get your share too when you enter. It’s delicious.
At Woodford Reserve, where you’re most reminded you’re in thoroughbred territory—gigantic, fenced, hilly, and grassy farms surround the picturesque national landmark—the warehouses are temperature-controlled, a somewhat controversial modernization. Buffalo Trace has some of these, too.
Some 20 years ago, Brown-Forman renovated the vacant buildings and started mixing up what’s now the world’s only triple-distilled bourbon. Everyone else does two. Woodford emphasizes the harmony of five areas of flavor: sweet aromatics, fruit and floral, spice, wood, and grain.
The best Kentucky bourbon country trip includes both large and small distilleries. Visit four and you’ll return home with an understanding of the product, the process, and the history. And you’ll have taste, but not a full glass. There are no bars on any property.
It’s essential to remember that open hours are limited—and that Covid-19 is impacting travel and tourism—3 p.m. is the last tour most everywhere. Sundays don’t start until 1 p.m. Some distilleries are neighbors; many are a good hour apart. Choose your favorite label, and work around it.
Our trail was more or less a 200-mile oval between Shepherdsville (20 miles south of Louisville) and Lexington. We used two RV parks for our home base: Grandma’s RV Camping in Shepherdsville and Whispering Hills RV Park north of Georgetown (20 miles north of Lexington).
Let dreamers whine
Of the pleasures of wine
For lovers of soft delight
But this is the song
Of a tipple that’s strong
For men who must toil and fight.
Now the drink of luck
For the man full of pluck
Is easy to nominate
It’s the good old whiskey of old Kentuck
And you always drink it straight…
―The Ballad of Whiskey Straight, a 19th-century Kentucky poem