The days are shorter, the nights are darker and there’s a nip in the air — there’s no better time to savor the warmth and complex flavor of bourbon. And there’s no better place to sample it than Kentucky, which produces more than 95% of the world’s supply.
You can get a real taste for the history and production of America’s only native spirit along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, an affiliation and tour that the Kentucky Distillers’ Association formed in 1999. The trail is made up of eight distilleries, four clustered around Bardstown, Ky., and four in central Kentucky.
Bourbon is “linked to Kentucky and helped Kentucky’s identity across the world,” says Jeanine Scott, who is writing a book about the Bourbon Trail and works with the Kentucky Historical Society. The trail “attracts people from all across the world.”
“It’s amazing how much whiskey tourism there is,” says Frank Coleman, senior vice president of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. It started an American Whiskey Trail that takes in some of the distilleries on the Bourbon Trail. For the uninitiated, bourbon must be made with at least 51% of corn that has been aged for at least two years in new charred oak barrels.
It was “very common to use crops to make liquors,” Scott says. “In Kentucky, it was corn.”
In addition to the corn, the bedrock of limestone found in central Kentucky and central Tennessee purifies the water, making it perfect for distilling, Coleman says.
“The greatest bourbons that have ever been made are being made today,” he says.
Bourbon near Bardstown, Ky.
Maker’s Mark, in Loretto, Ky., is 16 miles outside Bardstown on a curvy two-lane road that’s double-yellow-line all the way. You’ll know you’ve arrived when you see buildings painted a distinctive dark brown with red shutters cut to form the shape of the Maker’s bottle. Maker’s produces just one product, and on the one-hour tour you’ll see all aspects of its production, from the bubbling mash in the cypress fermenter to the bottling line, where each bottle is hand-dipped into that signature red wax. At the end of the tour, you can taste Maker’s and try your hand at dipping a souvenir bottle ($16) — it’s harder than it looks!
The success of California’s wine country inspired the Bourbon Trail. Opened in 2004, the Heaven Hill Bourbon Heritage Center just outside Bardstown contains a museum of bourbon-making. There you’ll see a film about Elijah Craig, a Baptist preacher said to have been the first to store bourbon in charred oak because he was too frugal to throw out burned barrels; and learn that “whiskey” is from a Gaelic word meaning “water of life.”
If you’ve tried only one Kentucky bourbon, chances are good it was Jim Beam, the top-selling bourbon in the world. At Jim Beam Outpost in Clermont, Ky., you’ll see a 12-minute film about the Beam family, which has been making whiskey for seven generations, then take a self-guided tour of the grounds.
Historic Tom Moore, the only fully operating distillery in Bardstown, was added to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail in October. There are no tastings at Tom Moore, but you can schedule a free behind-the-scenes tour. This two-hour tour is an exhaustive introduction to bourbon production.
Sippin’ in central Kentucky
Buffalo Trace, on the Kentucky River in the capital city of Frankfort, is the oldest continuously running distillery in the United States. During Prohibition, it was one of four that were allowed to continue making whiskey for “medicinal purposes.” You’ll learn on the one-hour tour that a lot of people developed a persistent cough in those days.
Horse farms with elaborate barns, stone walls and black-painted wood fences line either side of the road on your way to Woodford Reserve. And the distillery with ivy-covered buildings is pastoral itself. On the tour of the smallest distillery in America (just 20 or so full-time employees) you’ll see the three copper-pot stills, the only ones used in bourbon-making in the United States. Afterward, you’ll enjoy a taste of Woodford Reserve, the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby.
Lawrenceburg, Ky., is home to two distilleries as distinctive as the bourbons they produce. Four Roses is the most unexpected distillery on the trail: a complex of Spanish mission-style buildings set along a typical Kentucky back road. It always was a distillery, though; the owner hired a California architect and gave him a lot of leeway. Drought has curtailed production at Four Roses and tours are limited, but it’s worth a stop just to see the place and visit the gift shop.
Wild Turkey sits high atop a hill overlooking the Kentucky River; drivers crossing the bridge into Anderson County are greeted by a billboard that says, “Bourbon Lovers, Welcome to Paradise.” Limited tours are offered here, but no samples.