Steeped in history and surrounded by nature, distilleries of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail welcome newcomers and connoisseurs of whiskey.
The tour bus opened its doors and the Kentucky summer heat rushed in. White stone buildings lined a narrow lane, iron tracks paralleled the roadway, and several painters worked leisurely at their easels. At the Woodford Reserve Distillery, the silence was as thick as the humidity, poked through by birds chirping in the trees and gravel crunching under my shoes. Waiting for the other passengers to gather around the guide, I soon surmised that the distillery was not a factory slogging out bottles of booze. The workers nodded hello, assisting barrels down the rails from one building to another. My guide Ken greeted them back by name. There weren’t any machines cranking or smokestacks billowing ominously. The property was gentile and peaceful. Surrounded by horse farms, historic landmarks, and verdant nature, the distilleries embody the heritage and hospitality of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
How to Get to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail
Accessible from Lexington or Louisville, the Kentucky Bourbon Trail branches off the Bluegrass Parkway. Leaving Lexington, most independent travelers head to Versailles then make their way west towards Elizabethtown and Shepherdsville. Visitors receive a stamp in their Bourbon Passport when touring the official distilleries of the trail. Since each site can be up to an hour apart, multiple trips to the area may be required to fill the Bourbon Trail Passport. A popular place to spend the night, Bardstown offers unique accommodations such as haunted inns and jailhouses for adventurous travelers. The bars in Bardstown stock many of the Bourbons made in the area. So if you missed out on a few stops, ask the bartender about specialty labels. Many have worked for the distilleries themselves or have relatives who do. So they are a great source of information.
Touring the Distilleries of the Bourbon Trail
Each distillery on the Bourbon Trail carries its own history and offers tours unique to their individual styles. Tour guides are friendly, informative, and love their jobs. So, newcomers to whiskey will be as entertained as connoisseurs.
With roots dating to 1797, Woodford Reserve distills the official Bourbon of the Kentucky Derby. Neighboring several famous thoroughbred farms, the property and buildings are considered National Historic Landmarks. Woodford Reserve is the only distiller that continues to utilize copper stills and triple distillation. Bourbon tours are hands-on and guests are often invited to taste the whiskey throughout the process: from sweet mash to post-aging.
Famous for 101 proof spirits, Wild Turkey began as Austin Nichols, a wholesale grocer. When Prohibition ended, the company shifted its focus to distilled spirits. During an annual turkey hunt in 1940, a group of distillers nicknamed the bourbon, Wild Turkey. Master distiller Jimmy Russell has overseen production of Wild Turkey Bourbon since 1954.
With Spanish Mission-style architecture, the Four Roses Distillery opened in 1920. When thinking of a name for his whiskey, owner Paul Jones thought of his wife who wore a corsage of roses to symbolize their love. Today, the Four Roses Distillery is renowned for its innovative aging process. Here, whiskey barrels are not stacked on giant shelves, one atop each other. Instead, casks are stored on a single rack that ages all the whiskey at the same level. This insures uniform maturation.
Interactive and congenial, Maker’s Mark begins its tours at the Samuels family home where visitors can listen to talking paintings, play with antique phones, and sit in comfortable armchairs. The Bourbon tour includes a walk along well-kept grounds and steam-filled buildings. After whiskey tastings, visitors can purchase bottles of Maker’s Mark and hand-dip them in wax.
Located in historic Bardstown, Heaven Hill is the largest independent, family-owned bourbon producer in the United States. In 2008 and 2009, Whisky Magazine presented Heaven Hill with its Distiller of the Year Award. The tasting room is constructed in the shape of a whiskey barrel. In 1934, the Shapira brothers filled the first barrel. Decades later, Heaven Hill Distillery continues to produce Bourbon as well as brandy, vodka, and select liqueurs.
Just South of Louisville, Jim Beam Distillery sold its first barrel of whiskey in 1795. Seven generations of Beams later, the distillery has filled over 10 million barrels of Bourbon. During the tour, visitors explore the grounds that include the Beam house and its oldest warehouse, storing over 20,000 barrels. The tasting room offers a variety of bourbons to sample including Jim Beam Black and their small batch Basil Hayden.
The Secret Ingredient in American Whiskey
Summer in the American South is an oppressive season, like a warm wool blanket you can’t shake off. It sticks in your lungs and clings to the back of your neck. But as I followed my distillery guide, Ken, I learned that heat is the secret ingredient in bourbon distillation. Centuries ago, Scottish immigrants came to Kentucky with their recipes in hand. The heat changed the aging process and consequently, the flavor notes. Instead of aging whiskey for years in the cool Scottish highlands, Kentucky Bourbon required a fraction of the time. Heat makes the barrels swell and absorb the alcohol into the charred staves. As the heat recedes, the casks contract and squeeze the liquor back into the barrel’s center with a new amber blush and smoother taste. Year in and year out, the cycle continues until the whiskey reaches a precise age and hue.
History on the Bourbon Trail
While traveling the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, I was most surprised and curious about the history in the area. At the distillery, Ken discussed the horse farms, limestone water, and families who’d revised their Scotch recipes into distinctly American bourbon. At the Old Talbotts Inn, I learned about our B&B’s legacy as the oldest stagecoach stop in Kentucky. While falling asleep in my four-post bed, I could not help but think about the people who’d lodged under the same roof, including Jesse James, exiled King Louise Phillipe, and the man who’d stayed in my suite, Abraham Lincoln.