On and off Kentucky’s beaten Bourbon Trail
The Buffalo Trace Distillery dates back to 1857. It was the country's first steam-powered distillery. (Suemedha Sood)
“Looks like something out of Oliver Twist, doesn’t it?” Mark Brown remarked, the sentiment heightened by his English accent. “You may be the first to take photos up here,” he said, referring to the top room of the Dry House at the historic Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky, where he has been president for 20 years. The Dickensian machine, the “Ro-Ball”, was literally chugging along, vigorously shaking a mash that is the by-product of distillation. Its purpose is to separate out the liquid from the solid, which will then be recycled and sold to cereal companies.
Elsewhere in the distillery, the mash is just beginning its life – starting with a mix of milled grains and limestone water that is first fermented to become beer and then distilled down into whiskey.
Buffalo Trace offers one of the best distillery tours in Kentucky, even though it is not technically part of the Bourbon Trail. Though not an actual route, the Bourbon Trail was created in 1999 by the Kentucky Distillers’ Association to promote bourbon tourism in Kentucky. It is a collection of six historic commercial distilleries scattered on either side of the Blue Grass Parkway: Wild Turkey, Woodford Reserve, Four Roses, Jim Beam, Heaven Hill and Maker’s Mark. Along the way are less travelled paths tempting visitors who are thirsty for Kentucky spirits and culture.
Bourbon was likely born in the 1770s when present-day Kentucky was first settled by Europeans. These settlers would have learned from the indigenous tribes how quickly and easily corn grew there, and then (since distillation was already a widespread practice) used any crop surpluses to make whiskey. When farmers later transported this unaged corn whiskey, or moonshine, across the Ohio River for commerce, the spirit would age in its oak barrel containers, becoming infused with dark colour and complex flavour. Since Bourbon County was one of Kentucky’s first counties, the resulting beverage came to be known as Bourbon whiskey. It was not until 1964, however, that the American government established bourbon as a distinctive product of the United States. A product of its history, today’s bourbon must be made from a mash of more than half corn, aged in an unused, charred oak barrel, and bottled at a minimum of 40% alcohol.
The story of bourbon’s past may enhance bourbon’s present as you start your journey along the Bourbon Trail with Barrel House Distilling Company, a micro-distillery that most tourists have never heard of. Located in historic Lexington, Barrel House has tours every day except Sunday, offering visitors the chance to see its whiskey, rum and vodka being made. The tour ends with a taste of the Devil John Moonshine, named after a local Civil War soldier and moonshiner. After all, moonshine (unaged whiskey), is as native to the region as bourbon.
While in Lexington, visit the ArtsPlace Performance Hall to take in a live bluegrass show – an equally authentic Kentucky experience. The weekly taping of Red Barn Radio is performed in front of a live audience and features some of the best bluegrass musicians from Kentucky and around the world.
Just outside of Lexington, four major distilleries entice bourbon lovers. Buffalo Trace dates back to 1857 when it became the country’s first steam-powered distillery. Its history is littered with such behemoths as EH Taylor, George T Stagg, Albert Blanton and Elmer T Lee. If you recognize the names, it is because there have been bourbons named after each one.
Today, the operation is huge, manufacturing bourbon for brands including Old Rip Van Winkle (our personal favourite), Eagle Rare and Blanton’s, in addition to its own eponymous brand. The hard hat tour takes visitors through the distilling process and may include a taste of whiskey straight off the still. This moonshine is a far cry from what your grandpa made in his basement during Prohibition. It is refined -- a bit spicy, yet clean and smooth with the sweetness of corn throughout. It is so good, in fact, that the distillery started bottling it upon the suggestion of a tour goer, despite reservations that Brown, the president, had about selling unaged whiskey. Buffalo Trace’s White Dog (white dog, white lightning, moonshine – they all mean unaged whiskey) is now one of the company’s top-selling products.