“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
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
While on the tour, you will
learn about the Experimental Collection, a series of whiskies made with
non-traditional ingredients and/or processes. You may get lucky enough to taste
one of these straight off the still as well. The newborn rice whiskey, for
instance, is delicious -- light, fresh and reminiscent of sugarcane (which
bodes well for its future aged release). The hard hat tour ends with a tasting
of bourbons and bourbon cream liqueur.
To the south of Buffalo
Trace in Versailles is Woodford
Reserve, a small-batch boutique distillery and one of the stops on
the official Bourbon Trail. The drive out to Woodford is picturesque, with
rolling green hills and horse farms adorning the countryside. The distillery’s
grounds are just as lovely, marked by old stone buildings and luscious
greenery. The distillery tour details how Woodford’s bourbon is made, with a
rye-heavy grain mixture and finishing by maturing in charred white oak barrels.
The tour concludes with a taste of the bourbon and a bourbon ball (a
truffle-like confections of chocolate and bourbon) to boot.
Enjoy a scenic drive from
Versailles to Lawrenceburg, home to Wild Turkey,
which was founded as the Ripy Family
Distillery in 1869 by brothers John and James Ripy. It was bought in 1939 by
the Austin, Nichols company, which still owns it today, under the Campari
Group. According to the distillery, Wild Turkey got its name when executive
Thomas McCarthy brought some company hooch along on a turkey hunting trip. When
his hunting buddies later asked about the “wild turkey whiskey”, the name
stuck. Despite its low price point, Wild
Turkey makes some of the world’s best bourbon, highly regarded by professional
After touring the Wild Turkey
facility, you may be lucky enough to taste Wild Turkey Rare Breed, a blend of
six-year, eight-year and 12-year batches that is barrel proof (read: bottled
without any addition of water) at 54.2% alcohol. It is robust and bold with a
silky texture and the aroma of honey.
After a day of distillery
hopping, head to Louisville for a nightcap. It is about an hour’s drive from
any of the distilleries mentioned above, so you should probably stop off for a
bite on the way. Opt for Ken-Tex
Bar-B-Q in the town of Shelbyville, where Kentucky imports a bit of Texas
for some hearty slow-cooked pork.
With the many tours and
samples behind you, it is time to sit back, relax and sip a real glass of the
good stuff. Dimly lit and laden in comfortable dark wood, Bourbons Bistro
is an inviting den for tipple tasting in lively Louisville. Try the Van Winkle
12 Year, or, if they have it and you feel like spending a little extra, the
Pappy Van Winkle 20 Year. Both very rare, the 12 Year is soft and buttery yet somehow
refreshing and the Pappy 20 Year is deep and complex, washing over the palate
with a bit of spiciness and traces of sherry and molasses.
If you have some time in
Kentucky, continue your respite in Louisville by indulging in the local food and
music. Start with a leisurely breakfast/brunch at Toast on Market, where you will have to wait for a table – but you
will be glad you did. The cooks here treat eggs with the delicacy they deserve,
poaching them into snugly formed clouds with runny, sun-coloured centres. Try the
restaurant’s namesake, the Toast and Eggs, served on homemade brioche bread.
Then wander over to one of
the three Bluegrass Brewing Company pubs in town. The St Matthews location is a brewpub that hosts
live local music in its beer garden on Wednesdays and Thursdays. The company’s infamous
bourbon barrel stout is a rich, roasty, velvety dark beer that has been aged in
barrels from Four Roses Distillery. The menu includes the Hot Brown, an open-faced baked sandwich of
smoked turkey, bacon, cheese and Mornay sauce invented in Louisville’s
Brown Hotel in 1926, and the barbeque sandwich, a pulled-pork sandwich
slathered in a sauce made with the company’s own Dark Star Porter.
More live music can be
found at Zeppelin Café.
There, local acts range from blues to bluegrass to folk and Americana.
From Louisville, head south
for more distillery action. If you are ambitious you can hit three official
Bourbon Trail outfits on your way to a lesser known gem, Corsair. Jim Beam is 30
minutes outside of Louisville, Heaven Hill and Maker’s Mark are farther south,
and all three offer free tours and tastings.
Ninety minutes south of the
Jim Beam Distillery, Corsair Artisan
Distillery is making unique spirits on a very small scale. In
bourbon country, this three-year-old operation amid a sea of old-timers is
doing surprisingly well. “We don’t really feel the competition because we’re
barely a blip on their radar,” said Clay Smith, the head distiller. The company caters to a niche market, focusing
on making unique and experimental spirits from all-natural ingredients. “We have wanted to be known for our flavours, not
necessarily for being the next bourbon maker,” he said. The distillery’s portfolio includes barrel aged gin,
pumpkin spice moonshine, oatmeal stout whiskey and a more traditional (though
fairly young) bourbon. The Triple Smoke is a tasty American single malt whiskey
with a golden colour and a peaty butterscotch flavour. Tours and tastings are
offered all day Friday and Saturday, but you can call ahead about stopping in
on other days.