Along the bourbon trail

Musings by Katherine, photos and tasting notes by Greg

Even though they triple distill, Woodford is not the best bourbon on the trail

“All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon.”

Meander along Kentucky’s bourbon trail and you’ll hear that a lot. Some 95 percent of the world’s bourbon is produced in a largely rural 200-mile area in Kentucky. Why there? An abundance of corn and limestone water that’s free of minerals that could affect the taste of the bourbon.

While the trail was only established in 1999, distillers have been crafting whiskey in the region since the 1700s. It was easier to move corn and other grains through the mountains if they were made into whiskey, according to the history on the bourbon trail’s website.

Each of the six distilleries along the trail offers tours that will tell you more about that history and the bourbon-making process. (Stay tuned for your what makes bourbon bourbon tutorial below.) The tours are all free except for Woodford Reserve which charges $5.

Greg and I spent a day along the trail in late August. To do the entire trail would take about two days. Each of the tours takes about 45 minutes to an hour and includes a tasting. (I drove. Greg tasted.) The distance from Jim Beam, south of Louisville in Clermont, to Woodford Reserve, just west of Lexington, in Versailles, is about 70 miles. But remember those are winding, filled with pretty scenery and farm equipment, country miles.

We ate lunch on the road and were able to make it to three distilleries: Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark and Woodford Reserve. (We skipped Four Roses, Heaven Hill and Wild Turkey.) Each of the tours was slightly different. We watched labels being printed and bottles being hand dipped in wax at Maker’s Mark; got a glimpse of the world’s smallest working still and the distiller’s home at Jim Beam and at Woodford Reserve took in the heady, yeasty aroma of the fermenting room. The distillery was the only one operating that far into the summer. Most traditionally shut down at that time of year.

The creator of some of the best small batch bourbons available

We started our day at Jim Beam, which is probably better than starting one’s day with Jim Beam. The tour itself offers one of the most familiar images along the trail: the statue of former distiller Booker Noe in a rocking chair.

What we liked: the sweet, overpowering smell that permeates a warehouse filled with 20,000 bourbon barrels; being able to see the blackened bark on the trees across the way. The byproducts from the distilling process cause the trees and warehouses to blacken. The tour guide explained that during prohibition, when Jim Beam was closed by the way, the law could find moonshiners by looking for black trees.

What we liked even better: When one of the Australian’s in the tour group turned to his wife and said, “smells like your mum’s house.” She shrugged her shoulders turned to the tour guide and said “she does like the drop.” Australians by the way, love their Jim Beam. The company exports more bottles there than any other country in the world.

What we didn’t much care for: Darn that video with the deep voice narration on the history of Jim Beam and the gratuitous shots of people enjoying Jim Beam and the beautiful Kentucky countryside sure did get long. We also weren’t amused when a lady from Texas (great state!) asked if the floorboards were really original to the home. Come on lady time is bourbon.

What Greg tasted: Basil Hayden’s and Devils Cut. Basil Hayden’s is one of the excellent small batch bourbons Booker Noe designed. It is the least sweet and most peppery of them and an excellent sipping bourbon. Devil’s Cut is marketed to 21-25 year old men who enjoy slamming multiple shots of strong drinks without tasting them. I wanted to try the new 9-year-old Knob Creek reserve, but alas could not bribe the server to open a bottle.

Our next stop was Maker’s Mark. The grounds, with their well-tended landscaping and matching red and brown buildings, were some of the prettiest we saw.

Talk about repetitive hand motions

What we liked: Watching the workers efficiently dipping the bottle necks into the bright red wax and sending them down the line for packing. (To alleviate boredom and for safety reasons, the workers on the line switch jobs every 30 minutes, the tour guide said.)

What we liked even more: Seeing the first package liquor store in America, brought tears to Greg’s eyes. The mid-century kitchen in the main house. Darling!

What nearly made us cry: Listen up Kentucky. You have wonderful bourbon. You’re down South where mint grows like dandelions. Don’t give us premade mint juleps. We don’t care if they sell out. On principle, it just ain’t right.

What Greg tasted: Maker’s Mark, Maker’s 46 and Maker’s White. I’d had both Maker’s Mark and Maker’s 46 before, but would never turn down a free drink. I prefer regular Maker’s Mark as my basic bar bourbon. The White was basically 90 proof clear spirit, the stuff that hasn’t been aged it in barrels. It was rather uninteresting, much like moonshine.

Our final stop, after a quick look see at the beautiful Four Roses, was Woodford Reserve. Surrounded by horse pastures, the distillery is one of the most remote. There’s a lake on site to help fight any fires. We thought that was smart considering how long it took to reach the distillery from the main road.

I'll keep an eye out you try and roll one of those babies out to the car.

What we liked: We got to ride a bus. Hey it was the end of the day. We also liked that the video was short.

What we liked even more: Seeing the fermenting room, and the copper pot and triple distillation process. There’s also a whiskey run there. A set of tracks that the barrels, which weigh a whopping 500 pounds, are rolled down.

What made us laugh: Cat lovers skip this part… We were told about Elijah a cat that greets visitors and were hoping to get a glimpse.ย  Only its mama would think that ratty creature was pretty. We suspect it spent so much time napping in the warehouse it’s taken to cleaning the barrels not itself. Greg refused to snap its picture, concerned the camera might sustain damage. Elijah by the way is named for Elijah Pepper who started the distillery back in 1797. The cat may have been there then.

What Greg tasted: After the best tour of the day, all we got was a shot of Woodford Reserve. I was hoping for something older or weird as well.

What Katherine tasted: Bourbon balls with the nicest, plumpest pecans on top. We bought two boxes.

Your bourbon tutorial

So how is bourbon made? We’ll let the fine folks at Jim Beam handle that one.

What makes a bourbon? Well there’s a whole set of federal guidelines on that. To be called a bourbon, the whiskey must not exceed 160 proof after fermentation, must be made of no less than 51 percent corn and stored in barrels at 125 proof. It also must be stored in charred new Oak barrels, which can’t be reused to make bourbon. (A lot are shipped over to Scotland for whisky. Maker’s Mark sends theirs to Laphroaig.)

Travel tips

Map out your day ahead of time. Distilleries typically offer tours only on the hour or half an hour.

Ignore your GPS. Ask for directions. Each, distillery has print outs that will get you to the next stop along the way or any other distillery on the trail. The employees will explicitly warn you that GPS can steer you wrong. Maker’s Mark and Woodford Reserve, while well marked, can be tricky to find.

Jim Beam is in the midst of building a new visitor’s center that will open up next year. It will also start distillery tours at the time.

Consider checking out the annual bourbon festival in Bardstown.

For lodging and dining suggestions, check out the links on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail’s hospitality page.

What about Kentucky bloggers? Sure we know a few: The Southern Lady; Gourmandistan and foodflowersherbsandlife.

If all this talk of bourbon is making you hungry, fret not. We’ll be posting some bourbon recipes soon. In the meantime, check out some of our past bourbon-inspired recipes: baked ham with molasses and bourbon or blackberry mint juleps.

About Rufus' Food and Spirits Guide

This blog attempts to collect some of the things I try to create with food and booze. Sometimes I succeed and sometimes I fail. My hope is to entertain and maybe help people think a little harder about what they decide to eat and drink.
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64 Responses to Along the bourbon trail

  1. Kristy says:

    Never been a big bourbon fan – but I’m a total fan of this kind of day. Mike and I love to do make days out various wine trails. Just finished one this weekend in fact. ๐Ÿ™‚ Great memories and I love the way you summed everything up so well. And even though I don’t drink bourbon, I’m very much looking forward to the bourbon recipes!

  2. weirdcombos says:

    I am not a a big fun of bourbon. I do enjoy a nice Manhattan made with maker’s mark very, very occasionally. I guess I am a wine drinker but the idea of a tour to the source of bourbon entices me ๐Ÿ™‚ Too bad you were the designated driver and didn’t get to taste them.

    • Katherine says:

      Most are readily available in our state. Plus Greg’s really more of the bourbon drinker. We trade off on driving duties when we’re tasting, so he’s done this plenty of times for me. It was really neat to see where it all happens.

  3. A really absorbing post. The blackened trees near the distillerys remind me of the blackened buildings in Cognac. This is caused by the evaporation of alcohol and water during the distillation process, and accounts for 2% of the total stock, some 22,000,000 bottles per year – they call it “La part des anges” or the angels’ share.

  4. Pingback: Kentucky distiller | Yourtravelpass

  5. ChgoJohn says:

    You were right, Katherine. Why fly when something like this is along the way? Thanks for the glimpse at an industry and part of the country that I’ve not seen before.

  6. Chef Scar says:

    Great post Greg. I have never been to Kentucky, but after reading this, I have to add it to my list of trips to undertake, perhaps coupled with a visit to our daughter in Virginia. It was stated that “Woodford is not the best bourbon on the trail, but I am curious as to which you thought was the best that you tasted. I am partial to Knob Creek, which from what I read in your post is apparently made by Jim Beam.

  7. Kelly says:

    Oh, this is so cool. I don’t know anything about bourbon/whiskey but appreciate this tour. The photos are fantastic too – they have an old age feel to them and you’ve really captured some personalities.

  8. Very nice duet posted by both of you. Bourbon has to be a national treasure and now we know where it is. I would love to take such a trip. Thank you for sharing.

  9. Eva says:

    What an amazing adventure. I love cooking with bourbon; sadly drinking it does not love me!

  10. Lea Ann says:

    This is a great and informative post. Love your What we like and What we didn’t like. Thanks for taking the time to write this up … and as always, great pictures.

  11. WALSTIB says:

    I went to Frankfort for work for a week in August. The Buffalo Trace distillery is nearby, and the locals say the whole town smells like mash when they’re making the stuff. I’m not much of a whiskey drinker (unless I’m feeling REALLY ornery) but there’s nothing better than bourbon to flambe steaks, or shrimp, or peaches or… (you get the idea). I’ve got (distant) plans to do some driving through KY (geaneological stuff). When I do, I’ll certainly refer back to this post for some directions.

  12. Sissi says:

    Great post and a fantastic adventure! “Smells like your mum’s house” would be an inspiration line for more than one comedy director. It’s such a pity you haven’t shown the cat… I would love to see the monster! Blackened trees, a scary cat, the question about the wooden floor… Here the scenes are more like from a horror film (I even don’t want to imagine the lady who asked the question ๐Ÿ˜‰ )!
    Ok, so I’m off to look for a bottle of Bourbon!

  13. Great post – so interesting. Have done the whisky trail in Scotland (thanks to the Americanos for the barrels!) and the Guinness tour in Dublin (too many videos) and wine in a few countries…now Iยดm up for the Bourbon trail. Whoยดs driving?!

  14. Ritchey and I have a barrel at Maker’s Mark with our name on it – I’m not sure when it will be ready to bottle! We’ve toured this distillery (my brother-in-law works there – in addition to farming!) and seen the huge vats of mash in the fermentation rooms. Talk about a hot place! Glad you enjoyed your tour!

  15. G-LO says:

    Well done Rufus! Thanks for sharing. The Bourbon Trail is on my “to do” list.

  16. ambrosiana says:

    Oh! I want to do the Bourbon trail! What a post with great travel tips! The problem is that someone has to be the “designated driver”, specially if you go to the Bourbon festival!!!

  17. JamieAnne says:

    Looks like you had a nice boozie day! Ha!

  18. ceciliag says:

    Did you dump or spit? What an excellent post. Thank you Kathryn. Now I am going back to read your tutorial more carefully.. c

  19. Oh boy, this would be an ideal day for my hubby! Great fun!
    Have a happy day.
    ๐Ÿ™‚ Mandy

  20. Caroline says:

    This is awesome!! Thanks for sharing, Katherine. Sounds like you guys had a blast. I’m not a bourbon drinker, but I would definitely become a fan for the day if I took a tour like this. I love that Greg got to be the drinker for the day…lucky guy. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  21. spicegirlfla says:

    Katherine, you did a great post and Greg did some great drinking!! I “use” bourbon in alot of my cooking, but haven’t really “drank” bourbon! I’m now feeling quite smart on bourbon and can’t wait to share my newly learned knowledge!!

  22. nrhatch says:

    Sounds grand except:

    What nearly made us cry: Listen up Kentucky. You have wonderful bourbon. Youโ€™re down South where mint grows like dandelions. Donโ€™t give us premade mint juleps. We donโ€™t care if they sell out. On principle, it just ainโ€™t right.

    You said that right! ๐Ÿ˜‰

  23. Stef says:

    Katherine, you are a fantastic writer! I loved reading your travelogue. I think one of the things I liked best was the Aussie conversation – absolutely fantastic. ๐Ÿ™‚

  24. Great post and breakdown of your visit! I especially approve of the distilleries you visited and of course now my gluttonous tastebuds are craving bourbon. I guess I’ll have to stop by the state store on my way to send off your t-shirt. ๐Ÿ™‚ Cheers!

  25. Ooh…Maker’s Mark…awesome stop!

  26. niasunset says:

    I wanted to drink ” bourbon” and liquor! And also I wished to see this Elijah a cat! Thank you, it was so interesting and so beautifully written, I loved it. Thank you for you both, with my love, nia

  27. My Mother never let a day go by without her “Maker’s and Water”. Nice trip on the Bourbon Trail that is a great trip even for us folks down here in Tennessee with our “Jack & Water” Trail. Very fun and interesting post. Travel is good.

  28. Raymund says:

    Great outing, I want to do this when I go to US.
    Love that first photo as well, it looks so steampunked

  29. Michelle says:

    Great post, y’all. On behalf of all Kentuckians (even those who, like me, don’t like the brown goods), I sincerely apologize for the generic juleps. And thanks for the shout-out!

  30. Karen says:

    A very interesting blog, whether you are a bourbon drinker or not. There are so many wonderful places to explore in our country. It sounds like it was an enjoyable time.

  31. My bourbon days are long gone, (along with tequila shots, and sleeping all morning) but this would have been so interesting. I would have happily trailed along just to take pictures, (and I’m curious to know what that old cat looked like now.)

  32. I think this is the ultimate blog post for anyone traveling to Kentucky. I may not drink, but I always want to know the creative process of any item. I love a place rich with culture with a lot to do. I never been to Kentucky but I may just consider it thanks to this post. LOVE the photos.

  33. I grew up smelling sour mash. You can smell it all over the area. It’s amazing how you miss it if you move away and one of the first things you enjoy when you come back home. Great post. I enjoyed reading it so much.

  34. brainrants says:

    I’ve done the Jim Beam and Jack Daniel’s (TN). Great write up, very detailed. I also loved the J.B. trees, and got a little weak in the knees looking at the aging barn with all… that… bourbon. *sigh*

  35. 2eat2drink says:

    Nice post, you two. Glad you got to enjoy the day, it sounds like fun! This was interesting to read as I’m working on a bourbon post I shot a few weeks ago. Good stuff! Greg, the Knob Creek reserve is far superior to the regular (which is pretty good). Blown away in fact, at the comparison. Tasted both the other day at the store. Find yourself a bottle….cheers!

  36. Charles says:

    Wow, I’m with Kristy on this – not a big fan of bourbon but even despite this I’d love to go on a day trip like this. Such fun, and SO interesting! Those blackened trees sound really interesting – did you take any pictures of those perchance? Thanks for the little “photo journal” of your trip, I loved reading about it ๐Ÿ™‚

  37. karencooking says:

    Love this kind of vacation (tours of interesting things). Sounds like you had a great time! And your post is quite informative!

  38. i luv bourbon! it’s a shame that all you got at the woodford’s at the end was just a regular shot. i wouldn’t be all that disappointed because woodford’s is one of my favorites.

  39. Pingback: Great balls of bourbon | Rufus' Food and Spirits Guide

  40. spiderpaw says:

    Call me stupid but I never knew these tours existed. The next time my wife’s brother or other relatives come over from Scotland, I’m booking these tours. They love american whiskey. Very well written post.

  41. scholasticfood says:

    This is a lot of fun to read! I’m from Kentucky and have been on a few of the tours, so I can picture everything that you wrote about. Really nicely written up and described! (I like the bourbon ball post as well)

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