Musings by Katherine, photos and tasting notes by Greg
“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.
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.
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.
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. 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.)
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.
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.