Sipping along the Bourbon Trail

Discussion in 'The Lounge' started by Nightprowler, Dec 20, 2007.

  1. Nightprowler

    Nightprowler Crappie Hunter

    Sipping along the Bourbon Trail

    Bardstown, Ky. — This trip was about taking time.

    Time to amble along two-lane roads past thoroughbred horses grazing in pastures gracefully squared off by whitewashed fences.

    Time to venture into towns that had simply been names on highway exit signs on so many other road trips in my home state: Clermont, Lawrenceburg, Loretto.

    And time to sit back and sip from a cup dipped into the mythical amber river that flows through the heart of Kentucky.

    OK, it really was a highball glass, wisely packed for a four-day tour of Kentucky's bourbon trail. This loose path loops past seven distilleries, weaves through two centuries of history and leads to the magical conclusion that, yes, time can be put in a bottle. And it tastes smooth.

    Without time, there would be no smoky sweetness, no hint of molasses or toffee, no tint of amber and no gentleness in the tingle as a fine bourbon rolls off the tongue. It is the seasons in the barrels (virgin white oak and charred inside) that make a bourbon.

    Many bourbons are aged four to eight years and some 20 or more, stacked up in old warehouses that dot the bluegrass landscape along the trail, looking a bit like jailhouses with bars across the rows of windows — a device the taxman used a century ago to prevent theft of taxable goods. Anything aged less than two years or in a used barrel, distilled from less than 51 percent corn or flavor-enhanced in any way is just a whiskey.

    Bourbon seems simple enough to distill just about anywhere there's a supply of corn, barley malt and rye or red winter wheat. So why is Kentucky virtually the only place to produce it?

    It's the Kentucky limestone water, explained Bonnie Drake, the tour guide at the Heaven Hill bottling plant, which makes Evan Williams, among other brands. "My grandmother used to call it 'sweet water' because it's so pure," Drake said. "Kentucky is built on limestone."

    Well, at least central Kentucky is. But all Baptist minister Elijah Craig knew back in the late 1700s was that folks down in New Orleans seemed to like his whiskey more than most. When asked what his particular spirit was, he'd reply, "Bourbon whiskey," after his home county of Bourbon, near Lexington.

    For a full steeping in the past, don't miss the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History at the Bardstown Historical Museum. Getz, who owned Barton Brands Distilling Co., amassed a collection of artifacts of the bourbon industry, which were donated to the local historical society upon his death in 1983.

    Next, stop by the Bardstown Visitors Center, pick up a map to the seven distilleries offering public tours and set out. And don't worry about drinking and driving. Only one of the six distilleries I visited offered a taste (less than a ounce.) A chocolate bourbon ball is the more common offering. You can purchase bourbons at most distilleries. But Toddy's Liquors, near the town circle in Bardstown, has an excellent selection of well-priced miniatures for tasting a variety.

    I used Bardstown as a base because I visited during the annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival, held each September there. It's well located, with three of the distilleries within 30 minutes and the other four little more than an hour away. Lexington and Louisville would work well, too, especially if you plan to fly to Kentucky.

    But consider the six-hour drive. This time of the year, interstate routes through Knoxville or Nashville and then northward, or the more winding U.S. 127 through Tennessee and Kentucky, would offer spectacular fall vistas.

    Spring would be nice, too, and September during the festival is excellent for a full bourbon experience, from tastings and lectures to barrel rolling and galas.

    In summer, call ahead, because some distilleries close down partially or suspend their tours. Here's a rundown on what you'll see at each distillery. It's a good idea to call or check Web sites for current tour times.

    The tour begins here with a stylish video that conjures up images of buffalo thundering across the hills, beating paths that led early explorers like Daniel Boone to the banks of the nearby Kentucky River. A working distillery has been on the grounds since 1787, with the first modern one going up in 1857.

    Along one wall of the warehouse where the tours begin, there's a 5-foot-long list of the state's bourbon distilleries through the ages. Most, the list notes, were "lost to Prohibition," but this one carried on during that time with a special permit to make bourbon for medicinal purposes.

    Buffalo Trace only distills during cooler months, so my September tour moved directly to an aging warehouse and then to the "dumping" room. While several brands of bourbon are made here, the namesake Buffalo Trace brand comes from the middle floors of the warehouses (most have seven to nine floors). The middle floors are the best because of greater temperature fluctuations in the naturally heated and cooled brick warehouses, which store a total of 250,000 barrels of bourbon. Temperature changes cause more interaction between the liquid and the barrel, thus building flavor.

    Once a barrel is past the four-year mark and deemed ready for bottling by tasters, it is rolled from a warehouse to the dumping room along something akin to train tracks. The wood stopper — called a bung — is removed, and the barrels spill their amber liquid into a filtered trough, releasing the aroma of smoke and toffee. Or is it molasses and mint? From there, visitors stop by the hand-bottling operation — used for very special bourbons — before retreating into the tasting room for a sip of the namesake bourbon and an exceptionally good bourbon ball.

    Buffalo Trace Distillery,
    1001 Wilkinson Blvd., Franklin County (just outside Frankfort), 1-800-654-8471,

    The drive to the tiny Labrot & Graham distillery is worth the visit alone. This is quintessential Kentucky horse country with pastoral scenes that stir something within. Like the desire for a mint julep.

    Each tour begins with a movie in the new visitors center, but it's the real thing that charms here. One step inside the distilling room, with its limestone walls, cypress fermenting vats and spotless copper pot stills, and you know this bourbon is made with an elegant hand.

    "We are known for being old, slow and small," said tour guide Dave Salyers. Old because some buildings on the site date to 1812. Slow because grains here ferment for seven days compared to the three or four at other distilleries, and because Woodford Reserve is aged at least six years. And small because only 70-105 barrels are filled each week and warehouses hold about 5,000 barrels each, compared with the 20,000 in each of Wild Turkey's warehouses nearby. Still, it's enough for a decent "angel's share," as Salyers described the portion that evaporates from each barrel.

    Woodford Reserve also meets the true definition of "small batch" bourbon, which means no more than 20 barrels are mingled before bottling. If I could only go on one tour, this would be it, but some fellow tourists thought it was almost too perfect. "It's like the Disneyland of bourbon," said Swiss tourist Peter Mueller. "I prefer Buffalo Trace. It's more real."

    Labrot & Graham Distillery, 7855 McCracken Pike, Versailles, 859-879-1812,

    If at all possible, approach the Austin Nichols distillery, home to Wild Turkey bourbons, from east to west, crossing the Kentucky River. It looks downright majestic sitting up on that cliff.

    Wild Turkey distills about 50,000 barrels a year, but on my visit, the distilling operation was shut down for equipment upgrading. Other aspects, from the dumping to bottling, were quite similar to Buffalo Trace and Labrot & Graham but on a larger scale.

    Unique to this tour is a walk through the tasting labs, where you can see pristine cubicles set up with hand-labeled bottles of bourbon samples, notepads and sinks to spit in. If you are lucky, you'll get to see Master Distiller Jimmy Russell in action. Russell has worked at bourbon making since 1954, tasting and testing and turning out award-winning bourbons.

    Austin Nichols Distillery, U.S. 62 East, Lawrenceburg, 502-839-4544,

    This quiet little distillery not far from Austin Nichols sells its main bourbon, Four Roses, only overseas (with a few exceptions). It's wildly popular in Japan and a good seller in the Netherlands and other European countries.

    My experience here will differ from the regular tour. I attended a two-hour workshop on Kentucky bourbon hosted by Four Roses Master Distiller James Rutledge. The $15 festival event, open to the public, was a great primer on details such as ratios of corn, rye and barley and the keeping of the yeast. And yes, single-barrel samples were offered, with breakfast no less.

    The tour includes a bit of stair climbing around a compact distillery. Unique features: a window in the still to "see the violence" of the steam and fermented liquid interacting, as Rutledge described it; and a chance to taste the clear, distilled spirit — a stinging 140 proof — before it goes into the barrel.

    Four Roses Distillery, 1224 Bonds Mill Road, Lawrenceburg, 502-839-3436.

    Maker's Mark has long been a favorite of bourbon connoisseurs because it is a small batch product that uses red winter wheat rather than rye, creating a distinctively smooth taste. As I traded notes with others along the bourbon trail, it got as many mentions for "favorite tour" as Labrot & Graham.

    It's easy to see why. Maker's Mark, originally built as a gristmill distillery in 1805, is essentially a historic village, complete with toll house, fire department and well-manicured lawns. The guides are professional, and all steps of the process, from grain inspection to the dipping of the bottle tops in the signature red wax, are on the tour. (You can even dip your own in the gift shop for a souvenir.)

    Each 53-gallon barrel spends the first three years of aging on the upper shelves and then is rotated to middle and lower racks to achieve a more consistent product.

    It takes forklifts and folks with good barrel-rolling skills to pull that off — each barrel weighs 500 pounds when full and must be stored with the stopper in a certain position to prevent leakage. The hand rotation is the largest reason Maker's Mark remains a relatively small producer, with about 47,000 barrels aging at any given time. A major expansion, however, is under way.

    Maker's Mark, 3350 Burks Springs Road, Loretto, 502-865-2099,

    A dramatic fire in 1996 burned seven Heaven Hill warehouses and the distillery down in a matter of minutes, with some 20,000 barrels of bourbon flowing into a nearby creek. "It was a beautiful fire, flowing down the creek and glowing blue," said tour guide Bonnie Drake.

    It also brought an end to distilling at the Bardstown site. Now, the bourbons of Heaven Hill are distilled in Louisville and trucked to Bardstown for aging, dumping and bottling. Bourbon lovers will enjoy the aroma in the dumping room. Others will find the massive bottling operation fascinating.

    Heaven Hill, 1064 Loretto Road, Bardstown, 502-348-3921,

    Jacob Beam brought his first bourbon to market in 1795, and the Beam family has been distilling the Kentucky spirit ever since. Jacob's grandson Jim Beam put his name on the label in the 1880s. Jim's grandson, Booker Noe, presides as the master distiller today (and has a small-batch bourbon named in his honor). The company recently filled its 9 millionth barrel since Prohibition was repealed in 1933. Last year, 5.5 million cases of Jim Beam brands were sold.

    That gives you an idea of the scale of the operation. Unfortunately, the actual distillery is not open to the public. But tourists are invited to visit the "outpost," a gift shop with a theater where the film "America's First Family of Bourbon" is shown. Visitors can also tour the home of T. Jeremiah Beam, Jim Beam's son, and see old photographs and peer into the classic tasting parlor. Beam fans surely will want to swing by the outpost; for everyone else, it will depend on how satiated you may be after other, more detailed distillery tours.

    Jim Beam American Outpost, Clermont, Ky., 502-543-9877,
  2. fugarwi7

    fugarwi7 Lumberjack

    Good info...I am a Maker's man as my standard and on special occasions, I drink Woodford Reserve...I enjoyed your post...thanks!

  3. SwollenGoat

    SwollenGoat Scourge of Hoover

    All of a sudden, I feel....thirsty. :D