Bourbon is my drink. It’s also a hobby. Years ago, I knew I was fooling myself by building a wine cellar in my home. It looked great, and occasionally, I’d lift a bottle or two, but why I invested time and money to fill it with wines that I never drank is still a mystery to me.
Then, one day, I had an epiphany, and I gave away much of the wine and repurposed my cellar exclusively for spirits.
Primarily for whiskey of all sorts: Irish, Scotch, Japanese, and most importantly, Bourbon.
Bourbon is truly America’s only native spirit, born on our soil and made from our own indigenous grain, corn. Moreover, Bourbon, by law, must use American Oak barrels for aging.
Now, Bourbon doesn’t have to come from Kentucky, but over 95% of it does. At any moment, more than 4.6 million 53 gallon barrels of Bourbon are aging in rick houses all throughout Kentucky. To put that in perspective, there are only 4.1 million persons who LIVE in Kentucky!
What makes Kentucky so special? Why are there so many Bourbon distilleries in what seems like such an unusual location?
Actually, Kentucky is the perfect confluence of everything you need to make the best Bourbon in the world, all in one place. This includes corn, limestone filtered waters from its streams and rivers, oak trees to make barrels, and finally, cold winters and hot summers, which allow the aging spirits in all of these barrels to breathe in and out of the wood as it ages year after year.
All of Bourbon’s color and nearly all of its flavors come from the barrel, which are all charred on the inside, giving another unique characteristic to this indigenous liquor.
While you can stay in Michigan and sip numerous Bourbons you can buy from your local party store, there’s nothing like being in Kentucky to understand how they are made and why even the smallest of details can make such a difference in the final products.
A little over two years ago, I took my first visit to Kentucky Pete Hits the Bourbon Trailand visited all the member distilleries on the Bourbon Trail, starting in Louisville and ending in Lexington. My stops were The Evan Williams Bourbon Experience, Heaven Hill, Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Wild Turkey, Woodford Reserve, Four Roses and Town Branch.
I also took the opportunity to visit one of the world’s greatest distilleries that isn’t actually on the official trail. That place was Buffalo Trace in Frankfort, Kentucky, home to what is considered by many to be the best Bourbons on the planet, including Elmer T Lee, Eagle Rare, Ancient Age, Blanton’s, E.H. Colonel Taylor, Rock Hill Farms, WL Weller, George T. Stagg, and last but certainly not least, Pappy Van Winkle.
These are all world-class distilleries, and their products are (with few exceptions) made in relatively large quantities for mass consumption. It isn’t necessary, however, to have large equipment and sophisticated machinery to make fabulous Bourbon. If you think about it, even these huge companies started from humble beginnings, making small batches in small stills.
Now, there’s a place (in fact many places) you can visit that honors the foundation of distilling. There are companies that are beyond the start-up mode yet haven’t grown to the point of mass production—places where you can see, taste and experience what Jim Beam might have been like 200 years ago.
They’re called “craft” distilleries, and they have their own trail, not surprisingly called The Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour.
Unfortunately, because they are small businesses, they aren’t in major cities, and they’re not clustered together between Louisville and Lexington. They’re spread all throughout Kentucky, which makes seeing all of them in one trip especially challenging.
On the positive side, you’ll taste some outstanding products and get up close and personal with the folks that make it all happen, including the master distillers themselves. In fact, they’ll likely be turning the knobs and manning the stills. It’s a great place to learn about the passion and dedication it takes to make Bourbon.
During my recent trip to experience the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour for myself, I visited the following:
I also made two additional stops. One of them was to a new member of the traditional Bourbon Trail, Bulleit Distillery, which is in Louisville, KY, and the other was to Barton 1792 Distillery, which, like Buffalo Trace, isn’t on either trail and is in Bardstown, KY.
And you never know what or whom you might discover on the trail, such as when I just happened to have the opportunity to meet and get a personal tour of Limestone Branch Distillery by its owner and Master Distiller Steven Beam of the famous Beam family. The following day, as luck would have it, I stopped by the Wild Turkey Distillery, and there in the lobby of the visitor’s center was none other than Freddie Russell, their Master Distiller, once again following in the footsteps of his father, Master Distiller Emeritus Jimmy Russell.
If you get THAT lucky, you have to have them sign a bottle, which of course I did (a few, in fact).
Of course, I couldn’t ask them to sign just any bottles, so I purchased their top of the line, which they gladly and proudly inscribed.
Besides enjoying Bourbon itself, there are plenty of other reasons to visit Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail, including endless acres of rolling bluegrass countryside, fabulous horses, historical monuments, and of course, great food and great people.
For more information on The Bourbon Trail, click on this link and plan your own whiskey adventure soon.