Stumbling Down the Kentucky Bourbon Trail
Words Jason Morris
The mission: Sample bourbon from nine distilleries spread across hundreds of miles in three days. Landing zone was Louisville, Kentucky, and we were there to tackle the Bourbon Trail. Mission accepted!
First, though, a little background. Years ago, in another life, I managed a restaurant and enjoyed observing the different factions of drinkers at the bar: wine aficionados, beer guzzlers, beer snobs, umbrella-garnished fruity-drink drinkers, “cognac-ers,” tequila shooters, and so forth. It was then I decided that I’d like to not only have a go-to drink of my own but become an expert on some detachment that could (occasionally) impress women and deride pretentious elitists who wax poetically about wispy hints and subtle finishes. Being a liquor guy, my spirit of choice became bourbon. Each night after work I’d go and try a different flavor, noting the differences and pondering the price gaps. I would talk to sales reps and get their takes, along with those of bartenders and patrons alike. Eventually, I am proud to say, I developed a pretty solid palate as it pertained to Kentucky’s favorite spirit.
Bourbon officially separates itself from other whiskeys in that it has to be produced in the United States, made from a grain mixture that is at least 51 percent corn and aged in a new, charred oak barrel. It sounds simple enough, but like anything, there is a true art to it that makes it great. And thus few companies actually distill this splendid nectar. Keeping a watchful eye over the process is the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, which, getting back to business, has thrown down the gauntlet in sponsoring the Kentucky Bourbon Trail so whiskey drinkers can sample and learn about the state’s secret sauce. It sounds like fun, but you have to be somewhat serious about this to make it happen in less than a week, as the distilleries are spread across the northeast corner of the state, with some drives between stops taking as long as two hours.
Basically, you get a “passport,” which is actually an app that uses GPS tracking to ensure you go where you say. After you visit each of the nine member distilleries (there are numerous other distillers in the area that become unofficial stops), not only are you are imparted with knowledge and experience that will forever change Thursday night happy hours—as you can now impress your buddies by speaking of bourbon in lofty tones and high words—but you also get a free T-shirt! So when my two brothers-in-law and I each managed to convince our better halves that a guys weekend was in order, I didn’t want to go to Myrtle Beach to play golf or Vegas to … do other things. I wanted to hit the holy land for bourbon drinkers.
We took off with half a plan and a lot of sober ambition (the last of it). Landing in Louisville (“LOO-ville” to the locals) Friday morning, we immediately darted straight into the heart of bourbon country. First stop was the legendary Maker’s Mark distillery. We dove right in with the famous red-waxed bottles of the most iconic small batch bourbon on the market. We got our indoctrination into the vocabulary with phrase No. 1: mash bill. This is the proportion of different grains used for mashing. Maker’s Mark’s mash bill consists of 70 percent corn, 16 percent red winter wheat and 14 percent barley. Red winter wheat is what gives Maker’s Mark its softness and makes it so palatable to the general public. We had a great tour with a smartass female guide, and we signed up to have our names imprinted on a barrel (sales pitch will be forthcoming, I’m sure).
The next stop was Heaven Hill, home to many brands you will recognize, including Elijah Craig and Evan Williams. The building was nice but felt much more like a store than a distillery. The commercial feel greatly contrasted with the antique vibe that the Maker’s Mark distillery had. But things were shiny and new, like a big bourbon grocery store, and who can say that’s a bad thing? Here we took one quick detour and went off task for a bit at a distillery named Willett, which makes small batches of craft-made whiskey in many styles, including one where it’s aged at sea because the motion of the ocean gives the bourbon more exposure to the wood and thus more flavor. All in all it was some incredible stuff, and I can’t wait to return there for the craft distillery tour next year.
With no time to waste on this whiskey whirlwind, we were off to Jim Beam. This is by far the largest of the distilleries, and it was also the most educational. They actually bused us from building to building on campus. We learned more vocabulary, including phrase No. 2: distiller’s beer. That’s when the mash bill is blended with water and yeast and left to ferment, and you get a cereal-like mixture that bubbles in massive barrels. This campus is where they make my mainstay bourbon, Knob Creek, so much reverence was shown as we walked around, swimming in the beer/bread scent, and tasted some experimental blends they were working on.
That night, though lesser men may have passed out, we instead continued our work. If we were majoring in the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, the Urban Bourbon Trail was our minor. This is a list of whiskey bars scattered throughout Louisville with stocks of rare, interesting, and at times very expensive bourbons. While hitting all of these places was not our primary mission (there are more than 30), we felt the need to put a solid dent in the list. Like the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, there’s a helpful app to keep you straight should you need a little assistance keeping track of each flavor you tried.
To start day two, we wiped off some cobwebs, grabbed some breakfast from the same restaurant that served us a late-night pizza only a few hours before, and took off for Lexington. We hit Town Branch distillery for a morning tour and taste, and we had a great hot coffee drink blended with one of their whiskeys and layered with heavy cream—a great way to wake up, for sure.
Next was Four Roses and what turned out to be the brightest spot on the tour. Our tour guide, Heather, was not only fun and informative but also an excellent sharer, something we appreciated. She gave us a great tour and taught us phrase No. 3: yeast codes. These are the special blends of various yeasts that distillers use in making their bourbons. These are proprietary blends of the known strains of yeast, and they are guarded like nuclear launch codes. Heather gave a private tasting to about 10 of us fortunate tourists. The tasting included opening some special reserve bourbons that are not even sold in the States (the Chinese have deeper pockets than we do, apparently), which had us all stumbling out of the building in search of lunch to soak up the booze.
Then we were on to Wild Turkey, and we were out in a matter of minutes. The corporate feel wasn’t what we were looking for, in that they don’t take you to the actual distillery but rather walk you around a museum diorama set up to explain to all the whiskey-soaked tourists how their hangovers start as corn, and then they waltz you into the gift shop. So we took the self-guided version and jetted to our next stamp in the passport.
Woodford Reserve was truly one of the special moments on the trail. First, they walked us into a private room where just the three of us were seated with J.P., the most eloquent tour guide in history, who used the maximum number of syllables available to him to poetically explain how their bourbon was made. J.P. was an incredible guide. I think I could even sit through a chemistry class so long as he was teaching in it. In fact, I guess we did. J.P. explained how the whiskey turns into bourbon with all the finesse of a Baptist preacher and a voice smoother than the whiskey we were tasting—which was great, by the way. He also gave us an important lesson in tasting alcohol by teaching us to sip once, sip twice, and then drink. He ended the tour with a great line: “Drinking bourbon is like getting a tattoo. After a bit, your self-preservation instincts take hold, and it doesn’t hurt anymore.” With that, we said goodbye to Woodford Reserve and hello to another night of collecting stamps on our Urban Bourbon Trail app.
Another pizza and another hangover later, we awoke for day three with only two stops left. Both were in town, so we had time for some eggs and bacon before heading back to the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience. If you recall, Evan Williams is bottled by Heaven Hill, a distillery we already visited. Not sure how they managed to get two stops on the official tour, but it was a great place and within stumbling distance of our hotel. It was a neat, well-merchandized experience with a quick tasting and some very friendly folks.
Bulleit Frontier Whiskey
Last but not least, we had my brother-in-law’s favorite, the Bulleit Frontier Whiskey Experience. This is also in Louisville but on the other side of town. Bulleit makes bourbon but is much more popular for its rye whiskey these days. In fact, they have led many other distilleries in the new trend toward rye whiskeys, or at least rye-heavy bourbons. As we learned, rye whiskey is drier than wheat bourbons, making them better for mixing cocktails, and bartenders around the country have been toying with recipes in recent years as it grows in popularity. The best part of this tour was the fact that the distillery is the original home of Pappy Van Winkle. If you don’t know Pappy Van Winkle, then you really need this tour.
Our mission was complete with just enough time to get to the airport for a healthy pour and some reminiscing. We felt pretty high on our sense of accomplishment, and suddenly that T-shirt we were promised sounded pretty cool. Some people climb mountains; others run marathons. We had pushed our livers to the limit without the help of any performance enhancers (other than greasy drunk foods). We had a new vocabulary and a new appreciation for America’s greatest art form. (Jazz would be second, of course.)