Every September for the past 20 years, Bardstown, Kentucky
has been rolling out the barrel to welcome thousands of bourbon enthusiasts to their tiny town. Visitors trek to this historic “Bourbon Capital of the World”
to share their love of Bourbon, and to learn more about this tasty, carmel-colored spirit. Last September, approximately 55,000 visitors from 40 states and 13 countries enjoyed the Kentucky Bourbon Festival
. With the 21st Annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival
recently wrapped up (September 11-16, 2012), now is a good time to be thinking about a visit to this beautiful state, whether you want to go to the Festival or tackle the Kentucky Bourbon Trail
Six hours or so by car from Atlanta, Bardstown is Kentucky’s second oldest city, originating in 1780. Rolling green hills, horses and history abound, however most out-of-town folks know this small town for the Kentucky Bourbon Festival
and the Kentucky Bourbon Trail
Arriving in Bardstown, you can’t miss the many large structures that look like old abandoned buildings. These “ric houses” are where millions of barrels of bourbon go “to grow up,” or age. Many ric houses have black on the outside, which is not mold, but “tarula” that develops from the aging bourbon—actually, it comes from “Angel’s Share,” or the evaporating alcohol that creates the fragrant aroma. Stand next to an open window of a ric house and breath in the delicious air! The Kentucky Distiller’s Association
says that at least five million barrels of bourbon and other whiskeys are currently aging in Kentucky.
Ric house, where barrels of bourbon are aged
Whether you attend the Bourbon Festival, or tackle the Kentucky Bourbon Trail
, you will learn that all bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon. What makes whiskey bourbon? Well, in 1964, Congress actually declared bourbon a unique product of the United States, and the phrase “America’s Official Native Spirit”
was coined. Standards were created to ensure the quality of the official spirit would be maintained:
• Bourbon must be distilled with at least 51% corn grain; other grains can also be used, such as malted barley, rye, or possibly wheat (ie, Maker’s Mark).
• It must be aged at least two years in new, charred oak barrels.
• Bourbon must enter the barrel at no more than 125 proof, and may not be bottled at less than 80 proof.
• It must be distilled, in America, at less than 160 proof with nothing added but water.
• Only limestone-filtered water (which typically does not contain iron) can be used to lower bourbon’s alcohol content; no flavoring of any kind can be added
Where to begin, you might wonder? An easy way to start is with the Kentucky Bourbon Passport. By attending six distilleries (UPDATE: as of October 1, 2012, there are now seven distilleries required), and obtaining a stamp from each, not only will you get a well-rounded tour of the area, and a great education, you can earn a free t-shirt! The passport program began in 2007, and the Kentucky Distillers Association reports that, as of August of this year, more than 4,000 t-shirts have been given away this year alone. The Bourbon Trail was “created” in 1999, and in just the last five years more than 1.7 million people have toured its distilleries. and more than 8,000 visitors (from 49 states and 14 countries) have completed the historic journey. All distilleries have reported “double-digit increases in attendance,” verifying the increasing popularity of Kentucky Bourbon.
Six distilleries are featured on the passport. All offer tours (most are free) that include a tasting at the end:
Maker’s Mark Distillery is tucked away in Loretto. Legend has it that during the Whiskey Rebellion, this location was selected for its remoteness, to avoid tax collectors...if you drive here, you might feel lost along the way, but it seems that was the idea back then. The visitor’s center, where you meet to begin your guided tour, is in the old Samuels family home. There are family portraits on the wall that reminded me of the “Harry Potter” movies. When you least expect it, some of the pictures begin talking, complete with moving lips and eyes.....And there are many examples of items “dipped” with the infamous Maker’s red wax!
Maker’s Mark is one of the few bourbons that uses wheat instead of rye for its secondary grain. The Maker’s Mark Distillery is located on a beautiful setting in the rolling hills (just when you think you might be lost, there it is!) and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1980.
Incidentally, Maker’s Mark “Whisky” is not spelled wrong; the family roots are Scottish, and as such they drop the “e” from the word Whiskey.
Yes, the bottles are still dipped by hand
On tour at Maker's Mark (no, this isn't the actual tasting!)
1525 Tyrone Road, Lawrenceburg; (502) 839-4544
Jimmy Russell, master distiller of Wild Turkey, has more than 56 years of experience in the bourbon industry and is an industry legend. If you are lucky, you might seem him while touring the distillery. Owned by Campari, Wild Turkey imports rye from Germany, and gets the majority of their corn from Kentucky, with barley coming from Wisconsin and Minnesota.
One of the highlights of the Kentucky Bourbon Festival is the Boots & Bourbon Party, hosted by Wild Turkey, where one of their featured drinks for the past few years has been Sex in the Holler:
1 part Wild Turkey Honey Liqueur
1 part Peach Schnapps
1 part Raspberry Liqueur
2 parts Cranberry Juice
2 parts Pineapple Juice
Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker and strain into a lowball glass over ice.
Notice the ric house in the background
Built in 1910 in Spanish Mission-style architecture (uncommon in Kentucky), this distillery is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Ten unique bourbons are distilled here using two mash bills and five proprietary yeasts. All of Four Roses’ bourbons are created in Lawrenceburg, then moved to Cox’s Creek, about 50 miles away, for aging in single story warehouses. Formerly owned by spirit giant Seagram’s, Four Roses is one of the few distilleries that was allowed to continue production during Prohibition, so they could produce whiskey for “medicinal” purposes—if you had a prescription from a doctor, you could still drink whiskey! Under Seagram’s ownership, Four Roses was not sold in the U.S. from the 1960’s until 2003, soon after Seagram’s went out of business. Four Roses Yellow Label is well rounded and smooth, and makes a great house bourbon. Their small batch bourbon is an excellent sipping bourbon.
Heaven Hill Distilleries is the last independent family-owned and operated producer of distilled spirits in the U.S. Sixth-generation Master Distiller Parker Beam has been distilling bourbon for more than 25 years. His son Craig works with his father, much like Parker did years before with his father, Earl. Park Beam, Parker’s grandfather, was the brother of James Beauregard Beam (better known as “Jim” Beam). It was Parker’s father, Earl, who was the first to work at Heaven Hill. Earl, in turn, officially turned the title of Master Distiller over to Parker in 1975. With this, Parker became the sixth generation Beam to achieve this title. With Craig Beam now entrenched in the business of distilling, the family’s continued legacy of making bourbon is assured.
Tasting room at Heaven Hill
526 Happy Hollow Road, Clermont, KY 40110; 502-543-9877
Jim Beam Bourbon still uses a family recipe from 1795. After Prohibition ended, James B. Beam rebuilt the family distillery in 1933, which is still used today. Jim Beam became the name of the family bourbon then, and today, Frederick Booker Noe III, Jim Beam’s great-grandson, oversees production. Since 1795 there has been a Master Distiller in every generation of the Beam family. A new visitor center and state-of-the-art tasting room have recently opened.
Booker Noe, Jim Beam's grandson
Nestled amongst beautiful horse farms, this distillery was originally built in 1812 by Elijah Pepper, and it is also a National Historic Landmark. Woodford Reserve is the only distillery that charges a small fee for its tour.
On tour at Woodford Reserve
The newest addition to the passport is Town Branch in Lexington. You can find them at Alltech's Lexington Brewing and Distilling Company, 401 Cross St., Lexington, KY 40508; 859-255-2337. There is a $5 admission charge for this tour, and all tours start on the hour.
Not on the passport this year, but worthy of a visit are other distilleries, including:
Buffalo Trace, 1001 Wilkinson Blvd., Frankfort; (502) 696-5926. Blanton’s, my new personal favorite bourbon, is produced at Buffalo Trace. In 2010, Fox News acclaimed Blanton's as one of the Top 10 Coolest Liquor Bottles.
So whether you can make it to the Kentucky Bourbon Festival this year or not, you can always tackle the Kentucky Bourbon Trail!