I am a late-coming Bourbon imbiber. I tried Bourbon in college when, trying to be cool while staying on campus one summer, my roommates and I hung out a bit with the “townies” who lived in one of the apartments of our complex. We were invited several times by these cute guys to hang out with them at the local quarry where we drank cheap beer and were offered shots of Jack Daniels. I wanted to like it, but back then I found it harsh and too strong for me.
But several years ago, after having dinner in Douglas, Michigan, my husband and I went to the restaurant bar across the street to have a night cap. I asked the bartender for a suggestion and he, being particularly good at his job (flirting with an older women works), suggested I try Bulleit on the rocks. This time, I sipped. A bit harsh, yes, at first sip, but then the flavor blossomed in my mouth and then, a slow, pleasant glow. Really, I was hooked from that moment on.
I stuck with Bulleit for some time really not knowing anything about it. I put it in the category with whiskey (and it is a kind of whiskey), but definitely not Scotch (also whisky without the e, but made with mostly barley), but I could not have said much more about it except I knew that bourbon was somehow more appealing than other spirits. We watched a couple of food shows about bourbon and started hearing about the Bourbon Trail in Kentucky. And of course, I had to go and convinced my husband, not a bourbon drinker, to make the trek for my birthday this year.
Planning the Trip
I went online to find out where the distilleries where, how many there were, how many we could hit in a day, how much it would cost, where to stay etc. There are nine bourbon distilleries in the area between Louisville and Lexington on the official Kentucky Bourbon Trail, and another eleven on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour. You can obtain an official booklet which can be stamped at the distilleries visited and if you visit them all, can get a free t-shirt. But let me tell you, that’s a lot of distilleries. You do get a little different information at each one, but the information is basically the same and after about four, you start to feel like an expert.
There are also tours you can take where you sit comfortably in a bus and let the guide take you around to the different distilleries. But we aren’t tour kind of folks and prefer to travel at our own pace. We like to be able to change our minds at the last minute and let adventure take over. A number of friends asked us when we returned if we were a bit too inebriated to be driving, and while some distilleries are only a couple of minutes away from each other, others can be up to an hour away. And besides, it’s not like you are guzzling cocktails. These are tastings often at the end of a half hour tour.
We traveled to our AirBNB outside of Lexington and spent the night before starting our bourbon touring the next morning. First stop was Wild Turkey. We got there just a minute too late, as the bus for that distillery’s tour was just leaving. We found out that there was no tasting without the tour, so we looked around the store with a mini museum and decided to proceed to the next stop.
Not on the official Kentucky Bourbon Trail since 2010, our next stop was Buffalo Trace. It is a charming bit of Kentucky history, harkening back to 1773 and claim to be the oldest distillery still operating. They were even open during prohibition selling bourbon by prescription for “medicinal” purposes. The name was changed to Buffalo Trace in 1999 reflecting the buffalo crossing at the Kentucky River on the property. There was no cost for taking the tour lead by a charming older man who was both a good story teller and knowledgeable historian. And it ended up being my favorite bourbon. Their description is perfect: “The taste is rich and complex, with hints of vanilla, toffee and candied fruit. The smooth finish lingers on the palate.”
Distillery number three, Woodford Reserve. This is the bourbon in the fancy, upscale bottles that we all see on the back of upscale bars. The tasting cost us $15 and we sat in a beautifully appointed lodge-like setting with lots of wood and stone at a long table. The bourbon was OK, but it felt like we were being oversold in an overly corporate setting.
Last stop of the day was Lexington Brewing and Distilling. A latecomer established in 1999, this location also brews beer. We got there just before the last tour and there was no charge. We were able to taste quite a few spirits beyond bourbon but wished we could have seen the brewery too. We were able to taste the Kentucky Bourbon Ale that night at dinner at a local BBQ restaurant.
First stop about an hour away was Limestone Branch, started over 200 years ago by ancestors of brothers Steve and Paul Beam. They were distilling for five generations before prohibition interrupted. The tasting and tour were free and very personal. We sat at a bar and sampled bourbon, vodka and an amazing White Core Sour Mash Moonshine infused with jalapeno—perfect for Bloody Marys. I was offered their signature Overlook Old Fashioned made with their Yellowstone Select bourbon, apricot preserves, Angostura Bitters and orange zest. Got my birthday off to a good start!
Next on our own personal trail, which ended up being the last stop, was aptly the Bulleit distillery. Tours were $12, another historical site which used to produce Old Fitzgerald (check out your grandad’s liquor cabinet). We took the tour which included an old cooper’s repair shop. Now, tasting Bulleit after sampling so many other bourbons, I found that it was no longer my favorite. In fact, with a high rye content, I found it just a bit “hot”, which is what rye imparts to bourbon. Now, my husband’s a bourbon lover, too. So not yet loving bourbon, is no excuse for not taking the trip.
BOURBON TRAIL FUN FACTS:
- Bourbon has to be made in the United States by law, but not just in Kentucky. There is even bourbon made in Hawaii, but most bourbon is produced in Kentucky.
- During prohibition, one could obtain a prescription for medicinal bourbon. Each member of the family could get such a prescription (even the babies and the pets), which helped keep bourbon in U.S. households.
- Bourbon has to be made of at least 51 percent corn, the rest combinations of rye, wheat or barley, and has to be matured in charred virgin oak barrels.
- The used oak barrels are sent elsewhere to distill other whiskey (and Scotch whisky), tequila and other spirits.
- There is something called the Kentucky chew which we found out, was different depending on who explained it to us. Basically it is a way to taste bourbon which involves swirling the first sip in your mouth, to wake up your taste buds before you take the next sip which is then surprisingly mellow.
- Kentucky water, filtered through many layers of limestone, is unbelievably delicioius, bright and refreshing.