A Trip through Kentucky’s Bourbon Country
Story by Andrea Gross; photos by Irv Green
It’s 8:00 in the morning, and my husband and I have already devoured a huge stack of bourbon-infused flapjacks topped with Jim Beam Black Caramel sauce.
This is not my normal style. I’m more of a spinach egg-whites-only omelet type of gal. But today I’m in Bardstown, Kentucky, the Bourbon Capital of the World, and here bourbon is as omnipresent as milk on an Iowa farm.
Nearly a half million visitors a year travel Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail, a meandering route that leads them to tours and tastings at a host of distilleries — most of which are within an hour’s drive of Bardstown.
After visiting the Museum of Whisky History, where among other alcohol-related artifacts we see a replica of George Washington’s still, we set off to educate our minds and refine our palates.
Our first stop is Heaven Hill Distilleries, the largest independent family owned and operated producer of distilled spirits in the U.S. There we taste-test some of their products and receive a brief course in Bourbon Basics. In short order, we learn the following:
• All whiskey is made from grains and water, but to be considered bourbon, the mash must contain at least 51% corn. This is no problem for Kentucky distillers; the state produces more than 100 million bushels of corn a year.
• Much of Kentucky sits atop a bed of limestone, and the resulting water, be it from a natural spring or lake, is free of iron, a mineral that gives bourbon a black color and unappealing taste. This natural iron-filter is another boon for Kentucky distillers.
• Bourbon must be aged for at least two years in barrels that are made from white oak. Yet another win for lucky Kentucky, where the climate is hospitable to white oak trees.
• Finally, Kentucky has always been rich in human know-how. During the late eighteenth century the state received an influx of Irish, Scottish and German immigrants. These folks brought their knowledge of distilling with them and this, coupled with the state’s fortunate natural elements, provided the roots for Kentucky’s booming $3 billion a year bourbon industry.
Over the course of three days we visit a variety of distilleries — from big to boutique as well as traditional to inventive — and one factory that makes barrels. After learning that there are more used bourbon barrels in Kentucky than horses and people combined, and that none of these barrels can be recycled for bourbon since bourbon must be aged in spanking new barrels, I vow to become a bourbon barrel maker in my next life.
At each distillery, we learn more — and taste — more.
Barton 1792 Distillery is the oldest fully-operating distillery in Bardstown. Named to honor the year Kentucky became a state, it sits on a 196-acre estate that is rife with natural springs that supply iron-free water and fields that supply the necessary corn.
But what we notice first is rows of multistory buildings lined with narrow, vertical windows. These, we’re told, are rickhouses, which are specially designed warehouses where bourbon is stored during the aging process.
As the rickhouses are neither heated nor air-conditioned, the seasonal temperature variations produce a more richly flavored product than they would if the temperature were constant. Barton has 28 of the historic rickhouses, each holding 19,600 barrels, each barrel filled with 53 gallons of aging spirits.
While Barton brings to mind the science of making bourbon, Maker’s Mark Distillery embodies the art, both in its methodology and its surroundings.
Its bourbon is made with tender loving care in small batches of fewer than 19 barrels. Each bottle has a “maker’s mark” on the bottom, reminiscent of the signature marks that are often placed on the bottom of fine crafts. In addition, each bottle is sealed with the company’s distinctive red wax.
As for the surroundings, the buildings are deep gray shuttered in bright red and surrounded by a green lawn and winding stream. A 36-foot by 6-foot canopy by renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly crowns one of the halls in an aging warehouse and adds a modern touch.
I’m artistically enchanted with Maker’s Mark, but it’s at Limestone Branch Distillery, a family-owned business that produces small, hand-made one-barrel batches, that I get into the true spirit of spirits.
Here drinks are made according to old Appalachian moonshine recipes. During a six-shot tasting, I sample Apple Cinnamon, Jalapeno and Cherry Pie Sugar Shine. As I’m deciding what to order next, the bartender tosses a few scoops of chocolate ice cream into a blender, adds milk, chocolate syrup and two shots of potent Chocolate MoonPie Moonshine. Then he pours the concoction into a marshmallow-rimmed Mason jar, sprinkles on graham cracker crumbs and tops it with whipped cream and a cherry.
Goodbye to vegetarian omelets. I’ve finally found my style.
For tips on Kentucky travel, including places to eat as well as drink, see the Napkin Notes section of this website.