Backroads Journal

Wandering the Kentucky Bourbon Trail

That marvelous, heady aroma of yeast and grain fills our senses as we stroll past stacks and stacks of wonderful, hand-crafted, white oak barrels imparting their charred and caramelized richness to the distiller’s craft.  The stacks of barrels fade into the quiet darkness of the massive rackhouse.  Just the thought of standing in the midst of 20,000 barrels of Kentucky’s finest export is enough to make you woozy!

Its day one of last fall’s Bourbon Trail tour.  We left the brilliant autumn color of Brown County, Indiana and drove south to the Bourbon Country of Kentucky, between Louisville and Lexington.  Bourbon is America’s only native spirit and 95% of it is produced in Kentucky.  It’s a rich and colorful heritage that is reflected in the stories told by the tour guides as they talk about “white dog”, “mash” and “the angel’s share”.  I have to admit that I was introduced to Bourbon by certain un-named, but knowledgeable, family members and over the years it has become my spirit of choice, so the Bourbon Trail trip became sort of a pilgrimage for me.

We began our tour at the huge Jim Beam Distillery, just north of Bardstown, KY.  The Jim Beam family of bourbons is the #1 selling bourbon in the world.  They offer an interactive tour that gives you a good understanding of the distiller’s process.  We followed the path of distillation from mixing the secret blend of corn, rye and barley malt with local spring water, cooking the mash, adding sour mash and yeast, fermenting and distilling the “beer” into “white dog”.  The white dog, basic moonshine, is then aged in new oak barrels which have been charred inside.  The charred oak, over the 2 to 12 year aging, gives the bourbon its rich color and taste.

Just south of the Jim Beam Distillery is Bardstown, named by USA Today and Rand McNally as “The Most Beautiful Small Town in America”.  We stopped for lunch at The Old Talbott Tavern, located on Court Square.  On our way to the Heaven Hill Distillery, we walked the grounds of Federal Hill, once a plantation home in Bardstown.  Federal Hill, reportedly, was the inspiration for Steven Foster to write Kentucky’s State Song, “My Old Kentucky Home”.  That restored home and grounds are now My Old Kentucky Home State Park.

The tour of distilleries scattered throughout the region ranges from the massive Jim Beam factory, with its well-oiled visitor marketing, to the small Four Roses Distillery, with its Spanish Mission-style buildings and beautiful rose gardens.  You can join the tour busses and dip your bourbon bottle into their signature red wax at Maker’s Mark, have the Master Distiller, Jimmy Russell, sign your bottle of Wild Turkey Rare Breed in their quaint, little visitor center or watch the dozen or so workers hand-bottling Blanton’s Single-Barrel Bourbon at the Buffalo Trace Distillery.  Each distillery has its own family heritage and style.  Pick a few to tour, but experience as many as your time permits.

A GPS is almost a must for the winding country roads that follow creeks and old commerce pikes, but a setting that follows the shortest route from one distillery to the next will put you on some beautiful backroads that wind around Bluegrass pastures and Thoroughbred farms. 

We hit Four Roses and Wild Turkey, for sampling, the next morning.  Following lunch and more sampling of the famous Woodford Reserve Bourbon and the sweet Bourbon Balls on the porch of the beautiful visitor center, we enjoyed a mellow afternoon wandering the old McCracken Pike northward toward Frankfort and the Buffalo Trace Distillery.  The road follows the Kentucky River past the abandoned Old Crow Distillery and rackhouses.

Whether you sample the wares or just take in the heady aromas, a tour of the Bourbon Country of Kentucky is one of America’s unique destinations.  You will find a cast of colorful characters ready and willing to talk about their craft, beautiful down-home scenery and a place that is as American as you can get.

There is much information about the area and each distillery on the web, but you can start here:

Next fall, consider heading down the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.  Drive the backroads, enjoy the autumn color and get a full dose of down-home hospitality.  Enjoy the Bourbon tastings, but bring your designated driver!