It’s no secret that bourbon is booming. Hell, we’ve got more barrels of it in Kentucky than we have people. (Seriously, there are now 1.5 barrels of brown hooch for every person living in Kentucky, according to the Kentucky Distillers’ Association.) But bourbon ain’t just the gleaming amber liquid that fills the bottles; it’s the distilleries, the craftspeople and the limestone-besotted Kentucky countryside that has raised an industry, one charred oak barrel at a time. Yes, bourbon connoisseurs now litter the globe, sipping (responsibly, I’m sure) from their tumblers of Blanton’s, Woodford Reserve, Four Roses or — if they know where the bodies are buried — Pappy Van Winkle. But compared to wine country — its Northern California analogue — bourbon’s birthplace is still a mystery.
Let’s demystify it then, shall we?
As for where to start and what to see, it’s best to think of a trip to and through bourbon country in the same intentional, measured way that a connoisseur conducts a bourbon tasting. This is less because there’s a “right” way to consume bourbon and more because a professional approach will likely reveal some notes you might not have otherwise ever encountered had you simply thrown back your glass and reached hastily for the next. To that end, I asked Tim Knittel, Executive Bourbon Steward and the only professional bourbon educator currently working in Kentucky, to give me a few industry insider tips on how best to approach this spirit and its home.
Turns out, one of the most important parts of the trip occurs before you set foot outside your door.
Clear the alcohol wall
Watch a novice take their first sip of bourbon and you’ll probably see them wince. Ask them to describe what they just tasted, and they’ll probably rasp something about a harsh, burning sensation. Many people who don’t like bourbon cite this sensation as the spirit’s defining characteristic and all the reason they need to avoid it for the rest of their days. Even those who love the stuff can be hard-pressed to describe their favorite bourbon as anything other than marginally sweeter or spicier than one they don’t enjoy. Knittel sees part of his job as helping people get over the burn — called the alcohol wall — and giving them a tasting vocabulary so that they can access and describe the flavor profiles, which he notes are every bit as complex as those found in fine wine.
So before you head toward bourbon country, or perhaps first thing upon arrival, conduct a little tasting of your own to prepare your palate for the coming foray into the land of barrel-aged awesomeness.
It’s simple, really. Pour yourself a modest helping of your favorite bourbon, print yourself a copy of a bourbon flavor wheel (you can find Knittel’s here), and sit down with a few bites of food designed to draw out the spirit’s lurking flavors: I’ve used dark chocolate, orange, candied ginger, dried cranberries, sorghum, aged cheese and pecans, to great success.
Begin with a small sip of your bourbon and swish it around in your mouth, coating your tongue. Knittel calls this the “Kentucky chew.” This is the burn-y bit. Then, with the flavor wheel in front of you, take a bite of whatever food you have in front of you, followed by another sip of bourbon. Look at the wheel and describe what you taste. If it’s a wheated bourbon like Maker’s Mark, you might catch some sweeter flavors like vanilla, caramel or butterscotch. If it’s a rye-heavy bourbon, spicier notes like pepper or cinnamon might pop. Clear your palate with a sip of water and then alternate between bites of food and sips of bourbon, surveying the wheel after each, trying to put a name to the flavors you taste. Compare multiple bourbons. It doesn’t take long to get comfortable with your palate, and once you’re living comfortably beyond the alcohol wall, you’re ready to dive into bourbon country.
Where to begin and where to go from there
First things first: Come to Kentucky. If this seems an obvious piece of advice to give to someone reading a travel publication, forgive me. But like tasting a fine vintage is just different in Napa or Sonoma — there’s something special about drinking a bourbon poured by the hands that helped make it, surrounded by the rolling, bluegrass-covered hills where it was brought to life. Which, while we’re on the subject, the federal government has certain requirements that a beverage must meet before it can legally be called bourbon, and none of those requirements is “It has to be made in Kentucky.” But I mean, come on. If it’s not distilled in Kentucky, and you want to insist on calling it bourbon, that’s fine, but I wouldn’t bring it up while you’re here.
Kentucky is home to more than two dozen bourbon distilleries, most of which are located in a U-shaped cluster between Lexington and Louisville, cities separated by a mere 75 miles. One of the beautiful things about bourbon country is the proximity of its must-visit spots. There is much to love about each of the state’s largest cities from a bourbon drinker’s perspective, and where you begin a journey into bourbon country is entirely a matter of preference. Lexington, however, is infused with more of the state’s genteel southern spirit, and its swirling mixture of urban and rural; the way it melts at its edges into Kentucky’s iconic horse farms makes it the perfect gateway into bourbon country. If at all possible, start there. If you come in April or October (the ideal months to visit, weather-wise), you can drop by Keeneland, one of the nation’s most storied horse racing venues, and enjoy a day at the races before hitting the trail in earnest. You can even find a couple of craft distilleries within the city limits, including Town Branch, Barrel House and Bluegrass Distillers. These smaller operations, some of which began as passion projects akin to a garage brewery, are part of what’s known as the “craft bourbon trail.” Visiting these more humble distilleries is essential for anyone who wants to experience bourbon at its most adventurous and experimental. Since they work with smaller quantities, Kentucky’s craft distilleries will often take risks that their world-renowned brethren won’t (like distilling with blue corn, for example) in the hopes of creating a bourbon unlike anything else on the shelf. And because of their smaller distribution networks, you may only be able to find their bourbon while you’re there.
Look at that. Not even out of Lexington yet, and already you’ve got your first souvenir.
The first stop (and a word about local cuisine)
Once you’ve had your fun in Lexington, proceed directly to Midway. While you’re there — and this is going to sound counterintuitive — don’t drink anything. At least not yet. Instead, stop by the Midway Bakery on the outskirts of town (central Kentucky is filled with the kinds of small towns that have actual outskirts) and indulge in a made-from-scratch treat or two (or six). Everything on the menu is made in house, and a great many of the shop’s delectable items feature local ingredients that shop owner and superstar chef Ouita Michel (pronounced Wee-tah My-kull) says represent the best of what the Bluegrass has to offer.
“We use sorghum a lot. We make sorghum cookies in our bakery, you can get a corn cookie which uses local corn meal and our lemon bar is sort of legendary,” says Michel. “We also have chocolate bourbon pecan pie — we use Kentucky wild seedling pecans for that. Then we have a bourbon chess pie, which is very traditional for our town. A lot of Kentucky is expressed in these baked goods because these are the things that live in people’s hearts and minds for a really long time.”
Michel knows what she’s about. She’s been the executive chef at Woodford Reserve for more than a decade and has built a small restaurant empire in the heart of bourbon country by mining the legacy of Kentucky cuisine and imbuing it with her classically-trained expertise. The results are the bakery’s Sorghum Crinkle, the Traditional Hot Brown at Wallace Station (Michel calls it a humble sandwich shop, but it’s been featured on the Food Network) and nearly the whole menu at Holly Hill Inn — the fine-dining flagship of her fleet. My apologies if it feels like we’re already off track here, but that bit about Michel’s role as Woodford Reserve’s executive chef? It means that there aren’t many people better equipped to provide insight to the ways in which bourbon and food can (and should) be paired. “I think about how bourbon goes with food literally all the time,” says Michel. “We use bourbon as an ingredient in everything. We started doing that almost 20 years ago, thinking about the way that some people use brandy in French cooking, substituting bourbon for brandy in a lot of my recipes, using a flavor wheel and tasting the way bourbon interacted with these flavors.”
Michel’s commitment to infusing her menus with the best of what central Kentucky has to offer doesn’t stop at bourbon. At Holly Hill Inn, you’ll find traditional country ham and biscuits, slow-cooked lamb shoulder with grits ground in a local mill, and bacon-wrapped, pan-seared rabbit loin with dumplings in a bourbon mustard creme. Her commitment to keeping Kentucky’s rural culinary traditions alive makes seeking out Michel’s restaurants, which also include Glenn’s Creek Cafe at Woodford Reserve and Windy Corner Market in Lexington, a must as you make your way through the region.
The main attractions
Alright. Now that you’ve got a few snacks from the road and maybe some dinner plans, it’s time to hit the distilleries themselves, presented here in the order that you encounter them while making your way from Lexington toward Louisville along that aforementioned U-shaped path. You can visit them all or just drop by those that make your favorite bourbon, but to make the most out of your time, try to visit at least one distillery each from the Heritage (the big brands you can buy worldwide) and Craft (those smaller-scale operations I mentioned earlier) trails. If you plan on taking a tour, make sure to call ahead to reserve your spot, especially on weekends. And, you know, pace yourself.
Woodford Reserve – Versailles (Vur-sails in the local voice)
Shiny new visitor center aside, it’s clear from the moment you step foot onto the grounds of Woodford Reserve that its global reputation belies the simplicity and scope of its operation. Its iconic copper stills make the perfect backdrop for your jealousy-inducing bourbon country selfie. Last I was there, one tour guide offered to buy back any bottle of the company’s famed Double-Oaked bourbon that any customer found lacking. He is, I would imagine, still waiting for someone to take him up on the offer. If your treats from Midway Bakery haven’t survived the trip, grab a bite at Glenn’s Cafe, or if you’re looking for a truly special culinary experience, reserve a spot at one of the seasonal eateries.
Tours: $14 for the standard one-hour affair; $30 for the “Corn to Cork” tour, a more comprehensive walk through every step of the distilling process that concludes with a special tasting. woodfordreserve.com
Buffalo Trace – Frankfort
And now for something completely different. Located in the state’s capital on a sprawling complex that includes event spaces, Buffalo Trace provides visitors with unmatched behind-the-scenes access to the distilling process as part of their famed “hard hat” tour. When it comes time to taste the product at the end of the tour, go for the Buffalo Trace Bourbon Creme mixed with root beer; it’s the best thing they make (and that’s no insult to the bourbon).
Tours: Complimentary! Both the “Trace Tour” and “Hard Hat Tour” (which gets you fully behind the scenes of the distillery’s sizable operation) are free, though reservations are required. buffalotracedistillery.com
Four Roses – Lawrenceburg
Lawrenceburg is actually home to both Four Roses and Wild Turkey, and while there’s at least a chance you’ll run into Matthew McConaughey at Wild Turkey (he recently helped deliver 4,500 turkeys to local homes for Thanksgiving), I’d recommend Four Roses if you’re only going to make one stop. Not only does it feature my very favorite bourbon (Four Roses Single Barrel), but its Spanish mission-style architecture is unique among Kentucky’s distilleries.
Tours: $5 for the regular tour, including a guided walk around the grounds or the “A Taste of History” tour, featuring a discussion of Four Roses’ history and a guided tasting. fourrosesbourbon.com
Maker’s Mark – Loretto
Maker’s Mark offers one of the most polished experiences of any bourbon distillery in the state. Their red wax-dipped bottles are iconic and they lean into that heritage at every opportunity. The specialty tour, though pricier than some, does offer an exceptional degree of access to the Maker’s distilling process. Best of all, guests over 21 get to dip their own bottles.
Tours: $9 for a standard one-hour tour of the grounds; $35 for a specialty tour featuring stops not seen on the normal one-hour tour, includes a set of wax-dipped rocks glasses. makersmark.com
Willet – Bardstown
Bardstown calls itself the Bourbon Capital of the World and Willet might fairly be considered its crown jewel (though Heaven Hill would no doubt quibble with me there). This independently-owned craft distillery typifies the painstaking personal care inherent to bourbon production, and they make a killer product to boot.
While you’re in town, ride the rails on My Old Kentucky Dinner Train which features a full multi-course dining experience and train ride through the scenic countryside. If you’re in need of a good night’s sleep after all those hours of bourbon-ing, bed down at the Bourbon Manor Bed and Breakfast Inn. The antebellum property features a host of bourbon-themed rooms with names like “Sweet Old Fashioned” and “Hotty Toddy.” Oh, and it’s attached to a full-service bourbon bar and lounge, naturally.
Tour: $15 for a walking tour, guided tasting and commemorative glass. kentuckybourbonwhiskey.com
Jim Beam – Clermont
The Beam tour gets full marks for its participatory nature – visitors get to do a little of everything, including mixing grains and bottling the spirit itself. If, however, you feel toured out, Jim Beam also offers a 4-hour dining and tasting experience guided by Fred Noe, 7th generation Master Distiller and Jim Beam’s living, breathing great-grandson. These “Behind the Beam” events have concluded for 2017, but will continue next year.
Tour: $14 for a 90-minute tour through the entire production facility. jimbeam.com
One for the road
There’s no doubt that you’ll leave the Bluegrass State with a greater appreciation for bourbon, its birthplace and the people who produce it. But that shouldn’t be the only thing you take. After all, what’s all that authentic bourbon experience worth without a few bottles to remember it by? I know what you’re thinking: They sell the same bourbon in your neck of the woods that they sell here. And that’s true. Mostly. But many of the state’s craft distilleries don’t have distribution networks that reach much beyond Kentucky’s borders. And even some of the big boys produce special selections that can only be found locally.
Tim Knittel recommends seeking these out if you a) want to take a home a truly rare bottle and b) don’t want to spend Pappy Van Winkle-level cash to do it. Tracking them down is relatively simple. While you’re in the area, call around to a couple of liquor stores and ask if they have any barrel selections on offer (the Liquor Barn chain and Cork and Barrel in Lexington are good bets). A barrel selection is bottled from a single barrel, usually hand-picked by a liquor store, bar or restaurant (often with the help of the master distiller) for its specific flavor characteristics.
Knittel urges enthusiasts to talk to the store owner or the person who made the selection. Ask them what got them excited about that particular barrel. If their description makes your mouth water, then you’ve found the bottle you want to take home.
I’ll leave the matter of sharing (or not) up to you. Better take home two just in case.
Photography by Sara Corman saracormanphotography.com