What a summer it's been for the Bluegrass.
First, talk-show host Kelly Ripa praised Lexington as being the most beautiful place on earth, and then National Geographic Traveler magazine, in its September issue, included the Kentucky Bourbon Trail in an article titled "20 Great American Drives," placing it in such prestigious company as the Hana Highway in Maui, the Black Hills of South Dakota and the classic loop around Massachusetts' Cape Cod.
Those of us who live in Lexington certainly know what Ripa was talking about. But if you haven't driven the Bourbon Trail lately, you might want to take a long weekend and do so.
Unlike the Napa Wine Trail, which follows a more or less straight line, the Bourbon Trail forms a sort of geometric pattern — from Lexington to Frankfort to Bardstown and back to Lexington. Along the way, you'll do a lot of sipping of America's only native spirit — so declared by a 1964 Act of Congress — and have an opportunity to take in some of the inner and outer Bluegrass's most scenic landscape.
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Touring each of the eight distilleries on the trail will provide you with some quick shots of bourbon and of bourbon facts: Kentucky produces 95 percent of the world's supply of bourbon. All bourbon must be made with a minimum of 51 percent corn and aged in charred new oak barrels. It was a Baptist preacher, Elijah Craig, who first came up with the recipe, in 1789. And there are currently more than 5 million barrels of bourbon and other whiskeys aging in Kentucky, the highest inventory since 1983.
Savor the experience
But just like going beyond the quick shot to savor a glass of 23-year-old Pappy Van Winkle, the longer you spend at the distilleries, the more you learn of this fascinating industry. Tidbits might include: Jim Beam, of the distillery bearing his name, was known to take the strain of yeast home with him each weekend to prevent industrial espionage. Buffalo Trace was the only distillery in the state to continue making whiskey during Prohibition (for "medicinal purposes"). And Lord Snowden, former husband of Britain's Princess Margaret, nearly drowned in a fermenting tank while on a visit to Maker's Mark.
If you aren't intrigued by now, go have a Bud Light; but if you are, here's more of what awaits you on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
Starting from Lexington, the first distillery on the Trail is Woodford Reserve, also one of the most picturesque, situated on Glenn's Creek. Folks there like to say it's the only distillery in Kentucky where you can see its two most famous products aging side by side. A National Historic Landmark, Woodford is the smallest of Kentucky's distilleries and the oldest, with a distilling tradition dating back to Elijah Pepper in the late 1700s. In fact, the distillery was founded just five years after Kentucky gained statehood. The tour introduces visitors to the only triple-distillation process used to handcraft bourbon today, the only copper-pot still (brought over from Scotland) and the only surviving stone aging warehouses in America.
Visitors might be surprised to discover that the old Government House, now used for special events, has no running water or bathroom. Distillery employees say it is a holdover from the days of the "revenuers," who were discouraged from getting too comfortable when they made their periodic checks. The Pepper House, the house at the top of the hill, is said to be inhabited by other kinds of spirits; families who have lived there over the years have reported ghostly encounters.
Woodford Reserve is the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby, the Belmont Stakes and England's Epsom Derby.
Wild Turkey, Four Roses
From Woodford, it's an easy drive to Lawrenceburg, where visitors get a double dose of distillery touring. Austin Nichols Distillery, atop a hill overlooking the Kentucky River, is presided over by legendary master distiller Jimmy Russell, considered by many of his colleagues the elder statesman of the commonwealth's bourbon industry. There has been a structure on the site since 1855, opening first as a grocery store specializing in teas, coffees, and, of course, spirits. Today, the distillery's most unique feature is its 40-foot-tall column still.
If by now you're scratching your head, wondering how you could have missed Austin Nichols on your previous forays into bourbon country, you might know it better by the name of its bourbon: Wild Turkey. That name happened inadvertently.
In 1940, distillery executive Thomas McCarthy, an avid sportsman, gathered with friends for their annual wild turkey hunt in South Carolina. McCarthy, who was asked to bring the whiskey, pulled a sample from the warehouse, and it proved so popular that the next year, the group insisted that he bring some more of "that wild turkey bourbon." A marketing whiz, McCarthy knew a winning product when he saw one, and soon after, he began marketing Wild Turkey Bourbon.
Not far from Austin Nichols is Four Roses Distillery. The distillery's Spanish mission-style architecture is at first a shock — seemingly more in character for California than the Bluegrass, but the 10 distinct recipes of bourbon it produces are pure Kentucky.
This is another distillery with an interesting, and romantic, story behind its name. It came about when the founder, enamored of a beautiful Southern belle, proposed marriage. She replied that if her answer was yes, she would wear a red rose corsage at a ball the next evening. Upon entering the ballroom and seeing the object of his affections wearing a corsage of four perfect red roses, the young man was inspired to name his bourbon Four Roses.
Buffalo Trace, Jim Beam
Next, it's on to Frankfort and Buffalo Trace, the oldest continuously operating distillery in the United States (since 1887; remember, it made "medicinal" bourbon during Prohibition), and the first to market single-barrel bourbon commercially.
The distillery gets its name from the former trace down which buffalo, and then Indians and settlers all traveled. The tour, one of the most informative of all the distillery tours, will give you plenty of interesting facts, including: Buffalo Trace was the first distillery to ship whiskey down the Mississippi River, the first to heat its warehouses, and the first American distillery to be named "distillery of the year." It's also one of the most highly acclaimed whiskeys of the past decade.
From here, head southwest to Clermont and the Jim Beam Distillery. Set amid a gorgeous backdrop of rolling hills, Jim Beam is the largest bourbon distiller in the world, specializing in the production of hand-crafted small-batch bourbons and producing what is consistently rated as one of the two top-selling whiskeys in the United States. (Hank Williams Jr. and George Wendt, the lovable Norm of Cheers fame, are known fans.)
The distillery is undergoing an extensive renovation intended to enhance its visitors services, but don't let that discourage you. For now, you can experience the rich heritage of the "first family of bourbon" with a tour of the T. Jeremiah Beam home, followed by a tasting.
Traveling south to Loretto, you'll come upon the distinctive red and black buildings on Hardin's Creek that make up Maker's Mark, the oldest working distillery on its original site (since 1805).
Here, where eight generations of the Samuels family have toiled, you'll discover why Maker's Mark crafts its bourbon in batches of fewer than 19 barrels; learn that it was the first distillery to be declared a National Historic Landmark, and even get to hand-dip your own bottle in its signature red wax.
You might or might not learn that in 1953, Bill Samuels Sr., in a dramatic ceremony, burned the 170-year-old family recipe — in his words, "the stuff that could blow your ears off" — and developed a new recipe using locally grown corn, malted barley and winter wheat. The success of that recipe more than made up for the fact that in the process, he also burned up the drapes and very nearly the whole house.
Maker's Mark has had its share of famous visitors, but none as memorable as the previously mentioned Lord Snowden. Forget about the "angel's share"; he nearly met the angels themselves. An adventurous photographer, Snowden wanted to get a shot of the almost-empty fermenting tank. He climbed into the tank and was quickly overcome by the fumes. It was only because he fell backward rather than face-down that he didn't drown in the remaining liquid.
You'll no doubt want to conclude your visit with a sampling at the state-of-the-art tasting room, which looks as if it could have been designed by Ian Schrager and Phillipe Starck, famous for their boutique hotel designs.
Heaven Hill, Tom Moore
Finally, head to Bardstown, known as the "bourbon capital of the world," and its two distilleries. Heaven Hill is America's largest independent family-owned producer of distilled spirits and the second-largest holder of aging bourbon whiskey in the United States, with an inventory exceeding 850,000 barrels. Since the repeal of Prohibition, Heaven Hill has filled more than 5 million barrels of bourbon. Visitors can tour the Bourbon Heritage Center and sample Heaven Hill's best in a unique barrel-shaped tasting room.
Bardstown's other distillery, Tom Moore, is the most recent to become part of the trail. Formerly the Barton Distillery, it has been called one of Kentucky's best-kept secrets, but there's nothing secret about its super-premium 1792 bourbon, which gets its name from the year that Kentucky joined the Union.
There you have it: Kentucky's own version of the Napa Wine Trail, only with a higher proof.