Kelly and I have long wanted to “do” the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. We like bourbon and we really like to see how things are made.
The trail was a win-win.
So after the Houston Marathon, we dashed back to Dallas – packed for a week’s vacation -then hopped a flight to Lexington.
What wasn’t a win for us was the arrival of Winter Storm Jonas, which joined forces with a literal bank of arctic air from Canada that had decided to settle over Kentucky. Not only was it cold beyond belief (10F, really?!?!), but snow blanketed the state not once, but twice during our vacation. We opted to leave before the second snow (12-18 inches) arrived.
That meant we weren’t able to do the entire trail in one vacation visit, despite having booked three more days than the trail claims you will need. There was another factor at play that impacted our touring time, but I’ll talk about that in a later post.
In any case, here’s what we did on the trail and what we learned – hopefully, you’ll find it helpful if you’re curious about the bourbon making process or if you’re considering making a trip on the trail yourself.
What makes a bourbon a bourbon is actually mandated by law. A bourbon must:
- Its mash (the mixture of grains from which the product is distilled) must contain at least 51% corn. The rest of the mash is usually filled out with malted barley and either rye or wheat. The variations on mash mix is the biggest differentiator between bourbons.
- Its mash must be distilled at 160 proof or less
- It must be put into the barrel at 125 proof or less
- It must not contain any additives.
- It must be aged in a new charred oak barrel. Most often these barrels are white oak, but they can be any variety of oak.
If it doesn’t meet any of those requirements, it’s simply a whiskey.
A common misconception is that bourbon can only be made in Kentucky. This isn’t true – but Kentucky does make 90% of the bourbon produced in the United States. Kentuckians claim the water makes the difference – pure limestone filtered. Kelly and I have found that water makes a tremendous difference in the flavor of many products that we love, from bread to beer, so we believe them.
Stop One: Town Branch Distillery
Located very close to the airport, this was a great first stop. We were familiar with Town Branch in a roundabout way – we’d had a beer that they produce, Alltech Bourbon Barrel Aged. It’s delicious. The distillery seemed huge to us (this was before we visited any other location, of course) and later we realized we’d actually been in a relatively small facility.
All distilleries provide samples of their product. Even though the samples are small, it’s important to pace yourself.
Town Branch was the only distillery where we saw staff labeling bottles by hand.
Because of our flight arrival time, this was the only distillery we had time to visit on our first day.
Stop Two: MB Roland Distillery
Located very close to the Tennessee border in southwest Kentucky, MB Roland is part of the Kentucky Craft Bourbon Tour. There are actually three separate bourbon trails you can take: The standard, craft and urban, which takes you through a series of house distilleries/bars in Louisville.
We visited MB Roland because it was located on the way back to Kentucky from a quick side trip we took to Tennessee. The little farm it calls home was charming.
Like most of the big distilleries, MB Roland only offers tours at set times. We hit them at an off-time, so we sampled their products instead. And they had a LOT of product. We must have had a sip of 10 different items. All were good, very different in flavor. Only two were true bourbons. The rest were bourbon-style whiskeys and moonshine (moonshine is bourbon or whiskey that has not been aged).
Stop Three: Jim Beam Distillery
Unfortunately for us, snowfall hit the previous evening and this was the only tour stop we were able to do this entire day. Kentucky is full of rolling hills, so snowfall can really do a number on the roads. Our 45-minute drive took nearly 3 hours. Ugh.
Despite the disappointment of not being able to see and do more, there was no disappointment at the Jim Beam Distillery. Remember my earlier comment that Kentucky produces 90% of bourbon? Consider this – Jim Beam produces 50% of that! (The distillery property even has its own zip code.)
What that means for a trail traveler is this: Jim Beam puts on a wonderful tour.
Part museum and part tour, the Jim Beam Distillery should be a must-visit on anyone’s Bourbon Trail list. The stillhouse/visitor’s center provides a detailed history of the Jim Beam company. Reading through the displays makes it easy to fill your time waiting on a tour to begin.
Visitors take a short bus ride to the manufacturing line and are offered lots of hands-on experiences. After a discussion on what constitutes bourbon (recall my list at the beginning of this post), you’re given an opportunity to add grain to the mash mix.
And you wander through the fermentation room – so.many.tanks.
Of course you can help roll a barrel and taste a sample right out of the barrel. That’s what we call barrel-proof bourbon. And it’s good. (And since we were the only two on the snow-bound tour, we didn’t have to share our glass!)
My favorite part of any factory tour is watching product packaging. Who was clever enough to invent these machines? Visitors participate in the bottling process by cleaning a jar and placing it on the packaging line.
If you’d like, you can keep your bottle. Jim Beam was bottling Knob Creek (a small batch product that Jim Beam acquired and now produces), so they dipped the bottle in its trademark black wax and Kelly “branded” the top with his thumbprint.
From the tour, you head to the tasting room. After a detailed explanation of the available products, you can select your four samples from some of the most complicated machines I’ve ever seen. There are several stations, so on a busy tour day no one will have to wait very long. After the tour and tasting, you head back to the stillhouse to purchase merchandise (including the bottle you helped create) or you can head to the parking lot.
Stop Four: Buffalo Trace Distillery
We had one day of decent weather before the next band of snow was due to hit Kentucky. We decided to make the most of it by hitting as many distilleries as we could, investing time in the ones we were most interested in. (Side note – this turned out ot be a good plan. We left Kentucky that evening before 14 inches of snow blanketed the region, which would have trapped us there for several days.)
Our one must-do stop was at the Buffalo Trace Distillery. It’s not part of the official Bourbon Trail, but is well worth the time to go. Buffalo Trace is the oldest continuously operating distillery in the United States. Opened in 1787, it was one of four licensed distilleries to operate during Prohibition. Why? Because the product was classified as “medicinal.”
There are several tour options, including an architectural tour.
We took the hard hat tour, which gave us a behind-the-scenes look at the distilling process.
This was the only tour we went on where we were able to see the off-loading of grain from 18-wheelers into the plant.
They said it was behind-the-scenes and they meant it. Lots of steamy noisy equipment at work. We were up close and personal, and our guide had to shout over the noise of the machines, but it was fascinating to see this large scale production.
And it’s nice to know that workers have a sense of humor!
Kelly’s favorite part of every tour were the fermentation tanks. It may sound gross, but you’re allowed to stick your finger into the vat and taste the fermenting mash. Each vat’s mash tastes slightly different, so you gain a real sense of how the product changes over time. The reason sticking your finger in (or thousands of fingers from various visitors) isn’t a health code violation is that the fermented product hasn’t yet gone through the still. It will be heated in the still (remember the temperatures from bourbon basics above), killing bacteria.
Behind our guide is the spirit safe, where the distiller can analyze and manage the spirit coming out of the still without coming into contact with the spirit itself.
The actual process of distilling – from distiller’s beer to the doubler to high wine/low wine to the number of trips through the still – is something that every distillery tour will talk about. There are slight variations in the process depending on which distillery you’re visiting. That’s part of the uniqueness of each product.
After our tour, we had an excellent time sampling four (catch the four theme with all of the larger distilleries?) products. Then we headed into the rickhouse, which is where the barrels of bourbon are stored to age.
It was interesting to see how the rickhouse is managed, with barrels moved around (up and down levels) to change the profile of the bourbon. Different levels allow the barrel to experience different levels of heat and humidity, which affects how the barrel reacts – releasing more or less sugars from the barrel into the product.
We were also able to spot barrels marked “experimental,” which indicated bourbon variations being tested for future potential sale. Tests include the mash blend, number of distillations, level of char and so on.
Buffalo Trace was our favorite stop – and it wasn’t even an official stop on the tour. We intend to go back and take another of the many tours they offer.
Stop Five: Wild Turkey Distillery
We are not Wild Turkey fans, but we did want to get another stamp in our Bourbon Trail passport. Wild Turkey easily has one of the more scenic locations on the trail – perched atop a tall hillside accessed by a serpentine bridge.
We didn’t tour the distillery (we were getting the hang of the distillation process by now, plus we didn’t have time), so we visited the tasting room instead. It’s located in what they call “The Whiskey Cathedral.” One look at the photo below and you’ll understand why:
Gorgeous! The products were good – their small batch product (Russell’s Reserve) was the best, particularly the rye.
Stop Six: Woodford Reserve Distillery
Getting to Woodford Reserve required using our Nuvi. Tucked away off the main roads, we drove up several switchbacks until we found Woodford’s property on the side of what was barely a two-lane road. It was beautiful there.
Once again, we had no time for a tour but we did a tasting. Woodford easily offered the best tasting of all of distilleries that we visited. They provided a flavor profile wheel and began by teaching us the correct way to taste bourbon (a small sip to aclimate the tongue, then a second sip and hold, then a third sip to enjoy). Next they walked us through a series of tastings, using the flavor profile wheel as a basis of discussion while we tasted each product.
Stop Seven: Four Roses Distillery
Our final stop before heading out of state was the Four Roses Distillery. This is the only distillery we visited that doesn’t have its rickhouse on site. That’s located near the Jim Beam Distillery and is offered as a separate tour (if you save your tour ticket, you can tour the other for free).
Four Roses is another historic distillery, but is one in the midst of rediscovering itself after 50+ years of ownership by Seagram’s. While under Seagram’s ownership, Four Roses produced Canadian-style blended whiskey – a very different product than pure bourbon.
We didn’t intend to do the tour, because we were concerned that we didn’t have enough time. However, we were the only two guests and staff took pity on our terrible snow-impacted Bourbon Trail tale of woe. They took us through the distillery and into sections not normally visited by guests on tour.
Hands down, the staff at Four Roses were the most fun and the most accommodating of any distilleries we toured. We had a great experience and enjoyed our time there. We, of course, ended in a tasting room (where we had…you guessed it…four tastings) before heading back home.
What We Missed
We did not stop at the following locations:
- Evan Williams Bourbon Experience
- Maker’s Mark Distillery
- Heaven Hill
We’re going back later this spring, specifically to finish out our passport. We hope to also pick up the Four Roses Distillery rickhouse and, if time allows, the Willet Distillery.
Good to Know Before You Go
We somewhat “winged it” on our trip, partially because of the snow but mostly due to lack of time to plan. Either way, I believe the snow would have limited us to what we’d seen.
- However if I could give myself some tips before going for the first time, here’s what they would be:
- Download the trail map before you leave – you can print or load the app on your phone.
- Consider which distilleries are your Must-Visits and which you would be happy just visiting for a stamp and a tasting. Our must-do tours would be Buffalo Trace and Jim Beam.
- You can pick up your passport at any of the stops. Ask at the main desk or in the gift shop.
- You need to register your passport online.
- Don’t leave a distillery without asking to have your passport stamped. You don’t have to make a purchase or a tour to get a stamp in the passport.
- Tours are usually offered at set times. Keep that in mind when you’re planning your route.
- Some tours are free, some have a small fee. The same is true for tastings.
- Keep Kentucky roads in mind as you plan your route – many of the distilleries are located in the countryside on small winding country roads. We found that Google and our Nuvi were very accurate in predicting how long it would take to travel. And usually we’re able to travel a bit faster than the technology predicts.
- If you are going to do a tour, plan on a stop taking anywhere from 2-3 hours. If you are going to do a tasting only, plan on a stop taking an hour.
That’s our crazy snow-filled first run at the Kentucky Bourbon Trail! I’ll be back later this spring to write a follow-up post when we finish the trail.