On the Kentucky Bourbon Trail

Did you know I’m not a drinker? I’m not. Not really. I’m no good at it, and I tend not to want to do things I am no good at. That rules out drinking. It’s not that I am against it, or a prude or anything, I just don’t really care for it. However, plop me down on the white sand with an All-Inclusive bar and I’ll out drink you in Pina Coladas. Put me on a plane to Atlantic City and I’ll bet you good money I can out drink you in Fuzzy Navels 2 to 1. But as for kicking back with a glass of wine or cocktail after a rough day? Not my thing.

So, you may find it odd I wanted to tour the Kentucky Bourbon Trail® this past weekend.

Don’t. In case you haven’t noticed, Bourbon is HOT right now. Cooking with Bourbon is on the rise and shows no sign of stopping. I am in on that trend in a big way, and have been privileged to work with Jim Beam on several tailgating recipes. It was this relationship that led me to Kentucky.

That, and Jon is really good at drinking, and I thought the trip would be a nice birthday gift.

susmakersInstead of step by stepping through the entire weekend, I know several of you are interested in simply knowing what the Bourbon Trail is all about. Let me clear that up for you. There are six distilleries on the Official Trail. There used to be eight, but for whatever reason, there are now six. Some are huge, some are quaint and very charming. But, no matter which you are visiting – that company is proud. Proud of their heritage, of their staff, of their product. Each has it’s own way of doing things, and discovering the subtleties is a fun part of the ride. At your first stop, be sure to pick up the official Passport of the Bourbon Trail. You will be able to get a stamp at each of the distilleries, and when you have all six stamps, you’ll be able to mail in your passport and collect a free tee shirt for your efforts. Just recently, the 10,000th passport was rewarded, and I am thrilled to be counted among these few. I think you will be, too. Click here for more information, including a helpful map and guide, from the Official Kentucky Bourbon Trail®.

First things first, you ought to know what Bourbon really IS. I had no clue. You’ll learn along each stop the ins and outs of the distilling process, but by and large, there are a few rules (laws, even) about what constitutes a true Bourbon.

One – bourbon must be at least 51% corn. Distilleries choose how much they use, along with ryes, wheats, and other grains, but they MUST use at least 51% corn. Most use at least 70%. Once distilled, the “white dog” or grain alcohol (or moonshine, if you will) must be aged in unused, charred, white oak barrels. The bourbon must be aged a minimum of 2 years, but most are aged at least 4. If the bourbon is less than four years old, the company must put the age on the label. One thing I really didn’t know was that all Bourbon MUST come from the United States. The largest percentage of all bourbon comes from Kentucky, as the water in this particular area of the country is heavy in limestone, and limestone is a natural purifier of iron. Iron will ruin a good bourbon, so, the waters here are treasured. Each distillery has their own method, their own perfect proof, their own recipe. None, however, are allowed to add ANYTHING to their bourbon before bottling, except for distilled water. The end. Nothing else. If they do, it becomes a liqueur, not bourbon. Just so you are aware. And each one thinks what they make is the best. It really is charming – and to my knowledge, there seemed to be little jealousy from place to place. They all seemed to be so supportive of each other, and I was glad to see it. They did, however, all seem to have a distaste for Jack Daniels, and his Tennessee Whiskey, distilled from the same limestone waters that they all love. Cross state rivalry? Alive and well in Ol’ Kentucky.

imageOne of the largest distillers is Wild Turkey, a brand that is well known and especially loved here at home in Hokie Country (The Turkey is all it takes). Jon is a big fan of their Rare Breed, which is of course, a little more expensive then the regular Turkey. But they bottle several varieties here, including American Honey. Since I am not a fan of strong liquor, this one is by far one of my favorite discoveries. The bourbon is given a dose of honey prior to bottling, which sweetens it considerably (and thus, making it a liqueur). I can’t wait to cook with it – I think the sweetness will really add a unique flavor to several of my recipes. What I really enjoyed about the Wild Turkey distillery was the bar set up just in back of the gift shop. Manned by two knowledgeable young tenders, six varieties of bourbon were lined up for sampling. They took the effort to explain to us the differences between brands, and you could tell they loved their jobs. If you don’t care to take the half hour tour, you can simply opt to sample the bourbons, however, I recommend taking a tour of at least one large facility and one small. This way you get to see both sides of the process, in case you only have a short weekend to accomplish the entire trail.

Another very large facility is Heaven Hill, easily accessible from Bardstown. Heaven Hill isn’t actually well known for Heaven Hill (although they do make it), but instead they are known for their Elijah Craig and Evan Williams. However, they are huge. They bottle not only bourbon, but Whiskeys, Rums, Vodkas, wines – you name it. They operate the Bourbon Heritage Museum, and if you pay a little and opt for an exclusive tour, you’ll be treated to a sampling in their barrel shaped tasting room. If you opt for the free tour – worry not, you still get to sample the 18 year old Elijah Craig and the slightly younger Evan Williams with a tasting lesson you aren’t soon to forget. You can also opt to take the 30 minute trolley ride to Historic Bardstown from Heaven Hill, well worth the measly $3 for this tour.


One of our favorite tours was at Maker’s Mark. Outside of Bardstown, this distillery is beyond picturesque. The history is rich here, from burning family recipes to “drive through” on horseback liquor stores on site. The buildings are similar to Busch Gardens – charming and shuttered (the Maker’s Mark bottle is cut into each and every shutter). You get to see the corn mill, and dip your finger in the vats of sour mash for a quick taste. You learn about the bottling process, and that every bottle is hand labeled – all 900,000 per year, by 2 women. You are filled in on the Ambassador program (of which I am), and how you can have your name engraved onto a plaque on a specific barrel of bourbon. Then when your barrel has been properly aged, you are given the opportunity to buy the first 2 liters from the barrel. Isn’t that a fun thing to do? Of course, the coolest part is being able to “slam dunk” your own bottle of Maker’s into the signature red wax at the end of the tour. You get to sample the customary Maker’s, as well as the brand new 46, which is aged a further 2 months with French Oak slats, a process that completely changes the flavor of this quality bourbon. If I only had time to tour one small distillery, this would be it.

susjonwoodfordMy second choice would be the beautiful Woodford Reserve, located near Lexington. There is no doubt you are in Thoroughbred Country– you’ll pass through some of the most gorgeous horse farms and barns you have ever seen on the way to this property. Woodford has brick rickhouses, a term you’ll become quite familiar with on your tours. Rickhouses are the tall buildings where the barrels are left to age for 4 to 20 or more years. Each company does things their own way, but all of them involve rickhouses and barrels. Some rotate their stock, some instead combine their stock. And each is proud of the way they do things. Woodford also has a gorgeous gift shop and tasting area. If you opt not to pay the $5 fee for a tour here (they are the only distillery with a fee), you can still get a complimentary tasting pass. Woodford is, as a standard probably the most expensive label you will try, as they do not offer anything but their best effort, making it a bit unique in that regard. Definitely worth the drive.

Nearby is the small Four Roses Distillery. Be warned, you cannot sample here without taking the tour, unless you can sneak in at the end of another group tour. This is a lovely property, and is a lot more European than the others. It is quite new, in terms of bourbon, as it was built in 1910. Many of the other bourbons go all the way back to the late 1700’s…so, quite a difference. This was the smallest of the distilleries, but worth the effort, and it is quite close to both Wild Turkey and Woodford, so you could easily combine those three stops in one day.

Last, but certainly not least, is the largest Bourbon producer in the world – yes, world – Jim Beam. Sorry to cut you off here, folks, but Jim Beam deserves their own post, so I will get to that in a day or two. Until then, I want to give you what I think would be the perfect itinerary for a weekend trip to the Bourbon Trail.


Friday: Arrive in the evening and check into a B&B in Bardstown, or, if you are looking for nightlife, try a nice hotel like The Brown Hotel in Louisville. Both area have their good points – Bardstown is a little more central, it’s historic, and just plain cute. Louisville has amazing bars and restaurants at every turn, most within walking distance. Both would be great jumping off points.

Saturday: Be sure to eat a little breakfast, to get something on that stomach. You have a lot of drinking to do.

Visit the three distilleries closer to Lexington, beginning with Four Roses, as it opens at 9am. From here, head over to Wild Turkey for the 10:30am tour, and then on to Woodford tour at noon or 1pm. If you time it out right, you’ll have plenty of time for a quick late lunch in Bardstown, before hitting Jim Beam. The last tour here starts at 3:30.

Sunday: Have a nice brunch, as the distilleries don’t open early. Consider a Hot Brown, but be warned, it is carbohydrate heavy and you will immediately feel the effects. Sleepy time comes on in a big way.

First stop on Sunday is Maker’s Mark. Prepare to start your tour at 1:30, and expect to take an hour here. It’s an interesting tour, but can be a little slow, depending on the size of the group. Stay focused! You have another tour to hit, and it’s about 25 minutes down the road at Heaven Hill. The Trolley is at 3pm, so, you can opt to take the trolley instead of the tour, and then sneak on in for a tasting at the end of the ride. Or, you can skip the trolley and take the tour. Unfortunately, there’s no way to do both, unless – and this is a BIG unless – you skip Jim Beam on Saturday and do the trolley AND tour at Heaven Hill on Saturday. Then you can tour Jim Beam on Sunday. The one drawback to this scenario is – no tastings on Sundays at Jim Beam. So, pick your poison.

Hopefully this info has helped you a little, or, at least opened your eyes to a product that is truly ALL AMERICAN, and something we should be proud of. I know by taking the tours, I am impressed with the dedication and history of these bourbon families – and believe me, it IS a family business. If you have any questions for me, bourbon wise, travel wise, recommendations wise – let me know…I’d be happy to help if I can!

Tomorrow – Derby Pie is on the docket. Except, I can’t call it that. It’s trademarked. Yes, really – a PIE is trademarked. So, Seven has since dubbed it Dirty Pie, and that kind of fits, too. Kentucky Dirty Bourbon Pie, right here, tomorrow. It’s beyond good. It’s…dirrrrty.

See you tomorrow!

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