Traveling the Bourbon Trail in Kentucky

11 Comments 11 May 2010

Golden Goodness

There is only one spirit that America can claim, and that’s Bourbon. It was created here, and can only be made here in America – we’ve got the monopoly on Bourbon. On my recent trip to Kentucky, I learned that two important things come out of Kentucky – fast horses and bourbon. I luckily experienced both!

What IS bourbon? It’s a strong golden liquor used in one of my favorite drinks – the Manhattan. However, technically it’s Whiskey, but not every Whiskey can be called Bourbon. In order for a whiskey to be called Bourbon it has to be made from 51% corn and from the United States. Kentucky farmers started making bourbon to convert surplus grain because it was non-perishable and easy to store…and of course it tasted pretty good too! In addition, to be called Bourbon it must be aged in new charred white oak barrels, have no additional flavoring added, and be distilled for a minimum of 2 years.

Bourbon distilleries are found all over the Bluegrass region of Kentucky (Southeast of Louisville). It’s a wonderful, relaxing drive through rolling hills and little streams; unless of course you go when we did…when it was flooding! Regardless our tour driver was calm as can be and knew the back roads, navigating his way through high waters to get us to the bourbon.

Barrels of Distilling Bourbon

We stopped at Maker’s Mark Distillery nestled away in a little valley with a stream little bridges and paths around the property. Unfortunately it was an overflowing stream. Maker’s Mark is the nation’s oldest working distillery. It’s also the only distillery that does everything yet the traditional way; by hand. As with most businesses these days, automation has changed the production process, but Maker’s Mark still moves and turns the barrels the traditional way.

We walked through the whole distilling process learning about sour mash (the fermenting of grains), and the warehousing and turning of barrels for 6 years. Of course at the end of the tour of course we were all able to do tastings of the golden bourbon; it was quite the wake-up alarm at 11AM! Warm and toasty going down – however I will say that straight bourbon is an acquired taste.

I didn’t buy any bourbon, but instead got something better…all for free. I got a whole barrel of bourbon for Ottsworld! Some dream of seeing their name on Broadway, others…on a barrel. The marketing geniuses at Maker’s Mark came up with a great way to help promote the brand and promote brand loyalty; the Ambassador Program.

On each distilling barrel, a name, date, and other technical information goes on the end of the barrel on a barrel plate. They’ve decided to allow people to put their own name on a barrel (technically it’s shared among 30 people – so there are 30 names). I chose Ottsworld of course! Not only do you get your name on the barrel plate, but you also get updates on the aging of your particular barrel, can see pictures of it, have the opportunity to purchase a bottle from your barrel, and little business cards saying you are Maker’s Mark Ambassador. All a clever and fun way to get your email address and start building loyalty.

This low tech ‘traditional’ distillery sure has done a great job of going high tech for their Ambassador Barrel Program. They even have a Barrel Blog where you can meet and chat with the other 29 people on your barrel!

Bourbon Balls are good anytime!

As the rainy day went on and more and more roads were closed, we continued our bourbon day by having lunch in Bardstown at the Chapeze House, famous for their Kentucky based cuisine and many bourbon based dishes. Yes, bourbon isn’t just for drinking, it’s used in everything in Kentucky; syrup, bbq sauce, chocolate sauce, chocolate balls, and my personal favorite – bourbon flavored coffee.

We made a few more stops, along the Bourbon Trail which consists of the following Distilleries:
Buffalo Trace, Heaven Hill, Jim Beam, Wild Turkey, Woodford Reserve, Maker’s Mark, Tom Moore, and Four Roses

In fact, the Bourbon Trail even has a passport, which looks like a real passport and gets stamped at each distillery you visit. Once the passport is filled – and you are sufficiently drunk, you send it in and get a free Bourbon Trail t-shirt. I can assure you that the Bourbon Trail immigration agents are much nicer than the ones I encounter at the airport!

Special mention to Mint Julep tours who we used to tour the Bourbon Trail. They provide transportation and a guide from Louisville. See their website for more information.  Of course you can also can book car hire and drive yourself around the Bourbon Trail.

Maker's Mark Grounds

Flooding in the basement of Distillery

A batch of Sour Mash

Bourbon Barrel Plates - Coming soon 'Ottsworld Barrel'!

Creating Bourbon!

The final product goes into my Mint Julep!

Some information provided by Budget Rental Car

Your Comments

11 Comments so far

  1. Donna Hull says:

    Traveling on the bourbon trail in Kentucky sounds interesting. I’m impressed with the ingenious marketing they’ve developed to help make it fun. I’m salivating at the photo of bourbon balls.

  2. Mark H says:

    Some years ago I followed the whisky trail in Sxotland but this sounds just as rewarding. I love the idea of getting your own name on a barrel.

  3. david h says:

    My favourite: Bulleit. Did you sample it….?

    • admin says:

      No – we didn’t go there. Is that the name of the distillery? We went to Maker’s Mark and Heaven Hill which has a bunch of different labels. We tried an 18 yr old bourbon at Heaven Hill – very tasty!
      David – have you done the Bourbon Trail? Seems like it would be something you’d love! :)

  4. Laura says:

    You’ve been to the Bourbon Capital of the World. That’s great! My dad works in Bardstown so I’ve been to most of the distilleries. I found Makers Mark to be a great time. Did you try the sour mash?

    • admin says:

      Yes! I did try the sour mash! Kinda gross. I also had the White Dog – the clear liquor before it was distilled. Funny enough – the White Dog totally reminded me of drinking rice wine in northern Vietnam and other places in Asia! Rough stuff.
      Can’t believe your family is in Bardstown – we stayed there overnight and spent a decent amount of town there for a small town! What a lovely place!

      • Laura says:

        Agreed. It’s not exactly tasty :) Bardstown is a nice little southern escape, and I love that it still has a town square. Glad you had fun!

  5. Chip says:

    It was a pleasure introducing you to a new vice! Think of Looah Vulcan Ducky each time you take a sip. All the best!

    Bourbonist to the Stars

  6. Anil says:

    I had no idea about bourbon until reading this. It was one of those drinks I knew of by name only but haven’t tried myself yet.

  7. Ken says:

    Hello Ottsworld! Nice little summary here of the trail. One small correction though. You use the term distilling several times when you mean aging. Distilling is just the process used to extract alcohol from mash. So example 1: Bourbon must be aged (not distilled) for a minimum of two years in new charred oak barrel.

  8. Sharon says:

    I’m thinking about making this trip also. How did you find a Tour Driver?
    Thank you!

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Sherry traveling the world

I'm Sherry, a corporate cube dweller turned nomadic traveler. I travel to off-the-beaten-path destinations to bring you unique travel experiences and photography. But it's not just about travel, it's also about life experiences of a middle age wanderer.
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