If you are the type of person who would travel to Louisville just to experience the Kentucky bourbon industry there, then you’ve probably already done your fair share of distillery tours. I was that person. I had been through the ‘this is how you distill liquor’ tour a million times, and was looking for something more than simply tastings. I wanted to really dig in and learn about the complete Kentucky bourbon process.
If you haven’t heard, bourbon is experiencing a boom and so are cocktails. This can be attributed to many things – one of which is that more women are drinking bourbon these days…let’s hear it for the girls!
“Fermentation may have been a greater discovery than fire.”–David Rains Wallace
Of course the first thing you need to know is, what is bourbon?
When in Louisville, you all too frequently hear “All bourbon is whiskey, but all whiskey isn’t bourbon”
This is what that means – there are the following rules that allow a whiskey to be called bourbon:
Must be made of a grain mixture of at least 51% corn
Must be distilled to 160 proof
Must be aged in new charred oak barrels
Must be entered into the barrel at no more than 125 proof.
Must be made in USA
To meet this bourbon boom, Louisville Kentucky, the epicenter of bourbon, has an incredible list of ways you can experience Kentucky bourbon as a tourist. However, when I looked at the offering of bourbon experiences, not one tour took you through the entire process. I went to Louisville with 4 other bourbon-drinking friends and we put together our own complete barrel to bar experience utilizing a number of different companies and distilleries.
If you want to have more than a typical ‘visit a distillery and do a tasting on the Bourbon Trail’, then here’s how you can do a complete Barrel to Bar experience in a short 2 day stay in Louisville Kentucky!
My Barrel to Bar Kentucky Bourbon Experience
It Starts With Barrels
The first thing to know when you go to a cooperage is that barrels are raised, they aren’t built. Zoe, our guide hands us safety glasses, ear plugs, a reflective vest, and checks to make sure we all have on close toed shoes. These things are all required since we are walking around a live factory floor; something few people get to experience up close. Brown Foreman is the longest operating cooperage in the US and makes their own barrels for their lineup of brands.
As we walk into the factory, it hits you; the smell of oak. This could be one of the best smells on the planet, and certainly the best smelling factory that I’ve ever been in! Today they are raising barrels for Jack Daniels.
I’ve seen my share of barrels at distilleries, wineries, breweries, bars, and as part of landscaping; but I’ve never really considered how these products that seem to have 9 lives are made. It was a fascinating walk through the factory floor that takes you through each step of the process on how the wood is cut, shaped, toasted, fitted, and charred. Fitting the staves (pieces of wood) and raising the barrel is a process still done by hand – and one that takes a lot of talent. It’s like putting together a complex puzzle. And of course you also have the testing process that needs to take place. We don’t want any of that beautiful liquid to leak out!
For any bourbon lover, a cooperage tour is the place to start. It’s said that the most important ingredient in bourbon is the barrel. The flavor and color comes from the barrel’s toasting and charring process. And if you really want to geek out, there is a whole science to the char levels that is fascinating.
Watching the barrels light up with flames in the Brown Foreman factory was my favorite part of the tour. After charring the barrels, they came by us on the line still smoking and smelling delicious!
Brown Foreman Cooperage By the Numbers:
There are 33 staves to the barrel
Within 72 hours whiskey has to be in the new barrel else they dry out.
200 bottles of Bourbon fit in a barrel
A person can raise 250 barrels in a day
The factory puts out 2500 barrels a day
300,000 barrels are raised annually at Brown Foreman factory.
Take a Cooperage Tour
Your only way into the Brown-Forman Cooperage is with Mint Julep Experiences.
Cost is $75 and includes a full tour and gift.
Book here with Mint Julep
Distilling Along the Bourbon Trail
Now that you have a barrel to mature in, you better make that bourbon! The next step would be to go along the Bourbon Trail and visit a few of your favorite distilleries to see what sets each apart. The Bourbon Trail is simply a group of distilleries around Kentucky that have banded together to market distillery visits to visitors. It can sort of be thought of as going to Napa to taste wine, here you go along the Bourbon Trail to taste bourbon.
Or course the hardest part about tasting bourbon is that it tends to mean you cannot drive afterwards. So we decided to utilize Mint Julep tours to drive us along the Bourbon Trail so we could drink to our heart’s content…or maybe that should be our liver’s content. We opted for the Eastern route including Stitzel-Weller (maker of Bulleit Bourbon among others), Buffalo Trace, and Town Branch distilleries.
Even though I had been to plenty of distilleries before, the tour also included great information on the history of bourbon; how it started, prohibition, and why Kentucky is the epicenter of this brown spirit. It was nice to get out and see the production of a few places and walk through the process once.
My favorite stop was at Stitzel-Weller where I met their ‘famous’ employee, Carol Perry. You can’t get in or out of the distillery without meeting him since he works at the security gate; he’s a bourbon ambassador. At 75 years old he has been working at Stitzel-Weller for 50 years in every job imaginable. He’ll regale you with stories of working there along with interesting people he’s met while working the security gate. As he says when you arrive, “when you get tired of listening to them (guides) you come back and talk to me.”
Visit Distilleries on the Bourbon Trail
Mint Julep Tours will take you our on half day, full day, or custom tours along the Bourbon Trail. Tours are daily and you can register here.
One of the newest ideas in Bourbon tourism is to bring the Bourbon experience from the traditional Bourbon Trail and into the city of Louisville. A number of distilleries have opened up urban distilleries in Louisville. We finished our Bourbon Lifecycle experience in Louisville along the Urban Bourbon Trail.
We started with a short update on the history of how Angels Envy was conceived and why its different than many American Bourbons (Hint: Angels Envy is mix between traditional American Bourbon and European Scotch Whiskey which includes a 2nd maturation in a used oak port barrel). Our guide walked us through the distillery and straight to a bottling area.
He showed us how to use the machine to fill the bottle, I was surprised by all of the strict rules we had to follow around the registration. The first thing we had to do was name our bottle and register it in ‘the book’. The book was like a bible keeping track of batch numbers and bottle numbers.
We filled the bottle with the exact amount. And much to my dismay, there was no way to overfill the bottle; it was strictly controlled and measured out by the machine. I had sort of imagined an I Love Lucy situation where I might have to drink the extra to keep up with the bottling line, but no such luck.
After we corked the bottle, we then affixed the proper labels and tax sticker and we were done. We had just given birth to a bottle of Angel’s Envy Bourbon. Who needs kids when you can give birth to a bottle of bourbon?! To top it off, our guide took our newly birthed bottles, put them in a little cart and wheeled them through the distillery back out to the tasting room and visitor area. I felt as if when the doors opened and the cart rolled out someone was going to give me a cigar and pat me on the back. Sadly, there was no such celebration for my new bourbon baby. However, we did get to wrap up our new baby in a special commemorative box and then do a round of tasting.
Bottle Your Own at Angels Envy
Currently this experience is only available on Thursday and Fridays at Angel’s Envy. The Cost is $99 and it includes an hour experience, a bottle of Angel’s Envy Bourbon + case, and a tasting. It typically lasts one hour.
Book in Advance
Bartending and Mixology of Bourbon
I’ve been drinking cocktails at bars for 27 years. It’s a simple exchange of money and a smile for a drink. However, on this bourbon lifecycle journey, I wanted to know more than how to simply hand over money to a bartender. I wanted to know how to take this bottle of bourbon I got at the last stop and transform it into a great bourbon cocktail myself. That’s where young Spencer came in – he was our mixology professor – despite being barely over 21!
The Jim Beam Urban Stillhouse in the heart of Louisville offers a Tableside Cocktail class that is the perfect end to your bourbon lifecycle experience. Our mixologist, Spencer, might have been young, but he was full of information and energy. He had all of our bar tools laid out when we arrived in order to make a Whiskey Sour.
Yes, I know it’s not hard to follow a drink recipe and put measurements in a glass, however Spencer covered more than just those basics. He explained the roll of the bartender and the tools they used. We learned all about the Boston shaker and how to use it; and most importantly in what order to put the ingredients into it. He showed us how to create a perfect seal between the shaker and the glass so that we could look ‘Tom Cruise-Cocktail’ cool when we shook up our Whiskey Sour.
We kicked off the class by tasting a shot of the Jim Beam Urban Stillhouse Select Bourbon. Spencer then made a Whiskey Sour cocktail explaining each step and tool as we watched and took notes. Next we tasted his final product so that we knew what we were trying to achieve when we made our own. Finally he let us loose on our own. We were able to add ‘flair’ to our drinks with special jams and smoked salts if we desired, and then we were off and shaking. I’m happy to report that none of us spilled a drop and our cocktails tasted delicious! However, if you were keeping track in this paragraph, in the 45 minutes of the class we had nearly 2 1/2 drinks! Who wouldn’t love this class?
Take a Mixology Class from Jeam Beam Urban Stillhouse
The “Tableside Cocktails” is offered at the Urban Stillhouse in the heart of downtown Louisville at 404 S 4th St. These experiences are available every hour between 2:00 PM and 8:00 PM, Monday through Saturday. Cost is a reasonable $18
I was unable to find a way to book this online, but you can go into the Urban Stillhouse and sign up for it there.
That wraps up the Kentucky bourbon lifecycle! We were able to complete this all in 2 days while staying in Louisville. I’m not quite sure why one company doesn’t offer this as a package, but it’s possible to mix these experiences and create it on your own like we did. Plus it was nice that we were able to try multiple bourbons brands while also see a lot of Louisville and Kentucky through this process! Why just do distillery tours when you can to the complete process from barrel to bar!
Where to Eat in Louisville
If you are going to drink all of this bourbon while going through the complete barrel to bar experience, then you better make sure that you have a good base. My friends who I traveled with are complete foodies…so I left all of the food choices up to them and I must say I haven’t eaten that well since I left my corporate job when I had an ongoing paycheck and lived in NYC.
Jack Frye’s – call in advance for a reservation. I loved the food here – the pork chop was the best I’ve had! And of course there were great Bourbon drinks!
Proof on Maine – Food was good, atmosphere was great. Make sure you stop in at the art hotel next door too as it’s got some great exhibits!
Butchertown Grocery – a fun space with great food. Don’t miss the speakeasy, Lola, upstairs. It has a great vibe and tasty bourbon cocktails!
For some of these activities I was a guest of Visit Louisville, however all opinions expressed here are my own.