In 1968, I took my first legal drink – a bourbon and Coke. Though I felt mature, I hated the sweet, watery concoction and avoided bourbon until 2003, when the late, revered distiller emeritus Booker Noe offered me a pre-lunch sip of his favorite beverage. Though raised better, I initially demurred and politely told him why.
“Well, that’s because it wasn’t Booker’s,” he boomed. “There’s nothing like single barrel bourbon.” With that, he poured me a glass of his namesake spirit and I’ve been a fan ever since.
Designated “America’s Native Spirit” by a 1964 act of Congress, bourbon’s fascinating history began after an 1789 barn fire, when a Paris, Ky., preacher accidentally discovered that charred oak barrels gave aging whiskey a richer color, smoky “nose” and smooth taste. Today, Elijah Craig is known as “the father of bourbon.”
These days, law dictates that bourbon must contain natural grains with at least 51 percent corn; be distilled at less than 160 proof (or 80 percent) alcohol; be aged in new, charred oak barrels; go into the barrel at no more than 125 proof; age for at least two years to be termed “straight” bourbon whiskey; and have nothing added to alter the flavor or color except water from distilling through bottling.
Wildly popular around the world, bourbon draws planeloads of fans making pilgrimages to the Kentucky Bourbon Festival in Bardstown each September, while all year long, newly initiated tasters and diehard aficionados alike roam Central Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail.
Whether you’re a connoisseur of this Kentucky product or would just like to find out what all the fuss is about, the following destinations should provide all the education you need and will please your palate, to boot.
Kentucky Bourbon Festival – Slated for Sept. 16 – 21, the well-organized celebration features a mind-boggling number of events that include the black-tie Great Kentucky Bourbon Tasting & Gala, where you can sample from every distillery and meet the master distillers; Bourbon, Cigars & Jazz a la Mardi Gras; Culinary Art: Bourbon-Style Cooking School; and Boots & Bourbon for country music fans who like to shake a leg. A perennial favorite is the World Championship Bourbon Barrel Relay, where pros with impressive biceps roll 500-pound bourbon barrels. On the festival’s Web site, you can peruse the choices, including a new offering, Tour the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, where tours explain the bourbon-making process with individual spins on the requirements above. Many begin with excellent intro videos. Samples are a bonus. Taste your way along the Trail to find your favorites. One caveat: Some facilities close in the summer, so check the Web sites for hours (See sidebar).
Buffalo Trace Distillery – A working distillery has occupied these Frankfort grounds since 1787, even during Prohibition – when the majority of distilleries failed – as it garnered a special permit to produce bourbon for medicinal purposes. Only a few of the 250,000 stored barrels harbor its finest Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey brand.
Constellation Brands – If the name doesn’t sound familiar, it’s because Barton Brands in Bardstown just changed its name. Think small-batch Ridgemont Reserve 1792. This fall, the distillery will join the Bourbon Trail and will offer twice-daily “working tours.” Look for Constellation to break ground in 2009 on a Visitor’s Center due to open in 2010.
Four Roses Distillery – Though love for a Southern belle inspired its name, Four Roses surprises with a 1911 distillery built in classic Spanish Mission style. With history dating back to the mid-1880s, this Anderson County gem sells its trademark Four Roses bourbon primarily overseas. Its warehouses are an hour away, in Cox’s Creek, Ky.
Heaven Hill Distilleries Bourbon Heritage Center – At family-owned-and-run Heaven Hill’s interactive, state-of-the-art center, you can experience the history and making of bourbon, from developing a nose for bourbon to tasting in a 22-seat, barrel-shaped tasting room. Take the Heaven Hill Trolley on a Bardstown tour, which of course includes the Center.
Jim Beam Distillery – The world’s largest bourbon distiller, Jim Beam – where Booker Noe produced the first small batch – has kept its spirit-making secrets in the family since its beginnings in 1795. Tours of the Bardstown paragon include a film, “America’s First Family of Bourbon,” tastings, history displays and a gift shop, but not the distillery.
Makers Mark Distillery – Tucked on the banks of Hardin’s Creek near Loretto, Maker’s Mark was established as a distillery and gristmill in 1805. Tour this National Historic Landmark, and see a toll house, master distiller’s house, fire department and hand-crafted bourbon-making from start to finish. You’ll even get to dip your own bottle of Maker’s Mark in thick, red wax.
Wild Turkey Distillery – Perched atop a cliff high above the Kentucky River in Lawrenceburg, Wild Turkey looks like the traditional facility it is. Legendary Master Distiller Jimmy Russell oversees its time-honored operations, including the making of its single-barrel Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit and its Rare Breed, a blend of six, eight and 12-year-old stocks.
Woodford Reserve Distillery – Continuing a Woodford County bourbon heritage begun in 1797 by Elijah Pepper, Woodford Reserve sits smack in gorgeous Thoroughbred country. Its warehouses are cool with local limestone, and its namesake spirit ages rich with limestone-fed spring water. Rife with historic displays, the homey visitor center offers summer lunches on its wide porches. You’ve got to love a distillery with a chef-in-residence.
Oscar Goetz Museum of Whiskey & Bardstown Historical Museum – Put the whole bourbon picture together under one roof in this 1826 building filled with old stills, sepia photos and memorabilia from pre-Colonial days to the present. At the Bardstown Historical Museum you’ll find out how this quiet town of 10,000-plus became “the Bourbon Capital of the World.”
Rebecca Ruth Candy Factory & Tours – Nothing beats the marriage of bourbon and chocolate. Rebecca Ruth Candies in Frankfort “invented” bourbon candy 89 sweet years ago. On a factory tour, you can see and smell these tasty morsels being made and taste a divine sample. You’ll be taking a box or two home.