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Exploring Kentucky | Barrels of Fun

Lebanon’s cooperage, distillery tours highlight town’s rich bourbon heritage

By Katherine Tandy Brown

Steve Beam, who with his brother, Paul, owns Limestone Branch Distillery.
Steve Beam, who with his brother, Paul, owns Limestone Branch Distillery.

If you’ve never seen a bourbon barrel being made, you owe it to yourself to join a tour at Independent Stave’s Kentucky Cooperage, a business begun in 1912 that’s now fourth-generation, family owned and operated in Lebanon and several other locations worldwide. A tour of this company – the largest barrel-maker in the world – will give you new respect for the containers that age your favorite libation, whether spirits, wine or high-end beer.

Carefully handcrafted without nails, glue or fasteners, the barrels are held together by six hoops. Nothing else. Once constructed, they’re “fired ” (i.e. charred) to varying levels, with one being the least amount of charring and four being the greatest amount, depending upon the amount required by a distillery’s recipe for desired bourbon flavor, aroma, color and texture. During firing, young men with bulging biceps, thick work gloves, and heavy tongs maneuver the barrels over open flames on a steamy assembly line. The process is impressive.

Because of the boom in the bourbon business, 15 to 20 trucks loaded with 100 to 300 new barrels leave the factory seven days a week, headed for such household-name distilleries as Maker’s Mark (which is a No. 3 char, by the way), Buffalo Trace, Jim Beam, Heaven Hill and Bulleit.

The cooperage is only one of a raft of reasons to explore this small town that lies right in the heart of Central Kentucky. In Lebanon, history hangs from every rafter, the bourbon industry thrives, and Southern hospitality brings visitors back again and again.

On the National Historic Register, its downtown historic district is located on Kentucky’s Scenic Highway and Byway, U.S. 68. Founded in 1789, its county was named for General Francis “Swamp Fox” Marion in 1834. Rife with local history, the Marion County Heritage Center houses Civil War memorabilia, expansive black history and a new exhibit on the county’s rich bourbon heritage.

Speaking of which, Lebanon boasts a small-batch craft distillery owned and run by the only Beams now actively distilling bourbon. Patriarch Jacob Beam began its Kentucky bourbon dynasty in 1795.

“I grew up knowing that our Beam side of the industry stopped at Prohibition,” says seventh-generation Steve Beam, who with his brother, Paul, owns Limestone Branch Distillery. “It felt like an unfinished chapter in our book. Our dad worked in it for a while and our grandfather was actually a distiller. I told my brother, ‘We cannot break this chain on our watch.’”

So the two built Limestone Branch from scratch, breaking ground in 2011 and opening in 2012. Steve is now the hands-on “practical” (his term) distiller, while Paul spreads the word as a rep. On tours that run seven days a week, you can taste their historic Yellowstone Bourbon, Minor Case (named after a great-grandfather) Straight Rye Whiskey, and award-winning moonshine in various flavors, including Moon Pie. Be forewarned: by the time you leave, you’ll likely have caught Steve’s passion for distilling!

Seven miles away, at Maker’s Mark, a small-batch National Historic Landmark in Loretto, you’ll learn to speak “Bourbonese.” That moniker describes how intimately you’ll come to know the distilling process and the company’s history on a tour. Post-Prohibition, Bill Samuels Sr. tore up the 170-year-old family bourbon recipe and started afresh with red winter wheat. The first bottle of Maker’s Mark was dipped in its famous red wax, sealed and sold for $7 in 1958. You’ll get to taste five products, from “white dog,” i.e. unaged whisky, to smooth Barrel Select. Afterwards, you can chill in a rocker on the visitors’ center porch and gaze across the lovely Kentucky countryside.

For a change of taste, stop at Jesters Winery, tucked between the two distilleries, for concerts, artisanal food, dinners, and of course, sipping award-winning, European-style wines. Not to mention wine slushies and wine ice cream. Definitely not your average winery. The name says it all. “Fun here,” they say, “is guaranteed!”

Want a bit of local flavor? Time your visit during one of Lebanon’s annual events.  At the end of January, Kentucky Bluegrass Music Kickoff rocks with workshops, hands-on demos, an open jam session and toe-tappin’ dinner show. Jets Over Kentucky lights the July sky with several hundred radio-controlled jets at the Lebanon/Springfield Airport, which has a well-equipped conference space.

Come September, you can pig out at Ham Days, complete with hog-callin’ and lots of porky vittles, while December glows with the holiday trappings at Dickens Christmas on Main.

To feed your inner explorer, pull up a chair downtown at Henning’s Restaurant. Here you’ll join hungry locals in a homey atmosphere, where the mouth-watering smell of “fried” permeates the air, friends meet to talk business and/or gossip over lunch, and you can get a real milkshake from the soda fountain. The waitresses are total hustle and orders arrive pronto. A sign over the kitchen hand-out window reads: “Everything goes better with bacon.”

My vegetable plate was pure home-cooked heaven – turnip greens, pinto beans and cole slaw with a perfect corn muffin, with (sadly) no room for a slab of their famous pie with meringue to glory. My advice: save room and diet later if you must.

When the sun caresses the late-day horizon, belly up to the bourbon-heavy bar at County Seat Kitchen and Bar, and stay for supper that stars farm-to-table and Kentucky Proud foods. To-die-for dishes include sorghum salmon with apple salsa, the “Country Boy Can Survive” T-bone steak, and roasted pork loin with apple-bourbon glaze. One dessert choice is homemade cheesecake with fat blueberries and hand-whipped cream.

When you’re sated and ready for shut-eye, waddle on back to Myrtledene Bed and Breakfast, which features two cozy rooms in the splendid, columned house chosen by General John Hunt Morgan as headquarters during his Civil War raids on Lebanon. Truly a character, the Confederate leader, on one occasion, rode his horse into the home
and up the stairs to the second floor. Hoof prints still remain on the wooden staircase.

Find out more about this historic town filled with personality and fun things to do at VisitLebanonKY.com or (270) 692-0021.

Katherine Tandy Brown is a correspondent for The Lane Report. She can be reached at [email protected]