Three Days in Kentucky: A Bourbon Education
The people who know me well assumed I traveled to Kentucky to drink bourbon. The people who know me well were wrong. I went to Kentucky to learn about Bourbon.
And then drink it.
Herein lies the biggest difference I’ve found between bourbon touring and wine or beer touring. A weekend on the bourbon trail is far more educational than a weekend spent in, say, Napa (not that there’s anything wrong with Napa!) Over the course of three days in Kentucky I received a world-class bourbon education–and for less than the cost of one wine tasting at, say Stag’s Leap (not that there’s anything wrong with Stag’s Leap!) Here’s what I learned…
First Stop: Woodford Reserve
I began my bourbon touring at Woodford Reserve for absolutely no reason. My second day in Red River Gorge got rained out, so I headed to the Lexington area one day early; Woodford Reserve was nearby. And by ‘nearby’ I mean ‘about a half hour outside of town in some of the most beautiful countryside I’ve ever seen.’ The drive alone makes Woodford worth visiting. Of course, I highly recommend you stay for the tour.
Things I Learned:
- The three basic elements of bourbon are corn, rye, and…ummm? I forget already? I guess it is good this won’t be my only distillery visit, eh?
- Kentucky’s climate is ideal for bourbon aging, as the extreme temperature fluctuations cause the bourbon to expand and contract in the barrels, forcing the spirits to pass into and out of the oak over and over again.
- Bourbon barrels can be used only once to make bourbon. This makes me happy, as it leads to things like bourbon barrel aged ales.
I liked that Woodford was a historic property; the buildings and grounds were truly lovely. It was possibly the most photogenic distillery I visited. The main building reminded me of a Napa Valley winery, and the tasting room was a stone and glass masterpiece with a double-sided fireplace. I said ‘wow’ a lot.
Second Stop: Buffalo Trace
Buffalo Trace was my second and final stop of the day, and I believe I was on the last tour of the day as well. There were so many of us that they split us into two smaller groups for the tour. My first thought was: damn, why are there SO MANY CHILDREN? I still have that thought, though I suspect it is because the tour was free, so people felt ok about bringing their kids. Still–who takes a small child on a distillery tour? And worse, who takes FOUR small children on a distillery tour? It took me almost 35 years to become interested in this subject. All of it will be lost on a six year old. But I digress.
Things I learned:
- Malted barley! That’s the other of the three ingredients! Whew!
- Sixty to seventy percent of the flavor of bourbon comes from the barrel–and one hundred percent of the color.
- Barrels are difficult to make because you can’t use nails. I learned a lot about barrels here.
As part of the tour, we viewed a special bottling line that kind of blew my mind. It was very old-school and in so many ways reminded me of the early episodes of the Roseanne sitcom when she worked at the Wellman plastics factory and sat on a conveyer belt all day (who knows too much about Roseanne? This girl!) Actual people put actual labels on, and sealed the bottles by hand. We also viewed an entirely hysterical (to me) movie, which can be summarized thusly:
Drink Buffalo Trace! God Bless America!
I also very much enjoyed watching all of the wives at the final tasting. They had clearly come with their husbands (and three to six children) to be nice, and had no interest in actually, you know, enjoying bourbon. The one woman turned to me and, making a sour face, exclaimed: god, why do they drink this? To which I replied: because it is great? Sorry, m’am. You’re not going to find an anti-bourbon ally here.
Day Two: Maker’s Mark Behind the Mark Tour
I was overly excited about my visit to Maker’s Mark. I don’t know why. I suppose because it is my standard go-to bourbon. Also, they do marketing well; the red wax is iconic. And I like iconic things.
My over-excitement led me to do some actual research the night before visiting. Upon checking out the tour website, I discovered that they offer a standard tour as well as a specialized tour called Behind the Mark. The description of the tour used terms like ‘exclusive’ and ‘behind the scenes’ and, most importantly, ‘limited to 12 people or less’ and ‘all participants must be 21 or over’. After my large-grouped, child-filled experience at Buffalo Trace, that sounded worth the additional $26 (Behind the Mark is $35; a standard tour is only $9.) So I booked the last spot on the first tour the following day.
Things I Learned:
- The tasting portion of this tour really helped me understand flavor profiles better. Our guide did a good job of guiding us around our own tastebuds, helping us see where each sip hits the tongue. This sounds dirty. I assure you, it wasn’t.
- Apparently the third time really is a charm, because after seeing the distilling process at Makers–for the third time in two days–I really began to understand how it works.
- It was here that I determined that I enjoy bourbons made predominantly with wheat as the flavoring grain–as opposed to rye. I then wondered if that made me a wussy bourbon drinker–like people who prefer malty beer to hoppy beer. (I’ve still not answered this question. Thoughts, anyone? Am I a bourbon wuss? I drink it neat. That’s gotta count for something, no?)
I was surprised by how much I liked the bottling line portion of the tour. It was a lot like being in Willie Wonka’s Chocolate factory. But, you know, for bourbon. Which in my world is better than candy.
Of course, the tasting was a highlight as well. We were able to taste every part of the bourbon making process, from the yeast starter to the un-aged white dog to a cask strength Makers 46 (which was very good.) Additionally, the tasting itself was unique, in that we didn’t just sample the finished products; we also tasted under-matured and over-matured examples of various finished products. It was a like a timeline tasting. I’ve never done anything like it. Which…uh…is saying a lot as I’ve kind of made it my job to participate in various alcohol-product tastings.
Because I have never done the standard tour, I can’t tell you how the Behind the Mark tour is any different. I can tell you that I really, really enjoyed the experience. I can also tell you that at times, I was able to observe other tours going on in the distance. They were huge. And featured many children. Based on that alone, I’d say the Behind the Mark tour is money well spent.
Day Two Stop Two: Barton
It is important to note that at the top of my notes for this visit, written whilst waiting for the Barton Distillery tour to begin on the sun-drenched, umbrella-table-strewn patio, I noted: I am getting tired of bourbon tours at this point. Which brings me to my next point: don’t try to do too many distilleries on one day. I did two per day for two days, and that was quite good for me. If you want to see them all, simply stay in Kentucky for a longer period of time. Maybe intersperse your trip with some horse tourism. However, reluctant as I was, the Barton tour still impressed me.
Things I Learned:
- A better understanding of how a still functions.
- How rickhouses–the big, block looking buildings which house the aging bourbon barrels–are built.
- A bit about fungus (it happens) and a little bit about moonshining (it also happens).
Barton is far more industrial–far more real, if you will–than any of the other distilleries I visited. Thus, I learned more practical things. And I found myself surprised that even after four tours in two days, I still found whole new things to learn.
It is amusing to note that at the bottom of my notes for this visit, I noted: I’m pretty confident now that if the end times come, and production of all goods ceases, I’ll be able to make my own bourbon. Or at least my own moonshine.
These are important life skills, people.
Day Three: Town Branch Brewery and Distillery
Things I Learned:
- The bourbon barrel beer made in Kentucky is so good because the barrels are fresh (for lack of a better term.) And trust me, I can attest that the bourbon barrel beer made in Kentucky is so good. I checked. Over and over.
- Bourbon is called Bourbon because it originally came from Bourbon County, Kentucky. But now it is made all over the United States.
- Town Branch is the newest distillery in Kentucky. Many claim to be the oldest, but Town Branch is unarguably the newest.
This tour was less informative than the others, but hey–you also get beer. And as we’ve determined, beer is good. The other thing I was able to try was a drink called a Kentucky Sundowner. It is a bourbon, coffee, and cream drink made by pouring half a shot of actual heavy cream on top of a hot bourbon and coffee mixture. It. Is. Amazing. Because heavy cream. And bourbon and coffee. Yum.
Day Three Stop Two: The Evan Williams Experience(!)
I imagine that Evan Williams is often one’s first stop on the bourbon trail, assuming they are flying in to Louisville. As I was driving from PA–and because I enjoy being contrary–it was my final stop.
Things I Learned:
- There are 5.8 million barrels of bourbon currently aging in Kentucky. That’s more than people and horses combined. This is somehow comforting to me.
- When Prohibition went into effect in 1919 (the year my grandfather was born, interestingly) the city of Louisville alone lost eight thousand jobs overnight. And they couldn’t even drown their sorrows with a stiff drink. Yikes.
- In the 1880s, women were not allowed to purchase alcohol. Had I lived back then, I’d have cut my hair and bought some pants right quick.
The Evan Williams Experience was definitely more an experience than anything else. In fact, I feel it should be punctuated with an exclamation mark: The Evan Williams Experience! It was very Disney World. Bourbonland, if you will. But the tasting at the end was held in a really unique space, and the tour guide was passionate and informative. If you are in Louisville, definitely take the tour. But then do get out to some actual working distilleries. I strongly recommend any of the five in this post.
If you’re thinking that my bourbon education ends here, you, my friend, are wrong. I had one last unplanned bourbon encounter during my trip. But it was so unique and so special that it deserves to not be crammed here at the end of an already long post. Plus, too much bourbon is never good, right? So stay tuned for a stand-alone post featuring my final bourbon trail stop.
Feedback wanted! Have you visited Kentucky’s bourbon country? If so, what did I miss? What did you learn? If you’ve not visited, which of the locations I visited are you now most interested in? Please share your stories in the comments below. Thanks!