Hitting the Bourbon Trail: Kentucky takes advantage of its bourbon-soaked history

Hitting the Bourbon Trail: Kentucky takes advantage of its bourbon-soaked history

August 31st, 2014 by Anne Braly in Life Entertainment

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Copper-pot stills do more than catch your eye as you tour the distillery at Maker's Mark. They are part of the distillation process, removing any remaining impurities from the liquor as it makes its way from a mixture of corn, wheat and barley to one of two bourbons made at the distillery.

Copper-pot stills do more than catch your eye...

Photo by Photo: Anne Braly


Tickets for distillery tours along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail may be purchased at the visitor's centers found at each distillery or in advance at kybourbontrail.com.

Need proof?

That's what the pioneers demanded when they purchased bourbon back in the early years of our nation, so alcohol proof was born. It's now on every bottle label and simply tells you the alcohol content in each bottle. For instance, 80 proof equates to an alcohol content of 40 percent. It's easy for distillers to calculate proof today, but it was a little dangerous back in the day.

In order to keep liquor salesmen honest, proof was needed that they hadn't watered down their product. Buyers would pour bourbon over a small amount of gunpowder, then light the fumes with a match. Bad bourbon would wet the powder and fail to ignite. Good bourbon, which had a high alcohol content, would burn with a bright blue color then ignite the gunpowder lying just beneath it, proof that the alcohol was of sufficient purity.

Fast facts

• During aging, bourbon-filled barrels are kept in big, multi-story warehouses called rick houses. Rick houses are very rarely climate-controlled and, depending on the outside weather, the wood barrels expand and contract, imparting color and different types of flavor into the liquor. When the liquor is poured in the barrels it is white, but it comes out golden and ready for sipping.

• By law, Kentucky bourbon must contain 51 percent corn. The only other ingredients are yeast, barley and wheat or rye.

• Wheat makes a smooth, sweet bourbon; rye makes a bourbon with more of a bite.

• The burning sensation in your throat that you may feel as you swallow is known as a "Kentucky hug."

• As bourbons age in their barrels, a certain amount of the liquid evaporates. This is known as the "angels' share."

• Bourbon is aged in new oak barrels, by law, that are used just once. Afterward, they are sold to distilleries for distilling whiskey and Scotch in Ireland and Scotland, where the colder temperatures demand older woods found in barrels that have held Kentucky bourbon from four to more than six years.

• Since 2003, high-end bourbons have seen revenue grow from $450 million to over $500 million, or about 2.2 million cases, in the United States. High-end bourbon sales accounted for eight percent of total spirits growth in 2006. Most high-end bourbons are aged for six years or longer.

• There are currently 5 million barrels of bourbon aging in Kentucky.

All labels used on Maker's Mark bottles are printed in-house.

All labels used on Maker's Mark bottles are...

Photo by Anne Braly

Barrels are placed sky-high and rotated from top to bottom. They are first placed on top, where the heat speeds the aging process, which is then slowed when barrels are moved to the bottom level.

Barrels are placed sky-high and rotated from top...

Photo by Anne Braly

At the conclusion of tours, guests are invited to taste and learn more about bourbons made by each distillery.

At the conclusion of tours, guests are invited...

Photo by Photo: Anne Braly

The 1996 fire at Heaven Hill Distillery destroyed 44 rickhouses, but 37 remain, aging some of the 86 different varieties of bourbon that the distillery produces.

The 1996 fire at Heaven Hill Distillery destroyed...

Photo by Anne Braly

Bottles are waiting to be filled while others are filled and ready to be packed and shipped at the Jim Beam Distillery.

Bottles are waiting to be filled while others...

Photo by Anne Braly

The Evan Williams Bourbon Experience tour might include a trip to the bowels of the building, where admittance is only gained when a secretive sliding door panel is opened to reveal the person on the opposite side. An authentic speakeasy is inside.

The Evan Williams Bourbon Experience tour might include...

Photo by Photo: Anne Braly

The Evan Williams Bourbon Experience tour might include a trip to the bowels of the building, where admittance is only gained when a secretive slide is opened to reveal the person on the opposite side. Upon entrance, an authentic speakeasy is revealed.

The Evan Williams Bourbon Experience tour might include...

Photo by Anne Braly

During Prohibition, some distilleries continued making bourbon to be used for medicinal purposes. These medicine bottles are on display at the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience.

During Prohibition, some distilleries continued making bourbon to...

Photo by Anne Braly

Dozens of artistic and clever decanters are on display in the museum at Jim Beam Distillery.

Dozens of artistic and clever decanters are on...

Photo by Anne Braly

Bourbon is so steeped in Kentucky history, distilleries dot highways across the state. To showcase the state's bourbon history and resources, the Kentucky Distiller's Association established the Kentucky Bourbon Trail 15 years ago.

The Bourbon Trail is a multi-legged adventure full of spirits that stretches from Louisville to Lexington and points in between. If you want to tour every distillery, it could very well take a few days.

"That's what we recommend to people because we don't want people having to rush through every distillery," says Adam Johnson, director of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.

"Kentucky is synonymous with bourbon, and our history with America's native spirit goes back generations," he says. "So much of our culture, resources and hospitality are tied into the bourbon industry, and that's why we love showing off all of this and more with our visitors."

Based in Louisville, I took a more westerly route, driving south to Loretto and spending the day hopscotching the Kentucky countryside before heading back. It allowed me to tour four of eight distilleries that are all part of the Bourbon Trail. Their names are familiar among bourbon aficionados: Maker's Mark, Evan Williams, Heaven Hill and Jim Beam.

If you choose to go in an easterly direction from Louisville (or westward from Lexington, Ky.), you can sample bourbons from Four Roses, Wild Turkey, Town Branch and Woodford Reserve.

In recent years and following a growing trend, a new leg of the tour has been added that includes many new, smaller distilleries offering handcrafted bourbons such as Willet in Bardstown, Limestone Branch in Lebanon, New Riff in Newport and Silver Trail in Hardin.

"We've seen tremendous growth in not only smaller craft distilleries, but reinvestment and growth in larger-producing distilleries as well," Johnson says.

Following that upward spike, the number of visitors to the Bourbon Trail has grown exponentially, with about 650,000 folks touring the distilleries along the trail last year.

And that means more than just a drop in the bucket for the Bluegrass State economy.

"The distilleries have made a tremendous economic impact on the Commonwealth's economy, both from a manufacturing/export basis as well as a tourism basis," Johnson adds. "And the trickle-down theory is a well-practiced one in the communities in which distilleries are established. Most all now have some kind of hospitality industry linked to tourists, whether it be shopping experiences, dining or overnight stays, all of which are impacted by visitor spending."

Here's a taste of what you'll experience at several of the larger distilleries.

Maker's Mark

A refreshing limestone stream meanders around the distillery and visitors at Maker's Mark, located in Loretto, Ky. And it's the limestone that makes Kentucky bourbon the best in the country, according to some folks. Limestone is high in magnesium and calcium and low in iron, characteristics that are good for fermentation and the eventual flavor of the whiskey. You'll learn all this as you tour the beautiful grounds and are told about the beginnings of this famous whiskey, established in the mid-1800s.

You'll also have the opportunity to see every phase of production, from the distillation of spirits to the bottling and the final touch: the red wax melted and used to seal every bottle that comes off the line.

There are only two bourbons made here: Maker's Mark and Maker's 46. The distillery has more than 400,000 barrels aging in its storage facilities - known as rick houses - at any one time.

Tours are offered daily and take about an hour. The cost is $9 per person.

Heaven Hill Bourbon Heritage Center

On a cool day in November 1996, the nearby stream at Heaven Hill distillery was on fire, as was much of the distillery. Ninety thousand barrels of bourbon were burning and the smell of the liquor spread through the air. Flames reached more than 35 stories high, destroying 44 warehouses and rick houses.

As a result, the production of bourbon was moved to a distillery in Louisville, but 37 rick houses survived the fire and are now packed with the 84 rye bourbons and two wheat bourbons that Heaven Hill produces, among them the more-popular Elijah Craig single-barrel bourbon. Craig is a Baptist preacher whom some believe was the man responsible for introducing bourbon to Kentucky in the 1700s.

Heaven Hill is the only company that makes every type of bourbon: rye, corn whiskey and wheat whiskey; some of its best-known include Evan Williams, Bernheim Wheat Whiskey, Old Fitzgerald, Rittenhouse Rye and Elijah Craig. There are nearly 1 million barrels in storage.

Three tours will teach you all about the history of Heaven Hill, from its beginnings to current day. One is a short, 30-minute tour that costs $5 and includes a short film, the tasting of two bourbons and is held in a small auditorium at the Bourbon Heritage Center. The center is located on the property with the rick houses in Bardstown, Ky.

The second tour includes the film as well as a walking tour of a warehouse where some of the bourbons are aging. The tour ends with a tasting of 3 distinct bourbons. Cost: $8.

The final tour takes about three hours and is a more extensive version of the second tour, with four tastings of your choice at the tour's conclusion. Cost: $35.

Of interest: Artifacts, found after the fire and during other times in Heaven Hill's history, are on display in the Bourbon Heritage Center museum. There is no charge to enter the museum.

Jim Beam

"Making bourbon is like magic," says bourbon ambassador and tour guide Christy Fuller.

And each distiller has his own bag of tricks.

At the Jim Beam Distillery in Clermont, Ky., it's master distiller Fred Noe, great-grandson of Jim Beam, who's in charge of producing Beam's 12 bourbons, which are aged in more than 2 million barrels on-site in the distillery.

Tours begin at the Jim Beam American Stillhouse and take you on a walking tour, where you'll witness the bourbon-making process from start to finish. The tour is interactive and hands-on, allowing one lucky visitor to add the yeast to the mash as it begins its journey from corn to bourbon. If you want, you can take a hand in bottling your own single-barrel Knob Creek bourbon.

The distillery was started in 1895 by Jacob Beam. Prohibition closed this distillery, and most others, in 1920. But Jim Beam opened a new facility in 1933, just 120 days following Prohibition's repeal. Last April, the distillery filled its 13 millionth barrel of bourbon.

There are two tours available. The first, at $10 per person, is a walking tour through the distillery and takes a little over an hour. It concludes with a tasting of two bourbons in the state-of-the-art tasting room with mechanized pouring machines that allow you to choose which bourbons you want to try.

The second is the Super Premium Tour that showcases "all things whiskey, Beam style." Highlights include a private experience with Noe, as well as a visit to the "dump floor," a bourbon-themed meal on the porch of the Knob Creek House, a commemorative bottle and transportation to and from Louisville. Cost: $199 per person.

Evan Williams Bourbon Experience

An adventure all its own, the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience, located in the heart of downtown Louisville, takes visitors back in time with a walkthrough video that tells of the beginnings of Louisville as well as the introduction of bourbon to the area.

"Scotch-Irish settlers started it all," explains tour guide Amber Trantham.

While there is just one barrel made at this distillery per day - it's tiny compared to other distilleries, and the bourbon made here is for those touring the facility only - there are more than 900 barrels made at the primary distillery just blocks away. At the end of the tour, guests may sample bourbons in a "bar" that replicates those from the early 1900s.

Or you can treat yourself to a tour that takes you back to the days of Prohibition, when alcohol was consumed in secrecy in speakeasies and other secluded, mysterious places. Take the stairs or elevators to the underground level of the Evan Williams Experience building, where you're confronted with a safe door. When opened, it reveals another door with a small sliding window opened by the bartender on the other side to see who's out there. When admittance is granted, the visitor walks into the speakeasy, gets a bourbon and some Prohibition history before sampling several bourbons, one of which may include tastes from a $400 bottle of Evan Williams Blue Label.

The main tour, offered seven days a week, takes about an hour at a cost of $12 (adults) and $9 (12-20, no bourbon tasting allowed). The 30-minute speakeasy tours are an additional $12 and are offered weekends only.

Interesting fact: Evan Williams Experience is located in what was once known as Louisville's Whiskey Row. As interest in bourbon increases and more visitors are traveling the Bourbon Trail, new, handcrafted bourbon distilleries are moving in such as Peerless and Angels Envy.

Contact Anne Braly at abraly@timesfreepress.com.