Kentucky is a beautiful state, one that I absolutely love driving through. You get a taste of the Appalachian mountains before arriving in the rolling hills in the center of the state. Rustic barns and horse farms dot the countryside, and a multitude of rivers and lakes make this state a scenic wonder. Kentucky is the birthplace of many important men, namely Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, and ME!
Kentucky is also the birthplace of most of the bourbon that travels across the world. There are more barrels of bourbon in Kentucky than there are people! There is so much bourbon in Kentucky, that some distilleries only distribute their bourbon internationally and totally skip the domestic market. Megan, Greg, and I aim to tour six of the bourbon distilleries located in central Kentucky, a pathway called "The Bourbon Trail".
Before we get started, a little foreword on bourbon itself. Bourbon is a special type of whiskey which can only be produced in the United States (in 1964 Congress named bourbon the native spirit). Bourbon is whiskey that is aged in a brand new, charred oak barrel, made from a mash consisting mostly of corn, and has no added flavors (the only flavoring after distillation comes from the oak barrel). How can there be such a variety of bourbon if they all have to follow the same procedure? Distilleries use different combinations of grains to make the mash (stuff that is fermented and distilled into moonshine), but the real magic comes from the oak barrels. A lot of the distilleries use barrels from the same manufacturer, but they vary the amount of time the whiskey is aged in the barrels, how the barrels are positioned in the warehouses, and the blends of different ages of whiskey to create the unique flavors.
We left Somerset (where my grandma lives) and drove north two hours to reach the first distillery, Wild Turkey.
In college we called Wild Turkey the "Kickin' Chicken" due to the involuntary leg kick after taking a drink of Wild Turkey 101 (hence me doing the Kickin' Chicken dance in the picture above).
It felt a little weird to be waiting on the front porch of the distillery at 9am to start drinking straight bourbon, but we weren't the only ones. About 10 people sat around the small porch waiting for the doors to open. Megan opted for the seat of honor.
A little after 9, the doors opened and we were directed to sign-in for the tour. It was a short drive over to the new distillery (in 2010 Wild Turkey built a new distillery to allow for increased production). Once we got within a half mile of the distillery, you could smell the bourbon. My mouth watered in anticipation of tasting it, while my stomach flipped with the thought of taking a shot. We pulled up to the distillery just as a grain truck was offloading a new shipment of grain.
After a quick video about Wild Turkey, our tour guide began the tour around the distillery. We saw the yeast production room (nothing special there, it was just a room) before making our way into the fermenting room. At least 12 30ft tall fermenters sat in the giant room. The corn and grain mix is steeped and boiled to release the stored sugars and enzymes. Yeast is added to the mixture, which then feeds on the sugar to produce carbon dioxide and alcohol. This is the same exact procedure that a lot of breweries use to make beer, which is why the distilleries often refer to the liquid at this stage as beer mash. You could feel the heat coming off the fermenting "beer" as we stood above the fermenter.
Since the room with the fermenter is not temperature controlled, most distilleries shut down during the hot summer months. The heat in the rooms is just too much for the yeast to work properly. I leaned over the vat and took a big whiff, and it nearly knocked me off my feet. There is no oxygen above the tank (with all the CO2 bubbling up) and you get a nose full of alcohol (it reminded me of the feeling after taking a stiff shot!). We left the fermenting room and walked to take a look at the still.
The still is what actually extracts the alcohol from the fermented "beer". Sophisticated heating techniques evaporate and condense the alcohol from the mixture. You could actually see the clear alcohol running down the first still and going into the secondary still. This is "moonshine" or "white lightning", but instead of adding a piece of fruit to add flavor, the distillant is stored in oak barrels. We walked out of the distillery and over to the filling warehouse. Here barrels upon barrels waited to be filled. Greg tried to "wheeze the juice" from one.
Here is a video of the barrels being filled.
From the filling room, we drove over to look inside one of the warehouses. These things were huge, and there were a lot of them. It takes around 3 days to create the mash, ferment, distill, and barrel the whiskey. The whiskey then sits in a barrel in a warehouse for at least 4 years, and often 6, 8, 13 years or longer.
Inside the warehouse was nothing fancy, just racks and racks of barrels. In the middle of the warehouse, you could look up and see how high the barrels were stacked.
Throughout the years as the bourbon sits in the barrels, it moves in and out of the pores of the wood through the charred layer. The summer heat opens the wood so that that the bourbon can penetrate, and in the winter the barrel contracts to move the bourbon through the other way. Over time, the flavors of the wood and auburn color is extracted. Wild Turkey has 6 different brands of bourbon, all of which use the exact same mash recipe and age in the same barrels. The only thing that is different is where the barrel is stored in the warehouse. Some zones in the warehouse promotes the bourbon to move more throughout the oak than others, and this is what creates the different flavors.
After leaving the warehouse, it was time for the tasting! Wild Turkey allowed us to have 2 shots of whatever we wanted, so Megan, Greg, and I coordinated so that we could try as many different bourbons as possible. First we tried Wild Turkey Rare Breed, which is barrel proof (meaning it is bottled straight from the barrel without adding any water). Bourbon has to be at least 80 proof, but often distilled water is added to bring down proof. Rare Breed is not cut with water, but instead is very full flavored. We then sampled Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit, which only uses one barrel to bottle (it is not blended with bourbon from other barrels). This is one of the bourbons that had a specific location in the warehouse. We also sampled Russell's Reserve (Jimmy Russell is the master distiller at Wild Turkey, and this bourbon is aged a little longer than the others), Wild Turkey 101 (my favorite from college), and Megan tried the Wild Turkey American Honey (which isn't a true bourbon since flavors are added after it comes out of the barrel).
On the way out of Wild Turkey, Megan stopped to feed the Wild Turkey some Wild Turkey.
It was about a 20 minute drive to Woodford Reserve. We had about 8 hours to tour 6 different distilleries spread from Lexington to Louisville (about 3 hours to drive between all the distilleries), and the Wild Turkey tour took about an hour and a half. Needless to say, we were behind schedule. The drive to Woodford Reserve was beautiful. We drove through back roads lining horse farm after horse farm.
Woodword Reserve was pretty scenic. Woods and horses surrounded the distillery, and their warehouses were covered in stone instead of wood.
Woodford Reserve is the only distillery that charges for its distillery tour, so we decided to skip it to save some time. We walked through the gift shop (surprisingly the bourbon they sell on site was more expensive than the stuff I could get at the ABC store back home) and took a seat at the tasting bar. Woodford Reserve only gives a single shot of their bourbon, and there wasn't nearly the presentation we had at Wild Turkey. Still, the three of us went through all the steps to get a taste for the bourbon (my leg didn't involuntarily kick at all). After about 30 minutes of taking in the scene, we hopped back in the car to head to Four Roses.
Four Roses had the look of a Spanish Monastery, distinctly different than the back country feel of Wild Turkey and Woodford Reserve. I had never heard of Four Roses, but I am not the most refined bourbon connoisseur. The lady that was doing our tastings informed us that Four Roses had been around for 100 years, but only until recently only shipped overseas (they are now in 47 states, all the contiguous states except Alabama). Four Roses was delicious, nice and mellow. We sampled a single barrel (bottled from only a single barrel), a small batch (bottled from a select number of blended barrels), and their yellow label. I will certainly be looking for their brand next time I buy bourbon.
The tasting room had a series of charts and a mockup of the distillation process. We smelled the various grains they had on display (wheat, rye, and barley) so that we could identify them in the next bourbon tasting. Greg took the opportunity to try and educate us on the distillation process (everything that he had learned from the Wild Turkey guide). Greg's lecture was filled with lots of jokes and giggling, meaning either the bourbon making process can be humorous, or the samples were starting to take their effect.
It was a 2 hour drive to the next distillery, which gave us time to eat our lunch and see a little more of the countryside. Once again, we took twisting and winding back roads. We knew we were getting close when the smell of bourbon filled our noses. We had arrived at Maker's Mark.
The tour was similar to Wild Turkey's tour, just not quite as big. We found out that Maker's Mark rotates their barrels in the warehouses (the warehouses were all painted black to absorb more heat), which contrasted how Wild Turkey kept the barrels in the same spot throughout the aging process. Maker's Mark Bourbon is different from their second brand, Maker's Mark 46, in that additional charred oak staves are added into the barrel at the end of the aging process for an additional 46 days for additional flavor and color.
At the end of the tour, we got to sample both of Maker's Mark bourbons.
Maker's Mark's trademark is the wax sealed bottle. At the end of the tour, if you buy a bottle of their bourbon, you can dip it in the wax yourself. Greg wasn't passing up the opportunity, so he got first in line to dip a bottle. After putting on the apron and gloves, he stepped up to the wax and dipped his bottle. It was pretty cool getting to see the hand-dipped process.
They also sold the Maker's Mark 46 staves that had been soaked in bourbon. They smelled like bourbon, and they suggested you cut them up to use on the grill to add a little extra flavor. I bought 5 to use for the 4th of July.
The next stop was the home of Evan Williams Bourbon, Heaven Hill Distilleries. Heaven Hill is the largest independently owned distillery, and the black label Evan Williams is the most popular in the US and across the world.
Heaven Hill was set up a little bit differently than the other distilleries. Heaven Hill has a Bourbon Heritage Center, a museum-like visitor center detailing bourbon and how it is made. There were displays that allowed you to smell moonshine, bourbon that had been aged for 6 months, and bourbon that had been aged for 6 years.
The had old stills on display and descriptions of how bourbon had affected the life of Kentuckians. The museum was definitely more kid friendly with interactive panels. Heaven Hill also offers a variety of tours, none of which were leaving within the next hour. Bourbon tastings are only allowed at the end of the free tour, so we instead sampled the Heaven Hill barbeque sauces. It was a shame we didn't have more time to wait for the next tour.
We went outside and looked around the Heritage Center. Warehouses were in every direction, and you knew that they were all filled with barrels of bourbon. Each barrel holds about $10,000 to $20,000 worth of bourbon, and with a warehouse holding hundreds and hundreds of barrels, every warehouse had over $1 million of bourbon just sitting inside.
The last distillery of the Bourbon Trail was Jim Beam, which was another 30 minutes down the road.
The Jim Beam tour was more of a historic tour. Instead of taking you through the fermenting and distilling processes, you instead go through Jim Beam's house, see the family pictures, and see a toy distillery that actually works.
The Beam family was one of the earliest bourbon distillers in Kentucky. As a result, they didn't stick to just one distillery. Cousins and brothers each opened their own distilleries, sharing the knowledge passed down along the lines. One of the Beams started Heaven Hill, and other Beams could be seen in the histories of the other distilleries. As we walked out of the house, the tour guide pointed out the pump that they used to use to get the water to make the bourbon. Greg teased that bourbon would come out now, and the guide told him to try it out.
Although it looked like Moonshine coming out, it was still only water.
The tour continued to see the original still used by the Beam family and the original distribution method. The Beams would keep their the bourbon on site, and people would bring their own containers to buy the whiskey. The container was weighed after it was filled to determine the cost (50¢ per quart, 75¢ per quart for aged bourbon).
The guide also pointed out the trees around the distillery. He said the one of the by-products of the distillation process causes the trees to turn black. The trees themselves aren't harmed, but occasionally Jim Beam has to polish the tombstones located in the cemetery across the street.
We walked through one of the Jim Beam warehouses, and it looked very similar to the warehouses from the other distilleries. Jim Beam also rotates their barrels, but uses barrels from different zones to create certain brands. I knew what was coming after the walk through the warehouse, the tasting!
Jim Beam didn't actually offer their Jim Beam whiskey at the tasting, but instead let us sample the top shelf brands. We got to try a Knob Creek single barrel (which was super smooth) and Basil Hayden Small Batch (which was also fantastic). The Jim Beam tour guide was very personal, and even offered suggestions on other distilleries to try out while we were in the area.
Overall, I was very impressed with all the distilleries. They were all very open about how they make their bourbon and how their bourbon process may be different from other distilleries. No guide claimed their bourbon was the best or even their bourbon process was the best, but instead just promoted the idea that all bourbon can be appreciated. It was refreshing to not have to hear them slander one another, like I had to sit through when we went on the beer tours in Wisconsin.
We had one last stop before heading back to Somerset. Jim Beam sits right on the edge of Fort Knox. Fort Knox was built when Franklin Roosevelt outlawed American citizens from owning gold bullion and gold coins (everyone had to sell their gold to the Federal Reserve). Fort Knox is now the second largest collection of gold in the world (second only to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York in Manhattan, which was robbed in one of the Die Hard movies). Fort Knox has held other valuables other than just gold, like the US Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, the Magna Carta, foreign royalty jewels, and even a supply of morphine during WWII.
You can't actually go into the Bullion Depository at Fort Knox (for obvious security reasons). In fact, you are not allowed to even approach the gate or the fence without repercussions. Instead, you have to pull off on the highway that runs past Fort Knox to take pictures. The three rows of fences certainly screamed, "STAY OUT".
Our run down the Bourbon Trail was over, but we had successfully visited six distilleries in one day. We even get an official t-shirt for completing the trail (which has yet to come in the mail)!