Saturday, November 28, 2009

Kentucky Bourbon Trail, Part 1

This year has been quite the eventful year for Joe and me, so when our week-long vacation was coming up Thanksgiving week, we wanted to go on vacation but couldn't break the bank doing it. After our trip to the Louisville area and the Maker's Mark distillery, we decided to take a trip to the Bourbon Trail, see more of the distilleries, and eat, drink, and relax. Only 2 and a half hours from Nashville and all but one of the tours are free, making it a very affordable get-away.

We left Nashville after church on Sunday and arrived at our bed and breakfast in Bardstown, Kentucky by 4 pm. After consulting and comparing several websites, the You're Invited Inn B&B was the most affordable and ranked #1 on We stayed in the red and gold room, which was exquisitely decorated and comfortable. Alvin and Easter, the owners, were so kind and welcoming that we felt like we were staying at some friend's parents' house. Every morning included a 3-course breakfast, which kept us full nearly until dinner. I cannot say enough good things about You're Invited Inn and would recommend it to anyone looking to stay in the area. It's just a few miles from historic Bardstown but very close to the Bluegrass Parkway, which provided easy access to the Lawrenceburg-area distilleries.

Once we got settled in and took a short nap, we decided to venture out to downtown Bardstown. Note: it is very difficult to find restaurants in small towns in the South that are open on Sunday. We weren't hungry yet, so we stopped at the Old Talbott Tavern Bourbon Bar to get our first taste of the Bourbon Trail.

They had a sampler of bourbons where you could pick 5 for $25, which we split. This was quite a good deal since some 1 oz pours of the same bourbons can run $8 or $9. From left to right, we had Bakers, Blantons, Four Roses Single Barrel, Elijah Craig 18 yr, and Wild Turkey Rare Breed. I particularly liked the Wild Turkey Rare Breed for its smokiness. Even after 4 other bourbons, it stood out in flavor. With our bourbon itch scratched, we roamed the dark streets of downtown looking for food to no avail. Our GPS did not provide many options either, but we ended up at an American casual restaurant called BJ's for some sandwiches and beer and then headed back to the B&B to rest up for our day of visiting distilleries.

Our plan for the day involved starting at the Jim Beam distillery (about 20 miles NW of Bardstown). However, when we arrived, we found out there was no tour, and the person who normally shows the video was out. The lady working informed us that the Tom Moore Distillery, our next stop, only had two tours a day, 9:30 am and 1:30 pm, by reservation, but if we hurried, we could make it. I called up the distillery, reserved our spots, and we zoomed back to Bardstown. The Tom Moore Distillery's most well-known bourbon is the 1792 Ridgemont Reserve, though they make 6 brands. They also have a very large bottling facility where they bottle 52 brands. They only recently reopened to the public in 2008 and have no visitor's center or tasting room, so we drove around the campus in a shuttle bus. The tour lasts approximately two hours (the longest tour of all the distilleries). There was only one other couple with us, so it was a small tour.

The bottling facility was incredible. Three lines were working that day bottling brandy, a lower-shelf bourbon, and tequila. The average length of career at Tom Moore is 26 years, so there is very little turnover. Everyone was friendly and let us gawk all we liked.

In addition to the distillation equipment, we also observed the barrels waiting to be filled and then shipped off to the rickhouses. Barrels that are used to age bourbon must, by law, be virgin, charred, white oak barrels. The charring caramelizes the natural sugar and gives the bourbon its flavor and color as the liquid moves in and out of the wood over several years. Bourbon must be aged at least two years in the barrels. When the barrels are emptied, they can be used to store brandy or other spirits and are often sold to Scotland to store Scotch. Empty, the barrels way about 130 pounds, but when full, they can weigh between 500-550 pounds.

Above is a barrel that has been aging for 10 years. The markings on the barrel show that it was barreled on November 22, 1999. When you walk into the rickhouses (the storage facilities for the barrels), you can smell the bourbon in the air. Over time, liquid in the barrel evaporates. The loss is approximately 5% the first year with 2-4% every following year.

Joe and I very much enjoyed the Tom Moore tour and thought it was the most thorough tour of the whole bourbon-making process, from when the corn and other grains arrive at the distillery to the bottling, labeling, and shipping process. It was lengthy and tiring, however. It also gives one a sense of the large distillery industry. The distillery itself was not very pretty, and we had to wear safety goggles, though it was fascinating to get such an inside glimpse of how bourbon is made today.

Our next stop was the Four Roses distillery near Lawrenceburg. The unique thing about Four Roses is the Spanish mission-style architecture, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Having seen so much on Tom Moore, I was not as impressed with the Four Roses tour, though they make some fine bourbon.

Above is a picture of the room that holds the fermentation tanks. After the corn (at least 51%) and other grains are mashed up and cooked, they are put into these tanks with special strains of yeast. Four Roses uses 10 recipes, which is also unique: 2 grain ratios and 5 strains of yeast. The blending of these recipes is what produces their bourbon. The other unique thing about the Four Roses process is that they store their barrels in single story warehouses. The other distilleries' warehouses are up to six stories tall. When you walk into one of these fermentation rooms, the smell of yeast is almost overpowering, and anyone who has worked with yeast in the kitchen will recognize it immediately. The tanks bubble away as the yeast goes to work turning sugars into ethanol for three to five days. At the end of the tour, we tasted the Four Roses Yellow Label, Four Roses Small Batch, and Four Roses Single Barrel. My favorite was the Small Batch.
The Four Roses gift shop is very nice, and the gift shop attendant was quite helpful as we wanted to go to Lover's Leap Winery as our next stop but didn't have an address. After Tom Moore and Four Roses, I was bourboned out and needed to rest my feet.

Lover's Leap Winery is located in Lawrenceburg and provided the perfect respite after several distillery tours. When we visited, it was chilly and misting, but the winery has a beautiful outside porch. We tried 6 wines for $5 (which included the wine glass) and bought a glass for $5 each along with some locally made cheese and crackers. We were the only patrons and enjoyed having the place to ourselves.

I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the wines, particularly the reds. I tried the Vidal Blanc (light, dry, crisp), the Bianca (more citrus and floral notes), the Sloppy Seconds (a surprisingly good blend of 7 different varietals), the Merlot, 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cynthiana. I had a full glass of the Cabernet Sauvignon, and as you can see, it was a generous pour!

Having been unimpressed by the dinner offerings in Bardstown, Joe suggested we drive the short distance to Lexington for some drinks and dinner. Our first stop was Soundbar where I had a Manhattan, and Joe had some Knob's Creek. On our way to find a place for dinner, we spotted the Bluegrass Tavern, which we had written down as a place to try in Lexington. Their bourbon selection was incredible, and Bobby, our bartender, was extraordinarily helpful, recommending bourbons we might like and just chatting with us for a while. We had half-ounce pours of Bulleit, Elijah Craig 12 yr, Pappy Van Winkle 15 yr (which was AMAZING), and Elijah Craig 18 yr single barrel. Then Bobby pointed us in the direction of Mia's, a locally-owned gay restaurant. The crabcake sandwich was perfect for soaking up some of the bourbon. Unfortunately, they had run out of potatoes for their hand-cut fries, but we enjoyed our (quite affordable) dinner and the hip atmosphere. Joe drove us safely back to Bardstown where we rested up for another day on the trail! To be continued...


Beth said...

Fun! I'm so glad you are sharing your adventure. I've always wanted to do this, but just never gotten around to it. Can't wait to hear more...

ashupe said...

Sounds like a great vacation! I didn't know there was a gay restaurant in Lexington, but it always seemed like a neat place when I would drive through it en route to TN.

That Girl said...

This is so cool! We've done wine tours, but I've never heard of a bourbon tour. Such a neat idea.

Erin said...

This is such a GREAT and thorough post! I've never done the Bourbon Trail, but I've always wanted to. (I've also always wanted to go to the Bourbon Festival, and never have done that either!)