Monday, December 14, 2009

Kentucky Bourbon Trail, Part 2

Okay, I'm back to tell you about the second half of our trip to the Bourbon Trail. Here's Part One.

We headed off on Tuesday morning to Buffalo Trace Distillery to make their 10 am tour. Our tour guide was absolutely fantastic, very energetic and knowledgeable. The tour started off with a cheesy video and then we learned a little bit about bourbon.

Although we didn't see much of the grounds on the tour, Buffalo Trace has beautiful, sprawling grounds that were just getting decorated for the holidays with lights and such. One of things that tickles me about the distilleries is that they're such an ingrained part of life in the area. Buffalo Trace has an Easter egg hunt, and we passed what looked like a elementary school that was sponsored by Wild Turkey.

Buffalo Trace is the oldest continuously operating distillery. Due to Prohibition, most distilleries closed down, but Buffalo Trace was allowed to continue operating in order to produce medicinal whiskey. On this tour, we did not see any of the distilling process, though they do have a "hard hat" tour by reservation.

They were bottling Blanton's when we were there. Blanton's is not only a very fine whiskey, but the stoppers also have different jockeys on top that spell out B-L-A-N-T-O-N-S if you collect them all. I enjoyed this tour because our tour guide gave us a lot of fun trivia about bourbon and Buffalo Trace in general. A short tasting followed the tour, and Buffalo Trace's gift shop was one of the nicer ones in terms of the sheer variety of things they offered.

Next we followed the turkey tracks to Wild Turkey Distillery.

We arrived shortly before their 12:30 pm tour and took the time to have some hot cider and peruse the gift shop. Our tour guide was, to be blunt, not very entertaining, and I had some difficulty hearing him. We saw quite a bit of the distilling process and machinery, but after the sixth fermentation tank, it isn't as exciting. Until...

we met Jimmy Russell, master distiller of Wild Turkey for 55 years. He's kind of a big deal in the bourbon world but didn't seem to mind taking a bit of time to talk to us. It completely redeemed the tour, especially considering that there is no tasting.

Next up was my absolute favorite tour. Joe and I had debated about going to Woodford Reserve, but we were so glad that we did. On the drive there, we passed several horse farms with large houses set on a gently rolling carpet of green. When we pulled into the distillery, we could hardly believe our eyes: gorgeous white limestone buildings nestled in a valley. This was the only tour that cost anything ($5) but we gladly paid it and warmed up with some bourbon coffee while we waited for our tour to start.

Another video kicked off the tour which was led by a retired science teacher, so he knew how to keep us entertained. He explained the bourbon-making process in a way that I understood things I had heard 6 times before and never quite caught. Woodford Reserve is simply stunningly beautiful, and they triple-distill their whiskey through these gorgeous copper stills.

Interestingly enough, they also heat and cool their warehouses whereas other distilleries rely on nature. They also claim that they are the only distillery that also raises horses, though the horses were off racing. We saw a bit of the bottling process and then headed back up the hill to try some Woodford Reserve (official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby!) which came in a small plastic glass that we could keep. If you could only go on one distillery tour, I would definitely recommend Woodford Reserve or Maker's Mark, depending on which end of the trail you're close to.

The sun was setting so we headed back to Lexington for a few drinks before dinner. We planned on eating at The Dish and parked our car close to the restaurant hoping to find a place close by. After wandering into a bar that didn't seem to welcoming to non-regulars, we walked around the corner to Buddy's Bar and Grill where they had a big sign posted with their Happy Hour specials. With 1/2 off appetizers and $2 premium drafts, we decided to pull up some seats at the bar and join the guys watching the UK basketball game. The bartender was friendly and helpful and let us try the Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale before we bought a pint. The Bourbon Barrel Ale is an ale that is aged for up to 6 weeks in used bourbon barrels giving it that sweet oaky taste of bourbon and kicking the ABV up to almost 8%. I wouldn't drink this beer all the time, but it's a neat novelty.

Our dinner at The Dish was quite lovely and was our one "nice" dinner out. I had the Grouper and Butternut Squash Ravioli, but Joe won the ordering contest with his Hazelnut Stuffed Chicken. His came with these caramelized brussel sprouts that were delicious. We drove back to Bardstown stuffed and happy.

We still had one more distillery to go: Heaven Hill Distillery. This one was easy, located right outside historic Bardstown. I am unsure what their tour hours are, but we arrived and were told one would be starting in a few minutes. The Bourbon Heritage Center has all kinds of neat exhibits ranging from trivia to historic stills that were used by pioneers. So if you have to wait for a tour, you can entertain yourself. Heaven Hill suffered a very bad fire in 1996. Like you probably can imagine, whiskey can BURN.

These are Heaven Hill's rickhouses. Their distilling process currently happens in Louisville, but they store the barrels and bottle in Bardstown. We mainly toured the rickhouses and watched a video. The best part of the tour was the tasting. Inside of the Bourbon Heritage Center is a GORGEOUS tasting room shaped like a bourbon barrel. We tried Evan Williams Special Reserve and Elijah Craig 12 yr. I found the Elijah Craig just slightly too oaky for my tastes. I wish we had poked around the exhibits a little bit more as they were very informative and presented well.

On our way out of town, we stopped at Toddy's Liquors in Bardstown, which was recommended by our Tom Moore guide. They had an amazing selection of bourbons, and their prices were at least a few dollars cheaper than at the distilleries. When we bought a bottle of Woodford Reserve, the cashier remarked that they had received some gift sets that day that were the same price as just the bottle and swapped it out.

Our last stop was Jim Beam since we didn't get to see the video or do a tasting the first day. It was on our way back to the interstate so it wasn't too much of a detour. We tasted Red Stag, their cherry-infused bourbon (which I like chilled though it tasted like cough syrup neat) and Basil Hayden's. Jim Beam is MASSIVE, and they don't have a tour set up, so they take you to Booker Noe's old house and show a short video explaining the history of the distillery.

This is me with Booker Noe in front of his house. They are planning on restoring some of the older buildings and developing more of a tour.

My completed Kentucky Bourbon Trail passport! I sent it in and will receive a t-shirt. A few distilleries had the t-shirt on display, and they are surprisingly nice-looking.

I would highly recommend the Kentucky Bourbon Trail for an affordable domestic vacation. There is so much to think about that the distilling process captures: modernization and the need for a consistent product, American history, the effects of Prohibition, etc. In a time where people are concerned about preservatives and eating locally, bourbon is made mostly from corn grown within 100 miles of the distillery, by law cannot have any additives, and uses water from local lakes that is naturally filtered by limestone. The distilling industry also employs American citizens in an area of the country that would be much more impoverished if not for the industry.

Joe and I planned our trip primarily using Bourbon Review magazine, which gave us information about distilleries as well as ideas on where to eat and drink in Lexington. As I've said, if you could do one distillery tour, either Maker's Mark or Woodford Reserve would be a great choice. Unless you're a big Jim Beam or Wild Turkey fan, I could have done without going on those tours if we had been stressed for time. If you have any further questions, please contact me!


That Girl said...

I don't see it happening for a while, but you have totally inspired me to make a trip out there to the bourbon trail!

Kelsey said...

Heaven on Earth!

Erin said...

So thorough and informative! I love it!

Judy McGary said...

I really enjoyed your posting about the Bourbon Trail. My husband attended high school in Bardstown and we are native Kentuckians. Lived in Lexington while husband attended graduate school there (many years ago). Being from Ky. we have a favorite bourbon and it's none other than Woodford Reserve! I look forward to taking a tour of WR this summer, and your posting makes me more anxious than ever now! We are glad that you had such fun and have recommended the tour to others. Kentucky is a beautiful state, as is Tennessee. Merry Christmas! Judy and John McGary (Doe Run Farm)