The Kentucky Bourbon Trail

The famous barrel-shaped tasting room at Heaven Hill Distillery.

The "Kentucky Bourbon Trail" is an accomplishment that  might take years to accomplish. Or, for those of us with limited time and resources, it can become a challenge that can be surmounted, with style, in only a matter of days. This year, for Christmas, my girlfriend gave me a set of crystal tumblers, and a passport to an adventure that has been on both our bucket lists for awhile, The Bourbon Trail.

Our adventure began at Heaven Hill Distillery. We picked up our passports, and began the journey and our education on America's official national spirit. While there might be an upside to going on this adventure during tourist season, I don't know why you would. The low volume of people and awkward holiday timing led to us getting our own private tour, extended tasting, and inside information on Bourbon. Bill, our tour guide, was the best, and it would be well worth requesting him for your own tour. He instructed us on the 5 requirements for a whiskey to be a bourbon. 

  1. It must be at least 51% corn.
  2. The whiskey must then be aged in NEW, CHARRED, White Oak Barrels.
  3. The bourbon must not enter the barrel for aging at more than 125 proof.
  4. The bourbon must be aged for not less than 2 years.
  5. There may be absolutely no additives such as extra flavors, ingredients, etc.

The Maker's Mark Distillery water source and fermentation building.

Our next stop was the Maker's Mark distillery, which was recommended by Bill as one of the must-see stops on the trail. It was quite a departure from the environment and surroundings of Heaven Hill. Where Heaven Hill was a bit more industrial and a much larger operation, since they produce 80 different spirits on site, Maker's was, and still is, a much more family-owned operation.

The Maker's Mark distillery is located in picturesque pastureland in the Kentucky hills. They have the same cypress tubs on site that they've been using since the end of prohibition. On the tour, you get to see and actually dip a finger in the Mash Tubs and taste the different stages of what is usually a 3 day fermentation process. The Maker's Mark recipe, interestingly enough, was developed from a bread recipe using red winter wheat. And, to this day, Maker's Mark is one of only two bourbons that use wheat extensively in the mash, replacing the rye grains that are popular in most bourbons.

The Maker's Mark still.

While I could recount the adventure from every one of the 7 distilleries that we visited, I'll just briefly share 2 more. Bill had recommended the tours at Heaven Hill, Maker's Mark, and Woodford as some of the most worthwhile on the trail. Now, I would also add to that list the newest addition to the trail, Town Branch Brewery and Distillery, it was amazing, and being the newest operation, gives a unique insight into a modern small-batch operation. But, I digress, on to Woodford Reserve!

Woodford Reserve Distillery

Just like Maker's Mark, the Woodford Reserve distillery is beautiful! It is located amongst several million dollar thoroughbred farms in the famous Kentucky horse country surrounding the city of Lexington. After driving through miles of picturesque private countryside, you arrive at Woodford Reserve, which is nestled in a wooded valley. Their water source is a pair of natural aquifers located beneath 70+ feet of limestone on the property. The distillery, though owned by Jack Daniel's, was started by a Scottish family after prohibition. Their distillery buildings and rick houses (barrel-aging buildings), are all of limestone construction, and have walls 2 feet thick. 

The triple copper stills at Woodford Reserve.

One of the unique things about Woodford Reserve is their triple distillation process that lends a unique character to their spirit. The triple copper stills at Woodford were made in Scotland and imported to the United States at the founding of the distillery. These stills are almost 3 stories tall, made from solid copper, and heated with steam produced from a boiler on the other side of the wall on the right on the photo. 

Woodford is also one of a select few small batch distilleries where you can actually purchase your own batch of bourbon. For 'round about $10,000, you can purchase a batch, and get to actually come to the distillery, select, and then sample your own personal small batch in custom bottles on site over a gourmet dinner. This service helps grow Woodford Reserve's already extensive Private Selection list, with members including the MGM Grand, Bellagio, and other distinguished private clients.

The last stop on our journey was the Town Branch Brewery and Distillery, located in downtown Lexington. They are the newest addition to the Bourbon Trail, and one of the youngest producers of bourbon in the United States. They also brew beer on site. One of the beers that they produce, that is growing in popularity, is the Kentucky Bourbon Beer. A beer that they brew, is produced, but then put into used bourbon barrels to age for an additional 6 months, before bottling. If you get a chance to try this unique brew, I'd highly recommend it.

Town Branch also has a set of copper stills, also produced in Scotland, that are very similar to the setup at Woodford's Reserve. They only age their bourbon 2 to 3 years, and it tends to be a lighter, sweeter tasting bourbon, that is great for mixing. The tour was very informative, concise, and definitely a fitting end tour our journey on the Bourbon Trail. It took us 2 days to hit the highlights, but we procured all 7 stamps in our passport and also built up a much more discerning bourbon palate.

Happy New Year to you and yours! And good luck and safe travels in your own adventures in 2013!


The distillation room at Town Branch.