Bluegrass, Bourbon, and Beer, Part I

The past three years, I have been a resident of Lexington, in the heart of the Kentucky bluegrass, while pursuing graduate studies in cultural anthropology at the University of Kentucky. Graduate school can be a bit stressful, to say the least. One way my friends and I have had a little fun is by playing tourist at home, exploring the Kentucky Bourbon Trail and the Brewgrass Trail. In this post, I’ll be covering the Bourbon Trail. I’ll turn to the Brewgrass Trail in Part II.

The Kentucky Bourbon Trail stretches roughly from Lexington to Louisville. One of the nine participating distilleries, Alltech Lexington Brewing & Distilling Co., is located near downtown Lexington, which made it a natural starting point for picking up our passports and collecting stamps. Alltech both distills bourbon and brews beer, therefore calling themselves a “brewstillery” (more on the beer later). They provided a tour of both sides of the operation, beer first, followed by spirits. The offerings in the spirits tasting room included Pearse Lyons Reserve whiskey, Town Branch Bourbon, Town Branch Rye, and Bluegrass Sundown, a coffee flavored bourbon liqueur that formed the basis for Alltech’s take on Irish coffee. The Bluegrass Sundown was the big hit for us. Combined with boiling water and topped with heavy cream, it was a tasty way to celebrate our first stop on the Bourbon Trail.

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It took us several months to get back on the trail (school got in the way), but we were on a mission to finish. Finish we did. In three days.

Day One: Four Roses, Wild Turkey, and Woodford Reserve
Four Roses won for best origin story. According to legend, the distillery founder fell madly in love with a young woman. He asked her several times to marry him, and each time she said no. Not easily discouraged, he decided to ask her one last time, at which point she said that if her answer were yes, she would arrive at the upcoming ball wearing a corsage of four red roses. She wore the roses, they were married, and presumably lived happily ever after, naming the distillery in commemoration. The distillery is housed in a beautiful Spanish mission-style building.

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Wild Turkey, located a stone’s throw from Four Roses, offered a surprising array of options for tasting. In addition to touring the distillery and rickhouses (the large barn-like structures where bourbon barrels are stored for ageing), the tour took us past Wild Turkey’s massive industrial bottling line, where they bottle SKYY Vodka in addition to all of Wild Turkey’s offerings. The tasting room provided scenic views of the Kentucky River.

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This was my third visit to Woodford Reserve, Kentucky’s oldest distillery, and it did not disappoint. The setting was gorgeous, the buildings were picturesque, and the tour was informative. One of Woodford’s claims to fame is that they triple distill their bourbon in copper pot stills. The tasting was one of the more educational ones, as the tour guide walked us through a three sip tasting, allowing us to wake up our palates before experiencing the full taste of the bourbon.

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Day Two: Jim Beam, Heaven Hill, and Maker’s Mark
Jim Beam provided the most interactive tour, including opportunities for members of our tour group to add corn to the mash tub, dump a barrel of fully aged bourbon, and clean bottles with bourbon on the bottling line. At the end of the tour, cards were passed out that could be inserted into dispensing machines to select spirits for tasting. A fun bonus in the tasting room was being able to taste an experimental rye whiskey. The whole experience was a little heavy on the theme park vibe, but was admittedly a lot of fun.

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Heaven Hill offered the most comprehensive tour and explanation of rickhouses along the Bourbon Trail. This was due in large part to the fact that Heaven Hill’s bourbons are actually distilled in Louisville. Their Bourbon Heritage Center and tours are at their aging and bottling facility in Bardstown. One of the highlights of the tasting experience was a bonus taste of Elijah Craig Single Barrel 23 Years, bourbon that retails for nearly $300 (!) per bottle. It was incredibly smooth, and by far the best thing we tasted at Heaven Hill.

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Maker’s Mark was in perhaps the quaintest setting, its iconic black buildings with red trim nestled into a shady valley with a creek running through the grounds. One unique stop on this tour was the label printing room. Another was the amazing glass art installation, “The Spirit of the Maker,” by Chihuly. In the gift shop we had the opportunity to dip our own bottle of bourbon in Maker’s signature red wax.

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Day Three: Bulleit and the Evan Williams Experience
Bulleit, located just outside of downtown Louisville, and occupying what was once the Stitzel-Weller Distillery, was unique for its urban setting. The tour began in one of the rickhouses, as Bulleit’s offerings are distilled off site. The tour included the old Stitzel-Weller cooperage, a special feature on this tour, as well as a stop in Tom Bulleit’s office.

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The Evan Williams Experience was certainly an experience. The tour involved a series of videos that aimed to let us relive the establishment of the Evan Williams distillery. The Evan Williams Experience is located in a building across the street from the site of the original. There is a small on-site distillery that produces one barrel at a time. Tastings are conducted in one of the themed tasting rooms styled like bars. Our tasting room was straight out of Mad Men. The whole experience was a little too theme park-like for my taste, but the emphasis on the history of bourbon distilling and trade along the Ohio River would likely make it a good place to start your Bourbon Trail experience.

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Tip: At the distilleries with multiple offerings for limited tastings (Alltech, Wild Turkey, Jim Beam), plan your tasting strategy carefully. If you are touring with a friend (or friends), consider teaming up and sharing tastings.

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