To sum up a Bourbon Trail adventure, it really doesn’t matter whether you drink or don’t drink, whether you love or hate bourbon, whether you’re in the mood for a “Kentucky hug” (what they call the warm sensation in your chest as you sip), whether you are under 21 or over 21 (if you are under 21, you are only allowed to sniff the spirits, not taste – but don’t despair that is a sooooo much a key part of appreciating the product), the Kentucky Bourbon Trail has something to offer to everyone. It is fun, interesting, historical, very educational and definitely well worth a visit. It should be on everyone’s bucket list!
Here’s our Bourbon Trail story:
We had experienced a taste of central Kentucky and the Kentucky Bourbon Trail back in 2012 when we visited the Heaven Hill Distillery and tried to tour the Jim Beam Distillery. I used the word “tried” because unbeknownst to us at the time, Jim Beam was undergoing major renovations and building a new visitor center so tours weren’t available. This year after our visit to Entegra and knowing that Florida was enveloped in abnormally hot humid temps, we decided to chill out in Kentucky for a while and pay the Beams another visit.
It took that one hands on, interactive, very interesting and fun tour at Jim Beam to reel us in, to make us want to see and learn more about the bourbon industry. What we thought would be a quick stop quickly expanded into a much longer 12 day visit encompassing stays at three different campgrounds and visiting ten distilleries between Louisville and Lexington. Initially, we figured if you’ve seen one distillery you’ve seen them all, but that wasn’t the case at all – each distillery had a unique product and technique so we never tired of the tours. And surprisingly we didn’t even see them all – there are a bunch more distilleries on the Kentucky Craft Passport Tour! Guess we’ll have to return some day to visit those!
After visiting Jim Beam and Makers Mark (which was beautiful BTW), plus taking a tour at a nearby cooperage to see how barrels were made, we were hooked on the Kentucky Bourbon Passport delirium. Pick up a Passport at any visitor center or at any of the distilleries then present your Passport at the distillery visitor center and have them stamp it. A tour or tasting is not required – but then you would be missing out on a lot of the fun!
So yes, we visited the nine distilleries on the official Bourbon Trail plus the Buffalo Trace distillery (not officially on the Bourbon Trail) because it was free and it was recommended to us by several people. Since we had already visited Heaven Hill in 2012, we didn’t take that tour again but we did get our Passport stamped. We did tour the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience, the Four Roses Bottling Facility, Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Town Branch, Wild Turkey and Woodford Reserve. We arrived at the Bulleit Distillery to late in the day for a tour but we did get the stamp. And we were also too late to tour the Four Roses Distillery in Lawrenceberg (we did a tasting there however) although as mentioned above we did tour their Bottling Facility in Cox’s Creek.
Finally, with our 9 stamps in hand, we stopped by a Trailhead. In our case the Lexington Visitor Center in the Horse Capital of the World (and new home to retired champion American Pharoah) to pick up our free Bourbon Trail T-shirt!
Did I say “free”? HA! I snickered as I wrote that! Free – not hardly! With tours costing up to $10 per person and the additional expense for any souvenirs (aka bottles) that we bought, taking as many tours as we did didn’t exactly make that t-shirt free! And it wasn’t anything extraordinary – just a blue T-shirt with “Kentucky Bourbon Trail” stamped on it! But rest assured, the T-shirt wasn’t our only reward, some of the distilleries give us a glass stamped or etched with the distillery name so now we also have an assortment of “free” glasses in our already cluttered cupboards.
Like most tourists to the area, we initially thought that the Bourbon Trail was just about the tasting at the end of each tour, but 10 distillery tours later our perspective totally changed. It’s not just about the sniffing and sipping, there’s a lot more to the Bourbon Trail than that:
It’s about the history…
Since the late 1700’s, the whiskey and bourbon industries have experienced significant growth which has resulted in central Kentucky becoming the bourbon capital of the world. After all, Bourbon is a uniquely American product and can only be made here in the USA. Here are some of the historical highlights that we learned about.
We’ve all heard the saying “go west young man” which has been attributed to Horace Greeley. Well, whiskey (and later bourbon) made a significant contribution to the population expansion west of the Appalachians (but not because of what you’re thinking). Irish and Scottish immigrants had made their way to America, expecting they would move west, but when they arrived in Kentucky they realized that the limestone filtered water and climate there was perfect for the making of whiskey.
After nearly losing the territory that is now Kentucky in the French and Indian War, to get people to move west and occupy the land, Thomas Jefferson offered multiple acres as an incentive, with the only stipulation being that the pioneers pay off their debt with 1 acre worth of corn every year. But with no easy roads over the mountains and only a footpath or Buffalo Trace for travel, it was difficult to physically transport an acre worth of corn back over the mountains to Washington. With the help of the Scottish and Irish and their expertise with distillation, the pioneers quickly learned to convert their corn into spirits, paying their debt back in that much more easily transportable form. One of the first government loopholes! Fortunately no one in Washington was complaining.
According to one story, bourbon was discovered by accident back in the late 1700’s. At the time, barrels were used to store fish, flour, and lots of other things. And as those barrels were time consuming and difficult to make, it made sense to reuse them. Early settlers would sterilize used barrels with a flame which of course charred the inside. It was just by accident that they soon realized that the spirits stored in these charred barrels for long periods of time during hot and cold weather gave ordinary whiskey a very pleasant and mellow flavor not to mention that beautiful amber color, thus Bourbon was born.
Thanks to Alexander Hamilton who implemented taxes on whiskey and bourbon to pay off war debts from the Revolutionary War, today each barrel is taxed. About 60 percent of every bottle of spirits in Kentucky goes to taxes or fees, with seven different taxes on Bourbon – including a tax on barrels for each and every year it ages generating $166 million in tax revenue. And then we pay more taxes when we buy it!
And then there was Prohibition during the years 1920 to 1933. Before Prohibition, more than 250 distilleries dotted the Kentucky countryside. During Prohibition from 1920 to 1933 only four distilleries (Buffalo Trace was one of the four) remained open and were allowed by government permit to continue distillation for medicinal purposes. Each person (even children) was permitted one pint every ten days with a doctor’s prescription. But this period of time wasn’t just about the drinking, Prohibition had major impact on the economy as distillery workers, barkeepers, tavern owners, barrel-makers, and liquor salesmen saw their jobs disappear overnight. Other related businesses suffered as well including the farmers who supplied the grain, machinists who made and serviced distillery equipment, and railroads, steamships, and trucking companies that transported the end product. After prohibition, less than half of the distilleries reopened.
It’s about the rules….
You may have heard that “all bourbon is whiskey but not all whiskey is bourbon”. So what exactly distinguishes bourbon from all the rest of the spirits? There are five rules:
- It must be made in the United States. Although the majority of it is made it KY, it doesn’t have to be.
- Aging must take place in a new, charred, oak barrel. No specification for the type of oak, but as far as we know everyone uses white oak.
- The mash must be at least 51 percent corn.
- The whiskey cannot enter the barrel at higher than 125 proof. It cannot enter the bottle at a proof less than 80.
- Nothing can be added but water and only to lessen the proof when necessary. Other whiskeys can add color and flavor. Not bourbon, it must be 100% au naturel. We found it amazing that so many natural “flavors” can be generated by manipulation of the aging process. Creating these flavors is one of the true arts of bourbon making.
It’s about the process…
The making of bourbon is complicated but here is a simplified version of how it is made.
- Besides the 51% (or more) of corn, bourbon is made from other grains – rye and/or wheat and malted barley.
- Once finely ground, these grains are mixed with water to produce a mash.
- A little bit of yesterday’s mash known as “sour mash” is added to the vats. This helps with consistency in flavor.
- Yeast is then added and it is fermented in huge vats which are usually either made of cypress wood or stainless steel. Each distillery has its own proprietary yeast formula. In case of some catastrophe which could put them out of business, they store the yeast starter in several different locations.
- After a designated amount of time which varies by distillery, the fermented mash is then distilled until it is between 65% and 80% alcohol.
- After the first distillation it produces what is called “low wine”. After the second or third distillation, the resulting clear spirit, is called “white dog” or “high wine”.
- It is placed in newly charred barrels for aging, during which it gains color and flavor from the caramelized sugars in the charred wood. By law, bourbon must be aged in barrels for at least two years. Char levels (1-4) are specified by each distillery. This is where the real magic happens. Many consider the barrel itself to be an “ingredient”.
- Each year as it ages, the barrel loses about 3 – 4% of the bourbon to evaporation, or what is known as the “angel’s share”. If a bourbon is aged for 12 years, half of the contents of the barrel has gone to the “angel’s share”.
- The barrels can only be used once so when emptied most are sold to Scotland and Ireland where they are used for Irish Whiskey or Scotch Whisky. Yep, the spelling makes a difference, see the photo above. Some beer makers (Town Branch for example) also employ used barrels to flavor Ales and Stouts.
It’s about the cultural, social and economic impact….
According to this 2014 Native Spirit article, “the meteoric rise of Kentucky’s signature Bourbon industry has nearly doubled the size of its workforce in the last two years, tripled the number of distilleries and set major new benchmarks for payroll, tax revenue, exports and barrel inventories.” Yes, Kentucky has become the Bourbon Capital of the World supplying 95% of the bourbon around the world.
In fact bourbon has become so popular the number of barrels currently aging in Kentucky far exceeds the number of Kentuckians! That’s right, there are 5.4 million aging barrels while the number of Kentuckians is only 4.1 million! So at 53 gallons per barrel…well you do the math!
We learned that the Japanese, Europeans and Australians love American bourbon so much the majority of it is exported overseas (percentages vary with distillery). In fact several distilleries (Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark and Four Roses) are now owned by Japanese companies while Wild Turkey is owned by an Italian company, Campari Gruppo. Bourbon and Tennessee whiskey account for $1 billion of the total $1.5 billion in distilled spirits exports. It is, by far, the largest export category among all U.S. distilled spirits.
The number of licensed distilleries has tripled from 10 to 31 and the number of distillery employees has increased by 77 percent since 2012. In terms of tourism, Kentucky has implemented a brilliant marketing campaign (the Bourbon Trail Passport) that drew over 630,000 visitors in 2014 to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, a 43% increase over the number of visitors in 2012. Not surprising since the Kentucky Bourbon Trail was recently number one on USA Today’s list of ’10 Amazing North American Road Trips’.
Besides the increased tourism, the bourbon industry has had significant impact on other areas as well. It’s a win win situation for the local farmers – Kentucky distillers purchase about 40 percent of their grains. Kentucky distillers also “give away about $2.5 million worth of “spent grains,” the grain solids that remain after the distillation process ends, to local farmers as a feed source for cattle and other livestock (and we thought the dogs of RV’ers had it made)! In fact, the report says distillers produce enough spent grain to feed 90,000 cows a year.” A local cooperage, the Kentucky Independent Stave Company, has grown from 100 employees to 400, adding additional shifts to keep up with the demand for barrels. So the boom in bourbon has had significant impact on other industries.
It’s all about tradition and the art and science of making bourbon…
No one can talk about bourbon without mentioning the generations of master distillers, many from the same family, who have through years and years of experimentation finely tuned the very complex distillation and fermentation processes resulting in the production of the finest bourbon in the world. At Wild Turkey we saw Jimmy Russell who is known as “the master distillers’ master distiller” sitting in the gift shop. Unfortunately we didn’t realize who he was until after we left the facility. With 60 years experience, he is the longest-tenured, active master distiller in the world. He is also known as the pioneer of the flavored bourbon category in 1976.
So many factors affect the color and taste – the ratio of grains, the type of yeast (each distillery has its own proprietary yeast recipe that has been carried down through many generations), the barrel (the type of wood used, the char level of the barrel, etc.), the impact of the extreme fluctuations in temperature in the rick houses where the barrels are stored, the location of the barrels in the rick houses, whether the barrels are turned or moved during the aging process, even the type of rick houses (single storied, multi-storied, wood, stone) and the duration of aging. So many factors can determine the success of the bourbon. So is it an art or a science? Perhaps a little of both?
It’s about the beautiful state of Kentucky….
And last but not least, it’s about traveling the narrow (sometimes one lane) country roads between the distilleries and seeing the beautiful picture perfect countryside of Kentucky. We quickly found ourselves gasping over and over again at the scenery. Miles and miles of picturesque rolling hills carpeted with the infamous Kentucky bluegrass, the massive mansion-like stables dotting the landscape and the stately thoroughbreds grazing in the pastures corralled by miles and miles of gleaming white and black double fences. It was easy for us to quickly fall in love with this beautiful state, vowing to return in the future to explore more of the surrounding countryside. BTW, for those of you with a big rig many of these roads are not big rig friendly, so leave the bus at the campground.
To repeat my opening statement, it really doesn’t matter whether you drink or don’t drink, love (Rob) or hate bourbon (me – I don’t hate it but I don’t like it that much), whether you’re in the mood for a “Kentucky hug” (what they call the warm sensation in your chest as you sip), whether you are under 21 or over 21 (if you are under 21, you are only allowed to sniff the spirits, not taste – but don’t despair that is a sooooo much a key part of appreciating the product), the Kentucky Bourbon Trail has something to offer to everyone. It is fun, interesting, very educational and definitely well worth a visit. It should be on everyone’s bucket list!
BTW, there are a few Android apps (not sure about Apple) for the Bourbon Trail. Bourbon Tour is the one I used – it is by Wilmsoft LLC which gives you links to each of the distilleries and provides suggestions for other tours in the area.
Wondering which distillery tours (and products) we liked best? Well, we’ll be sharing our opinion in a future post. Stay tuned.