Bopping along the KY Bourbon Trail
In planning our stop at Taylorsville, we weren’t aware that we were quite near what is known as the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. We did know that Jim Beam had a distillery in KY but had no idea how many other distilleries there were!
The Bourbon Trail (click on the link to see a map) is a triangle that extends from northern KY near Louisville along interstate 65 to Elizabethtown (about 50 miles south of Louisville) then west along the Blue Grass Parkway to Lexington (about 80 miles). This area is where the larger distilleries of Jim Beam, Four Roses, Wild Turkey, Woodford Reserve, Maker’s Mark as well as many other ones are located. Bourbon is to Kentucky what wine is to Napa Valley!
It had rained on Friday night and when we awoke on Saturday, it was dismal, dreary and drizzly so it didn’t take much to convince ourselves that it would be a good day to go distillery hopping (well, at least to one).
Since we didn’t want to go to a distillery on an empty stomach and we didn’t want to sample bourbon at 10 a.m., we decided to stop at the Taylorsville Family Restaurant for breakfast – not much choice since it was the only option in town.
Our dining experience started out with two cups of cold decaf – it wasn’t iced and it wasn’t hot – it was just yucky! The waitress, a very nice young girl who was probably the “family” part of the restaurant, told us that the fuse had blown on the hot plate so she was making a fresh pot so thankfully hot coffee arrived shortly thereafter. But apparently they were short handed in the kitchen so even though it wasn’t busy, it took a while for our breakfast to arrive.
When we ordered from the menu, we ordered the first breakfast selection – two eggs, bacon, hash browns and toast for $6.00 but when our meal arrived, there were no hash browns. When I questioned the waitress, she said “she only wrote down what I said” even though I had pointed to the first breakfast choice on the menu. Followed by “we don’t have any potatoes anyway”. Not a big deal but if they don’t have potatoes, why have them on the menu? That sure was a little misleading!
So our breakfast was much like the weather – rather disappointing! Oh yeah, remember how I said I would miss the palm trees when we left FL and AL – well, I saw my first KY palm tree – a large green plastic one strung with lights standing in the corner. Alas, though, no pink flamingos or pelicans! Darn!
After that, we decided to head over to the Jim Beam distillery in Elizabethtown, arriving there around noon time. When we entered the Jim Beam outpost, we were greeted by a woman who asked us if we wanted to go on a tour, making it clear that this was not a distillery tour.
Hmmmm, we were confused – exactly what were we going to tour? Well, the small red outpost was the visitor center, the gift shop and the tasting room all rolled into one. And unfortunately everyone had the same idea of what to do on a rainy day because it was pretty crowded!
It appeared that the tour was going to be a walk around the outside of the buildings next to the outpost and a tour inside the T. Jeremiah Beam house where three generations of Beam distillers have lived. Apparently they are doing some new construction and the distillery part of the tour would not be reinstated until October 2012. Because of this, the crowds and the fact that we would have to wait about 30 minutes for the next tour, we decided to move on.
Next stop was Bardstown, Kentucky’s second oldest city (established in 1780) and the self proclaimed Bourbon Capital of the World. We learned later that at one point in time there were over 75 distilleries in town so the title is probably justified. Their other claim to fame is that Stephen Foster wrote the song “My Old Kentucky Home” here, but more on that later.
One of the biggest distilleries in Bardstown is the Heaven Hill Distillery which is an independent family-owned business and the 7th largest producer of distilled spirits.
To be honest, neither one of us had heard of Heaven Hill but their tour had good reviews (had to be better than Jim Beam) so we figured we would stop. It turns out Heaven Hill produces several brands of spirits that we were familiar with – more on this to follow.
As we walked in to the nicely constructed and appointed Bourbon Heritage Center, we were greeted and asked if we were interested in the free 30 minute “quickie” tour or the more extensive 1 1/2 hour tour. The free 1 1/2 hour tour included a visit to one of the “rick halls” (barrel warehouse).
There were several other tours which you could pay for as well as a trolley tour to historic Bardstown for $5. We opted for the longer free tour. Since we had to wait a bit, we wandered around the Heritage Center looking at the well presented and informative displays.
Here are a few facts about Heaven Hill:
- They have the second largest inventory of aging Kentucky whiskey in the world with over 900,000 barrels, which accounts for nearly 17% of the world’s supply of bourbon.
- They have 18 rick houses, each one stores over 20,000 barrels
- The distillery was founded shortly after Prohibition in 1934. In 2010, on their 76th anniversary, Heaven Hill filled barrel #6,000,000!
- Among other brands, Heaven Hill produces Evan Williams, America’s second-largest selling Bourbon, Elijah Craig, the original Small Batch Bourbon, and Old Fitzgerald, a wheated Bourbon with a storied history.
- In addition to fine Bourbons, Heaven Hill produces and markets products in every distilled spirits category, including The Christian Brothers Brandies, HPNOTIQ Liqueur, PAMA Pomegranate Liqueur, Burnett’s Gin and Vodka, Evan Williams Reserves and Blackheart Premium Spiced Rum.
When our tour was called, we were met by our tour guide (didn’t catch his name), who was pretty interesting and funny. After introducing himself, he led our group of 20 into the theater where we watched a video about the history of Heaven Hill. From there we proceeded to walk across the road to one of their rick houses.
Our guide explained bourbon does not have to be made in Kentucky – it can be made anywhere in the US but Kentucky’s hot summers and cold winters make it an ideal location.
There are federal requirements for a whiskey to be called a bourbon:
- it must be made of a grain mixture that is at least 51% corn (other grains such as malted barley or rye can be added)
- it must be distilled to no more than 160 (U.S.) proof (80% alcohol by volume)
- it must be aged in new, charred oak barrels.
- Straight bourbon must be aged at least two years.
That’s our guide showing us a piece of the charred White Oak barrel stave in the photo on the right. We were told White Oak is the only wood used to age bourbon and the barrels can only be used once. Recently, Scotland began importing the used barrels for their scotch production.
It was interesting to learn that several relatives of the Beam family became the master distillers at Heaven Hill. Craig Beam has been the master distiller here since 1975.
There are 18 steel sided wood framed rick houses at this location, each houses 20,000 to 23,000 oak charred barrels of bourbon at various stages of aging. In 1996, a fire destroyed 3 of the rick houses. The original rick houses had 7 stories. When rebuilding, new laws required that sprinkler systems be installed in any building over 6 stories – the new rick houses were completed with only 6 stories. Even without the additional floor, these new buildings manage to hold over 23,000 barrels.
Rick houses are not climate controlled allowing the barrels to expand and contract depending on the weather outside – and this variation over the months is what makes good bourbon. The steel siding and lack of insulation enhance the heating effect in the summer and keep things as cold as possible in the winter. The hotter it is, the more the pores of the wood open up and impart their flavor. Therefore, barrels stored on the top floor where it is the hottest will have a slightly different flavor than the barrels stored on the bottom floor.
The barrels are loaded into the ricks from the center and roll down toward the outer part of the building. Each rick is 15 barrels deep and 3 high for a total of 45. So the 3 barrels stacked vertically at the far left of the picture on the left are the outer end of 1 rick. As you can see there are many ricks in a row – about 32 in this photo and that’s just one side of one floor! There are about 500 ricks per building.
Construction of the rick house appears to be predominately rough sawn hardwood timbers – there is extensive cross bracing throughout. As we walked along, our guide pointed out a plumb bob (photo right). It was very interesting to learn that just like a boat, the barrels must be loaded and unloaded with careful attention to balance within the building. The plumb bob indicates if the building has become unstable due to an unbalanced barrel distribution. And yes rick houses have completely collapsed when their loads became unbalanced – consider that each rick house supports over 11,000,000 pounds of product!
Along the center aisle, we could see the ramp that they use to roll the barrels up to the rick. It used to take 3 men to move each 550 pound barrel but today they have an electric lift. As the barrels are placed onto the rick, they need to ensure that the cork is positioned just right so it ends up near the top of the barrel as it rolls down the ramp – now there’s a unique skill!
At one point, we were allowed to sniff an open barrel – what a wonderful aroma!
From the rick house, we returned into the Heritage Center where our tour guide stopped by a display of the distillery process. The actual distillery is in Louisville but the models and video at these displays described the process.
Finally we went into the tasting room which is shaped like a giant half whiskey barrel. At each place setting, there was a green and a pink vial, a glass of Elijah Craig 18 year old single barrel bourbon, a glass of Evan Williams 10 year old single barrel and a carafe of filtered water.
First we tested our palate by sniffing the contents of the two vials – one was lavender, the other lemon. To sample each of the bourbons, we were told to first sniff the bourbon and try to distinguish the aromas, then add a few drops of water and sniff again. Finally we were to sip a small amount, hold it in your mouth for a minute or so, then swallow and exhale lightly (as with wine).
Both were excellent but our preference was of course the more expensive Elijah Craig 18 ($75 per bottle). But trust me, the only Elijah that made it home with us was the tasting sample – maybe we can find a deal on it some day! With that, our tour ended. As we left the tasting room, we were given a sample of a “Bourbon Ball” – chocolate with a bourbon flavored filling – yummy! Would we recommend a stop at Heaven Hill? Most definitely!
Now that we were more educated, we realized that we were very familiar with Heaven Hill and had been buying some of their products for years.
Instead of immediately leaving, we decided to take the 30 minutes $5 trolley tour around historic Bardstown. As mentioned at the beginning of this post, Stephen Foster who was from Pittsburgh wrote “My Old Kentucky Home” while he was visiting Federal Hill, a plantation owned by Senator Rowan in 1852. Federal Hill is now a historic site and can be toured in the My Old Kentucky Home State Park.
Other sites that we saw during the tour:
The Wickland House built between 1825-1828, was the home of Three Governors and is considered to be one of the best Georgian-style houses in Kentucky.
Old Talbott’s Tavern, built in the 1700’s, is said to be the oldest western stagecoach stop in America as the western expansion brought explorers from the east into Kentucky. Supposedly Lincoln as a young boy, General Roger Clarke, Daniel Boone and French King Louis Phillipe all stayed there. Jesse James is said to be responsible for some of the bullet holes inside the building. In addition to the tavern, they are a Bed & Breakfast and offer 5 rooms available for stays.
Bardstown Civil War Museum and Pioneer Village which is the 4th largest Civil War Museum in the US. Pioneer Village is a reproduction of a colonial village where they have reenactments.
Plus the War Memorial, the home of the Jim Beam Master Distiller, Booker Noe and many other historic homes as seen in the photos below.
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