Taking the Bourbon Trail, one sip at a time

April 08, 2007|By Phil Vettel | Phil Vettel,Chicago Tribune

BARDSTOWN, Ky. -- As visitors to California's wine country can attest, there's nothing like driving through rolling hills of beautiful greenery, making periodic stops for complimentary sips of the homegrown beverage.

Which is what my friends Jeff, Kelly and I were doing - hundreds of miles from the Pacific Coast. No wine snobs we (though, truth be told, we kind of are), our little threesome was traveling the byways of Kentucky and quaffing bourbon - a real man's drink and America's native spirit.

We were riding the Bourbon Trail, a cluster of seven open-to-the-public distilleries packed into about a 1,000-square- mile parcel of bluegrass country, roughly southeast of Louisville and clustered around Frankfort, the state's capital.

We booked a couple of rooms at an inn in Bardstown (the trail's second-southernmost point), started up north and worked our way south, reasoning that by the time we had too much whiskey, we'd want to be as close to our hotel as possible.

Bourbon is, at its essence, whiskey. But a couple of important points distinguish bourbon from the pack. First, bourbon is distilled from mash that contains at least 51 percent corn, along with other grains. Second, bourbon is aged in oak barrels, and the barrels are charred on the inside; contact with the charred wood is what gives bourbon its characteristic caramel and oak flavor notes. There are also restrictions regarding proof levels and such, but I don't want to spoil the tour for you.

There is a Bourbon County in Kentucky, whence the name, but bourbon need not be made there to earn the name (bourbon need not be made in Kentucky, for that matter, though nearly all of it is). Indeed, none of the Bourbon Trail distilleries is in Bourbon County, though a couple are close.

You'll hear a lot of superlatives during your tours. Jim Beam is the world's largest bourbon-maker, Woodford Reserve is one of the oldest (and the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby), Maker's Mark is the oldest working distillery on its original site, and so on.

Most tours are free (Woodford Reserve, the sole exception, charges $5), and reservations are unnecessary, unless there are more than 10 in your group. In theory, one can visit all seven distilleries in a single day; in practice, it's nearly impossible to hit more than four, because the earliest tours don't start until 9 a.m. and the last tours of the day start between 3 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. (It only took three stops on the trail to send us packing.) And though the distilleries aren't far apart, you'll do much of your driving on winding country roads with low speed limits.

Besides, after four to six shots of bourbon, you shouldn't be doing much driving anyway. A DUI citation makes for a lousy souvenir.

Jim Beam

Our first stop of the day was at the Jim Beam distillery, a mere 25 miles south of downtown Louisville. The world's largest bourbon producer doesn't invite visitors into its huge production area. Instead, there's a largely self-directed tour of beautifully landscaped grounds, dotted with buildings with displays of historic interest.

We started at the souvenir shop, which contains all things Jim Beam, including Jim Beam leather jackets, Jim Beam bar stools, pool-table lamps and, more practically, miniature bourbon bottles and bourbon-flavored chocolates. After a little film on the "First Family of Bourbon" in the adjacent theater, guests receive a complimentary bung, which is what they call the wood plug that seals the barrel hole. Then it's on to the grounds, where you can see a vintage still and several outbuildings, including a cooperage (barrel-making) display - nonfunctional but interesting.

We ended up at the gracious T. Jeremiah Beam home, whose parlor contains the tasting room. On our visit, the parlor was offering complimentary tastings of two of Jim Beam's small-batch bourbons, the peppery Basil Hayden's and the high-octane (more than 120 proof) Booker's - a little too much for me, way too intense for Kelly and just about right for Jeff. Fortunately, there was water available (and there should be; a few drops of water added to bourbon actually opens up the flavor).

"Which one do you like best?" asked our hostess, smiling.

"I can't decide," I said. "Can I try them again?"

I could. Love that Southern hospitality.

Maker's Mark

This small distillery is the southernmost stop on the Bourbon Trail. Maker's Mark is difficult to find and takes you miles out of your way.

But you should go anyway.

The Maker's Mark property, through which trickles Whiskey Creek (naturally), is beautiful. And the guided tour is just terrific.

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