The legend of Bourbon Country and thoroughbreds comes through loud and clear in eastern Kentucky where both reign. Add to that a genteel lifestyle accented with white-board fences cross-crossing lush pastures. More highlights to make this destination an ideal slice of Americana are the state’s Civil War sites, cozy towns and the Southern hospitality of the locals.
The Kentucky Distillers Association blended these tourism elements when they created their Kentucky Bourbon Trail tour a few years back. What began slowly soon mushroomed into a roaring success. Last year, 500,000 visitors visited the tour’s seven bourbon distilleries found along a 70-mile stretch between Lexington and Louisville, appropriately shaped like a horseshoe. It helps that Lexington is the Horse Capital of the World and the Kentucky Derby takes place in Louisville. Both cities are starting points for the Trail.
What to Know Beforehand
Ninety-five percent of the world’s bourbon is made in Kentucky, which accounted for almost five million barrels of bourbon aging in warehouses last year. The resurgence of the spirit’s popularity keeps distilleries at peak production and bourbon by-products appearing on shelves. Some are bourbon barrel soy sauce; bourbon ball candies; bourbon sugar; bourbon smoked sea salt; bourbon-bacon jam and even bourbon barrel ale.
The Kentucky Bourbon Trail’s distilleries for touring are Four Roses, Heaven Hill, Jim Beam, Marker’s Mark, Town Branch, Wild Turkey and Woodford Reserve. For 2013, several craft bourbon makers were included. It takes three days by car to complete the tour or less as a hop-on, hop-off journey. Blue Grass Tours in Lexington and Mint Julep Tours in Louisville offer VIP and group packages.
All distilleries have a Visitor’s Center where tour participants gather. Some tours are free; others charge a nominal fee. They last about an hour; most have a mini-van for traveling throughout the distillery’s landscape and all have exceptionally knowledgeable guides. All tours provide a close view of the operations, from the fermenting mash vats to the bottling lines. At tour’s end, samplings are free (small amounts). By law, a person can purchase three one-litre bottles at each distillery. There are no discounts. In fact, it may be less expensive to purchase some brands at a local liquor store.
The Woodford Reserve in Versailles is the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby, which has its own label and bottle each year. This distillery is the oldest and smallest working one on the tour. Its main house was once a log cabin, now refurbished and complete with a wrap-around porch and rockers. A bottle label can be personalized at its gift shop as a bourbon souvenir.
At Heaven Hill in Bardstown, the warehouses and many trees are covered with “the angel’s share.” It resembles a black smudge and is caused by the evaporation coming off the aging barrels. Visitors here get a comprehensive and educational tasting given in a barrel-shaped room. They learn drinking bourbon “neat” means straight up. Or cut it with ice to open the flavor so as not to burn the back of the throat. A first-rate exhibition area traces bourbon’s history.
Recently, Maker’s Mark in Loretto tried to dilute their bourbon with water in order to meet the world demand. But the world said, “no way.” These grounds have a touch of the founding Samuels family. Some of the cypress-wood fermenting vats are 100 years old. They bubble, like all bourbon-making vats do, from active yeast consuming sugar in the grains. Visitors can replicate the company’s red wax bottle neck on a purchased souvenir bottle by personally dipping it in red wax.
The distillery responsible for 50 percent of the bourbon produced in Kentucky is Jim Beam, a seventh-generation-run company. It uses 200 acres of corn a day and bottled 7 million cases last year. This tour takes in many labels and buildings. At the tasting center, visitors receive a card with two programmed shots. Choose from 14 Jim Beam brands by pressing a dispenser.
Kentucky Bourbon Trail Towns
Starting the Bourbon Trail in Lexington is a favorite choice. Discover historic downtown buildings using a free Lexington Walk brochure and LexWalk Audio Tour smart phone app. Both are available at the city’s Victorian Square tourist center. Keeneland Race Track is here and is where thoroughbreds race April and October. Self-guided tours are year-round. The horses are worked out from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. each morning.
For a good night’s sleep on a Tempur-Pedic mattress, stay at the downtown Gratz Park Inn that also offers complimentary parking. Jonathan’s onsite restaurant is a winner. Expect the menu to have bourbon in some selections. Supposedly, the best Old Fashioned drink in town is served at Jonathan’s bar.
Next morning, head south to Berea where the State of Kentucky created an artisans’ center right off highway 75. All items are in the folk arts and crafts categories with pricing up to the thousands. They represent 170 counties and 650 vendors. Venturing into the town of Berea and its downtown is an overflowing treasure of shops manned by working artists. They sell hand-made furniture, quilts, instruments and much more. Be sure to eat and overnight at the Historic Boone Tavern and Restaurant that also offers complimentary bicycles.
Small-town devotees or those wanting to overnight will find great eats, unusual lodging, boutique shopping and varied tourist attractions in Bardstown. Recently, USAToday and Rand McNally named it the “Most Beautiful Small Town in America.” Even the local tourist office was surprised but knew the town’s 12,000 inhabitants had plenty to offer. About 200 buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places, two Civil War museums are renowned and a former jailhouse became a hotel.
“My Old Kentucky Dinner Train” in Bardstown is three fully restored 1940s cars. Diners enjoy a gourmet lunch or dinner on white tablecloths with red napkins served by waiters in tuxedos during its 17-mile, 2.5 hour excursion. Of the town’s three ghost tours, the family-friendly “Visit with the Spirits of Wickland” tour is conducted by two women who claim to be mediums. Pick up homemade cheese, fruitcake and delicious bourbon fudge made on site by Trappist Monks at The Abbey of Gethsemani.
Before leaving this area, visit the Bernheim Forest in Clermont for a peaceful farewell. The weeping Japanese Pagoda tree, begun as a seedling in 1954, greets visitors at the front gate. Inside, there are 32 miles of hiking trails, lakes and an informative Visitor’s Center. Lunch features healthy foods from local farmers.
There is little to dislike on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Sipping bourbon at 9:30 a.m. has the Twitter world stunned at that part. But the compliment heard most often is the beautiful scenery experienced along the route. A Bourbon Trail Passport is available at the distilleries and on the Web. Have it stamped at all seven to receive a free T-shirt.
For information about the Bourbon Trail:
Lexington Visitors Bureau: 800-845-3959; www.visitlex.com
Kentucky Bourbon Distillers: www.kybourbontrail.com
Blue Grass Tours: www.bluegrasstours.com/
Shepherdsville Tourism (Jim Beam and Bernheim): www.travelbullitt.org