A Rambling Ride Through Kentucky Bourbon Country
As a “spirits pro” of sorts, one place that I’ve been wanting—nay needing—to explore for some time is Kentucky’s bourbon country, where 95 percent of all bourbon whiskey is made. This is an important pilgrimage for spirits aficionados. Bourbon is America’s native spirit after all, officially recognized as such by Congress in 1964. There are more barrels of bourbon aging in Kentucky right now than there are people in the state. Even if you’re not a whiskey fan, there’s plenty of history to soak up, and the distillery tours are fascinating whether you intend to indulge in some of that good Kentucky corn or not.
I’m ashamed to admit it took me so long to make my way down and bask in the glory of bourbon’s birthplace, so I was determined to make up for it and then some with a quick weekend jaunt to the Bluegrass State.
The Highlands neighborhood in Louisville.
On the Road
In the old days, I would have provisioned myself for the road with cigarettes and Mountain Dew. Nowadays, it’s a bag of Skinny Pop and a travel cup of herbal tea. My wife, Beth, and I headed down Highway 64, which is basically a straight four-hour shot right into Louisville via Illinois and Indiana. The landscape along this route ranges from gently rolling hills to farmers’ fields to several stretches that are reminiscent of Southern marshlands. Billboards, outlet malls and mega truck stops mar the scene. It’s a good road for putting the car on cruise, picking a meditative playlist and getting a little bit contemplative.
We rolled through Louisville and headed south to Clermont, home of the Jim Beam American Stillhouse. One of the big boys of the bourbon world, JB has been around in one form or another for almost two centuries. The rambling campus here shows just how big a business bourbon has become, and how important Beam is in the grand scheme of things (there’s more bourbon aging here than anywhere else in the country). The distillery tour hits all of the basics of whiskey production and you get to be up close and personal with the fermenters and the still, as well as taste some of the good stuff straight from the barrel. The tasting following the tour allows for two samples from the entire Beam line. My pair included an experimental beta whiskey that’s currently going through trials.
We opted to stay in Bardstown, about 40 miles outside of Louisville, which bills itself as the trailhead of the Bourbon Trail. It still has that small town feel, replete with a quaint downtown area, and rooms can be had on the cheap. After checking into the motel, we headed back into Louisville to check out the local scene. Bartender friends have been talking up The Silver Dollar to me for a while, so a visit there was imperative. The place doesn’t have a heavy-handed trendy design. Instead it just feels like a good ol’ neighborhood joint, with classic country on the turntable behind the bar, good food and a fine selection of cocktails (Beth’s pick: the HonkyTonk Angel), bourbons, tequilas and mezcals.
Next stop: Garage Bar in the East Market District, another place recommended by STL friends and Louisville locals alike. Located in a reclaimed garage space, it’s famous for wood-fired pizza and house- cured meats, along with the requisite impressive bourbon list, including one of my personal go-tos: Old Grand Dad 114. Beth indulged in a pint of Shotgun Wedding from Country Boy Brewing, a tasty brown ale we encountered several times during the trip. We’d already stuffed ourselves by the time we arrived, but once we saw The Ham Bar on the menu, a sampler of four wildly divergent artisanal hams, we had to make room.
Garage Bar interior.
We headed over to Lawrenceburg, about 40 minutes from Bardstown, to check out the operations of some more personal favorites: Wild Turkey and Four Roses. We didn’t make the tour at Wild Turkey, but we did peruse the visitors’ center and take in the beautiful view of the Kentucky River out back and the old railroad trestle that spans it.
Just down the road, Four Roses is quite the contrast to the more industrial distilleries around. With its fermenting tanks made of cypress, you won’t find much stainless steel here. The main buildings, built in the California Mission style, are painted a deep saffron and streaked with the black “whiskey fungus” that tends to darken the areas surrounding any distillery. We lucked out and got the premium tasting at the end of the tour, which included a couple of tasty small-batch variations that warmed us up from the inside out, a feeling known, according to our tour guide, as a “Kentucky hug.”
Back in Bardstown, we just made it to the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History before it closed. The museum is built around the collection that its namesake, a former spirits distributor and one-time owner of Barton Distillery, accrued over the course of his career. At the risk of sounding hackneyed, it’s a little bit like stepping back in time here. This historic building feels like a cross between a church basement and Grandma’s parlor and is full of vintage bottles, many unopened (No tastings – I asked), and plenty of other spirited accoutrement, like prohibitionist Carrie Nation’s hatchet. There’s also a treasure trove of vintage whiskey advertising on display, giving a rare look at many brands that are only memories now.
Top photo and above: Large fermenters at Four Roses Distillery.
We decided to stick around Bardstown for dinner at the Old Talbott Tavern. This historic building dates from the 1700s and has operated as a tavern ever since, save for a short time in the late 1990s when there was a fire and it was closed for repairs. Beth and I hit up their version of the iconic hot brown (our first, by the way), a Kentucky specialty with turkey, ham, bacon and tomatoes covered in a cheesy Mornay sauce. The Old Talbott is reportedly the oldest bourbon bar in the country and haunted as well; the most notable ghost on premises is reportedly that of famed outlaw Jesse James. The only spirit I encountered, though, was whiskey (cue rimshot…).
There are two distilleries in the immediate Bardstown area, and they couldn’t be more different. Barton 1792 Distillery is reminiscent of how distilleries used to be in the days before the current bourbon boom hit. There’s no high-tech visitors’ center with interactive displays here, but the tour offers an intimate look at the inner workings of the distillery, which has been around since 1879. We got there first thing in the morning and enjoyed a quiet tasting experience. Stella, our tour guide, also offered us samples of Barton’s two flagship whiskies—Very Old Barton and 1792—and gave us some good pointers on what else to see in town.
Heaven Hill Distilleries, just a few miles away, is home to the state-of-the-art Bourbon Heritage Center, a sprawling combo of gift shops and an interactive bourbon history experience. The Heaven Hill tour spends a lot of time in one of the campus’ rickhouses, where barrels are aged, and gives visitors an appreciation of just how important the barrel is to the finished product. While the surroundings might be cutting-edge, the hospitality here is pure Old South. Our guide was a gracious Southern dame who discussed the history of Old Fitzgerald with us while we nipped on some Larceny, which shares the same mashbill. On a side note, apparently I’m also the spitting image of her parish priest, in both looks and drinking habits.
On the way out of town, we ended our Kentucky experience with lunch at Mammy’s Kitchen (thanks to Stella for the recommendation!), a Southern home cooking icon in Bardstown and the only place I know of where you can get a fried bologna sandwich and a pour of Pappy Van Winkle. My budget only allowed me some Old Forester, but the bologna was stellar.
It was a whirlwind tour for sure: five distilleries, 830 miles and untold drams of whiskey in just over two days. We packed a lot of experiences into that short time frame, and we really just scratched the surface of what bourbon country has to offer: top-notch food and drink establishments, rich history and the friendliest of people, not to mention an abundance of fine whiskey. Sounds like a return trip is in order…
The three main ingredients in Jim Beam’s mash bill.
Photography by Matt Kile for ALIVE.