The Kentucky Bourbon Trail is not an actual trail

Jul 03 2014 Published by under Uncategorized

Last week, J and I returned from a much needed getaway in a red mustang convertible. We spent the weekend cruising the beautiful landscape of eastern Kentucky, stopping occasionally to sample a delightful local spirit or two, and then took back roads all the way home to NJC. It was a great road trip. America the Beautiful, etc.

If you enjoy 1) whiskey; 2) learning things; and 3) seeing beautiful rolling hills and horses, I highly recommend a visit to Bourbon County, KY, in a mustang convertible if possible. In preparation for your trip, here are some things that might be good for you to know:

1. The Kentucky Bourbon Trail is not an actual trail, it is a marketing concept. If you're imagining that there's some 5-mile stretch of winding Kentucky road somewhere that would allow you to zig-zag from distillery to distillery in an afternoon, you're highly mistaken in your imagination. In reality, there are two primary clumps of distilleries - one in Frankfort, and the other in Bardstown - about 45 min apart from each other (I suppose "Kentucky Bourbon Clumps" did not quite pass muster with focus groups). Moreover, the KBT officially consists of only 8 distilleries that collectively produce most of the American whiskeys you've probably heard of. However, there are plenty of smaller craft distilleries in the area as well, and some larger distilleries, like Buffalo Trace, that for whatever reason are not officially linked to the KBT.

The yeast room at Four Roses

2. It is pretty much impossible to get drunk (or even driving impaired) while visiting the distilleries. Probably one of the first things you'd think when planning a trip to the KBT is, OMG all that bourbon! How will we get around? Should we hire a party bus or something? But you needn't worry. They have it all figured out already. First, you can't go to a distillery, do a tasting, and leave - you have to take a tour, which lasts anywhere from maybe 30 min to an hour. The tasting comes at the end, and you'll get maybe 2-3 TINY tastes, so that all in all for one distillery you've probably had a total of 1/2 an oz of liquor, max, which is a third of a shot. Then you have to do it all again at the next distillery, which is a minimum 15 min drive away plus waiting for the next tour to start, so you're looking at around at least 1.5 hours in between very small amounts of alcohol. Relatedly, you will probably get to fewer distilleries in a day than you imagine. We did 3 the first day and 2 the second.

3. Visit a mix of large and small distilleries. Distilleries come in all shapes and sizes, and the five-and-a-half we went to each gave us a different experience. I say "and a half" because we tried to go to Woodford, the Lexus of Distilleries, but it was swarming with people and had over an hour wait for tours, so we bailed and went to Four Roses instead. The "Hard Hat Tour" at Buffalo Trace was by far the most informative about the whiskey-making process, and is great if you really want to see everything and get a kick out of cool old industrial stuff (like me). They also do this cool trick with their White Dog where you rub it on your hands a couple of times and smell the different elements each time it's exposed to the air. Wild Turkey has a brand new facility that completely lacked character and their tour was kind of boring, but their gorgeous new visitor center somewhat made up for it (see pic below).

View up to the "Angel's Loft" or something at Wild Turkey.


4. For tasting, the small distilleries are way better. We had this vision that at all the distilleries we'd get to taste some rare new thing that was fresh out of the barrels, but at most of the big distilleries it was like, "here's a taste of our most widely available product." Yawn. In contrast, the small distilleries delivered. The Willett distillery, which makes Rowan's Creek, one of the best bourbons on the planet, was our favorite. Our tour group was small and our guide seemed genuinely happy that we were there. They also have the most stunning still I think I've ever seen (pic below). And as a bonus, we got to taste their hot off the presses 2-year rye, which was easily the best thing we drank all weekend. It's not sold anywhere, and we took home two bottles. We also visited Limestone Branch, a one-building operation so new their bourbon hasn't even aged the requisite 2 years yet, but we had a great visit with the distillers, who were super down-to-earth and shared their "Sugar Shine" line of spirits with us.

The gorgeous still at Willett, inspiration for their bottle shape.

All in all, a truly awesome trip.  And now, alas, back to science.

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