My husband is a big fan of Bourbon so one of his bucket list vacations was to visit a few of his favorite distilleries on the Bourbon Trail in nearby Kentucky. We are planning a big vacation for later this year so we decided to take a few days off this summer and cross this vacation off of the bucket list.
When his co-workers asked him where he was going on vacation and he told them we were going to Kentucky they replied with “that’s not a vacation.”
When I told my co-workers we were doing the Bourbon Trail they asked “so you’re going hiking?”
The response to this vacation idea was pretty comical. But I must admit that we had an absolute blast and I got to scratch that wanderlust photography itch, even though it was only a few hours from home.
During the four tours we learned the following about bourbon:
Rules that must be followed in order to call it bourbon:
- Must be made in the US.
- Must be aged in a new white oak barrel that has been charred on the inside.
- Must be at least 51% corn.
- Cannot be above 160 proof (80%)
- Cannot be above 125 proof when it enters the barrel.
- Any bourbon aged less than 4 years is required to have an aging statement on the bottle.
- All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon.
We also learned that 96% of the world’s bourbon is made in Kentucky alone. This statistic still blows my mind. Little old, off the beaten path, Kentucky is the main source for wonderful bourbon to the entire world.
Maker’s Mark Distillery – Loretto, KY
The drive there was beautiful. Nothing but open fields, trees, mountains and hills with the occasional small village to drive through. I say village because I’m not sure if you could even count these places as towns due to their small size. Once the cell phone service became non-existent I looked at my husband and said “I think we’ve officially entered what is known as ‘backwoods Kentucky’….I like it.” He of course agreed with me and then laughed at me and said “Do you want to move here?” Even though it is very off the grid and we would probably have to get a land line for a phone, I could definitely live there.
As we got close to Maker’s Mark we started to see 6 story black warehouses along the road. Come to find out during our tour, these were some of the Maker’s Mark warehouses where the whiskey is aged. The next thing I noticed was the bark on the trees was no longer brown, but black. This is something that is caused by the chemistry of making whiskey and bourbon. It does not hurt the trees though (this made me happy because…yes, I’m a bit of a tree hugger).
During our tour we learned the history of Maker’s Mark (read about it here https://www.makersmark.com/history)
We entered rooms that were 120 degrees (F) to see the stills, we dipped our fingers in the “mash” to have a taste, which is like sour corn. (Mash is the mixture of the grains that are fermented to make whiskey). We stood in a 6 story warehouse stocked to the brim with barrels full of aging whiskey. On a personal note, someone needs to make a candle called “aging whiskey” the smell of oak barrels full of aging whiskey is amazing. (It does not smell like straight liquor, and no, I am not an alcoholic. Lol). We walked down the factory lines where the bourbon is bottled and the bottles are labeled and sealed. In the case of Maker’s Mark, every bottle is hand dipped in the iconic red wax before packaging. At the end of the tour we got to enjoy a tasting of 4 types of Maker’s Mark and walk through a hallway with a ceiling full of beautiful and colorful glass art.
Before leaving the gift shop we got the opportunity to hand dip our own Maker’s Mark bottles in the red wax and take them home. My husband and I both got our own bottle. The wax on my bottle didn’t even make a full 8 hours before we decided to enjoy a few drinks in our hotel room.
Maker’s Mark ended up being our favorite distillery out of the four we toured.
Jim Beam – Clermont, KY
Day #2 was the busiest day of our trip. Our first stop was the Jim Beam American Stillhouse for the 10:30am tour. Bourbon at 10am on a Thursday?? Gasp! Don’t judge me, lol. Jim Beam was our second favorite of the four distilleries on our trip. Jim Beam is a more modern distillery with almost no historical charm. But don’t let that deter you, like I said, second favorite out of four. The scenery and tour was still amazing. It was on this tour we learned that we would be hearing the rules of what makes whiskey bourbon on all of our tours. At Jim Beam there were a few opportunities for tourist interaction. My husband got to assist with filling an oak barrel with clear whiskey to begin the aging process. We also got to taste this clear whiskey (imagine drinking rubbing alcohol). Another tourist was given the opportunity to use a hammer to remove the cork from a barrel that had completed the aging process. Towards the end of the tour we got to pick out a clear bottle, rinse it, watch it go through the factory line to be filled, labeled and corked. We then watch am employee apply the wax seal to our own hand-picked bottle of Knob Creek.
Next we took the tour of a warehouse. We were informed that the warehouse we were standing in was the same one where the Jim Beam Fire commercial starring Mila Kunis was filmed. But we did not get to see the Mila barrel, due to it being somewhere in the aging process at the top of the warehouse. Then of course, on to the tasting. At Jim Beam you are only allowed to try 2 out of about 13 options…decisions, decisions! Thankfully my husband and I shared, so we tried 4.
After Jim Beam we headed straight towards the Louisville Slugger Factory about 30 minutes away. My husband and I are big baseball fans (Go Reds!) and we had never been. Unfortunately you are not allowed to take photos on the factory lines (the last thing I wanted to hear). The tour was pretty quick, only about 30 minutes and we probably watched more video footage on the factory lines than we listened to the tour guide talk. It was still a great experience learning how every bat is made, but we were a little rushed. At the end of your tour you get your own mini bat to take home.
While we were looking around the museum after our tour we were given the chance to take a tour of the bat vault. Lucky for us, no one else was on the tour so it was personal and we thoroughly enjoyed it. We were required to wear gloves to protect the bats. The first bat we held was the original model of Babe Ruth’s bat. Can we say “like a kid in a candy store?” Of course these bats are just the models and were never actually used in a game, but the actual players would sign the models and make notes on measurements directly on the bat. A few of the other bats that we were able to hold included Pete Rose, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Roger Maris, and Jackie Robinson.
To end the day we took a stroll on the Big Four Pedestrian Bridge. This bridge use to be a train crossing over the Ohio River. It stretches from Kentucky to Indiana and is beautiful. Not many words for this stop…only photos! But if you are ever in Louisville, you should definitely stop by!
Woodford Reserve – Versailles, KY
Woodford Reserve was by far the most beautiful with its hundred year old stone buildings. The tour was very professional. I was feeling a little under dressed while wearing my old Chuck Taylor’s. The stone buildings and wooden fermenters gave you the impression that you had taken a time machine to the past. We were informed that a few of the fermenters were also about a hundred years old. Woodford is my husband’s favorite bourbon, but even he agreed that the Maker’s Mark tour was still our favorite tour.
I have to throw in that on our way to our last tour at Buffalo Trace we stopped for lunch at a local Pub & Deli that was amazing! The Office Pub & Deli in Frankfort, KY was like walking on to the set of Cheers. Cheap food and beer, a box of wine on the counter and fried green tomatoes on the menu. Fried green tomatoes = happiness.
Buffalo Trace – Frankfort, KY
Our final tour was at Buffalo Trace. All of the tours at this location are free and the Buffalo Trace is actually not considered part of the official Bourbon Trail, but we stopped in anyways. Due to the fact that the tours are free there were about 50 people on our tour making it very difficult to hear everything that the guide was saying. Not to mention that he had a really thick “south of the Mason-Dixon line” accent. I also did not feel as though we got as personal of an experience on this tour as we did the others. Another bummer about this tour is the fact that the line was shut down. This distillery is steam operated and during the scorching summer months they shut down for safety. However, one fun fact about Buffalo Trace is that they were one of only four distilleries allowed to continue producing alcohol during prohibition (for medicinal uses only of course). The bonus at the end of the tour was the tasting. We were able to try 5 different variations of Buffalo Trace….on a FREE tour! I must admit, this is the only tour that we did not leave with our own bottle of bourbon.
If you are a fan of bourbon, I strongly suggest giving the Bourbon Trail a try. There are 9 distilleries on the trail. You are given a passport to collect stamps at all of your tours. If you complete all 9 you become an Ambassador and receive a free gift. We did not do all 9, but maybe someday. To learn more about the Bourbon Trail go here: http://kybourbontrail.com/
To view the rest of my photos from our distillery tours check out my flickr page here.