All Roads Lead To Bourbon
With the seemingly exponential rise in crowds forming at wineries and breweries, it was only a matter of time before the world of spirits entered the ring. Small craft distilleries seem to have popped up in every town, but there’s something to say for the originals. The Kentucky Bourbon Trail was established in 1999 by the Kentucky Distillers’ Association as an ode to “America’s Official Native Spirit” allowing people from across the globe to experience bourbon at its best. Kentucky’s perfect natural mix of weather and pure limestone water produces the classic taste and deep amber color that is Kentucky bourbon. Today, thousands of people hailing from all 50 states and countless countries have completed the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
Among the more than 20 distilleries on this trail, a few of the most well-known pioneers of Kentucky bourbon include Bulleit, Evan Williams, Four Roses, Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Wild Turkey, and Woodford Reserve. But it’s not just about the bourbon. It’s the blue grass byways that weave through a country teeming with rich history. For instance, in the middle of a vast green valley sits a simple cabin. Seemingly traditional, this insignificant shelter was the childhood home of President Abraham Lincoln. If you’re not in a hurry, take a stroll through the pasture behind the cabin that eventually leads to a small stream, known as Knob Creek (sound familiar bourbon fans?). It’s worth the photo-op and the feeling of stepping back in time even if for only a moment.
Like many before us, I was fortunate enough to recently experience Kentucky’s unique blend of culture, history and culinary treats on this year’s trip to the Kentucky Derby. My day began with a tour of Bulleit at the historic Stitzel-Weller Distillery. This distillery was founded in 1935 and opened its doors on Derby Day that same year. Set on an expansive plot of Kentucky acreage, chosen specifically for the quality of the water, the property is now primarily used for the aging process. I then headed over to Whisky Row in downtown Louisville for a tour of Evan Williams. This bourbon was named after Evan Williams, a Welsh immigrant who started the first commercial distillery in Kentucky in 1783.
The next morning, I embarked on a scenic drive toward Lebanon and Maker’s Mark (more to follow) and then over to Shepherdsville and Jim Beam. Jim Beam, one of the most popular bourbons worldwide today, sticks to a family recipe that has been passed on through seven generations of Beam’s. With Four Roses only a short distance away, I had to stop in to see their bottling process. This is the only distillery using a single-story rack warehouse, where each barrel is hand labeled with the location the barrel was aged.
After spending a full day visiting the Four Roses Distillery in Lexington, I made a stop in Lawrenceburg to explore the Wild Turkey facility. You’ll know you’re there when you drive up on the aged red and green buildings that have been the home of Wild Turkey for over 75 years. I could have spent hours at the visitor’s center, where I got lost in the vast hall filled with memorabilia and photos. Luckily, I still had enough time left to end my day at Woodford Reserve, which is built on Kentucky’s oldest distilling site. This was such a unique place, especially after seeing the impressive 500-foot-long barrel run!
So, what did I learn during my bourbon tasting journey? How about some startling facts you might not know, such as:
· Kentucky is the birthplace of bourbon, producing 95% of the world’s supply.
· 1/3 of the world’s bourbon is made in Louisville, Kentucky.
· Bourbon must be made from a grain mixture that is at least 51% corn.
· Bourbon must be distilled at less than 160 proof or 80% alcohol.
· All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon.
· There are more resting bourbon barrels in Kentucky than there are people.
· Bourbon must be aged in new, charred oak barrels.
· Bourbon is a $8.5 billion industry in Kentucky.
· On May 4th, 1964, Congress recognized bourbon as America’s only native spirit.
· Bourbon has to be aged at least 2 years to become “straight” bourbon whiskey.
Here’s another interesting fact. If you know bourbon, you know that unique dripping red wax seal that sets Maker’s Mark apart on the liquor aisle at your local store. Bill Samuels, Sr. set out to create a bourbon that could stand apart from the crowd, using his family’s 170-year-old recipe as a jumping off point. Although production began in 1954, it wasn’t until 1958 that the first run was bottled, and hand dipped by Margie Samuels in her kitchen using a home fryer to melt the wax.
Set in the picture-perfect backdrop of Loretto, Kentucky, the Maker’s Mark distillery is a staple of the Bourbon Trail. The distillery itself was established in the early 19th century by Charles Burks and is now a registered National Historic Landmark.
The featured bottle here is Maker’s Mark White Whisky which is a raw product that is only available only at the distillery. A highlight of this stop is dipping your very own bottle of bourbon in their signature red wax.
So always remember the Kentucky rule of thumb: all bourbon is whiskey but not all whiskey is bourbon. The best way to educate yourself is by meeting the people behind the bourbon, taking in the warm Kentucky air, exploring the backroads, and immersing yourself in the deep history of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.