Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Kentucky Bourbon Trail

When we were planning our away games for the Gator football season this year, Bo and I decided to go to Lexington for the Kentucky game. We combined this trip with another bucket list item and went a few days before the game to do the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Some of my cousins did the trail last year so Jenny sent me some very detailed notes on each of the distilleries to help plan out our trip in advance, which was so helpful since we agreed with almost everything she had to say about the trail. It was absolutely awesome and I would highly recommend to all my fellow bourbon lovers - definitely add this to your bucket list! However, if you don't really like bourbon this is probably not your idea of a good time. Drinking it straight (or sometimes on ice) is not exactly how I'd suggest acquiring the taste for bourbon, much less at 9:00 in the morning.

The process for making bourbon is pretty standard, and we had it down pat after the first day. In order for a whiskey to be called a bourbon, it must meet the following requirements:
  • Made in the USA. Most bourbon is produced in Kentucky but that is not a requirement to be a bourbon.
  • Aged in new, charred oak barrels. All of the distilleries sell their used barrels to age scotch, rum, tequila, wine - just about anything. But it cannot be reused for bourbon.
  • Grain mixture is at least 51% corn
  • Distilled up to 160 proof
  • Barreled up to 125 proof
  • Bottled at least 80 proof

At our first stop, we picked up our official passports and had them stamped at each distillery. Yes, we visited all seven of them in order to get our "free" shirt for finishing the trail. I finally mailed in our completed passports last week, so we are anxiously awaiting the arrival of our prized t-shirts.

We did a tasting at each distillery but only took a few tours. We thought it was pretty funny that at most of them, you could either pay for a tour that includes a tasting, or just do the tasting for free. Kentucky state law allows only a one half ounce tasting per person at each distillery. So regardless of how many bourbons they have available for sampling, your half-ounce gets split between the number of bourbons you try. 

We gave each distillery its own superlative, listed below in the order we visited them:

1. Maker's Mark - Prettiest Grounds. We took the walking tour here, which was about an hour long. The grounds are meticulously maintained and it was a lovely walking tour. However, we had a crazy old lady for our tour guide, who was just a little way too slow for us which is typically why we do not enjoy group tours. We got to watch the entire bottling process, including their signature hand-dipped wax seal. We were actually somewhat disappointed with the tasting because it started with white whiskey which is horrible and we each only had a sip. Quite a way to start the day. Then we had their regular bourbon which is good, and then over-matured which is not. Last up was Maker's 46 which is very good. So it was a bit of a roller coaster ride in the tasting room.They won me back over when they gave us a bourbon chocolate ball on our way out ;)

2. Heaven Hill - Most Historically Informational Tour. We took the mini-tour which is only half an hour and doesn't go through the distillery. Bo loves history and even I enjoyed this tour, as they spoke more to the history of bourbon in general and not just their brands. Our tour guide gave us a few extra (teeny teeny tiny) samples and we got another bourbon chocolate ball at the end. Those things are deliciously dangerous!

3. Jim Beam - Best Tasting Room. Prior to this trip, Beam was my go-to bourbon of choice, so I was most excited about visiting this distillery. We took the tour, and if it were anywhere but my favorite I would have passed on it since we were a little toured-out by this point. It was about an hour and a half including a bus ride to the distillery and the tasting room tour at the end. We got to see the whole distillery and the bottling process for both Jim Beam and Knob Creek. The tasting room was by far the most modern of all the ones we visited. We all got a swipe card to use in the bourbon dispensers to sample two bourbons each (very precise pours since they were automated!). We even got to keep the shot glasses. Afterward, we walked around the grounds, got some bourbon ice cream, and hung out almost until closing time.

There wasn't much of a night life in the small town where we were staying, so we made friends with our tour guide who gave us an excellent local recommendation for dinner and we promptly passed out back at the hotel.

4. Four Roses - Best Bourbon. Our new favorite! Great start to our second day of the trail. Neither of us had ever heard of Four Roses, and for good reason as it used to be an export-only bourbon owned by a Japanese company. We had four distilleries to visit this day, so we skipped the tour and went straight for the tasting. We both loved it so much that of the three bourbons we tasted, we bought two bottles to bring home with us. One for mixing with ginger ale, and another to drink straight (mainly for Bo but I'm working on it). As a bonus, it's actually cheaper than Jim Beam. Win all around. Such a surprise! Plus, it has the prettiest label :)

5. Wild Turkey - Most Unassuming. For such a large distillery, we expected it to be a bit more like Jim Beam from the previous day. However this was an old small building on a dirt side road - if you didn't know it was there you'd probably drive right past it. It's run very much like a small family business, and all of the employees were extremely friendly. We heard great things about the tour, and if we had more time we might have done it. We got there just as one tour was ending and we joined them for the bourbon tasting. They had a pretty good selection and we each got to try two, which were all very good but couldn't top our Four Roses ;)

On a side note, how creepy looking are those warehouses?! They are completely full of aging, barreled bourbon, and there were hundreds of them along the drive and at every distillery.

6. Woodford Reserve - Best Tour. Bo actually thought they had the best grounds, but we both agreed they had the best tour. It was right at an hour with a short bus ride, and our guide was fantastic. Their process was the most unique compared to the others so that added to our interest in the tour at this point in the trip. After our sample (in another souvenir shot glass!) they had trays of bourbon chocolate balls. Even with all of the free ones, I bought some to take home with me. So delicious. I will definitely be attempting to make my own at some point.

7. Town Branch - Most Convenient. I'm going to be brutally honest here, but we both thought this one was terrible. The only good thing was that it was a mile away from our hotel in Lexington, our final destination for the weekend. They offered samples of three drinks: a so-so bourbon, an imitation irish whiskey, and an irish coffee liqueur. None of which we liked. It was in a small warehouse type building and we actually couldn't figure out why they are a part of the trail - they just don't really fit with the rest. We passed on the tour, took our free tasting, got our last passport stamp, and officially completed the bourbon trail!


  1. Now I want to go on a Bourbon Tasting Tour!! This looks like so much fun! I like how you ranked them, I've never heard of Four Roses bourbon, I usually drink Woodford - I guess I'll need to branch out ;)

  2. That looks awesome! What beautiful scenery!! And bourbon chocolate balls too! Come on :)


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