After distilling, the clear liquid is put into new white-oak barrels and stored in warehouses to age. The barrels are charred on the inside, giving bourbon its color and much of its flavor. My favorite part of each tour -- I managed to visit five of the seven distilleries on the trail -- was standing in the warehouses and breathing the rich, heady aroma of aging bourbon.
Named after Bourbon County, Ky., the beverage provided one of the state's first industries, and it is made much as it was 200 years ago. But it differs from its cousins, Scotch and Irish whiskey.
"Every bourbon is a whiskey, but not all whiskeys are bourbons," said Russell, explaining that by law bourbon must be made of 51% corn. It also must be made in the United States, distilled at 160 proof or less and aged at least two years.
The more I learned about bourbon, the more I wanted to know.
I headed back to my Louisville hotel, the Seelbach Hilton, and asked for a bourbon-tasting session. It's a $16 investment but worth every penny. I took along a Kentucky cousin, Carla Brawner, whose father was once a distillery taster. (Yes, that's right. I have bourbon in my blood.)
Jerry Slater, maitre d' at the hotel's Oakroom restaurant, obliged us. He's a graduate of Whiskey Academy at Woodford Reserve's Labrot & Graham Distillery. It's a two-day class that teaches an appreciation for the subtleties of whiskey, particularly bourbon.
Slater slid four bottles of premium bourbons onto the polished oak bar: Wild Turkey Russell's Reserve (10 years old, 101 proof), George T. Stagg (15 years old, 137.6 proof), Elijah Craig (18 years old, 90 proof) and Pappy Van Winkle (20 years, 90.4 proof).
Would we be able to tell the difference increased aging makes? Would we recognize the various proofs?
Would we be able to walk and talk when we were done?
As we sipped and compared, we discussed the elegant 100-year-old Seelbach hotel, which has a bourbon history all its own. Legend has it that F. Scott Fitzgerald was thrown out three times for drunken behavior. He apparently spent enough time here, however, to use the hotel's Grand Ballroom as the setting for Daisy and Tom's wedding in "The Great Gatsby." Chicago mobster Al Capone was another frequent guest. I wondered aloud if he'd ever sipped bourbon here.
"Undoubtedly," Slater said, switching back to the subject at hand. He was holding up a bottle with a familiar bird logo. "You know the ad that says, 'It's not your father's Oldsmobile?' " he asked, pouring each of us a small amount of Wild Turkey Russell's Reserve. "Well, this isn't your father's Wild Turkey. Its flavor is very concentrated. There's sweetness and a vanilla taste."
We followed his lead, sniffing a bit, then sipping the premium bourbon. It tasted good, but I wasn't sure I grasped the nuances. We pressed on, sampling the four fine bourbons, ending with the high-powered George T. Stagg, uncut, unfiltered and nearly 70% alcohol. Again, my face puckered.
Slater didn't wait for a comment. "If it's too strong, cut it back with water or ice. The important thing is that you get it to the point where you like it. When you do that, it's smooth and wonderful."
It was helpful advice, but I was starting to feel that I was spending too much time indoors with a glass in my hand. It was time to take a break from bourbon and concentrate on another of Kentucky's pleasures: its horses.
My first stop the next day was at Churchill Downs racetrack for a peek inside the Derby Museum, billed as the "world's largest equine museum." In addition to horse and racing displays, visitors can see a lively film, aired on a 360-degree screen, that places them in the center of Derby Day action, then take a walking tour of the grounds.
From there I headed southeast toward Lexington, where horse farms and beautiful country estates have been part of the scenery since the region was settled in 1775. Near town, I stopped at the Kentucky Horse Park, where there are daily horse shows and a self-guided farm tour. Then I rambled off the main highway onto country lanes. They were inviting: rolling hills strung with white or black fences, mares and foals frisking across green fields, palatial estates visible from the road.
I'd been impressed with the low cost of living when I arrived in Kentucky: The median gas price is $1.56 per gallon, and the median home resale price in Louisville is $118,600. But in horse country, homes worth more than a million dollars are common, although this price typically includes much more land and square footage than is found in similarly priced West Coast homes.
No visit to the bluegrass region, named for the tint of the grass, is complete without a stop at a horse farm. I chose Ashford Farm in Versailles (Kentuckians pronounce it ver-sales), where Derby winners Fusaichi Pegasus (2000) and Thunder Gulch (1995) are among the resident stallions. They are the glamour boys of the industry, living in stables with polished oak walls and chandeliers and walking on rubberized mats to reduce the chance of a fall. During mating season, "they're busy boys," said groom Larry Anthony. "They have dates as many as four times a day: 7:30, 1:30, 6 and 10."