Many of the horse farms in the region -- there are about 450 -- welcome visitors. But it's important to call ahead, book a visit with a guided tour group or hire a private guide. Just around the corner from Ashford Farm I found the picturesque Woodford Reserve's Labrot & Graham Distillery in a scenic hollow on Glenn's Creek. Whiskey has been made on the site since 1812.
"We're not geared up [for sampling] yet," I was told. The Kentucky Legislature approved sampling at distilleries in 1998, but not all have implemented it.
Down the road in Frankfort, Buffalo Trace (formerly Ancient Age) Distillery serves two samples to its visitors. The distillery is in town and is more industrial looking than its competitors. But bourbon accompanies the bourbon balls at the end of the tour.
Elmer T. Lee, master distiller emeritus, wandered over as I joined other tourists for a taste. At 83, Lee is the oldest master in the industry. He tried to retire in 1986, but he keeps showing up for work.
Has the industry changed much in the 53 years he's been involved?
"We're making better bourbons than we did 50 years ago," he said. "Today's sophisticated instruments help us control the product better."
At every stop I learned a little more, but I still wasn't sure I had captured bourbon's essence.
At Happy Hollow Road in Clermont, the home of Jim Beam, things became a bit clearer. I visited the distillery with Kentucky cousin Ed Kuffner, another member of the bourbon-tasting branch of the family. We missed colorful Booker Noe, the sixth-generation Beam family member who acts as master distiller emeritus, but we did run into master distiller Jerry Dalton. He joined us in the tasting room, talked about some of the company's premium bourbons -- including Distiller's Masterpiece, which retails for $225 to $295 a bottle -- and gave us some pointers.
"If you're going to get unconscious, buy the cheapest bourbon you can find. If you're going to appreciate the process, learn as much as you can. And taste as much as you can."
Sounds like good advice to me.