I travel the world, drinking. Along the way, I learn exactly how drinks that rule the world are made. I've sipped and swirled Champagne and Cognac in France, Guinness in Dublin and Scotch in — where else — Scotland. And although whiskeys are produced throughout the world, some of the best places to taste-test the American versions can be found in the scenic green hills of Kentucky and Tennessee, where bourbon and whiskey distillery tours are big business.
The trail I'm exploring on this bright spring day winds through those hills. You may know a couple of my traveling companions, Jim and Jack — that's Jim Beam and Jack Daniel, who are teaching me to appreciate whiskey, or whisky, depending on the distillery you're visiting. The Kentuckians and the Tennesseans can't agree on how to spell their favorite beverage, just like the Scots and the Irish. But they do know how to spin grain into gold.
In Kentucky, the Jim Beam visitors' center draws more than 2 million visitors annually and is one of 14 Kentucky distilleries — from craft to the world's largest bourbon producers — that invite visitors to learn about their brands and have a taste. In Tennessee, the Jack Daniel's distillery tour in Lynchburg ranks among the top attractions in the state. And another 19 Tennessee distilleries also open their doors to the public.
My current tour started on a sunny April morning in Louisville (pronounced loo-i-vill), when I piled into a giant SUV with friends and relatives and headed downtown to see the Whiskey Row Historic District, where a thriving bar scene is springing up amid the renovation of vintage bourbon industry buildings. I'd flown in a day earlier from my home in California and was excited about touring whisky/whiskey country with my Kentucky cousins, whose dad had been a distillery taster. Yes, there is such a job. Lucky guy.
Our first stop: The Evan Williams Bourbon Experience, a newly opened museum of sorts that immerses visitors in the life and times of Evan Williams, who launched Kentucky's distillery industry in the 1780s. The $12 tour rates a gold star for its multimedia, high-tech program that includes history, information and tasting (528 W. Main St., Louisville;  584-2114, www.evanwilliams.com).
One of the things I learned there was the difference between bourbon and whiskey: If you like bourbon, Kentucky is the place; 95% of it is made here. And although every bourbon is a whiskey, not all whiskeys are bourbons. A strict set of federal trade regulations defines what ingredients and distilling processes are used.
I found that Louisville, home to Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby, is an excellent place to start a drinking tour. Its Urban Bourbon Trail (bit.ly/1qz8ayz), a self-guided tour of Louisville bourbon bars, promises: "It doesn't matter if you're a bourbon beginner or a connoisseur, you'll finish on a mellow note."
Or, as Mayor Greg Fischer puts it, "As wine is to Napa Valley, so are we to bourbon."