By Phil Vettel, Chicago Tribune staff reporter
Tribune staff reporter
March 18, 2007
As visitors to California's wine country can attest, there's nothing like driving through rolling hills of beautiful greenery, making periodic stops for complimentary sips of the local beverage.
Which is what friends Jeff, Kelly and I were doing -- hundreds of miles from the Pacific Coast. No wine snobs we (though, truth be told, we kind of are), our little threesome was traveling the byways of Kentucky and quaffing bourbon -- a real man's drink and America's native spirit.
Think of our journey as an 80-proof "Sideways," without the self-loathing.
We were riding the Bourbon Trail, a cluster of seven open-to-the-public distilleries packed into about a 1,000-square-mile parcel of Bluegrass Country, roughly southeast of Louisville and clustered around Frankfort, the state's capital. (Indeed, those two cities are the most sensible starting points for a day on the trail.)
Taking a note from "Sideways" (and this is my last reference to that film, promise), we booked a couple of rooms at an inn in Bardstown (the trail's second-southernmost point), started up north and worked our way south, reasoning that by the time we were whiskey'd out, we'd want to be as close to our hotel as possible.
First, a word or two about the noble drink. Bourbon is, at its essence, whiskey, but a couple of important points distinguish bourbon from the pack. First and foremost, bourbon is distilled from mash that contains at least 51 percent corn, along with other grains. Second, bourbon is aged in new barrels made from oak, and the barrels are charred on the inside; contact with the charred wood is what gives bourbon its characteristic caramel and oaky flavor notes. There are also restrictions regarding proof levels and such, but I don't want to spoil the tour for you.
There is a Bourbon County in Kentucky, whence the name, but bourbon need not be made there to earn the name (bourbon need not be made in Kentucky, for that matter, though nearly all of it is). Indeed, none of the Bourbon Trail distilleries is in Bourbon County, though a couple are close.
You'll hear a lot of superlatives during your tours. Jim Beam is the world's largest bourbon-maker, Woodford Reserve one of the oldest (and the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby and Breeder's Cup), Maker's Mark the oldest working distillery on its original site, and so on.
Most tours are free (Woodford Reserve, the sole exception, charges $5), and reservations are unnecessary, unless you're a group bigger than 10. In theory, one can visit all seven distilleries in a single day; in practice, it's nearly impossible to hit more than four, because the earliest tours don't start until 9 a.m. and the last tours of the day start between 3 and 4:30 p.m. And though the distilleries aren't far apart, you'll do much of your driving on winding country roads with low speed limits.
Besides, after four to six shots of bourbon, you probably shouldn't be doing much driving anyway. A DUI citation makes for a lousy souvenir.
Our first stop of the day was at the Jim Beam distillery, a mere 25 miles south of downtown Louisville. The world's largest bourbon producer doesn't invite visitors into its massive production area. Instead, there's a largely self-directed tour of beautifully landscaped grounds, dotted with buildings with displays of historic interest. It's all very low-key, and a good way to ease into the bourbon-swilling day.
We started at the souvenir shop, which contains all things Jim Beam, including Jim Beam leather jackets, Jim Beam bar stools, pool-table lamps and, more practically, miniature bourbon bottles, playing cards and bourbon-flavored chocolates. After a little film on the "First Family of Bourbon" in the adjacent theater, guests receive their very own complimentary bung, which is what they call the wood plug that seals the barrel hole. Then it's on to the grounds, where you can see a vintage still and several outbuildings, including a cooperage (barrel-making) display -- non-functional but interesting.
We ended up at the gracious T. Jeremiah Beam home, whose parlor contains the tasting room. On our visit, the parlor was offering complimentary tastings of two of Jim Beam's small-batch bourbons, the peppery Basil Hayden's and the high-octane (more than 120 proof) Booker's -- a little too much for me, way too intense for Kelly and just about right for Jeff. Fortunately, there was water available (and there should be; a few drops of water added to bourbon actually opens up the flavor).
"Which one do you like best?" smiled our hostess.
"I can't decide," I said. "Can I try them again?"
I could. Love that Southern hospitality.
Jim Beam, 149 Happy Hollow Rd., Clermont; 502-543-9877, www.jimbeam.com
This small distillery is the southernmost stop on the Bourbon Trail. Maker's Mark is difficult to find, takes you miles out of your way and is the only distillery that doesn't offer complimentary tastings.
And you should go anyway.
For one thing, however inefficient the drive (all on winding country roads ill-suited to speeds in excess of 30 m.p.h.), the scenery is very pretty. The Maker's Mark property, through which trickles Whiskey Creek (naturally), is beautiful as well.
And the guided tour is just terrific.
We were led by a gentleman who described the facility with the zeal of a religious convert. There were moments when I thought the fellow might burst into song. He regales visitors with history. He walks groups through the massive warehouse, explaining that the barrels are rotated so that no barrel spends all its time way up top (the warmest area) or on the floor (coolest). He takes visitors to the production line, where bottles of Maker's Mark are still hand-dipped in red wax (the wax seal has long been one of the bourbon's most recognized features). Not a single detail, including the bottle-shaped cutouts on the buildings' wood shutters, is overlooked.
The high point of the tour is the Still House, where the bourbon is made. Visitors can handle the grain and watch the distilled liquid -- which is pure water-clear (the eventual color is derived from those charred-oak barrels) -- come rushing out of the distilling tubes. In the fermenting room, you're encouraged to plunge your hand into the open, 12-foot-deep vats of sour mash (the product at this point is giving off warmth and has the consistency of runny oatmeal).
Lick your fingers and, behind the sour tang that hits your taste buds initially, there's the faint hint of what this mess will become.
Sad to say, that taste of sour mash is the only free tasting you'll get; Maker's Mark doesn't dispense complimentary snorts at the end of the tour (one of the people in our tour group was very distressed by that news). But there's a nifty gift shop with the usual logo-topped food, drink and apparel items, and if you purchase a half-sized bottle of Maker's Mark ($15), you get the honor of dipping it in hot wax. Jeff and Kelly popped for a bottle each; I snagged one of those small bottles too (doing a very nifty job of dipping, if I do say so) and a bottle of the Maker's Mark Gourmet Sauce, which makes a pretty good meatloaf ingredient.
Maker's Mark, 3350 Burks Spring Rd., Loretto; 270-865-2099, www.makersmark .com
We took a different route back to the hotel from Maker's Mark, once we discovered that, thanks to a missed turn, we already were on a different route. Luckily, we were aiming for Bardstown, and most of the state highways in that area lead to Bardstown or get you pretty close.
But by the time we arrived it was nearly 2 p.m., so we grabbed a late lunch and zipped over for the last tour (at 4 p.m.) at Heaven Hill.
Where the previous distilleries were almost aggressively rustic, the Heaven Hill property is unabashedly corporate and modern. A wide paved road leads past employee-only parking lots and the massive production facility to the visitors' destination, the gleaming Heaven Hill Bourbon Heritage Center.
The building is round, with a tapering roof and a linear annex; from the sky it must look like an oversized still with its discharge tube attached. Here you sign up for the tour (it's partly a bus tour, so they have to control the numbers) and kill any extra time gawking at the numerous interactive displays (visitors can't resist the machine that duplicates the aromas of bourbon-making).
After a 10-minute "Portrait of Heaven Hill" film, we were off on the bus, zipping past the production building and on to a couple of "rickhouses" (warehouses), where barrels of bourbon are stored.
The guide interpreted the coded numbers that reveal each barrel's age, and spoke on the history of Rev. Elijah Craig (dubbed by some "the father of bourbon," whose name adorns one of Heaven Hill's bottles). And, not surprisingly, he worked a couple of names from the company's large product line ("Has anybody heard of Hpnotiq?") into the presentation.
The bus returned us to the Heritage Center for the complimentary tasting, which takes place in a large, circular room decorated inside and out to resemble a bourbon barrel. It's a very formal and detailed tasting, focused on helping visitors identify specific flavors within the bourbon before graduating to the "which do you like best?" phase of the two bourbons we sampled.
The presentation was a little slick, but the more of a bourbon neophyte you are, the more likely you are to benefit from all the information. The exit door leads straight into the gift shop (surprise!), a by-now-familiar array of merchandise. Best of the bunch: A corn-squeezin's-style jug of bourbon that you can have personalized.
Heaven Hill Bourbon Heritage Center, 1311 Gilkey Run Rd., Bardstown; 502-337-1000, www.bourbonheritagecenter.com
I was only able to cover three of the seven Bourbon Trails distilleries. The ones I missed:
Buffalo Trace, 1001 Wilkinson Blvd., Frankfort; 502-696-5926, www.buffalo trace.com
Four Roses, 1224 Bonds Mill Rd., Lawrenceburg; 502-543-2264, www.fourroses .us
Wild Turkey, U.S. Highway 62 East, Lawrenceburg; 502-839-4544, www.wild turkeybourbon.com
Woodford Reserve Distillery, 7855 McCracken Pike, Versailles; 859-879-1812, www.woodfordreserve.com
My No. 1 tip: Pack the car with water bottles. Tasting bourbon is thirsty work.
For total bourbon immersion, mark your calendar for the Kentucky Bourbon Festival, held in Bardstown annually. The 2007 dates are Sept. 11-16, when it rarely rains but definitely pours in Bardstown. A dozen bourbon makers are already signed up, and there will be tours, entertainment and black-tie galas (800-638-4877, www.kybourbonfestival.com).
Most useless crowd-avoidance tip: If you want to avoid the crowds, visit the distilleries on Sunday. You'll have the place practically to yourself, and you'll soon find out why. There are no bourbon tastings on Sundays, and even gift-shop bourbon sales are prohibited.
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IF YOU GO
Wherever you begin your Bourbon Trail tour, Bardstown is a good place to end up.
The historic town, about 25 miles south of Louisville, has historic buildings packed into a few city blocks (an easy walking tour, though carriage rides and trolley tours are available, too), and, a bit farther away, is home to a house known as Federal Hill, which was the inspiration for Stephen Foster's "My Old Kentucky Home."
Other spots worth at least a quick glance include the Basilica of St. Joseph Proto-Cathedral, built 1816 and the first Catholic cathedral west of the Allegheny Mountains. The cathedral, with its 12-column entrance, is very formal-looking at a distance, but as warm and welcoming as a parish church inside. Take a peek. 310 W. Stephen Foster Ave.; 502-348-2999.
A stretch called Museum Row is home to the Civil War Museum of the Western Theatre, home to Kentucky's largest collection of Civil War memorabilia, and its sister property, Old Bardstown Village, a re-creation of a 1790s frontier village. Both at 310 E. Broadway; 502-349-0291; www.civil-war-museum.org
We lunched at Dagwood's, a simple cafe with good sandwiches (including a respectable Hot Brown, an open-faced broiled sandwich of turkey, bacon and mornay sauce that's a Kentucky signature) and friendly service. But what sets the place apart is the bourbon-chocolate cheesecake, an absolute slice of heaven that's made by local resident Chilton Von Roenn. Inspired by the hot-wax seal on bottles of Maker's Mark bourbon (the distillery is about a half-hour away), Von Roenn made a bourbon-chocolate-coated cheesecake for his mother-in-law one day, and he's been filling requests for them ever since. An auto worker by trade, Von Roenn has shipped his bourbon-chocolate-cheesecake all over the country. The cheesecakes cost $25, and shipping and handling adds another $15, making it an awfully expensive treat. But if you never make it to Bardstown, you can have a piece of Bardstown come to you by e-mailing vonroennc@bell south.net, and you will thank me.
Another dinner option is the My Old Kentucky Home Dinner Train, which serves lunch and dinner in a vintage dining car as it chugs through bourbon country. The train runs on a demand basis, so reservations are a must. 602 N. 3rd St; 502-348-7300; www.kydinnertrain.com
Accommodations are plentiful. Such chains as Best Western, Comfort Inn, Days Inn, Hampton Inn, Ramada and Red Carpet Inn are in town, and there are plenty of bed-and-breakfast options. My friends and I spent the night in the Old Talbott Tavern, a quaint and inexpensive inn (room rates $65-$120; I paid $90 for a double room) with an attached restaurant that dishes up very good fried chicken. I recommend the Old Talbott Tavern with one caveat: Thursdays through Sundays, entertainment plays in the downstairs bar, which is directly beneath the inn's five guest rooms. The bar closes and the music stops at 1 a.m., and there isn't enough Ambien in the bottle to get you to sleep so much as five minutes before closing time. It's that noisy. The tavern is said to be haunted, and I was looking forward to seeing a ghost or two, but thanks to the downstairs deejay's habit of playing Lynyrd Skynyrd hits over and over again, my dreams were haunted by a Southern man who didn't need me around anyhow. 107 W. Stephen Foster Ave.; 502-348-3494 or 800-4-TAVERN; www .talbotts.com
For more information on Bardstown, contact the Bardstown-Nelson County Tourist Convention Commission at 800-638-4877 or www.visitbards town.com.
--- Phil Vettel
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