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