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On the Bourbon Trail: A sip -- or three -- of Kentucky's noble beverage

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BARDSTOWN, Ky.

As visitors to California's wine country can attest, there's nothing likedriving through rolling hills of beautiful greenery, making periodic stops forcomplimentary sips of the local beverage.

Which is what friends Jeff, Kelly and I were doing -- hundreds of milesfrom the Pacific Coast. No wine snobs we (though, truth be told, we kind ofare), our little threesome was traveling the byways of Kentucky and quaffingbourbon -- a real man's drink and America's native spirit.

Think of our journey as an 80-proof "Sideways," without theself-loathing.

We were riding the Bourbon Trail, a cluster of seven open-to-the-publicdistilleries packed into about a 1,000-square-mile parcel of BluegrassCountry, roughly southeast of Louisville and clustered around Frankfort, thestate's capital. (Indeed, those two cities are the most sensible startingpoints 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'ssecond-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 toour 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 51percent corn, along with other grains. Second, bourbon is aged in new barrelsmade from oak, and the barrels are charred on the inside; contact with thecharred wood is what gives bourbon its characteristic caramel and oaky flavornotes. There are also restrictions regarding proof levels and such, but Idon't want to spoil the tour for you.

There is a Bourbon County in Kentucky, whence the name, but bourbon neednot be made there to earn the name (bourbon need not be made in Kentucky, forthat matter, though nearly all of it is). Indeed, none of the Bourbon Traildistilleries is in Bourbon County, though a couple are close.

You'll hear a lot of superlatives during your tours. Jim Beam is theworld's largest bourbon-maker, Woodford Reserve one of the oldest (and theofficial bourbon of the Kentucky Derby and Breeder's Cup), Maker's Mark theoldest working distillery on its original site, and so on.

Most tours are free (Woodford Reserve, the sole exception, charges $5), andreservations 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 nearlyimpossible to hit more than four, because the earliest tours don't start until9 a.m. and the last tours of the day start between 3 and 4:30 p.m. And thoughthe distilleries aren't far apart, you'll do much of your driving on windingcountry roads with low speed limits.

Besides, after four to six shots of bourbon, you probably shouldn't bedoing much driving anyway. A DUI citation makes for a lousy souvenir.

Jim Beam

Our first stop of the day was at the Jim Beam distillery, a mere 25 milessouth of downtown Louisville. The world's largest bourbon producer doesn'tinvite visitors into its massive production area. Instead, there's a largelyself-directed tour of beautifully landscaped grounds, dotted with buildingswith displays of historic interest. It's all very low-key, and a good way toease 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 andbourbon-flavored chocolates. After a little film on the "First Family ofBourbon" in the adjacent theater, guests receive their very own complimentarybung, which is what they call the wood plug that seals the barrel hole. Thenit's on to the grounds, where you can see a vintage still and severaloutbuildings, including a cooperage (barrel-making) display -- non-functionalbut interesting.

We ended up at the gracious T. Jeremiah Beam home, whose parlor containsthe tasting room. On our visit, the parlor was offering complimentary tastingsof two of Jim Beam's small-batch bourbons, the peppery Basil Hayden's and thehigh-octane (more than 120 proof) Booker's -- a little too much for me, waytoo intense for Kelly and just about right for Jeff. Fortunately, there waswater available (and there should be; a few drops of water added to bourbonactually 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

Maker's Mark

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 theonly distillery that doesn't offer complimentary tastings.

And you should go anyway.

For one thing, however inefficient the drive (all on winding country roadsill-suited to speeds in excess of 30 m.p.h.), the scenery is very pretty. TheMaker's Mark property, through which trickles Whiskey Creek (naturally), isbeautiful as well.

And the guided tour is just terrific.

We were led by a gentleman who described the facility with the zeal of areligious convert. There were moments when I thought the fellow might burstinto song. He regales visitors with history. He walks groups through themassive warehouse, explaining that the barrels are rotated so that no barrelspends 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 arestill hand-dipped in red wax (the wax seal has long been one of the bourbon'smost recognized features). Not a single detail, including the bottle-shapedcutouts 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 purewater-clear (the eventual color is derived from those charred-oak barrels) --come rushing out of the distilling tubes. In the fermenting room, you'reencouraged 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 ofrunny oatmeal).

Lick your fingers and, behind the sour tang that hits your taste budsinitially, 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 (oneof the people in our tour group was very distressed by that news). But there'sa 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 thehonor of dipping it in hot wax. Jeff and Kelly popped for a bottle each; Isnagged one of those small bottles too (doing a very nifty job of dipping, ifI do say so) and a bottle of the Maker's Mark Gourmet Sauce, which makes apretty good meatloaf ingredient.

Maker's Mark, 3350 Burks Spring Rd., Loretto; 270-865-2099, www.makersmark.com

Heaven Hill

We took a different route back to the hotel from Maker's Mark, once wediscovered that, thanks to a missed turn, we already were on a differentroute. Luckily, we were aiming for Bardstown, and most of the state highwaysin 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 lunchand zipped over for the last tour (at 4 p.m.) at Heaven Hill.

Where the previous distilleries were almost aggressively rustic, the HeavenHill property is unabashedly corporate and modern. A wide paved road leadspast employee-only parking lots and the massive production facility to thevisitors' destination, the gleaming Heaven Hill Bourbon Heritage Center.

The building is round, with a tapering roof and a linear annex; from thesky 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 controlthe numbers) and kill any extra time gawking at the numerous interactivedisplays (visitors can't resist the machine that duplicates the aromas ofbourbon-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, andspoke on the history of Rev. Elijah Craig (dubbed by some "the father ofbourbon," whose name adorns one of Heaven Hill's bottles). And, notsurprisingly, he worked a couple of names from the company's large productline ("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 toresemble a bourbon barrel. It's a very formal and detailed tasting, focused onhelping visitors identify specific flavors within the bourbon beforegraduating to the "which do you like best?" phase of the two bourbons wesampled.

The presentation was a little slick, but the more of a bourbon neophyte youare, the more likely you are to benefit from all the information. The exitdoor leads straight into the gift shop (surprise!), a by-now-familiar array ofmerchandise. Best of the bunch: A corn-squeezin's-style jug of bourbon thatyou can have personalized.

Heaven Hill Bourbon Heritage Center, 1311 Gilkey Run Rd., Bardstown;502-337-1000, www.bourbonheritagecenter.com

Parting shots

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.buffalotrace.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.wildturkeybourbon.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 thirstywork.

For total bourbon immersion, mark your calendar for the Kentucky BourbonFestival, held in Bardstown annually. The 2007 dates are Sept. 11-16, when itrarely rains but definitely pours in Bardstown. A dozen bourbon makers arealready 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, visitthe distilleries on Sunday. You'll have the place practically to yourself, andyou'll soon find out why. There are no bourbon tastings on Sundays, and evengift-shop bourbon sales are prohibited.

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IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE

Wherever you begin your Bourbon Trail tour, Bardstown is a good place toend up.

The historic town, about 25 miles south of Louisville, has historicbuildings packed into a few city blocks (an easy walking tour, though carriagerides and trolley tours are available, too), and, a bit farther away, is hometo a house known as Federal Hill, which was the inspiration for StephenFoster'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 ofthe Allegheny Mountains. The cathedral, with its 12-column entrance, is veryformal-looking at a distance, but as warm and welcoming as a parish churchinside. 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 WesternTheatre, home to Kentucky's largest collection of Civil War memorabilia, andits sister property, Old Bardstown Village, a re-creation of a 1790s frontiervillage. Both at 310 E. Broadway; 502-349-0291; www.civil-war-museum.org

DINING

We lunched at Dagwood's, a simple cafe with good sandwiches (including arespectable Hot Brown, an open-faced broiled sandwich of turkey, bacon andmornay sauce that's a Kentucky signature) and friendly service. But what setsthe place apart is the bourbon-chocolate cheesecake, an absolute slice ofheaven that's made by local resident Chilton Von Roenn. Inspired by thehot-wax seal on bottles of Maker's Mark bourbon (the distillery is about ahalf-hour away), Von Roenn made a bourbon-chocolate-coated cheesecake for hismother-in-law one day, and he's been filling requests for them ever since. Anauto worker by trade, Von Roenn has shipped his bourbon-chocolate-cheesecakeall over the country. The cheesecakes cost $25, and shipping and handling addsanother $15, making it an awfully expensive treat. But if you never make it toBardstown, you can have a piece of Bardstown come to you by e-mailingvonroennc@bell south.net, and you will thank me.

Another dinner option is the My Old Kentucky Home Dinner Train, whichserves lunch and dinner in a vintage dining car as it chugs through bourboncountry. The train runs on a demand basis, so reservations are a must. 602 N.3rd St; 502-348-7300; www.kydinnertrain.com

LODGING

Accommodations are plentiful. Such chains as Best Western, Comfort Inn,Days Inn, Hampton Inn, Ramada and Red Carpet Inn are in town, and there areplenty of bed-and-breakfast options. My friends and I spent the night in theOld 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 goodfried chicken. I recommend the Old Talbott Tavern with one caveat: Thursdaysthrough Sundays, entertainment plays in the downstairs bar, which is directlybeneath the inn's five guest rooms. The bar closes and the music stops at 1a.m., and there isn't enough Ambien in the bottle to get you to sleep so muchas five minutes before closing time. It's that noisy. The tavern is said to behaunted, and I was looking forward to seeing a ghost or two, but thanks to thedownstairs 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. 107W. Stephen Foster Ave.; 502-348-3494 or 800-4-TAVERN; www .talbotts.com

INFORMATION

For more information on Bardstown, contact the Bardstown-Nelson CountyTourist Convention Commission at 800-638-4877 or www.visitbards town.com.

--- Phil Vettel
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pvettel@tribune.com

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