U.S. Road Trip: Kentucky Bourbon Trail Part 1
A few years ago, I became friends with a man who would become a huge inspiration in my life. We soon became very close friends and our families did the same. In getting to know him, he introduced me to the world of whiskey, bourbon more specifically. He taught me how to truly experience bourbon. He also told me of his travels as he and his wife drove to multiple distilleries in Kentucky. I listened to his stories and experiences and began to dream of one day doing the same thing.
Fast forward to a few months ago. While coming up with different trip ideas for 2016, I remembered my friend’s stories. So I began researching and reading about Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail. The Trail consists of 9 distilleries around the central Kentucky area. After reading about the trail, I determined it was doable. So I booked a hotel for a few nights and set a date.The day of departure, I got into my car and pulled away from my home in Maryland at 12 am. I had decided to put the majority of my 10-hour drive at a time when the fewest people would be on the road. While this alleviated the majority of any traffic I would encounter, it also made for a long, sightless drive. If you’ve never driven through the mountains of West Virginia at night, imagine driving down a pitch black, curving highway where you see only 10 cars in 4 hours.
Having left early, I made really good time and made it to Louisville, Kentucky in about 9 hours. My first stop was the Evan William’s Bourbon Experience in downtown Louisville. I wasn’t expecting to find a distillery in the middle of the city. While it isn’t a full on distillery, it does distill an artisanal bourbon on site. The tour is about an hour long and includes a tasting towards the end of the tour. The tour goes over who Evan Williams was and what he did for the area. The tour ends in the gift shop on the second floor where they sell their products, some of which can only be purchased at the gift shop and nowhere else.
After Evan William’s, I headed to the outer area of Louisville to the Bulleit Frontier Whiskey Experience. The first time I pulled up to the front gate and saw a closed barrier, I thought I was at the wrong entrance or location. After driving around a bit, I went back to the gate and realized it WAS the entrance. As I walked into the visitor’s center, I realized a tour was already beginning. I quickly paid the small admission fee and joined the group. They walked us through the labs, distilling rooms, and even through Tom Bulleit’s office. Like most tours, they explained the process of distillation, placing it in barrels, and the aging process. While it seemed to be a short tour, it was still very interesting. Plus, we got to taste more bourbon!With the first day of distillery tours being done, I headed off to lunch. A few friends had recommended a location called Mark’s Feed Store. While the name seems like it would be someplace to buy food for horses and cattle, it is in actuality a barbecue joint. By this time, it was about 2 o’clock so I didn’t have to compete with the lunch crowd. I ordered the pork bbq platter with baked beans and sweet potato fries. And of course, since I’m in the south, and eating bbq, I HAD to order a sweet tea.
I then spent the rest of the day exploring the area around my hotel in downtown Louisville. It was actually felt very similar to Baltimore to me. The big “night life” area was called “Fourth Street Live”. In Baltimore, we have an area that is just like it called “Power Plant Live”. So, feeling the comfort of this area allowed me to relax and enjoy the early evening.
The next morning, I woke up and realized I had no idea where to get coffee. For me, this was a huge issue. I’m used to my usual routine of getting a cup of coffee from either my own coffee pot, or my local coffee shop. So, I was forced to run to Starbucks for coffee. While I’m not against Starbucks, I’m not fond of the prices. But getting up early so I could be at my first distillery when they opened was a huge thing. If I wanted to stick to my schedule, I had 4 distilleries to visit.
I drove about an hour south of Louisville to Loretto, Kentucky. The drive was beautiful. Going through small towns like my hometown made me feel like I was back home. The drive, that the GPS took me, actually took me directly past the other three distilleries I would visit. As I got closer and closer to the Maker’s Mark Distillery, the more I thought I was being led to the wrong place. But eventually, I found the entrance.
The area surrounding the Maker’s Mark distillery is amazing! The long entrance drive increased my excitement. I had heard so many things about the distillery and was so happy to see that everything I had heard was true. I made my way to the visitor’s building and bought my ticket for the tour. I was able to get into the second tour of the day and was amazed. I ended up spending about two hours at Maker’s Mark. It was a really cool tour that included the distilling rooms, packaging room, rick house, tasting room, and finally the gift shop. In the gift shop, you can actually purchase a bottle of Maker’s Mark bourbon and dip it yourself in their signature red wax.After purchasing a bottle and dipping it at Maker’s Mark, I headed back toward Bardstown and visited the Heaven Hill Bourbon Heritage Center. Like the day previously, upon arrival, a tour was just beginning. Figures. Again, I quickly purchased a ticket and joined the tour. The tour was short and simple. Our guide, Herb, spoke to us about the making of bourbon, the history of Heaven Hill, and also about the company. He then took us on a tour of a rick house and showed us some of the special barrels that would never be opened. The oldest barrel in the rick house was placed there on November 8, 1971. Almost exactly 10 years before I was born! We then headed back to the main building where we tasted three of Heaven Hill’s products; Rittenhouse, Larceny, and Elijah Craig.
By this time, it was around 1 o’clock. I knew my time was limited as all the distilleries were done with tours at 3:30, and I still had to get to 2 more! I headed directly to Four Roses in Cox’s Creek. When I arrived, I purchased my ticket for my tour and perused the gift shop. While sitting outside enjoying the weather and waiting for the tour to begin, I spoke with a local family. The man’s father was in town visiting and he and his daughter were showing his father the distilleries. During the tour I found myself talking with the family about the area and themselves. We toured the bottling room, private tasting room, and rick house before headed back to the visitor’s center and tasting some of Four Roses’ bourbons.
It was now 3 o’clock. I was beginning to freak out. I knew my final stop for the day was not far and knew I could make it. I raced away from Four Roses and headed for the Jim Beam American Stillhouse in Clermont. I’m happy to say that I DID make it to the location before the final tour started. Unfortunately, all tours for the day had sold out by 11:30 am. I was disappointed. This was the one fact I had overlooked. Jim Beam is very popular, and I had even been told to purchase a ticket prior to even coming, but I ignored that. Since I wasn’t going to be taking a tour, I perused the gift shop and headed back towards my car. As I left the building I came across the family I had just spent time with at Four Roses as well as a few others I had met throughout my day. I informed them that all tours were already sold out. We exchanged grumblings and disappointment, but said our farewells and went off to enjoy the rest of the day.
I headed back toward Louisville and began to make plans for the next day. I would now have to lengthen my final day in Kentucky. I would find a way to visit four distilleries on my final day before making the 10-hour drive home. It would make for a very late arrival back home, but I wanted to complete my journey. Sadly, while relaxing in my hotel room, I received a call that would end my trip. I would have to leave early the next morning to drive straight home to deal with some business back home.
While I was sad that my journey was incomplete, I was happy to know that I would see my family the next day and get to spend some unexpected time with them. I may have come home, but part of me is still back in Kentucky, waiting to finish my journey on Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail.