Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Kentucky Bourbon Trail - Pt. 1

(Shepherdsville, KY) Hi 77  Lo 58 - Today was all about starting on one of the items on my bucket list: to visit all six of the distilleries on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Dee isn't a bourbon drinker, so being the great wife that she is, she's basically being tolerant and following along. There are dozens of bourbon distilleries in Kentucky, but only six are officially part of the Bourbon Trail. They are: Jim Beam, Heaven Hill, Maker's Mark, Four Roses, Wild Turkey, and Woodford Reserve. Today we got to the first two, Jim Beam in Clermont, and Heaven Hill in Bardstown.

We left around 10:30am for Clermont, only six miles away. The Jim Beam distillery sits on about 80 acres of rolling hills about 30 miles south of Louisville.

95% of all bourbon whiskey is produced in Kentucky, and Jim Beam produces about half of that 95%. They're the best-selling and most recognizable brand of bourbon in the world. We wound our way around the plant to the visitor's center and signed up for the tour.

The tour was typical of others we've taken of breweries and distilleries... they show you a short film, explain the history of their product and why it's the best in the world, and take you to a part of the production area. The Jim Beam tour started in the house that Jim Beam lived in way back when, and in one of the rooms was a  beautiful, very small working still that dated back to the 1800's. It's still in working condition and if put into production could produce a whopping one gallon of bourbon in five days. The workmanship on this was amazing!

Our tour guide then took us outside to a reproduction of an old-time still to explain the bourbon making process.

There's a saying that "All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon." A whiskey has to meet some very strict requirements to be classified as bourbon. If you're interested in what those requirements are you can find them here.

We then went into one of the aging warehouses. Jim Beam has over a million barrels aging at all times. The barrels age for four years to make Jim Beam "White Label," and progressively more years for their premium bourbons.

This is the ground floor of one of the many nine-story warehouses on the property.

Of course the tour ended in their tasting room, where we (I) sampled a couple of their products. Not a bad tour, but it would have been nice to see more of the production process. A couple of years ago we toured the Buffalo Trace distillery in Frankfort (not part of the Bourbon Trail), and they took us right into the fermentation room and the bottling and packaging lines.

During the tour our guide pointed out the trees in the woods surrounding the property. Notice anything strange about them?

Notice how black the trunks are? That's mold. The barrels of bourbon lose 5% volume per year of aging, and all those vapors in the air from a million barrels produce a lot of mold on the sides of the buildings and the trees in the surrounding woods. Back in the moonshining days whenever the "revenooers" would see black trees they'd know an illegal still was nearby. :)

The tour ended early enough that we decided to drive about 15 miles to Bardstown and take in the Heaven Hill Distillery and Bourbon Heritage Center. We were pleasantly surprised at how beautiful and quaint the town of Bardstown is.

Bardstown is called the "Bourbon capital of the world" because of the large concentration of distilleries that are, or have been, located in the area. Also, there are a large number of streams that flow through limestone rocks that produce the best quality of water required for bourbon production. The downtown area has a few blocks of neat little shops and cafes. We had lunch at Pat's Place Restaurant, a well-reviewed local "home cookin'" place.

Dee had a chicken  sandwich that she says was delicious, and I had a "Pat's Burger," which was exceptional. We also had home made pie for dessert. Yum!

After that wonderful lunch we made our way to the southern edge of town to the Heaven Hill Distillery and Bourbon Heritage Center.

The first thing that caught our eye was all of the aging warehouses in the fields around the property.

That's a lot of barrels! They also store and age around a million barrels at a time. But Heaven Hill produces not only their own brands (Evan Williams and Elijah Craig are the primary ones), but they also produce and age various bourbons and whiskeys for other companies (including Christian Brothers brandy. The brandy is trucked from California for aging in Kentucky. Go figure.)

The Bourbon Heritage Center is in a very pretty building that has a small but informative museum explaining the history of bourbon in this area. It's where we started our tour.

The tour was much like the one at Jim Beam. Fred, our tour guide, was a little more knowledgable and outgoing than the guide we had at Jim Beam. And again, the only 'production' area we got to go in was one of the aging warehouses.
The one thing that made this tour much nicer was the beautiful tasting room, which was shaped like a large barrel. 
I got to sample two of their "small batch" bourbons, which are drawn from a small, limited number of barrels. Fred also took time to provide some instruction in how to appreciate fine bourbon. That was nice.

It was a very pleasant afternoon. The state of Kentucky is very proud of their bourbon heritage, and they have a right to be. Bourbon is America's Whiskey. One of the things that makes me appreciate the quality of bourbon (besides the taste) is the fact that bourbon must be aged in new, charred, white oak barrels. It's one of the requirements that must be met to be considered bourbon. What's so special about that? It's what they do with the barrels after they empty them... they sell them to other distilleries to make (non-bourbon) whiskeys. In fact, they send most of the used barrels to Scotland to make Scotch Whiskey. So you scotch drinkers out there, the next time you have a shot of that premium single-malt Scotch, that "hint of smoke" and "oak" aftertaste you love is from good old American bourbon!

We have four more distilleries to visit to complete the Bourbon Trail. Then we each get free t-shirts. :)  Don't worry, we plan to visit other places besides distilleries while we're here, so hopefully we won't bore you with the same old thing. We're not sure what's on tap for tomorrow, but whatever we do we plan to have fun. Thanks for coming along!


Gail and Rick (Gypsy Turtles) said...

Thanks for the tour. I wish we liked bourbon. When we were there last year, we just visited wineries in the area as neither of us like bourbon...unless it's mixed with chocolate :) Then it's pretty darn good!

GGuncle said...

back in the day i used to drink OLD GRAND DAD straight. now i mostly drink water.

Donna W. said...

When he was young, my brothers company transferred him to Louisville, they loved living there. But in the early years he had to do a lot of entertaining, whenever he came back to st louis he would stock up on kentucky bourbon...he told us it was cheaper in st louis than in louisville :-)

Jill said...

I enjoyed your "tours." I have a book which I believe is called "Watch It Made In the USA" or something close to that, and my husband and I always take whatever factory tours are available in the areas we are traveling. Enjoy the rest of the Bourbon tours!

Kevin and Ruth said...

Glad you enjoyed your first two distilleries. We went to the Heaven Hill one in the fall of 2010 and really enjoyed it. We were camped just down the road so we rode our bikes there. We definitely loved their tasting room and our guide was great too and very informative. We also went to the Four Roses one in the spring of 2009, there you will see the production of the bourbon. Again we really enjoyed it.

Kevin and Ruth