Kentucky Bourbon Trail Part 1 - Bardstown
Updated: Oct 17, 2019
As we were starting our full time travels we made plans to meet up with our friends from the neighborhood in Atlanta, John and Lisa Proffitt. Our first plan to meet in Key West in April ran into a little hitch with my eye surgery. So we decided to meet up in the fall and tour the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. We honestly kind of stumbled into it, but what a BLAST!
A little history is in order. There was a time from the 60's to the 90's when the distilleries struggled to give Bourbon away. The rage was white liquor such as Vodka and Gin. Bourbon was decorated in decanters depicting cars and other things to try and draw attention. The bourbon distilleries were quiet and forgotten. In the 90's someone had the great idea to follow the lead of the wineries and make Bourbon an experience. They spruced up their visitor facilities and hired tour guides. They created the idea of a Bourbon Trail that caused people to visit all the distilleries. This effort paid off in huge ways with increased sales and a new visitor industry.
Bourbon is a uniquely U.S. experience. There are 10 laws of bourbon.
Must be made in the United States (can be any state but 90% is made in Kentucky)
Must be made of a mashbill that’s at least 51% corn grain
Must be distilled to no higher than 160 proof off the still
Must be aged in new unused charred oak barrels
Must enter the oak barrels at no higher than 125 proof
Must be bottled at minimum 80 proof
The label must display an age statement if any of the whiskey is under 4 years old
If multiple ages of whiskey are mingled in a bottling, the age statement must reflect the youngest bourbon in the mix
The label must display the state of distillation if the whiskey was bottled in a state other than the one where it was distilled
It cannot contain any added flavorings
Another interesting fact. When Bourbon goes in barrels for aging a lot is lost over time. The Angels share evaporates or spills out while the Devils cut seeps in to the barrel itself. As you can see from this image when the barrel reaches 18 years (bottom right) there is little left. But the distiller must pay taxes as if it were full. That is why the higher aged Bourbon is priced accordingly.
We decided to start in Bardstown, KY. home of distilleries like Jim Beam and Maker's Mark. We picked up our map and passports and set out.
One of the newer operations that actually supplies high volume for some well known brands. It was upper scale and new. Every distillery starts out with the same concept-- put corn, rye, barley in with yeast and let it ferment. Then take that "beer" and distill it to something called "White Dog". The tours allow for tasting of these mix's. They are rough. Actually "White Dog" is moonshine with a really high alcohol content. That is placed in white oak barrels to age for anywhere from 2-18 years. The barrels give the Bourbon its color and flavor. It also matters where the barrels are placed. Higher means warmer and faster to market while lower and center means a slower aging process. Each distiller has their own way of making the magic happen.
A polar opposite from the brand new LUX was the Makers Mark Distillery. This one is old enough to be on the historic register being built in the early 1800's. It has the "been there forever" charm. The vats are made of very old wood. And there is the signature red wax. We put the wax on two tumbler glasses. Note the aerial images of the barrel ageing buildings. They are stocked to the rafters with barrels that are turning White Dog in to Bourbon.
Turned out to be one of our favorite tours and Bourbons. This tour actually allowed for a tasting directly out of a newly opened barrel. Then they allowed visitors to pick a bottle and watch it be filled and labeled. The new owner could then place their fingerprints in the hot wax. It really made the whole concept come to life.
There are two main companies that supply barrels to the Bourbon industry. Kentucky Cooperage is the largest. They did not allow for pictures on the tour, but some images off of postcards show how the process works. They are built without nails, glue or anything that might affect the flavor of the contents. They are held together simply by the pressure of the rings. They are toasted from stage 1-4 and sent to the distillers.
THE BARREL BOYS
After all is done and the bourbon is removed, barrels are repurposed for many things. Some go to Scotland and are used in Scotch creation while others are used in wine and beer making. One company buys old barrels and sells them to artists and furniture makers. We had the idea of making a table for our coach steering wheels and purchased some.
Ultimately it was easier to simply buy something already created by Woodford.