During a distillery tour at Barton 1792 Distillery, just outside Louisville, Kentucky, an employee said, “There are two kinds of people in Kentucky: horsey people and bourbon people.” If you enjoy a tipple or have any interest in the history of cocktail culture, save the horses for the Derby and head to bourbon country, which practically is a country: It has a slightly larger footprint than Cuba.
It is easy to be overwhelmed by the options, or to get carried away in the revelry. Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail, a rough triangle between Louisville, Lexington and Elizabethtown, is home to more than 30 distilleries, with each offering a unique spin on the tour experience. A visit of the area involves some planning, namely which distilleries to hit (plan for 30 to 60 minutes at each), where to eat in between tastings, and most importantly, who’ll be the designated driver.
If departing from Louisville, head first towards Bardstown, the bonafide bourbon capital of the world, for a primer on the liquor and some local history. Bardstown was settled in 1780, when Kentucky was part of Virginia. In 1789, bourbon arrived on the scene, and a colourful history ensued, one best explained over a drink, naturally, at the Old Talbott Tavern. It opened for business in 1779 and has played host to a motley crew of characters since, among them Daniel Boone, the exiled Louis-Philippe of France, Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, Abraham Lincoln and Queen Marie of Romania.
Famed 19th-century outlaw Jesse James was also known to frequent the Talbott (some say he still does: The inn is rife with rumours of him haunting the building) and he quite literally left his mark on it, when one night after drinking, he was convinced something was moving in a mural on the wall of his room and he shot at it. The bullet holes still riddle the walls.
For a candid look at the bourbon process, head to the Willett Distilling Company. Founded in 1936, this distillery is still family owned and operated
On the trail, you’ll find distilleries that are small, massive, old and new(ish). The lesson you’ll learn at all of them, however, is “All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskeys are bourbon.” Not unlike the regulations that keep Champagne pure Champagne, bourbon has strict criteria, among them: It must be produced in the United States, contain a grain mix of at least 51% corn, have had nothing added (except water to reduce the proof where necessary), and be aged in a charred new barrel made from white oak. Beyond those criteria, the rest of the process is an alchemy of variations that make every product unique.
For a candid look at the bourbon process, head to the Willett Distilling Company. Founded in 1936, this distillery is still family owned and operated, producing a modest amount of bourbon compared to some of the nearby big operations. Tours at Willett are intimate, with the two resident cats darting through the grounds. The size of the actual distillery could seemingly fit into a Kentucky mansion and you feel like you’re privy to the family’s business, rather than tagging along as a tourist group.
A short drive away is Barton. This grand dame is one of the oldest distilleries in America. If you time your visit right, you’ll be taken up (and up, and up) an open grate stairwell and be given the chance to taste white dog — freshly distilled whiskey — right before it goes into the barrel. Being upward of 90 proof, I expected it to smack me in the face, but it’s dangerously delicious. Some distilleries sell this unaged wonder, so if you see a bottle of white dog, snap it up.
I can’t write about where to taste bourbon without some discussion of my favourite ways to drink it: neat, in a Negroni, or an Old Fashioned. The Pendennis Club in Louisville claims to be the birthplace of the Old Fashioned. The drink is considered to be the original cocktail, the name harkening to drinking the “old fashioned” way: spirits, bitters, water and sugar. During Prohibition, when hooch got sketchy, people started tossing in a cherry and a slice of orange, which some purists now opt to leave out now that the bourbon is very, very good.