Few things are uniquely born in America. There’s jazz music, of course. Blue jeans. The Fourth of July. And — finally — there’s bourbon.
The amber liquid calls old Kentucky its home, and a half-dozen or so distilleries in the state proudly open their doors to visitors this spring and summer for intoxicating tours and programs.
Any “Bourbon Tour” would likely begin first with Maker’s Mark, which has been producing its bourbon whiskey (they spell it “whisky” in honor of the company’s Scottish roots) since 1840.
“This distillery is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest operating bourbon distillery,” notes Dave Pickerell, master distiller and vice president for production. Maker’s Mark also lays claim to being the first distillery named a National Historic Landmark, back in 1980. (All this said, other distilleries also lay claims to being “first.”)
More than 90 percent of the country’s bourbon is produced at distilleries in central Kentucky, amid the rolling bluegrass landscape and thoroughbred horse farms. Call it wine country without the wine.
Originally shipped through Bourbon County, barrels were stamped with the county’s name and soon this Kentucky whiskey became known as bourbon. Though, technically, bourbon can be produced anywhere, Kentucky is the only state allowed to place its name on the bottle. Authentic bourbon, which begins life as a clear liquid, must be aged for at least two years in charred oak barrels, using a ratio of at least 51 percent corn grain to the other ingredients.
Many distilleries are located in or around Bardstown, called the “Bourbon Capital of the World” — in part because the area’s water supply boasts very high limestone content and low iron, somehow making it a perfect ingredient to distill bourbon. Each September, the annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival in Bardstown is a five-day event that attracts tens of thousands, and the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History does a pretty good business, too.
Thanks to its distinctive aroma, any distillery tour is a treat for the senses, full of aromatic copper and steel tanks, vanilla scents and caramel bouquets:
The distillery is located on scenic 850-acre grounds framed by magnolias and sugar maples. On display: An antique fire engine in the fire department, the original owner’s Victorian house, a road toll house, a quart house (believed to be the nation’s oldest remaining retail whiskey store), barrel warehouse, still house and Visitors Center. In the gift gallery, you can buy a small bottle (if you’re 21 or older) and plunk it in the “dipping booth,” creating a customized red wax sealed bottle that you can sign and date. The history: Robert Samuels brewed his first batch in 1780 for personal use. Samuels’ grandson, T.W., erected the family’s first commercial distillery on the family farm in 1840. The name Maker’s Mark comes from the tradition of fine English pewter; makers only put their mark on their finest pieces. 3350 Burks Spring Road, Loretto. Tours conducted Mondays through Saturdays at 10:30 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 12:30 p.m., 1:30 p.m., 2:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. Sunday tours conducted at 1:30, 2:30 and 3:30 p.m. (No liquor sales on Sunday.) Free. (270) 865-2099 or www.makersmark.com.
The Visitors Center offers an abbreviated look at the bourbon-making process through exhibits that trace the 200-year history of the distilling family. All tours are self-guided. Free tastings are offered in a stately mansion once occupied by Jim Beam’s son. On display: The world’s smallest working still and an antique version dating to the Revolutionary War era. The history: Farmer Jacob Beam and his son David Beam began to hit their stride selling in the early 1800s. During Prohibition, the Beam family was forced to take up growing citrus fruit in Florida, but returned to the bourbon business when Congress declared the booze could flow again. 149 Happy Hollow Road, Clermont. Open Mondays through Saturdays from 9 a.m.–4:30 p.m., Sundays 1–4 p.m. (no tastings on Sundays). Free. (502) 543-9877 or www.jimbeam.com.
Brown-Forman (owners of Jack Daniel’s in Tennessee) re-opened this 19th century distillery a decade ago; the $14 million complex is a National Historic Landmark. The Visitors Center offers an introductory film, plus exhibits, photos and artifacts about the history of Kentucky bourbon. The 78-acre site includes all aspects of bourbon production. Begin your tour with a stroll through the facility where the sour mash bubbles in unique cypress fermenting tanks. On display: The distilling room, dating to 1840, features copper pot stills just like ones used a century ago. The history: Elijah Pepper birthed his golden brown elixir here in 1812. Later, French wine merchant Leopold Labrot and Frankfort banker James Graham formed Labrot & Graham on the site. Today, Brown-Forman Corp. owns the distillery. 7855 McCracken Pike, Versailles. Open Tuesdays through Saturdays 9 a.m.–5 p.m., Sundays 12:30–5 p.m. Tours conducted Tuesdays through Saturdays at 10 a.m., 11 a.m., 1 p.m., 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. $5 (includes a tasting and souvenir shot glass) for 18 years and up. No Sunday liquor sales. (859) 879-1812 or www.woodfordreserve.com.
Begin with the Visitors Center, located in a former worker’s house, then take one of the four one-hour distillery tours. In the summer months, the tour might not include the fermentation room (Wild Turkey shuts down production in the hottest months of the year). On display: Various artifacts related to the company’s history as well as segments on the distilling process. The history: The alcohol is named for the wild turkey hunts favored by the owner and his friends. 1525 Tyrone Road, Lawrenceburg. Open Mondays through Saturdays for tours at 9 a.m., 10:30 a.m., 12:30 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. Free. Wild Turkey sold by the bottle, but no tastings. (502) 839-2182 or www.wildturkeybourbon.com.
The Bourbon Heritage Center denotes the history of the distillery’s flagship bourbon, Evan Williams. On display: You can watch the film “Portrait of Heaven Hill,” experience interactive exhibits, visit a working rickhouse (the facility where the barreled bourbon is aged) and enjoy a free “Taste of Heaven” in the barrel-shaped tasting room. There’s a gift shop on site, as well, with copper and oak crafts. The history: Founder Evan Williams was known for his hospitality, toting a jug of whiskey to town meetings where he was an early government trustee. Later, members of the Jim Beam family, including Jim’s brother Park, would practice their craft here. 1311 Gilkey Run Road, Bardstown. Open Tuesdays through Saturdays 10 a.m.–5 p.m. (last hourly tour begins at 4 p.m.), Sundays noon–4 p.m. (last tour begins at 3 p.m.; no bourbon tastings or sales on Sundays). Free. (502) 337-1000 or www.bourbonheritagecenter.com.