The perfume of a fermenting mash of corn, wheat, rye, and barley fills my nose as I step into the stone distilling barn of Woodford Reserve in Versailles, Ky. I taste the mash and smell the whiskey at each of its three stages before it is barrel-aged. A guide takes my small group through the barrel warehouse, explaining the nuances and history of Woodford's bourbon. I cap off the free tour with a picnic lunch of pulled pork and sweet tea before hitting the next stop in Bourbon Country.
When it comes to whiskey and tourism, most people think of Scotland. But not to be overlooked is the 60-mile corridor between Louisville and Lexington. There you'll have the chance to drink in America's whiskey-making past and present—and mix the experience with visits to storied racetracks, thoroughbred farms, and even a PGA golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus.
The aging of corn whiskey in charred oak barrels dates back to at least the 1780s. But only recently have the distilleries promoted their unique geography as "The American Whiskey Trail." There are seven distilleries on the trail, with five in Kentucky: Jim Beam, Buffalo Trace, Maker's Mark, Wild Turkey, and Woodford. Two more, Jack Daniels (BFB) and George Dickel, are in Tennessee, 80 miles south of Nashville.
Some of the distilleries are drawing upwards of 70,000 visitors a year, more than twice the level of five years ago, as the popularity of pricey small-batch whiskey has fed bourbon's mystique among drinkers in the U.S. and abroad.
Most people will fly into Louisville. You may want to stay a night at the historic Seelbach Hotel, taking in its Old Louisville atmosphere of tobacco farming and horse breeding. Or you might opt for the newer, hipper Hotel 21c. Consider spending a night in Lexington at the Gratz Park Inn or Griffin Gate Marriott Resort to be closer to the Kentucky Horse Park.
All of the distilleries on the trail are welcoming, but some are more worthwhile than others. Jim Beam (27 miles south of Louisville, in Clermont) or Wild Turkey (53 miles to the east, in Lawrenceburg) make great whiskey, but the settings are a bit industrial.
For an immersion in bourbon making, I'd recommend spending at least an hour each visiting Woodford Reserve and Maker's Mark, which is on a secluded 600-acre facility in Loretto, Ky., 60 miles south of Louisville. Besides the distillery and warehouses, the grounds contain an arboretum with over 275 native trees, perfect for a picnic. In Maker's Still House, you get a "hands-in" tour as a guide invites you to dip a finger in the 7,500-gallon vats and taste the yeasty mash steeped in the Kentucky limestone-filtered water necessary to legally call the end result bourbon. Some unsuspecting good-sport visitors are picked out to put their noses close to the mash only to get a snootful of carbon dioxide, like ginger ale going up your nose. It's all good fun.
On a distillery visit, you learn more about what makes small-batch bourbons such as Maker's Mark, Wild Turkey's Russell's Reserve, and Jim Beam's Basil Hayden different from the lower-priced popular brands. It's in the age of the whiskey, the source of the oak in the barrels, the time of year fermentation takes place, and even where the barrels are stored.
As for sampling the goods, well, they don't pour as they do at a winery. Jim Beam and Woodford limit visitors 21 and over to two half-ounce tastings. Wild Turkey and Maker's Mark don't offer samples at all.
If an hour's tour is not enough, the distilleries offer other programs. Woodford runs five "Bourbon Academies"—all-day education and tasting sessions—per year, plus grilling and cooking demonstrations featuring master distiller Chris Morris, experienced bartenders, and chefs. The cost is $125.
Woodford allows individuals, by appointment, to sample from 10 barrels. Then, for $10,000, buyers select a two-barrel custom batch from which they get 180 bottles personally labeled.
Of course, you can only sip so much bourbon. The Whiskey Trail is also home to the Valhalla Golf Club, where PGA club members may play the Nicklaus-designed course if their golf pro makes arrangements in advance. Churchill Downs in Louisville and Keeneland in Lexington are idyllic racecourses, but check racing schedules before you visit.
Since Kentucky farms stopped growing tobacco as part of the Master Tobacco Agreement, some have planted wine grapes. But make no mistake: The aroma of corn whiskey says unmistakably that you're in Bourbon Country.
By David Kiley