Distilled from fermented grain and aged in wooden barrels, whiskey can be produced all over the world—most famously in Ireland and Scotland (where it’s spelled “whisky”). American whiskey was first produced by early settlers in Appalachia who learned that converting corn and grains into spirits made it easier to transport (down the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers to New Orleans, mostly) and offered a bit of a distraction from brutal frontier life. The whiskey traveled in oak barrels and took on a warm color and distinct flavor.
As whiskey grew in popularity, Bourbon County gained recognition as the source and its name became a shorthand for those in search of the caramel-colored spirit. Today, bourbon whiskey tastes quite a bit different (that is to say, much better) than the product of the past, thanks to regulations that prevent distillers from tampering with quality and a more sophisticated market. Officially, it must be produced in the U.S. using a mash of 51% corn and be distilled to no more than 160 proof.
Bourbon is a big deal
When Kentucky’s many distillers call bourbon “America’s Official Native Spirit,” they aren’t embellishing—they’re referring to Congress’ 1964 declaration that officially made bourbon a “distinctive product of the United States.”
There are nine big-name distilleries on the trail…
The Kentucky Bourbon Trail highlights a number of distilleries that any serious whiskey drinker will probably recognize: Four Roses, Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Town Branch, Wild Turkey, Woodford Reserve, Bulleit, Evan Williams and Heaven Hill, which produces Elijah Craig bourbon.
…and eight “craft distilleries,” too.
If you choose the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour, you’ll have the chance to visit eight artisan distilleries producing quality spirits in small batches. Some favorites include the Barton 1792 Distillery, which is set on 192 acres of picturesque land, and the family-run Willett Distillery.
September is the most festive time to go
Visitors in September have the chance to enjoy the Kentucky Bluegrass & Bourbon Experience, a confluence of local barbecue, bourbon cocktails and the area’s beloved musical tradition. Later in the month, Bardstown (“the Bourbon Capital of the World”) erupts into the week-long Kentucky Bourbon Festival, which features the world championship bourbon barrel rolling race.
You can do it all in one afternoon—sort of
Head to the Louisville Visitor Center to pick up your passport and map or download the smartphone app for the URBAN Bourbon Trail, a winding route through downtown Louisville that offers opportunities to catch live music, sample “bourbon-inspired dining” and, of course, sip on the spirit itself. Go Ahead travelers can experience the URBAN Bourbon Trail with a local guide and whiskey expert on tour in the American South.
Have you been to Bourbon County or an American South trip? Share your tips in the comments!