After our detour to Tennessee to catch Jason Isbell we headed north, over the border to Kentucky for a few days, split between our first stop Lexington and our second in Louisville.
Kentucky is very famous for a few things, primarily bourbon and horse racing – and KFC. Lexington was our first stop and where a lot of the bourbon and horse-racing originates. It was like one large manicured race-track. The grass and picket fences broke up the mundane freeways and buildings. We just missed one of the largest horse racing events and I could believe how busy Lexington would be. As it was, we didn’t venture greatly downtown as this trip was about the bourbon trail.
96% of the world’s bourbon comes from Kentucky, anything else must be made to the rules of bourbon distillery. The only changes can be how much grain is added/not-added, how long it is matured in the barrels and how the barrels are rotated. Many of the major distilleries got together a few years back and with the tourism industry developed a Bourbon Trail. This is where you get yourself a tour map and passport and visit nine of the distilleries who have joined up with the program, get some tours and tastings, souvenirs, bourbon and a free t-shirt if you visit all nine.
We never thought we would have the time to visit all nine so although I got myself a passport we didn’t bother getting it stamped. As it turned out we actually saw all bar one of those on the trail and the one we missed was the one in downtown Lexington – that’ll teach us not to visit downtown.
Anyway we headed off with no real plan but we discovered on the bourbon trail was that there were differing prices – it is not like wine tasting where you can just go and taste. Bourbon tasting (maybe because of the alcohol content) requires you pay for the privilege, which includes a tasting and tour (maybe you could just tag along at the end to do the tasting but we didn’t). Another factor that makes it difficult to visit all is the driving. There are some signs but they kind of disappear and if coming from a different direction you are so reliant on Ms TomTom and driving through the countryside for what seems like forever you do a lot of second-guessing. For instance, Makers Mark we were sure Ms TomTom was sending us for a tour of country Kentucky hoping no-one comes from the opposite direction on the narrow winding country roads until all of a sudden it appears – funnily, Makers Mark is known for totally confusing everyone who ventures there and they provide directions of how to get out and other distillers will tell you to just trust the GPS.
Finding Makers Mark was not as daring as finding Bulleit (which we did after our nights in Louisville as it is closer there than Lexington). The signs disappeared or weren’t where they were supposed to be. We driving along a road where there’d been a shooting the night before and the shooter was still on the run. Ms TomTom sent us through areas where you did not want to break down, pick up hitchhikers or ask for directions – we reached where we were supposed to be but the last bit of the road was under construction and the path was blocked so we had to keep trying all these ways through the real working class ‘burbs keeping a watchful eye for the shooter. After nearly giving up (I was persistent because I like Bulleit) we made it and it was a great tour and tasting – well worth the effort.
Back to Lexington our first stop was Four Roses because we hadn’t tried that before. What an absolute shemozzle. Beautiful buildings but no-one knew what was going on, where to book a tasting, where to get on a tour, people everywhere. This was not looking good for the rest of our visits. But we grabbed some souvenirs – I was determined to get something from all the distilleries that we would step inside – and I did.
Others we visited during our stay at Lexington were Wild Turkey – this was only $5 for a tasting and a short video. It’s in an award winning building with a great view of the Kentucky River. This is why bourbon is so good around here. The water flows down the rivers and limestone that cleans and purifies the water – just perfect for distilling. Only problem with Wild Turkey, whilst it didn’t cost much the tasting only visit had the measliest pour and only permitted a choice of two from their range. Maybe there was more if you did the actual tour – you have to get your timing right for the tours as they are usually on the hours or half hour and go for at east an hour.
Buffalo Trace we drove out to – Ms TomTom sent us to the back door (no idea why) but we found the entrance and picked up the first tour of the morning. This was an excellent tour with a generous pour and they didn’t mind if you came back for more. I like Buffalo Trace so maybe that made it good – no, it was good. Buffalo Trace is also on the national register and is not a part of the official bourbon trail.
We were late getting out to Woodford Reserve so missed the last tour of the day but this wins for premises. It was a charming building with huge leather couches and open fire. Real nice and the drive out here takes you through the beautiful horse ranches of Versailles, just the drive made this enjoyable.
After finding Makers Mark this was also a very enjoyable tour and maybe the best. It was wet and there was a lot of outside walking but they provided umbrellas. You could grab some labels – one lady hand prints Makers Mark labels for the entire world. Kind of funny that some of these distilleries do not employ a lot of people and everything is done by hand. Fifty people putting out the entire world’s supply of Makers Mark or Bulleit – hard to believe really. Makers Mark (and Bulleit) as well as tasting also actually told you how to taste – these were good tours and tastings. You might think seen one seen them all but they were different.
Jim Beam we visited but didn’t tour. However, we did have some great BBQ from their on-site smokehouse. Jim Beam, as you could also expect, has a lot of Australian visitors and two floors of merchandise. They also don’t do things by hand and employ thousands.
There were a couple of others on the bourbon trail that we drove or walked past but didn’t bother. If you have an interest it’s worth the effort. It’s fun but frustrating trying to find things by yourself. You can get on a bus tour that will take you around to different distilleries and maybe that would a good way of getting more in, either way, just the drive through the countryside is enjoyable – unless that countryside is reaching Bulleit where it’s a bit more of a get in and get out.
Little more on Kentucky in another post.