The heartland of BOURBON TOURISM
In Kentucky, travellers can follow the road from corn mash to fine American whiskey
ELIZABETH CHORNEY-BOOTH SPECIAL TO TORSTAR ELIZABETH CHORNEY-BOOTH TRAVELLED AS A GUEST OF LUXCO, WHICH DID NOT REVIEW OR APPROVE THIS ARTICLE.
It doesn’t seem right to dip my fingers into a vat of the bubbling corn mash that will eventually be sold as bottles of Ezra Brooks bourbon, but when John Rempe, master distiller at Lux Row Distillers in Bardstown, Ky., tells me to take a taste from one of his facility’s industrialsized fermentation tanks, it feels rude to demur.
After a reassurance that any germs will be decimated in the distilling process, I reach into the tank and bring a sip to my mouth. It tastes surprisingly pleasant — like a tangy cereal bar — but certainly doesn’t carry the rich caramel and burnt sugar notes characteristic of Kentucky bourbon.
The road from corn to a bottle of Kentucky’s finest bourbon is lengthy.
With most popular brands’ entrylevel products coming in at about $50 (and much more for more prestigious bottles), decent bourbon is not the cheapest tipple on the market. But a trip to Kentucky to see just how complicated and time-consuming the process is illuminates why well-crafted bourbon is worth every penny.
Contrary to popular belief, bourbon doesn’t have to be made in Kentucky (though legally, it must be made in the United States, primarily from corn and aged in a charred, first-use oak barrel). Still, almost all the best-known brands are made here, with more than 80 distilleries in the state.
This is partly due to tradition — it’s widely (though not universally) believed that bourbon was named after Kentucky’s Bourbon County — but also because of the Midwestern climate. Seasonal temperature fluctuations cause the whiskey to mature more quickly.
Aware that an increasing number of tourists wish to pay pilgrimage, in 1999 the Kentucky Distillers’ Association set up the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, a self-guided tour that has grown to include 46 participating distilleries. The association reports that more than two million visitors hit the trail last year — a new record.
Louisville, Kentucky’s largest city, boasts its Whiskey Row, a strip of its downtown Main Street stacked with urban distilleries, bourbon bars and the bourbon-themed Hotel Distil. But the self-proclaimed “bourbon capital of the world” is quaint Bardstown, an hour south of the city.
There are 11 distilleries in and around Bardstown, including Lux Row, Four Roses, James B. Beam and Maker’s Mark, as well as the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History and Talbott Tavern, the world’s oldest bourbon bar.
These venues provide historical context, detailing bourbon’s origins, which involved slavery (something most facilities gloss over, though there is a movement to restore Black narratives to the bourbon story). I also dip further south to Lebanon to tour Kentucky Cooperage, the world’s largest manufacturer of bourbon barrels. Seeing how those barrels are built, so not a single drop of whiskey escapes, is like watching a magician reveal the secrets behind a particularly mindboggling trick.
But it’s on the official Kentucky Bourbon Trail that I get a real taste for what it takes to make bourbon. In addition to touring Lux Row’s massive facility in the rolling bluegrass hills, I stop by the more intimate Limestone Branch Distillery. Here, I not only sample more corn mash, but also dive into the history of master distiller Stephen Beam (yes, of those Beams), whose maternal side of the family launched Yellowstone bourbon in 1892.
While the distilling process is essentially the same at stops along the trail, each facility has its own vibe and unique way of spinning the story behind its bourbon. Keeners could do three or four distilleries in a day (with a designated driver, of course), but a couple of thorough tours spread over a weekend should be enough, with additional pit stops to try a cocktail or buy distillery-exclusive bottles before heading back to Louisville to enjoy a Southern-style meal.
With so many travellers wanting to know where our food and drink comes from, a trip to worship at the altar of bourbon can be equal parts educational, tasty and just plain fun. At the very least, I know I will forever think of that remarkable transformation from bubbling corn mash to golden nectar whenever I pour myself a glass of the good stuff.
Toronto Star Newspapers Limited