Bourbon country, Kentucky — it is the mecca of all things wonderful about the caramel-colored vanilla-flavored craft liquor.
During one gorgeous weekend this past fall, my husband and I traveled from Wilmington to partake in what spoils bourbon country had. Leaving the kids with family, we took off on a much-anticipated getaway along the famous Bourbon Trail, which is a program designed by the Kentucky Distillers’ Association to promote the bourbon industry in their state.
We arrived in Louisville late at night and we had decided weeks beforehand to stay in the town of Bardstown, at what was self-advertised as a quaint bed and breakfast, but we didn’t last 12 hours.
It was the worst bed and breakfast I had ever stayed in. My husband and I sank into a musty-smelling mattress, sagging into each other. Like a scene from a movie, wide-eyed baby dolls stared at us from shelves. Old calculators marked for sale decorated the nightstands. The door to the room itself was defaced by duct tape patches and chipping paint. And I don’t even want to think about the ghosts lurking around, as I’m sure there were.
Not normally ones to travel by the seat of our pants — we like plans — my husband and I entered new territory by canceling our remaining nights at the haunted B&B and moved forward without accommodations lined up.
Bardstown, though, was not the place we wanted to stay. That we knew.
While hailed by magazines as one of the most picturesque country towns, it is not a place for adventure-seekers. The lodging options were severely limited and while the town was, indeed, beautiful, there wasn’t much there. Nightlife? Fine dining? Not much.
Yes, Bardstown is home to four distilleries, so it can lessen the driving time, but we found that location alone wasn’t enough to sell us on the town. For a quiet weekender, who wants to taste then enjoy a night in a motel TV-watching and reading (not that there is a thing wrong with that), Bardstown works. But we wanted the opportunity to see more and be out more than two distillery trips. So we decided to move on, magazine articles ignored.
Before we could wallow in the fear of not having a roof over our heads, we made our way to our first bourbon tour: Buffalo Trace Distillery.
Buffalo Trace had an impressive and exquisite entrance, which stunned us immediately. When we walked into the foyer and saw bottles of Papi behind glass, we nearly drooled from the splendor that surrounded us.
Buffalo Trace was packed and was by far the busiest distillery we visited. Two weeks prior to our trip, we had attempted to book the Hard Hat Tour, which takes you behind the scenes and gives visitors the opportunity to taste rare bourbons not available to the general public. These Hard Hat Tours filled up months in advance, so we weren’t able to attend, and I so wish we had.
Regardless of the crowd and our poor planning, we very much enjoyed our tour experience. It was our first one so we learned much about the entire process.
Buffalo Trace opened its doors wide to allow us into the inner sanctums. We saw bottles being poured, corked, and placed for distribution. We saw all of the eight different toppers of Blantons in one place. We lovingly stroked the hair of employees getting the bourbon ready for sale (maybe that was just me).
After more than 30 minutes, it was time to taste. We licked our chops. This was what we had came for: to experience firsthand the differences in the revered and centuries old process.
Alas, we were somewhat disappointed.
Kentucky has very strict laws in place regarding the tasting of bourbons at distilleries. At a wine tasting, you can easily get snockered. At a bourbon tasting, it isn’t feasible. Two very small pours are all that each visitor is allowed.
Lest I sound like an alcoholic, for tasting purposes, a small sip is all one needs to get a sense for the drink. But when a distillery like Buffalo Trace makes dozens of bourbons, some of the most famous and rare, then provides the smallest of sips of the bourbon you can buy in bulk at the local ABC store in North Carolina, our tastebuds were sad. We had hoped for access to bourbons that required the trip across states, the airfare, and a tour price. But this wasn’t unique to Buffalo Trace — the regulation applied to all distilleries.
Of course, it was nice not to get snockered and be able to drive ourselves around. It was also nice to know that other drivers on the bourbon country back roads were equally protected from themselves by the state.
For driving is necessary.
While bourbon country has over 20 distilleries, with only 10 of those on the official Kentucky Bourbon Trail, they are located far apart and have limited hours. You can only visit them with the purchase of a tour — no tour means no tasting — while very strict appointment times also dictate visitation schedules. Plan to do a maximum of three distilleries in a day and book well in advance. Don’t just show up.
After leaving Buffalo Trace, we mapped our way to Woodford Reserve Distillery. We drove through impeccably groomed horse country, reportedly past the retirement home of famed racing horse American Pharaoh, to a distillery much different in nature than Buffalo Trace, yet just as impressive.
Woodford was well groomed, with not a blade of grass out of place. The visitor’s center screamed luxury and modernity all in one sniff. Our tour started with individual headphones, so we could hear our guide, and a shuttle to the bottom of the hill.
As this was our second stop, we appreciated the repetition of the general information we had just received about the bourbon process from Buffalo Trace but were also able to recognize the nuances of how Woodford distinguished itself. It seemed to me that Woodford had a bit of a chip on its shoulder for not being as big as the bourbon conglomerates or making as many bourbons.
But they need not have worried, for their bourbons were delicious. We were particular fans of the double-oaked and made a bottle of that our first bourbon country purchase.
Woodford Reserve introduced us to the pot still method, too, and the room containing the three stills looked alien and otherworldly.
In the elegant tasting room, we were rushed through our two tastings, paired with what we now realized was the requisite bourbon ball. Nearly all the distilleries provided a bourbon ball to taste, too. I suppose to assuage their guilt that they couldn’t offer more actual bourbon and to increase merchandise run through their shop. Woodford was artful in their tasting selections, which allowed us to immediately capture the distinction between the two bourbons.
At this point, we were so very hungry. There weren’t many restaurants — especially ones of note — along the Bourbon Trail. We read that Woodford offered food and relied on that, but we found the menu limited and overpriced.
If I were to do this trip again, I would have stopped at a nearby grocery store or market and brought picnic food with me … to pair with a bottle of bourbon we purchased at a distillery, of course.
Despite being hungry, we had formulated a plan to stay in Lexington for the night and booked our accommodations at the Gratz Park Inn. But we still had a long drive before food would be ours.
Before we hit the road, and just before nightfall, we took a moment to trespass on the hallowed ground of the Old Taylor Distillery. While there wasn’t much to see during our trip, it is scheduled to be a new distillery soon with renovations underway. The Taylor name has been bought by another label, but it was heartening to see such a famous and influential building being put back to its intended use. Before we could get in trouble with the law, we drove on.
Our night in Lexington was much more our speed. It’s a sizable college town so we had our pick of restaurants and we couldn’t keep up with the nightlife. College kids stay out so late these days. The Gratz Park Inn was in a stellar location and provided wonderfully comfortable accommodations, which included a very large bed.
The next morning — our last full day to see the sights — we didn’t have much of a plan in place, just one afternoon specialty tour I had booked at Heaven Hill. Because we had quickly learned how long we could expect to spend at each distillery and how long it takes to travel the roads between them, we wanted to fit one more stop in.
We decided that we wanted to try a craft distillery. After some Internet research, we called up the relative newcomer and small producer, Willett Distillery, to see if they could squeeze us in.
This was by far my favorite tour as well as my favorite bourbon. Willett offered a down-to-earth experience and was obviously run by a tight-knit family, who wholeheartedly believed in their mission. It was also interesting to learn how a distillery starts. After all, it isn’t as though they can come off the line selling bourbon aged for years.
Willett also allowed visitors to pick any two bourbons they wanted for the tasting. Still only two small pours but at least we were able to pick for ourselves and, of course, my husband and I picked different ones. So at Willett, we were able to taste four bourbons between us.
We headed back into Bardstown to eat at the famous Mammy’s Kitchen restaurant, where we tried the Kentucky Hot Brown sandwich. The place itself was an unassuming bar, the food not spectacular, but the Kentucky Bloody Mary I had, made with bourbon and garnished with bacon, was one of my favorite drinks of all time.
In fact, a lot of the fun in being in bourbon country, my husband and I realized, was that bourbon is the language. Bars and restaurants had over 50 different bourbons to offer customers. If you didn’t get to taste anything of importance at Buffalo Trace, then don’t stew in your disappointment. The bar down the road will sell pours of nearly any bourbon known to mankind.
THAT was where the tasting happened.
After our lunch, we took a moment to tour My Old Kentucky Home in the middle of Bardstown because we had some time to kill before our next tour. We weren’t up for paying the admission fees to tour the old manor so we just enjoyed our little walk through the crackling fall colors.
Then it was on to Heaven Hill Distillery / Bourbon Heritage Center. You can spit on Heaven Hill from Willett. Not that you would, but it was worth the visit just to see how different the huge house is versus the small start-up. While Willet was family-centered, Heaven Hill had been around for years. They had survived through prohibition — bourbon was medicine — and had spent quite some time buying many labels and smaller shops.
At this point, frankly, we were over the tours. They all started to sound the same and it felt like we were on repeat. Fortunately, this was one time when I had planned in advance. I had booked the Whiskey Connoisseur Tour for us weeks ago. No touring, just tasting.
Gratefully, with this tour package, we sat at a table and, wine tasting style, a woman from Heaven Hill led us through a tasting of five different bourbons, including a coveted 23-year Elijah Craig (which retails at $280 a fifth).
This was the best way to end. We knew enough about the process at this point that we knew the right questions to ask. We finally had what we wanted: the opportunity to taste bourbons we never would buy for ourselves, pick up at the store, or have access to in any way. The best thing we did the whole trip was to end it at Heaven Hill.
But, of course, we didn’t end there.
After thoroughly enjoying the more expanded tasting menu at Heaven Hill, we were inspired to get to one more distillery before we headed home early the next day. This was our last shot and who knew when we would be here again — drinking in the fall in such an earthy way.
What better bourbon brand representative than Jim Beam? We were driving by at what we assumed was a tour time and decided to try our luck. But she was not a lady to us. The Jim Beam American Stillhouse had nothing to offer: no tour openings, no tastings, nada. But we were free to walk the grounds and shop in their store.
The grounds at Jim Beam were beautiful with black rick houses against white barns. But they also dominated the visitor experience by telling us too much, with too many signs, requirements and demands. It was produced. We considered this the Disney of bourbon land.
We ended up using a discount travel site to book a standard hotel room at the Fairfield in downtown Lousiville for our last night. We loved the location and were able to safely walk to an area of town full of bars and restaurants. Of course, by this time we were exhausted. We each had a huge, delicious burger at Sidebar at Whiskey Row and, of course, finished our trip by tasting just one more bourbon at their bar.
Completely satiated and more in love with bourbon than when we arrived, we went back to the hotel and slept soundly, dreaming of vanilla and honey and caramel.
IF YOU GO: Take a look at the official Kentucky Bourbon Trail website and maps, but know that this is not an inclusive list. There are many others distilling in the area. Plan a maximum of three distilleries throughout each day. Unlike wine tasting, you can reasonably consider driving yourself (of course, be safe and smart). Plan your food and meals well. Stay in Bardstown if you want quiet, Lexington if you want college town, and Lousiville if you want lots of options. Enjoy!
Allison Barrett Carter is a freelance writer who moved from Chapel Hill, N.C., to Wilmington in search of more salt and sand. As a mom to two young kids, she struggles to find time to write but has gotten very good at making excuses for herself. Carter’s work has been featured in numerous national and local publications as anything left from her paycheck is set aside for travel. It’s a passion, not a problem. She can be reached at email@example.com
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