Kentucky History, In A Glass

Kentucky is known for three things: horses, bluegrass (the music AND the plant) and bourbon. Of course, we love horses and music’s great, but everyone has to experience the bourbon trail at least once in their life – even if they don’t enjoy alcohol because each glass of bourbon produced in Kentucky tells a story of the state’s founding and its success.

Following the revolutionary war, Boston’s low-quality rums dominated the spirits market – it was really the only affordable alcohol available. They said its only redeeming quality was its ability to get you drunk before the taste became too unbearable. But that wasn’t good enough for the Scotch-Irish immigrants settling the Kentucky territory. After all, they were used to wonderful aged scotches and fabulous Irish whisky. For them, drinking was about enjoyment and flavor, not just a sleep aid.

And, lucky for bourbon fans everywhere (myself included), those immigrants chose to lay claim to Kentucky land. First off, corn grows great in Kentucky and corn is what gives bourbon its distinctively sweet aftertaste. But, more importantly, the Scotch-Irish immigrants tended to stake their land near the government’s land offices which were most often established upon the massive limestone shelf that cuts through 25% of the state. This of course provides the vital natural iron-free water that is ideal for distilling whiskey.

When first developed, Kentucky bourbon was just whiskey. But, the rules of the Natchez Trace required whiskey barrels traveling downstream to New Orleans to be stamped with their county of origin – in this case Bourbon county. In preparing his whiskey, distiller Elijah Craig found the cheapest way to clean the fish barrels for storing whiskey was to char the inside. When his first shipments made it to New Orleans, they made quite an impression. New Orleans was clamoring for more for the whiskey from Bourbon, and a new product was in demand.

Today, there are eight distilleries located in a 200-mile loop that extends from Lexington to Louisville. Each markets their bourbon in a slightly different manner and each bourbon has its own distinctive flavor pallet. Kentucky’s dedication to bourbon is clear when you consider than there are more barrels of bourbon growing older in the state than people.

We’ve driven the trail once before, so this round we decided to visit Maker’s Mark and Wild Turkey two of the best sellers along the trail.

We first drove to Maker’s Mark distillery for a couple of reasons – it’s my favorite and, we remember from our first stopover, they make the most delicious bourbon chocolates we’ve ever tasted. There were quite a few updates since our last tour.

First, the starting point of the tour was renovated a few years back. Previously the former founder’s home was used as the tour headquarters and gift shop, but today, the home has been restored to the way it might have looked when Bill Samuels and his family lived here in the 1950s. Each room includes interactive displays that tell a little of the story of the formulation and company history. Bill Samuel’s office has been recreated and includes a set of entertaining and disturbing picture frames that use a Conan-esque moving mouth to tell a story.

Inside the distillery, the oak mash tanks at Maker’s Mark are over 100 years old, and this round, we got to dip our finger into to taste the sweet-sour mash known in the industry as distillers “beer.” The gift shop has been substantially expanded, and now offers two samples at the end of every tour – which was not possible previously. Maker’s Mark uses a tried and true old process for making their bourbon.

In the early afternoon we visited Wild Turkey distillery which we learned had recently been expanded by their new owners. Since 2010, the company has been able to double the amount of bourbon it can produce. This high tech process was an interesting contrast to the traditionalist process of Maker’s Mark (which is not even one of the oldest distillers on the trail). The shiny, stainless-steel vats and sparklingly clean floors make the place feel more like a laboratory than a whiskey still, but, we gained a new appreciation for Wild Turkey at the tasting.

We’ll be heading back soon. Maybe we’ll see you there. For more information.