Getting myself down from the skinny green branches of the “tree” that is New England did not come easily to me. As I sat on the edge of Maine’s Long Lake pondering my next move, I changed my mind almost hourly as to which direction I would take. My overwhelming urge was to make a B-line back to the comfort of the Great Southwest as quickly as possible…almost as if I felt guilt from two-timing on a summer fling. I could take a shortcut straight across the Great Lakes, even re-entering Canada for a part of the journey. But family matters dictated a more southerly route through Texas. And since I am nearing my annual winter migration across the border, it only made sense.
But that still left me with too many options. I could hug the east coast getting in some much needed beach time at the Outer Banks. Or maybe explore the Florida panhandle before the flock of snowbirds descend. Maybe even swing through for a stop in New Orleans, a city I called home back in the early 80’s. But it seemed one by one as I would set my sights on a destination, so would Mother Nature. With each new strategy, I felt like I was facing off in a wrestling match to see who could get there first; me versus hurricanes Irma, Maria, then Nate.
My challenge was compounded by the rapidly approaching red letter day on my own personal calendar, my birthday. Turning a year older while on the road always presents a separate set of challenges for a solo traveler, finding the balance between making memories with friends, versus feeling like the Simon & Garfunkel lyric, “I am an iiiisland.” Add to that my own self-imposed pressure to do something memorable on each birthday, and I am faced with the conundrum — do I try to time a visit to be with friends, or pick a bucket list stop along the way? In looking diagonally across the map from Maine to Texas, the Kentucky Bourbon Trail is out of the hurricane path, but directly in mine.
I’ve long been a fan of bourbon, developing an affinity for the Manhattan cocktail back in the early 90’s as a resident of its namesake. Couple that with the recent trend in everything “bourbon-barreled” from BBQ sauce to beer, all to my liking, and a stop along Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail seems like the perfect place to celebrate another year closer to Medicare.
I target three distilleries for my tour based on personal taste. I would base myself at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, a beautiful expansive working horse farm and RV park in the quintessential rolling hills of Kentucky blue grass. After a summer of solid boondocking and a weather forecast that calls for constant clouds and solar-robbing rain, I treat myself to a site with hookups. In close proximity are two of my targeted destinations, Buffalo Trace and Woodford Reserve, with the more distant Maker’s Mark along the way to my next stop, Louisville.
There are 10 distilleries along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, each offering tours of approximately one hour in length and ranging from complimentary to $15 per person. Bourbon is currently riding a trend with production being up over 20% providing a boon to local tourism, so one is advised to either book a tour ahead online, or be prepared for a wait. Or travel solo. One of the benefits of being an “island” is there always seems to be room for one more. 😉
Distillery tours all pretty much start and end the same, beginning with the opening line, “All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon,” and ending with a rush to claim a seat at the tasting table. What falls in between varies by distillery, with the scale falling somewhere between entertainment and education.
In order for whiskey to be labeled as “bourbon,” it must meet five criteria;
1.) Contain 51% corn (all three distilleries I toured use above 70%, with the remaining grains being a combination of rye, wheat, and malted barley.)
2.) Made in the USA
3.) Contain no added flavorings
4.) Distilled to no more than 160 proof (80% alcohol by volume)
5.) Aged in new, charred oak barrels
The tour guides will also tell you Kentucky Bourbon has everything to do with the limestone-filtered water of Kentucky, absent of all traces of iron, a true taste killer. Ninety-five percent of all bourbon is distilled within 90 miles due to this purity of the water source.
Kentucky’s fluctuating temperatures also contribute to successful aging, as 60% of the flavor and 100% of the color comes from the charred insides of the oak barrels. Warm, steamy summers and cold winters in drafty warehouses cause the wood to contract and expand frequently, allowing the distillate to penetrate into the oak. There are currently over five million barrels of bourbon aging in Kentucky, exceeding the number of people living in the state.
Although other spirits can come from these Kentucky distilleries, when it comes to brands of bourbon, it’s all about the barrel. The type of oak, charring process, and time in the barrel all contributes to the added flavors that turns the clear distillate, “white dog” (tastes like Everclear) into that distinctly smooth, aromatic caramel-colored spirit filled with the essence of woody earthiness and sweet spice. New American Oak barrels undergo a charring process which brings out the caramelization of the sugars in the wood. Some cooperages enhance this process by “toasting” the inside of the barrel first with infrared light. The aging process draws flavors from the caramelized sugars in the toasted oak.
Once the aging process is complete (minimum of two years) some distillers add their own signature flavor by opening up the barrel after the first maturation and adding “staves,” slats of American or French Oak in various degrees of char for a period of additional aging. Barrels cannot be reused for bourbon, so they are sold to beer and food companies for production of “bourbon-barrel aged” products.
Here are a few observations from my three tours:
Buffalo Trace— Situated alongside the Kentucky river, Buffalo Trace has been producing bourbon for over 200 years. It’s the oldest continually operating distillery in America, maintaining operations even through prohibition. This distillery had the most “urban” feel of the three I visited with its tall brick warehouses and heavily trafficked streets with bourbon barrels being transported on rails down a three story chute onto trucks for transport. It was also the busiest, as the mid-day tour was so well attended, the group had to be split.
Woodford Reserve –This distillery offers a smaller, more intimate experience, with cozy touches such as fireplaces in the waiting and tasting rooms, and a resident cat lying lazily on the porch. Woodford Reserve prides itself on a unique three-step distilling process in its copper pot stills. They boast 212 “delectable flavors” in their bourbon, and provide a flavor wheel during the tasting to help participants hone their palates.
Maker’s Mark – Located in Loretto, KY, 65 miles from Lexington. it’s the first distillery to be recognized as a National Historic Landmark while in active production. This distillery makes a good day trip from Lexington, or as an intermediate stop on the way to Louisville. Though Maker’s parent company, Beam, Inc. was recently acquired the third largest beverage company in the world, Suntory Holdings of Japan, the distillery manages to maintain its “small batch” family style atmosphere. If you are interested in shopping for “bourbon bling,” save your spending spree for Maker’s Mark, the largest and most well appointed gift shop of the distilleries I visited where one can find any number of items sporting the signature “red wax dip.” Of course, I can’t pass up the chance to dip my own bottle of “46” for my signature drip in the shiny red hot wax!
For me, the most delightful aspect of touring distilleries along the Bourbon Trail is the wonderful aromas that vary with each stop along the tour. Having toured wineries and breweries in the past, I knew there would be distinct aromas wafting through the warehouse, but in the bourbon distilleries, they are downright intoxicating. 😉 First entering the area where corn is first cooked, it smells like Mom’s hot cornbread in the oven for Thanksgiving dressing. Further along, the yeast in the fermentation process makes me salivate for homemade bread. Once in the warehouse, the essence in the air is that of the “Angel’s share,” sweet, pungent alcohol that permeates through the oak barrels. And finally, the bottling room is where one smells the finished bouquet of warm caramel and spice, perking up the taste buds in eager anticipation.
The pinnacle of any distillery tour is always the tasting at the end, whereby tour participants are guided through the tasting process. Tips are given on how to use the senses to detect distinct flavors such as citrus, maple, and butterscotch as these “notes” land from sweet at the tip of the tongue to the bitter finish at the back.
I am grateful to those distilleries who offer RV parking, particularly Maker’s Mark. While the other distilleries offer oversized vehicle parking assistance with a stop at the Visitor Center first, Maker’s Mark offers designated generously long pull-through spaces, perfect for waiting for the buzz to wear off. 😉
No place offers a more fitting end to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail than the famous downtown Louisville landmark, the Brown Hotel. Built in 1923, it’s Georgian Revival style is a throwback to those roaring twenties prohibition days of glitz and glamor. And if that bourbon buzz has left you with a lingering hangover, don’t miss their signature dish, the “Hot Brown,” an open-faced turkey sandwich with bacon and creamy Mornay sauce, topped with bubbling hot Parmesan cheese served straight from the oven. Originally created in 1926 to be served as a late nite supper to fuel the dancing dinner guests, it’s a stick to the ribs meal sure to soak up last nights ills.
Okay, so what if I got a little carried away at the distillery gift shops? What are birthdays for?? Besides, with two more years to go until I reach “universal healthcare,” I’m gonna need it…for “medicinal purposes.” 😉