Holidays bring to mind many things: family, good food, perhaps some time off work or school. For many people it’s a time to relax and celebrate, and in Kentucky, there is no finer way to do that than with a bottle of aged Kentucky bourbon. While many of us have enjoyed imbibing spirits of some sort during times of celebration, the general public probably doesn’t know a great deal of the history that surrounds this wonderful drink.
The whiskey was originally shipped through Bourbon County in the late 1700’s, which is where the name comes from. Kentucky is now the only state allowed to put its name on the bottles, although technically it can be produced anywhere. Many distillers believe, however, that the factors involved in making a “true” bourbon don’t necessarily have as much to do with geography as they do the nature of circumstance: the water supply in and around Bardstown, Kentucky-which is where most bourbon is made-has a very low iron content as opposed to the amount of limestone, which is the perfect ratio for creating a great tasting bourbon. Every September, Bardstown hosts the Kentucky Bourbon Festival, which draws a crowd of thousands.
Of course, other details factor into the creation of the drink, such as temperatures, and no added alcohol or artificial flavors can be involved.
Given the distinct amber color of the spirit, it may come as a surprise to some that bourbon starts out as a clear liquid. After it ages for two years-the minimum legal amount for it to officially be called “bourbon”-in special charred oak barrels, it changes to a golden brown.
Some may be familiar with the story of Elijah Craig, an 18th century Baptist minister and distiller from Georgetown, who is widely credited as the first bourbon distiller. One legend about the Reverend Craig tells of the time he used barrels after they had been in a fire, causing the discovery of a distinct color and flavor to the bourbon and giving birth to the “charred oak” portion of distilling.
Perhaps the most famous of the many bourbon distilleries in Kentucky is Maker’s Mark, located in Loretto, Kentucky (pronounced “Loretta” by locals). Its location- hundreds of lovely acres lined with magnolias-is evocative of the era from which early bourbon distilling came, and as if to prove this, there is a quart house on the grounds believed to be the nation’s oldest remaining retail whiskey store. The man credited with the first bottle of Maker’s Mark is Robert Samuels, who brewed the first batch in 1780 for himself. It wasn’t until his grandson, T.W. Samuels, built the family’s commercial distillery on the family farm over sixty years later that the brand was on its way to becoming what it is today. (The name Maker’s Mark comes from the makers of fine English pewter; they only put their mark on the best pieces.)
Out-of-towners looking for an interesting day out might want to look into the guided tours offered in local distilleries. Whether you are a bourbon drinker or just know someone who is, there is no denying the sense of history felt when you smell the rich notes of fresh oak and vanilla, or at that first glimpse of one of the antique copper tanks.
Maker’s Mark: 10:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Sunday tours conducted March-December only at 1:30, 2:30 and 3:30 p.m. (No liquor sales on Sunday.) Free. Contact: 270/865-2099
Jim Beam’s American Outpost: Located at Ky. Hwy. 245 in Clermont, Kentucky. Open Mon.-Sat. 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m., Sun. 12:30-4 p.m. (no tastings on Sundays). Free. Contact: 502/543-9877.
Woodford Reserve: Located at 7855 McCracken Pike in Versailles, Kentucky. Open Tues.-Sat. 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Sun. 12:30-4:30 p.m. Tours conducted hourly Tues.-Sat. 10 a.m.-3 p.m.; Sunday tours conducted April-October only, at 1, 2 and 3 p.m. Admission $5 (includes a tasting and souvenir shot glass), for 18 years old and up. Children free (but no tasting). Contact: 859/879-1812
Wild Turkey: Located at 1525 Tyrone Rd. in Lawenceburg, Kentucky. Open Mon.-Fri. for tours at 9 a.m., 10:30 a.m., 12:30 p.m. and 2 p.m. Free. Wild Turkey sold by the bottle, but no tastings. Contact: 502/839-2182
Heaven Hill Distilleries: Located at 1311 Gilkey Run Rd. in Bardstown, Kentucky. Open Tues.-Sat. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (last hourly tour begins at 4 p.m.), Sun. noon-4 p.m. (last tour begins at 3 p.m.; no bourbon tastings or sales on Sundays). Free. Contact: 502/337-1000
Four Roses: Located at 1224 Bonds Mill Rd. in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. Open Mon.-Fri. 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. (tours given on the hour 10 a.m.-3 p.m.). Free. Contact: 502/839-3436
Buffalo Trace: Located at 1001 Wilkinson Blvd. in Frankfort, Kentucky. Tours on the hour Mon.-Fri. 9 a.m.-3 p.m., Sat. 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Free. Contact: 502/223-7641