The car is packed, the bills are paid, and the reservations have been made. Let's head to the bluegrass hills of Kentucky to get our taste buds into some fine Kentucky bourbon!
Getting the Most Out of This Vlog (Video Blog)
It's very possible for you to skip around and just visit your favorite distilleries by finding the pages and videos they are on. But I've also included a lot of insights into bourbon in each page and video and as a great way to build your knowledge before heading out on your own tour. So, I'd suggest following along at first (especially if you're taking your first deep dive into bourbon) and then going back to the pages that are specific to the distilleries you want to visit.
The Following Webpages and Videos Contain:
- Background on each distillery and my personal observations and suggestions
- Maps showing where I traveled each day
- Costs and the specific tours I took
- Website links to each distillery for reservations and specific directions
- An idea of some of the perks each tour might provide, including freebies
- And I cut through a lot of the marketing, remove some of the mystery, and also help the beginner get a handle on what makes bourbon...bourbon.
Two Important Considerations:
1) This vlog is in no way an endorsement of being irresponsible when doing a bourbon tour. Please use your best judgment in how you consume alcohol. This is a "tasting" tour not a get drunk tour. If getting intoxicated is your plan, then have a designated driver or get the Lyft app on your phone as drivers are available all across the bourbon trail. As you will soon find out, the distilleries must keep you limited in what you receive at a tasting, but you must also be personally responsible for your actions along the way.
2) There are plenty of variables that can affect the details I have provided on each specific distillery and it's tours and tastings. You may find different experiences with different tour guides, weather issues, changes in offers, etc. So make sure to confirm costs and get reservations through the distillery websites whenever possilble and plan to have a unique experience.
With the disclaimers out of the way...let's go have some fun!
Video 1.1: Getting On The Road...
Video 1.2: Concerns When Starting a Bourbon Tour
In the following video, I set up this tour by giving you some of the things I had to consider. When I was planning, there was really no road map for where to go or how to handle things. I found the answers to all of my questions as I did the tour. If I didn't answer them in later videos, I used the bullet points after each video as an area to clarify my findings.
- Clarification: I mentioned having a 12 o'clock reservation, but actually I was thinking of another day, it was actually 1 PM.
- This link is not 100% scientific, but it will give you an idea of how your blood alcohol level is affecfted: https://www.healthstatus.com/calculate/blood-alcohol-bac-calculator Choose whisky (1.5) or airline mini-bottle. They should be similar to what you'll receive at any Kentucky distillery.
- 1.75 oz (50 ml) at 40 proof is comparable to a 12 oz beer with 5% alcohol.
- The point about the chips was to make sure I put something in my belly...told you, unscripted folks!
- This is my first ever video blog, so I learned a lot watching these videos back. My apologies for any rough audio or in this case excessive sunshine!
Maker's Mark Distillery and Video 1.3
Pretty Campus and Informative Full Experience
- Location: Loretto, KY
- Website: Tour Information (Requires Age Verification)
- Cost: I paid $12 for the tour by walking in 20 minutes ahead of time. You can reserve online as well.
- Samples: 5 different bourbons. Tried clear spirit, Makers Mark Whiskey, Makers 46, Cask Strength and a Private Select.
- Perks: A nice chocolate at the end and a Maker's Mark label (sans the bottle). And for the cost of a bottle of bourbon, you can hand dip your own. You can also pick up a label from the print shop.
- My Instagram Tour Photos from Maker's Mark
- Offered bourbon flavored coffee on my morning visit, nice start!
- Tour filled up quickly. I arrived at 9 AM on a Saturday morning and was the first person there. Tour left promptly at 9:30 AM and filled up quickly.
- Best part (next to the sampling): Watching the product go from empty box and bottle to being filled and finally getting dipped in red sealing wax, Marker's Mark's unique feature.
- The tasting was very informative. You even find out how to use the different tastebuds on your tongue and where they are located.
- Although I thought it unsanitary at first, we got to dip our fingers in the sour mash during fermentation. Realize though, they will vaporize this product and no germs could survive that!
- Charles gave a great 1 1/4 hour tour. More than a few giggles occurred when he described a "bunghole." Must have had some Beavis and Butthead fans in tow. I almost pulled my shirt over my head! Ha!
- This was the first of many places where the tour guide suggested consistency and flavor are the reasons many distillers don't put age statements on their bottles including Maker's Mark.
- Maker's Mark only uses one mashbill (formula) for all of their bourbons. I'll describe what a mashbill is later and it's importance. It's suggested that 60 to 80% of the differences in whiskey comes from what happens in the barrel.
- The Maker's Mark Private Select version we tried had a mocha flavor. Yours may and most likely will vary.
- Look for the cool looking shutters with bottle cut outs.
- Pet Peeve: On the road to Maker's Mark, I saw a Jim Beam billboard saying "This is what quality tastes like." Nice (eye roll). You'll soon learn I'm not a fan of "oldest" statements or marketing braggadocio. Give us credit and let us judge for ourselves what quality is!
- Kentucky Cooperage - you'll find that most of the major distillers in Kentucky get their barrels from this cooperage. They also have a charring system, so when you hear someone say a #3 char, a #4 char or a #3 1/2 char, that is a char based on an amount of time determined by Kentucky Cooperage. It is right down the road from Maker's Mark in Lebanon, KY. They are open Monday through Friday and tours by reservation cost $10 at the time I'm posting this. Later, I will post a distillery where you can potentially see this same charring done during your standard tour. If you're in Louisville, check out Kelvin Cooperage, where they service a lot of craft distilleries. I hear you can see more of the process there.
- Limestone Branch Distillery - also in Lebanon, KY, I just ran out of time and couldn't squeeze this one in, but really wanted to go. I heard others speaking highly of the conversational tone of the place.
Video 1.4: Maker's Mark to Wilderness Trail Distillery
Grabbing lunch in Danville, KY was a challenge but it was the most populous place in terms of proximity to the two distilleries. I found that having a snack was very handy on days when I was trying to fit in 3 distilleries, but I still wanted a meal in there somewhere!
Wilderness Trail Distillery and Video 1.5
The Technical and Scientific Side of Alcohol
- Location: Danville, KY
- Website: Tour Information (Requires Age Verification)
- Cost: I paid $7 for the tour. Please check hours, they close for lunch and are closed on Sunday and Monday as of this writing.
- Samples: 4 Selections including Wilderness Trail Straight Kentucky Bourbon, Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey, Blue Heron Vodka, and Harvest Rum.
- Perks: I received a shot glass with a Wilderness Trail logo on it.
- My Wilderness Trail Instagram Photos
- Closed for lunch, tour on Saturday at 1 PM was light, but next tour at 2 PM filled up.
- Evolving company, so this tour may be very different over the next couple of years, with a new visitor's center and gift shop coming soon.
- More than just bourbon, they have rum and white spirits.
- They supply a lot of spirits to other startups.
- Tasting white dog (bourbon before aging) really shows you what the barrel does to the taste of bourbon. White dog, if sold can be good as a mixer.
- Our guide, mentioned that copper stills are used to get the sulfites out of the water. He also said, another advantage is they look better than stainless steel. Sulfites are what cause headaches in wine...so no headaches with properly distilled bourbon.
- Bourbon barrels are often sent over to Scotland for scotch or to other places for infusion in beers and other spirits. I asked what the Scots used before that (ie, before the late 1700's when bourbon was first created), other than sherry barrels, but he wasn't sure. Guess I'll have to head to Scotland!
- Observation: Many tours allow the tour guides to share in the tasting. This was the only one where I saw the tour guide skip the Kentucky chew and just toss one back. Hmmm.
- Could Improve: They gave us our spirits in small plastic communion cups. It was very hard to get a nose and taste at the same time which I found more and more critical at each distillery I visited. The spirits were also very high proof which had me experiencing more burn than product.
- Best part of tour: Getting to try a 136 proof rye, fresh from the process. The Rye is not yet available apparently but that sample was good, even at the high proof.
Side Tracked: What Makes a Whiskey a Bourbon?
Okay, so I'm doing a bourbon tour. What the heck makes a whiskey a bourbon? On May 4th, 1964, to protect an genuinely American created product, the United States government codified the rules of naming something a bourbon whiskey. All items with the name "bourbon" must:
- have a grain mixture that includes at least 51% corn,
- it cannot be distilled to more than 160 proof (many distillers aim below this to keep flavor in the batch),
- it can only be aged in new, charred oak barrels (ie, distillers who say other's make bourbon in used barrels might want to check their facts),
- it's be any higher than 125 proof when put in the barrel for aging,
- and only whiskey produced in the U.S. can be legally be called bourbon. Crown Royal recently tried scoot around this requirement.
- Also, bourbon aged for less than four years must be labeled with it's age,
- and any age statement requires that the youngest whiskey in the bottle is at least that age.
- And to accomplish their goal of Americanizing whiskey, the government states that only whiskey produced in the United States can be called bourbon.
What about Straight Bourbon Whiskey?
Yes, there are additional rules to get this more detailed label:
- It has to have aged at least two years to be called Straight Bourbon.
- It also cannot have any coloring or flavoring added to it unless it says "blended."
- If you see "Kentucky" Straight Bourbon Whiskey, then it had to have spent it's whole life in the state of Kentucky from inception to bottling.
So as they say, all bourbons are whiskey's but not all whiskey's are bourbons. I was fascinated to find out, when I got home, that a local distiller was claiming to have the first 5-grain bourbon (they use rice, which is a famous cheap filler used by Anheiser-Busch's Budweiser. I was lead to believe that you couldn't have more than 3 grains to call something bourbon, however, that is apparenly more of a gentleman's agreement (like we used to have with Presidents only serving 2 terms before Roosevelt), but I don't see anything requiring that the legal definition legal definition...
Town Branch Brewery and Distillery and Video 1.6
A Little Ireland and Scotland Influence In Kentucky
- Location: Lexington, KY
- Website: Tour Information (Requires Age Verification)
- Cost: I paid $10 for the tour that includes first the brewery and then the distillery.
- Samples: You are given 4 tokens and there are 7 beers and 7 spirits to use them on. I had the Bourbon Stout Beer and then used the other tokens on the Pearse Lyons Reserve (Malt Whiskey), Town Branch Bourbon and Town Branch Rye.
- Perks: There were no extras given away.
- My Instagram Photo from Town Branch
- They tell you the options you can choose from up front, which helps you decide how to use your tokens.
- The barrel-aged stout is apparently double infused with coffee. It does give off a coffee flavor but is very mellow.
- Snuck a little sample of the Pearse Lyons Single Barrel at 115 proof...amazing, but $90 a bottle. I was told it wouldn't be in stores, but I found it in Liquor Barn Express right down the road.
- I do like scotch, but I am by no means an expert and tend to like less peaty scotches. Not sure on my claim about Highland scotch, but my favorites seem to come from there and are less peaty.
- I found out a lot of distilleries let me think that I couldn't find certain whiskey's outside of Kentucky, but I dispelled that on quite a few of them when I returned to South Carolina. However, I have yet to find Pearse Lyons Reserve here, so I'm glad I bought a bottle when I did.
- Definitely feel that you should use your best judgment in terms of driving yourself on this tour. A shot isn't a lot, but it does affect people differently. I am 6' 6" (2 meters tall) and around 220 lbs (100 kg) so I'm less affected than someone who is shorter or weighs less.
Side Tracked: Old Sayings
Beer before liquor, never sicker. Liquor before beer, never fear. It actually has proven to be true most of the time. So it was interesting that we had beer first on this distillery and brewery tour. However, I don't think you're drinking enough to have to worry about your cousin Ralph or (up) Chuck!
Video 1.7: More on Town Branch Plus Day One Takeaways and Impressions
So, did I jump in with both feet or what? It was a busy day and to wrap it up I talk about Town Branch's history, scarcity of whiskey, and the discovery of malt whisky in Kentucky. Plus the challenge of drinking whisky neat and how the tours seemed to define the personality and focus of the distillery.
Do It Yourself
Each day, I will provide a map showing my drive and will give you an idea of the mileage.
Note: I started in Somerset, KY but you can start from anywhere. There is lodging near Maker's Mark. Lebanon, KY could be a good jumping off point as well. Times are approximate.
- Maker's Mark Distillery (Loretto, KY) to Wilderness Trail Distillery (Danville, KY) - 33 miles/45 minutes
- Wilderness Trail Distillery to Town Branch Distillery (Lexington, KY) - 43 miles/1 hour