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The Kentucky Bourbon Trail

Deep in bluegrass country where horse-studded pastures alternate with woodsy hillsides and the only rest stop for miles around is at Abraham Lincoln’s boyhood home, there lies a string of historic bourbon distilleries open for tours. Last weekend, when I was in the region, I stopped in at two of them: Maker’s Mark and Woodford Reserve.

Despite the alcohol in the name, you don’t go to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail to get tipsy. First, there is a lot of driving involved on winding country lanes so a big bourbon buzz is a big no-no. Second, I know it’s a shocker (at least it was to me), but not all the distilleries give tastings. Third, a clear head is needed to navigate the rustic (and largely unmarked) backroads. But that’s part of the fun. Just when my friends and I thought we’d reached the middle of a beautiful nowhere, a sign popped up to show the way to the spirits.

Photo courtesy of IgoUgo member MilwVon.

The setting at both Maker’s and Woodford is straight from a picture book of American idyll. Both have little streams and happy trees, green rolling hills, buildings that are over 100 years old, and well-placed rocking chairs or benches so that you can take it all in. At Woodford, I almost expected Bambi to bounce on over and beg for some booze. And at Maker’s, they even have cutesy (or cheesy, depending on how you look at it) details like little bourbon-bottle cut-outs on the shutters.

On each tour, I learned an incredible amount about a uniquely American drink and its heritage. I found out what separates a bourbon from a whisky, and how much of the process is still hand-crafted and focused on small, premium batches. I got to see the assembly lines, the label makers, vats that bubbled and fermented right before my eyes, and barrel upon barrel promising sip after sip with a silky smooth finish.

Tips: Right now, it’s pretty hot along the trail, so I recommend bringing water. Wear comfortable shoes—you’ll do a fair amount of walking and will have to climb some steps. Turn off your cellphones so as not to interrupt the tour guide. And note that we were told that the amount of alcohol in the air can make for a volatile atmosphere, so it’s wisest not to smoke.

rachel_berg

My name: Rachel Berg.

Favorite way to get around: By Venetian gondola during starlit high tide, gliding past decaying and slightly spooky palaces, with perhaps a bottle of prosecco placed between the gondola seat cushions.

View that took my breath away: Unable to sleep in the mystical city of Sfat in Israel, I wandered outdoors predawn and was treated to a purple-on-purple sunrise below the mountaintop that seemed to emerge feet-first through ground-level clouds.

Greatest travel lesson learned: Sunny weather isn't everything. Some of my best travel memories involve go-karting through a deluge turned mud-fest in Mexico, drinking tea in the cold Denali tundra, and watching electric thunderstorms roll through national parks out West.

Most challenging travel moment: Getting leveled by altitude sickness in Cuzco and realizing that my body was forcing me to slow down and rest despite the fact that there was so much to do and see.

Travel ambition: To see the northern lights.

Comments

kp
Reply

Be sure to budget extra time while you are at Woodford so that you can “set a spell” in the rocking chairs on the deck, take in the lovely environs, and enjoy the gourmet lunch or dinner options! I can’t wait to go back to Bourbon country to hit the ones I missed — Buffalo Trace, etc. Good times!

May
Reply

This sounds like the new Napa. I love the idea of hitting the Bourbon trail. Did any of the distilleries give presentations on how to pronounce Bourbon like a true Southerner?

I’ve always wondered what the difference is between Bourbon and Scotch. Is it like how a square can be a rhombus but a rhombus can’t be a square?

DD
Reply

I did the Jack Daniels tour a couple years back, very fun indeed. And the setting is amazing. I have to admit I was shocked at the lack of tasting options though. The Heineken Brewery in Amsterdam this is not. But at least you can pick up some goods for the drive home!

J. Mitch
Reply

I can see the point about not smoking, however I’d be very curious to see the outcome of this brazen move…Very curious indeed…

Meyer
Reply

I’m a bourbon cowboy myself, riding a bottle in my own star-spangled rodeo. I recently got the scoop that Maker’s, recently a non-tasting venue–is now adding a place for sippin’, to open by Bourbon Week in September.

One little taste won’t ruin the roads. But if you’re dipping your own bottle in Maker’s wax, keep it closed until your driving time is done.

Phyllis S Waring
Reply

I am a native kentuckian, born and bred (until I left home to attend college in Missouri)in the heart of the Bluegrass (translation: thoroughbred horses and fine Boubon)so I am quite familiar with the local distilleries in that part of the country. We did the tour of Maker’s Mark Distillery in Loretto, KY and then ended the day with “Ye Old Kentucky Dinner Train” ride through bourbon country. The scenery and the meal onboard the 2 hour train ride were fabulous!

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