The most popular type of whiskey in the U.S., bourbon is made from a grain mixture (aka “mash”) that’s at least 51 percent corn. Federal law also mandates that bourbon must be aged in new, charred oak barrels and bottled at 80 proof or stronger, and nothing other than distilled water can be added to the bottles.
Where else to start exploring the history of bourbon than at America’s oldest continuously operating distillery? For over 200 years, Buffalo Trace has been distilling bourbons—the distillery even remained open during Prohibition in order to make bourbon for “medicinal purposes.” In the past decade alone, the family-owned bourbon producer has earned more awards than any other distillery in the world.
Take part in Buffalo Trace’s award-winning history by embarking on the Trace Tour, a free, hour-long tour that walks visitors through every stage of the bourbon-making process, from aging barrels to packaging (and, of course, tasting the finished product). You’ll also be able to taste the exclusive Pappy Van Winkle or George T. Stagg (both are bottled at Buffalo Trace)—but for a price.
Where to Stay Nearby Lexington is the state’s second-largest city and is considered the Horse Capital of the World. The city is also home to a wide range of budget-friendly hotels; check out the Hyatt Place Lexington for easy access to restaurants and downtown attractions, or the University Inn Hotel, which offers quiet lodgings and a continental breakfast.
After waking up in Lexington, prepare to visit two distilleries over the course of the day (don’t worry; they’re not far from each other).
Start off at one of the country’s smallest and oldest distilleries. To this day, Woodford Reserve is crafted in small batches in order to enhance the flavor of each of the bourbon’s ingredients and developmental stages—grains, water, fermentation, distillation, and maturation. The distillery builds and chars its own barrels and boasts one of the longest fermentation processes in the country, all of which contributes to the bourbon’s complex flavor profile.
The daily tour ($10 per person) at Woodford Reserve explores the history of bourbon and details the distillery’s unique approach to the bourbon-making process. Or take an even more in-depth approach on the Cork to Corn Tour ($30 per person), a two-hour session that covers the mechanical, chemical, and technical processes that contribute to making great bourbon.
Located just 16 miles down the road from Woodford Reserve is the distillery for Wild Turkey, one of the country’s most popular bourbons. The original distillery was founded in 1869 and then modernized in 1933 once Prohibition had ended. It sits atop a limestone shelf on the Kentucky River, which provides water for the distillery. In order to keep up with high demand, in 2010 the brand created a new, larger distillery nearby. Just how big is demand? The new warehouse can hold 20,000 barrels.
The free tour allows visitors to watch mash being made, peruse the original fermentation room, and witness the bourbon-making process from filling the barrels to bottling the aged bourbon.
Where to Stay Head back to the hotel in Lexington for the evening and rest up—you’ll be traveling partway across the state the next day.
Wake up for the approximately 1.5-hour drive from Lexington to Clermont—perhaps better known as the home of Jim Beam. You’ll be visiting two distilleries again today, so be sure to pace yourself. On the way to Clermont, stop for lunch in Bardstown, the official Bourbon Capital of the World. Shop for souvenirs (and, of course, bourbon) at the Kentucky Bourbon Marketplace before driving on to Jim Beam.
Another of America’s most popular bourbons, Jim Beam was founded in 1795 and has been family owned and operated for seven generations. The distillery is known for aging its bourbon twice as long as the standard aging process and has used the same strain of yeast for more than 75 years.
The Jim Beam American Stillhouse tour ($10 for adults 21 and over, free for anyone under 21) allows visitors to actively participate in the bourbon production process, from mixing grains to bottling your very own product from Jim Beam.
Twenty-nine miles away from Jim Beam sits the Bulleit Distilling Company. Despite being the baby of the bunch (the distillery was founded in 1987), Bulleit Bourbon has already made quite a name for itself. The company’s founder, Thomas E. Bulleit, Jr., quit his job as a successful lawyer and pursued his lifelong dream of reviving his great-great-grandfather’s bourbon recipe, which was produced between 1830 and 1860. The distillery maintains the family tradition by creating a spicy-yet-smooth flavor that’s earned accolades across the country.
The Stitzel-Weller Distillery tour ($10 for adults 21 and over, free for anyone under 21) takes place in a beautiful old building that first opened on Derby Day in 1935 and was reopened to the public in 2014. Learn about Bulleit’s distinctive family recipe while strolling through the distillery, then finish things off with (you guessed it) a tasting.
Where to Stay Head to Louisville, which is just a few miles away from Bulleit’s distillery. The city is packed with fun things to do; not least among those activities is the Urban Bourbon Trail, a bar-hopping adventure among the self-dubbed “world’s best bourbon bars,” each of which serves at least 50 different bourbon varieties.
Turn in for the night at the luxurious and stylish 21c Museum Hotel, which also includes an on-site modern art museum. If you’re looking for a more budget-friendly option after sipping on bourbon all evening, check out the Econo Lodge Downtown.
Three days, five distilleries, and a whole lotta bourbon—after touring some of America’s best bourbon distilleries, you may just want to go ahead and declare October (and November, and December…) your own personal bourbon appreciation month.
This article was posted on Hipmunk's Tailwind blog by The Hipmunk on September 18th.