It’s ironic that a liquor declared by Congress to be “America’s native spirit” has such a distinctly European moniker. In fact, even after two centuries, there remains debate and confusion as to how bourbon earned a name so closely associated with a French royal family. It’s an argument best left to the historians, and not worth getting into here. But even if there are conflicting stories about the origin of the whiskey’s name, there is no doubt about which U.S. state can rightfully claim bourbon as its own.
Kentucky is universally recognized as the birthplace of bourbon. Distillation of this amber-hued, corn-based liquor dates back to the 1700s, when Kentucky was still a district of Virginia. By the 19th century, there were some 2,000 whiskey distilleries operating in the commonwealth, though most of them were on farms. The bourbon they produced was central to the local economy; in addition to being sold to taverns, bourbon was used for bartering when money wasn’t an option (it’s a shame this system isn’t still in place; I would gladly exchange goods and services for whiskey).
And just as wine regions lend distinct characteristics to the grapes grown in their soil, bourbon owes many of its unique qualities to Kentucky’s geography – in particular, the Bluegrass State’s climate and limestone water, which is rich in minerals and free of iron.
Today there are 14 distilleries operating in Kentucky, and together they produce 95% of the world’s bourbon supply. In fact, there are more barrels of bourbon aging in the state than there are people living there – 5 million barrels to 4.3 million people. You can even throw in horses (242,000), and bourbon still dominates.
In an effort to capitalize on the soaring popularity of bourbon tourism, in 1999 the Kentucky Distillers’ Association organized the Bourbon Trail, a coordinated effort to guide bourbon lovers through tours and tastings at eight participating distilleries. I was recently in Kentucky, and while traversing the Bourbon Trail wasn’t the purpose of my trip, I did manage to make a couple of stops along this legendary path. And what better place to start than with the oldest distillery in bourbon country.
The drive to the Woodford Reserve distillery looks like something out of a Kentucky tourism brochure – rolling meadows and green pastures, narrow lanes marked with wooden signs, and so many horses grazing in the fields that eventually you don’t feel compelled to exclaim “Look! Horses!” to everyone in the car.
The distillery on Woodford Reserve’s Versailles property is the oldest in the state and is designated as a national historic landmark. Although it was built in 1838, it hasn’t been in continuous operation all that time (thanks again, Prohibition) and has changed hands on multiple occasions. And while whiskey was distilled on the site as early as 1780, the small-batch bourbon we’ve come to know and love as Woodford Reserve first appeared in 1996.
The contemporary distillery stays true to its 19th century roots. The huge visitors’ center, which was renovated and reopened this past April, offers breathtaking views of the verdant Kentucky countryside.
It’s easy to imagine sipping a mint julep on a hot, summer afternoon on the building’s long, wraparound porch.
Inside, the visitors’ center boasts plenty of modern amenities, including a gas fireplace, comfortable couches, leather chairs, and a tasting room, gift shop, and dining area.
But the space maintains a rustic, old South atmosphere, with exposed beams and rafters, tables built with reclaimed wood from a barn on the property, and a collection of faded pictures of the distillery through the years.
This is where daily distillery tours begin, and after some preliminaries, you board a bus for a short ride down to a stone building that houses fermenters and stills. The rich, sweet aroma of fermenting whiskey greets you as soon as you step inside the warm distillation room. The 7,500-gallon fermenters, which look enormous but are actually among the smallest in the industry, hold a bubbling yellow liquid that at this point in the process doesn’t look or smell particularly appealing.
But the journey for that yellow stuff has only begun. The fermented mash gets transferred to the first of three massive copper stills, acquired from Scotland. Woodford Reserve is the only distillery to triple-distill its bourbon in copper pot stills.
After a trip through the stills, the whiskey gets barreled. And this is where things get serious, because there are strict guidelines that must be adhered to if a whiskey is to be called bourbon.
Bourbon must be aged for at least two years in new, white oak barrels that are toasted and charred. Woodford Reserve ages its bourbon for an average of seven years, during which time the whiskey takes on its distinct color and flavor by expanding into the wood during warmer temperatures and contracting during cooler ones.
The barrels weigh 100 pounds when they’re empty and 500 pounds when full, which would seem to make moving them something of a challenge. But distillery staff make use of an antiquated yet effective solution – the barrel run. This set of tracks, installed in 1934, is used to transport bourbon barrels among various buildings on the distillery grounds. No trucks or fuel needed – just gravity.
And what becomes of those barrels after their one-time use? Woodford Reserve sends them to other distilleries for whiskey aging, including Scotland, where some are used in scotch production.
After a visit to the bottling room, the tour returns to the visitors’ center for a tasting.
Woodford Reserve currently offers two products – Distiller’s Select and Double Oaked. The Distiller’s Select, which is the company’s flagship bourbon, has been lavished with numerous quality awards and is even the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby. It’s a smooth, complex bourbon with a rich aroma and notes of oak, vanilla, toffee, and a variety of spices. Pairing it with food expands the flavor spectrum; after a bite of chocolate provided with our tasting, the bourbon took on a hotter, spicier flavor.
The Double Oaked bourbon debuted in 2012, and its name derives from the unusual barreling process. It’s the same bourbon as the Distiller’s Select, but after maturing in an oak barrel for seven years, it’s aged for an additional year in a second barrel, which has been toasted for longer than usual and flash-charred. As our guide succinctly noted, it was a way to “change the flavor without changing the recipe.” The result is an even more complex flavor profile, with deeper notes of vanilla, cocoa, caramel, and fruits and spices.
And while Woodford Reserve is justifiably strict about their bourbon recipe, they’re not opposed to further experimentation – they’ve been aging a rye whiskey that will be available next year.
That might border on outlandish for a traditional Kentucky bourbon distillery, but assuming their devotion to craft is similar to that of their bourbon, Woodford Reserve Rye will represent a welcome expansion to the distillery’s product line.
Address: 7855 McCracken Pike, Versailles, Kentucky
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The Lexington Brewing and Distilling Company differs from Woodford Reserve in almost every respect. Its Lexington-based facility is more urban and industrial than Woodford’s lush environs. As a much younger distillery, Town Branch’s spirits haven’t had the luxury of a lengthy aging process. Nor does Town Branch possess the aura of tradition and timelessness enjoyed by its more established peer. But what it lacks in longevity and name recognition, the distillery makes up for in passion and exuberance.
Named for the body of water that runs under the city, Town Branch is the first distillery to be built in Lexington in more than a century. And while the distillery only opened its doors in 2012, it did so as an extension of a celebrated local institution – the Alltech brewery, which had taken over the Lexington Brewing Company after it closed in 1999. That’s another way Town Branch differs from Woodford Reserve, not to mention most distilleries in the world – it’s a “brewdistillery,” making both beer and whiskey on the same site.
The brewery offers a line of five beers, along with some rotating seasonal options. The inaugural brew, Kentucky Ale, blends an Irish red ale with an English pale ale for a smooth but fairly unremarkable beer.
Unless you’ve been to Kentucky, you’ve probably never encountered it. But in 2011, Alltech founder and head brewdistiller Dr. Pearse Lyons had the enterprising idea of aging Kentucky Ale in used bourbon barrels; you may be familiar with the results of that experiment.
After maturing for six weeks in the barrels – at least some of which are obtained from Woodford Reserve – Kentucky Ale takes on the rich essence of bourbon, with prominent notes of oak and vanilla.
Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale was an overnight sensation locally, and before long, its success led to national distribution. It also inspired Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Stout, made with dark-roasted malts and Haitian coffee.
Our brewery guide suggested combining the Bourbon Barrel Ale and the stout for what’s known as a “Double Barrel,” a complex, potent blend of oak, coffee, and vanilla flavors.
After a tour of the brewing facility and a couple of beer samples, the tour moves on to the distillery. Pipes running overhead between the two buildings send yeast from the brewery to the distillery for use in the whiskey mash.
The distilling operation is smaller in scope than the one at Woodford Reserve, but the setup is essentially the same. Copper pot stills from Scotland? Check.
Wooden fermenters? Check. Bubbling yellow goop that gives off a sickly sweet odor? Check.
Despite being such a young distillery, Town Branch has a relatively diverse product line.
The golden-hued bourbon has notes of oak, banana, and butterscotch. It’s not quite as smooth as other bourbons, which I might have guessed as soon as our tour guide noted it was best enjoyed with ice or water. Not bad at all, but a longer aging process might add a little depth and complexity.
Proving that there’s room for other types of whiskey in the land of bourbon, Town Branch unveiled a rye whiskey earlier this year. It’s spicy and peppery, as a good rye should be, and noticeably drier than bourbon.
But the real standout at Town Branch is not a bourbon or rye but a single malt whiskey. The Pearse Lyons Reserve brings a bit of the founder’s Irish heritage to the heart of bourbon country. The aroma is sweet and mellow, though the first sip has some bite to it. But that gives way to a smooth texture and a flavor profile that reveals notes of oak, molasses, brown sugar, and vanilla.
Now if rye and malt whiskey are considered foreigners in these parts, then Town Branch’s Bluegrass Sundown must seem like an alien. It sure looks unusual, with its dark, oddly shaped bottle.
Inside is a bourbon liqueur infused with dark-roasted coffee, sugar, and vanilla. It’s a rich, velvety liqueur that seems like a marriage of Kahlua and Bailey’s. You can drink it straight, but the recommended way to enjoy the Bluegrass Sundown is by pouring it into a glass, adding boiling water, and topping it with a layer of heavy cream. The result looks a bit like a mini Guinness and tastes like a coffee cocktail.
This sweet concoction would be perfect for a cold New England night; but even on a hot afternoon in Kentucky, it sure hits the spot.
Address: 401 Cross Street, Lexington, Kentucky
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Having just a few days to spend in Kentucky, I only made it to two stops along the Bourbon Trail. I figured that would be enough; after all, how many stills and fermenters does one really need to see?
But I was surprised by the different personalities of each distillery. Woodford Reserve basks in the history and tradition of its celebrated distillery, and is justifiably proud of its exceptional, award-winning bourbon. The tour is polished, professional, and highly interesting, though at times it feels a little too rehearsed.
Town Branch has a ways to go before it earns the respect and accolades that an established distillery like Woodford Reserve enjoys, but the staff’s enthusiasm is infectious. The tour is a little more casual and off the cuff, and between the beer and the spirits, there’s a broader offering of products to sample.
It makes me wonder about the other outposts along the Bourbon Trail, and I can see why the tour has attracted millions of visitors since it began. Bourbon production may not vary much from distillery to distillery, but each company has its own unique blend of history, culture, and character. And the stories they tell can be as rich and complex as the spirits they produce.
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