The Bourbon Trail Part One: Stops 1-5

Much to the surprise of almost everyone I know, my boyfriend and I decided to join my parents on the Bourbon Trail through Kentucky this summer. Yes, there were awkward moments. Like when my parents fought over the Louisville Slugger Museum hours. Or when the four of us had to share a room with two full-size beds. Or when we realized that all of Bardstown, Kentucky closes at 3 p.m. But overall, it was a blast!

I know that drinking with depression isn’t always a good idea. I know that when I drink too many days in a row, my medication doesn’t work well and I end up having a few bad days before my brain straightens itself out. I also know that to be happy and get through life with this illness, I need to be able to go on cool trips and drink bourbon and feel normal for a few days. So I did.

I came away from this trip with a new appreciation for bourbon. I now understand what it takes to make it, I know how to taste it without choking, and I can now give you my taste preferences with confidence.

We did all ten stops on the trail, starting in Versailles and ending in Louisville. Each day included 2-3 distilleries so we completed it all in four days. Below are some highlights at our first five stops of the trail including a short description of their facility, interesting aspects of their tour, information about the tastings, and anything else you may want to know.

WoodfordReserveStills.jpg

  1. Woodford Reserve (Versailles, Kentucky)
  • Facility: Beautiful main building with fancy couches, touch screens, and café. The grounds are nice and the drive up includes a lot of horses and horse farms.
  • Tour Highlights:
    • You get to taste the distiller’s beer.
    • Their huge copper stills are quite pretty and provide a nice picture backdrop (pictured above).
  • Tasting: You get to try their two bourbons (distiller’s select and double oak) with a bourbon ball chocolate in the middle. Ice and a tasting wheel are provided. They give you no instructions on how to taste it but explain both bourbons in detail.
  • Other:
    • Packaging was down the day we were there, but it looked cool.
    • There are hidden horses on the premises. We found one…
    • Bourbon ball ice cream.

TownBranchoutside.jpg

  1. Town Branch (Lexington, Kentucky)
  • Facility: Three big buildings off a main road and located basically in a neighborhood. Kind of warehouse-looking inside, but it had a nice photo opportunity on a bench outside their main distillery (pictured above).
  • Tour Highlights:
    • Gift shop wall at the beginning of the tour has a witty timeline with fun quotes about beer and bourbon.
    • They also brew beer so you get to see that area of their production as an added bonus.
  • Tasting:
    • You get tokens for four taste selections. However, there are about nine beers, one bourbon, two whiskeys, two rums, and another spirit. So…you do the math.
    • The beer tasting seemed to be at a more leisurely pace and the interesting flavors were actually really good. I recommend the peach barrel wheat ale and pumpkin barrel ale.
    • The whiskey/bourbon/rum tasting was very rushed, which isn’t great when you’re trying to enjoy hard liquor. I would pass on the rums next time, but definitely save a taste for their Bluegrass Sundown.
  • Other:
    • Apparently Kentucky has some weird laws so if you want to buy a bottle after the tour, you have to buy it right after the tour in the distillery and then walk next door to the gift shop to pick it up. Also, you can’t taste more of the beers at the location than what you get on the tour, but you can travel to a sketchy liquor store called “Shenanigans” and do a beer tasting of some of Town Branch’s beers in the liquor store. No, I am not kidding.

WildTurkeyVats.jpg

  1. Wild Turkey (Lawrenceburg, Kentucky)
  • Facility:
    • This one is huge! While you wait at the main shop for your tour, wander over toward the back of the area where you can look at the giant bridge behind the facility (our photo here is on the top of this post).
  • Tour Highlights:
    • Very glad this one had a bus to take you around. So much walking!
    • Wild Turkey (or Turkey Hill as I kept calling it…) is on a whole other scale—the largest distillery in the world. It’s pretty amazing to see the giant vats and massive wood buildings filled with barrels (pictured above).
  • Tasting: The tasting is in their welcome center up a very cool ramp with slated wooden sides. We got four samples: Russell Reserve Bourbon, Russell Reserve Rye, Rare Bird, and American Honey liqueur. They give you little instructions on how to taste it but explain each one in detail.
  • Other:
    • We were the first tour of the day (9 a.m.) so the place was pretty empty and there was a cool fog over the grounds that gave it a beautiful, spooky vibe.
    • During our tasting, Eddie Russell, the current master distiller and namesake of the Russell Reserve line, stopped by. He answered our questions and then hung around the gift shop to sign any bottles we bought. A bourbon celebrity sighting!
    • You got to keep the tasting glass, but only one per group, which was a little weird as there were four of us.

FourRosesSign.jpg

  1. Four Roses (Lawrenceburg, Kentucky)
  • Facility: Unfortunately, the main building of the distillery was under construction when we arrived, but we still got to see the architecture of that building and their other buildings from the outside. Four roses had the most distinct buildings with Spanish colonial influence. They were yellow in color with red roofs and bell-shaped arches along the top (I’m sorry I don’t know the correct terms for this architecture). The gardens and trees behind the welcome center were simple but added to the décor.
  • Tour Highlights:
    • Normally, you would get a tour through the main distillery so I can’t speak to the traditional tour.
    • Little video about the company and then a mini tour through the back garden with signs that explained their process and showed internal images of their distillery.
    • Saw front entrance to the main building and a cool fountain.
  • Tasting:
    • We went to their bar room in the welcome center to taste all three of their bourbons: original, single barrel, and small batch.
    • This was a more relaxed tasting in that you stood around the bar and the guide would pour one for everyone, then the next in the same glass, and then the last.
    • Ice was provided in the back of the room, and everyone gets to keep the glass. They give you no instructions on how to taste it but explain each in detail.
  • Other:
    • The most interesting part of this tour was the history of the brand. Four Roses used to be a top-selling bourbon and was one of six distilleries that were allowed to keep producing liquor during Prohibition. In 1943, Seagram purchased the distilling company and decided to stop producing the bourbon in America and sold it in Europe and Japan instead. In America, they only sold lower quality whiskey, which is why some people may think of Four Roses as “cheap liquor.” In the early 2000s, Four Roses was bought by the Kirin Brewery Company, Ltd. who made the wise decision to begin selling their bourbon in America again. It’s taken years to restore the brand name here in the States.
    • Because they were one of only six distillers in America allowed to continue producing during Prohibition, they have some cool souvenirs with their prescription label from that time.
    • Four Roses distills 10 unique recipes in their bourbon using two mashbills (mix of corn, rye, and malted barely) and five yeasts. Bottles are labeled with their “code” so you know what flavors you might find in each.

HeavenHillSign.jpg

  1. Heaven Hill (Bardstown, Kentucky)
  • Facility: Heaven Hill’s Heritage Center is a little different than the other tours on the trip. Their center contains a big gift shop and a long hallway with museum-like displays of the history of alcohol in America, the history of Heaven Hill, barrels with all their brands on them, and more. The grounds contain a lot of storage buildings that are filled with aging barrels, but we only went inside the main center.
  • Tour Highlights:
    • Two tours here; we decided on the Whisky Connoisseur Experience.
    • Instead of an actual tour, the “tour guide” talked us through the history of the company and then went into the extended tasting in a private room.
  • Tasting:
    • I wish this stop was at the beginning of the trail because it was the first stop where they told us how to taste bourbon. We learned how to smell with our mouths open, how to “chew” the bourbon, and—most importantly—to breath out of your mouth after a sip to lessen the burn. Would’ve been very helpful at the first few stops!
    • The guide had us taste all four drinks straight and then with a couple drops of water added to open it up. Apparently, you really don’t need a whole ice cube to change the flavor of the drink.
    • We tried Elijah Craig, Henry McKenna Single Barrel, Pikesville Rye, William Heaven Hill 5th edition, and a “bad bourbon” that is not for sale. The William Heaven Hill costs $249 a bottle so it’s probably the most expensive thing I’ve ever drunk! (Though not the best.)
  • Other:
    • Heaven Hill is different than the other stops on the tour in that it’s a larger brand that owns Evan Williams, Burnett’s Vodka, Admiral Nelson’s Rum, HPNOTIQ, and more.
    • Here we learned about the Kentucky hug, which is a sweat name for that terrible burn you feel in the back of your throat when you drink straight bourbon.

That’s it for now! Let me know in the comments below if you’ve had similar or different experiences at these first few distilleries. And don’t forget to subscribe to Anxious Abroad! You don’t want to miss part two of my bourbon trail breakdown.

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