If you haven’t noticed, Bourbon is back and it is back big. And why wouldn’t it be? It’s delicious, drinkable all year round (see our forthcoming article about great summer bourbon recipes), and nostalgically American.
Even more exciting is just how quickly the industry is growing. Consider this:
- Bourbon production has increased more than 120% since 1999, from 455,000 barrels/year to 1.2 million barrels/year–small batch and single barrel labels lead the surge
- There is diversified global demand: As of 2013 Japan is the biggest importer, and Nigeria leads the pack in terms of growth
- Kentucky Bourbon distilleries invested $230 million in capital projects in 2013 alone, allowing for long-term scale and brand differentiation
- Although the regulations for what makes a whiskey a Bourbon are few but specific, know that 95% of the world’s supply of Bourbon comes from Kentucky
With my own appreciation growing, I decided it was time to just go whole hog and get to Kentucky to learn, taste, and get into the Bourbon culture. This is one of a series of articles from what I found on that trip.
Heading to the Land of Unbridled Spirits: Kentucky Bourbon Country
In my opinion, one doesn’t need to go to Burgundy, France to understand that wine better—same goes for Champagne, and even many kinds of beer. Not so with Bourbon. Until you spend some time in gorgeous Kentucky Bourbon country, you won’t truly appreciate what you’re drinking and the layers of culture and pride behind it. Get thee to Kentucky. Now. I promise you that every sip of every Bourbon you have when you return will taste better, or at least put a smile on your face. Having recently spent 3 days there, here’s some basic advice to help you plan a trip:
- Don’t Think “Bourbon Trail”, think “Bourbon Triangle”. Use Louisville as your home base and take one (or two) days to head south toward Bardstown (Makers Mark, Limestone Distillery, others), and another day (or two) and head east toward Lexington. Both are about an hour or so, but the drive is beautiful. Staying in Louisville allows you to enjoy the great bars, restaurants, and socialize at night. Our favorite makers were Buffalo Trace (which make about 12 labels of Bourbon; highly recommended–the extremely informative tour and tasting is free), Maker’s Mark (every bottle in the world is made here and you can stick your fingers right in that giant vat of mash or try the moonshine itself straight from the still; offers a great tasting experience; dip your own bottle!), Limestone Distillery (owned by offspring of Jim Beam, it’s still waiting for its Bourbon to age, so in the meantime they are making delicious flavored moonshine—sounds gross, but don’t be fooled. My favorites: Jalapeno, MoonPie, and Blackberry). We went to Woodford Reserve but quickly left—it was like a country club and the staff weren’t nearly as friendly as everyone else we met in Kentucky, not to mention the selection for tasting (two) is uninteresting.
- Include Time to Source the Locals’ Favorite Liquor Stores. Assuming you go to a couple of the large producers and couple of the craft producers, once you’ve seen one batch of Bourbon be made, you’ve pretty much seen them all. There’s no need to go to every single distillery—go to a few that you like or that offer unique tastings, then make time to poke around liquor stores. Every owner has the scoop on the next shipment of Pappy, has a $2000 bottle of something locked in the safe in the back room, and has good info about a Bourbon you’ve never heard of. Best time to go is April, in my opinion—just before the Derby.
- Definitely Go to Bardstown and Spend Time at Talbott Tavern. Bardstown is about as cute of a town as you’ll ever see, but we loved Talbott Tavern which has been open since 1779 and besides having a few rooms to rent, is the world’s oldest Bourbon bar. The history of this place is incredible—it has bullet holes in paintings from Jesse James, murals painted upstairs by exiled French King Louis Phillipe, and has served as lodging for people like Daniel Boone and Abraham Lincoln. Stop by the add-on bar in the back for great live music, to sample some of the 50 or so Kentucky Bourbons on the menu, and by all means, have a Hot Brown—a Louisville classic appetizer that you’ll just have to try for yourself. Jim Beam was once the owner of the Tavern, but now it is owned by John and Kathy, who embody Kentucky hospitality.
- Be Careful What You Buy. If you’re from a large city like New York, you will be able to find 90% of the Bourbons they sell in Kentucky at your favorite liquor store. But there are some unique purchases to be found at some of the gift shops. Like Maker’s Mark Mint Julep, Maker’s Mark White Dog (only available at distillery), Limestone Distillery’s flavored moonshine, and cheap local favorites like Very Old Barton. Beware: you can’t ship booze from Kentucky. So, make time to go buy shipping materials to pack the box yourself, drive it over the river to Indiana, and ship from a UPS center.
All in all, don’t stress about planning out your trip to Bourbon Country. Drop your things and leave them in Louisville, then explore the south and the east, get back to Louisville in time for dinner, plenty of bourbons and mint juleps, and some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. Then do it all over again.
- General Bourbon Information: www.kybourbontrail.com
- Airbnb: We recommend contacting Sarah, she owns several apartments in a beautiful penthouse space in Louisville, right next door to Louisville Slugger—and she’s extremely accommodating: https://www.airbnb.ie/users/show/6068531
- Old Talbott Tavern: http://www.talbotts.com/
- Food and Drinks: Holy Grale’s has the best burger I’ve ever had; Silver Dollar has delicious bar food and mint juleps with extremely knowledgeable bartenders on where to get the new shipment of Pappy
- Louisville Slugger Factory and Museum Tour: Definitely worth stopping by for an hour to see history being made. http://www.sluggermuseum.com/