If you want wine and cheese with the women, go to Napa. If you prefer bourbon and barbecue with the boys, head to Kentucky.
By William Spain
From Louisville to Loretto, Lawrenceburg to Lexington, the Bluegrass State is rolling out the welcome mat for whiskey tourists.
And distillers are pouring ever more money—and product samples—into making sure those who come to see where and how the amber nectar is made have a good old time of it. Add in horse racing, hospitality, and some of the prettiest country on God’s green earth, and you have the primo locale for a guy’s getaway.
There are dozens of distilleries in Kentucky, but only a relative handful open their doors to the public. While the distillation process is essentially the same at all of them, the recipes aren’t, and the distilleries vary tremendously by size and setting. They’re spread over about 100 miles, so it would take days to do justice to them all, but some just can’t be missed.
A particular highlight is the barrel house, where you can taste the whiskey at each aging stage. This starts with raw spirit straight from the still, then goes to a tot of two-year-old, then four, then six (when it is bottled), and even ten. This is one place where you learn that age is—and is not—everything; some whiskey can stay in the barrel too long. You can also come away with a great souvenir: a bottle of Maker’s Mark that you hand-dip yourself in its signature red wax.
Another must-see is Woodford Reserve. This distillery, one of the smallest in output, may well have the most beautiful setting. It’s a few miles off the main road in Versailles, and the drive takes you across gently rolling hills through the heart of Thorough – bred country to the distillery, which is a national historic landmark. Woodford is very much a small-batch bourbon, and tradition rules all: The distillery uses cypress vats instead of stainless steel, copper pot stills from Scotland, and only the finest handmade American oak barrels. The end result is one of the finest bourbons on the market, and the tasting alone is worth the price of admission. (Woodford is one of the few that charges for entry, either $5 or $10, depending on the length and complexity of the tour.)
At the opposite end of the size spectrum is Jim Beam, which is in Clermont, outside Bardstown and about 30 minutes from Louisville. It’s also a nice country location, but the Beam facility is enormous, as befits the No. 1–selling bourbon in the world. It was rebuilt just months after the end of Prohibition, and now rolls out more than three million cases of bourbon a year. The distillery itself is more industrial-looking than most, and the sheer scale of it—and the speed of the bottling line—is fascinating.
Now, big doesn’t mean bad: Jim Beam may be less pricey than some bourbons, but it is a premium hooch nonetheless. The company also makes much of its line of small batches—Booker’s, Baker’s, Knob Creek, and Basil Hayden—here, all under the direction of seventhgeneration master distiller Fred Noe, who may be on-site during a tour. He’s one of the more approachable characters you’ll ever meet, especially after a few sips of his creations.
Heaven Hill may be known in the trade for its workaday products, such as Evan Williams—the second-most-popular bourbon. But the dis ti llery also produces truly high-end products, including Elijah Craig 12-year-old and various Evan Williams single-barrel vintages that pass muster with the very best in show.
You probably won’t get to see the distillery itself, but the company’s state-of-the-art Bourbon Heritage Center in Bardstown is great. Exhibits take you through the entire history of America’s native spirit before ending in a barrel-shaped tasting room with Heaven Hill libations. The Heritage Center is on the same property as dozens of huge rick houses that to gether hold an awe-inspiring (and liver-twinging) 800,000 barrels of underage bourbon.
No trip would be complete without a stop at Wild Turkey, set on a riverside bluff in Lawrence burg. The home of the famous 101 may not be as well set up for tourists as other facilities, but it is as good an example of a working distillery as can be found. Besides, any lack of amenities is more than made up for by the products, which range from the flagship brand at various proofs and ages to Russell’s Reserve to Rare Breed to rye. Sadly, you are unlikely to see the company’s American Honey Liqueur girls hanging around. But if you’re really lucky, you will get a chance to talk to the legendary master distiller, Jimmy Russell, who has been in the business for more than 50 years and could be straight out of central casting, if he weren’t the real thing.
With Kentucky winters wet and summers sticky, the best time to go is either spring or fall. Try late April or early May, when the Kentucky Derby Festival is under way. It’s two solid weeks of partying leading up to the Run for the Roses, which is the first Saturday in May, and it’s kicked off by Thunder Over Louisville, one of the most—maybe the most—spectacular fireworks displays in the world. Be warned: Derby weekend is chaotic and the prices of everything from parking to pancakes seem to triple. But hell, everyone ought to go once.
Not that Louisville isn’t a party town the rest of the year: The bar and restaurant scene is hot, and the Kentucky Bourbon Festival is held each September. Historic Churchill Downs, home of the Derby, has both spring and fall meets. And for those inclined toward watching a different kind of filly prance, the River City is also famous for its strip clubs, most of which are full-nude and full-bar.