October 2019 Kentucky Bourbon Country: The Most American of Spirits Is Best Sipped at Its Source

Kentucky Bourbon Country: The Most American of Spirits Is Best Sipped at Its Source

The Buddha of Bourbon: Wild Turkey master distiller Jimmy Russell.
The Buddha of Bourbon: Wild Turkey master distiller Jimmy Russell.
History, horses, home cooking, and those famous bluegrass hills make for a quintessentially American sojourn.

Already on a high from meeting the legendary 85-year-old Jimmy Russell, a master distiller with Wild Turkey for the past 65 years, I take to back roads in Kentucky’s Bourbon Country and am smitten by the scenery: fields of bluegrass shimmering under the midday autumn sun, graceful and strong thoroughbred horses roaming the hillside, and a maze of white picket fences that seem to meander haphazardly toward the horizon. I rest under the shade of a maple, its foliage tinted orange, and take it all in before continuing on to my next distillery stop on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.

The Bluegrass State is the birthplace of bourbon, crafting 95 percent of the world’s supply, and never has this most American of spirits proved to be more popular than it is today. Kentucky now has 68 distilleries, compared to just eight in 2009. Last year, the Kentucky Bourbon Trail – a collection of 16 distilleries, including such icons as Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark, running across the heart of the state – had 1 million visits for the first time since its creation in 1999. The taste for bourbon is so strong that the travel industry couldn’t help but take notice: Backroads introduced a biking pilgrimage along the Bourbon Trail this year, joining fellow tour provider Tauck, whose Louisville-to-Nashville journey spends three days in the state. American Excursionist, a Virtuoso on-site connection, even offers customizable bourbon-centric itineraries featuring private tastings and insider experiences.

“The countryside is beautiful here,” says Virtuoso travel advisor Rosemary Warmenhoven. “Along the scenic roads and easy drives that wind through Bourbon Country,” she adds, “you’ll encounter rich local history and plenty of colorful characters.”

Possible paths and experiences are as varied as the selection of travel-worthy bourbons and historic distilleries found here, but following are a few not-to-be-missed stops between Louisville and Lexington, both on and off the official Bourbon Trail.

Coming of age at Buffalo Trace’s barrel warehouse.
Coming of age at Buffalo Trace’s barrel warehouse.

The Old

One step inside Franklin County’s Buffalo Trace, off the Bourbon Trail but designated a National Historic Landmark, and you’re immediately transported back to the Industrial Revolution. On the distillery’s Hard Hat tour, you’ll stroll past tall cylinders of fermented mash, large barrels of corn, open flames, twisting metal, and the employees who still use antiquated machinery dating back to the turn of last century. It’s a fascinating, behind-the-scenes look into the craft of creating bourbon, which Buffalo Trace has been doing continuously since 1775. You’ll witness everything here, from grain delivery to the cooking process to fermentation and, finally, distillation. Afterward, your reward is a chance to sample the wares. Warmenhoven suggests bringing home a bottle of Buffalo Trace Bourbon Cream. “It’s particularly tasty when mixed with root beer to make a root beer bourbon float,” she notes.
Mixing it up at Bardstown Bourbon Company.
Mixing it up at Bardstown Bourbon Company.

The New

No place is more emblematic of the current bourbon craze than the trail’s Bardstown Bourbon Company (featured on our cover). Founder David Mandell made his money in vodka before deciding to create one of Kentucky’s largest bourbon distilleries, which opened in 2016 in Bardstown. He now collaborates with 22 renowned brands to craft custom bourbon and whiskey. Last year, Mandell followed it up with Bottle & Bond Kitchen and Bar, the Bourbon Trail’s first distillery restaurant. Dine on chicken-fried oysters and shrimp and grits, accompanied by a barrel-aged Manhattan, or sample one of the more than 400 vintage American whiskeys at the restaurant’s Whiskey Library, curated by acclaimed whiskey writer Fred Minnick.
Out for a stroll at Castle & Key.
Out for a stroll at Castle & Key.

The Old and the New

On the outskirts of Frankfort, on a pastoral stretch of land, the Old Taylor distillery thrived in the late nineteenth century. Then bourbon hit hard times, and the roughly 20 structures that span 113 acres were abandoned in 1972. The distillery laid dormant until two Kentucky natives had the passion to rebuild and the foresight to have hired Marianne Barnes, their former master distiller and the first woman to hold that distinction in the state since Prohibition. Though not yet part of the Bourbon Trail, Castle & Key has been all the buzz since it opened in 2017, creating vodka, gin, and its first barrels of bourbon, now aging and available in five to ten years. Walk the grounds and buildings on a historical tour, take a cocktail-making class, or snag a bottle of vodka at the new store.

The Buddha of Bourbon

One look at the rickhouses (buildings where bourbon is aged) blackened on the outside from evaporation and you can sense the history of the Wild Turkey distillery, which has been in operation at this same site in Lawrenceburg since 1869 and is a Bourbon Trail favorite. Wild Turkey currently has some 700,000 barrels aging, making it the largest Kentucky distillery on one site. In its newly revamped Visitors Center, on any given weekend, you’re likely to find Jimmy Russell, known locally as the Buddha of Bourbon, sitting at the door – he’s happy to chat about his long career, the ebbs and flows of the bourbon business over the past half century, and his favorite bottles to purchase in the store. “When I started here, bourbon was a Southern gentleman’s drink. Now just as many women are buying a bottle as men,” he says. Don’t forget to ask him to sign your bottle of Russell’s Reserve 10-Year-Old Bourbon on the way out.
An old-fashioned with Buffalo Trace bourbon. 
An old-fashioned with Buffalo Trace bourbon. 

Kentucky Home Cooking

The Stave, a stylish roadhouse restaurant and bar, debuted last September just down the road from the Bourbon Trail’s Woodford Reserve distillery in Versailles. Along with Southern staples such as blackened catfish and chicken and dumplings, Stave offers bourbon-centric dishes aplenty, from salads (a version of the Bibb featuring bourbon-sorghum vinaigrette) to sides (the house cheese is made with bourbon-barrel-aged beer) to desserts (bread pudding with bourbon sauce). Locals love: Stave’s version of the iconic Hot Brown, an open-faced turkey sandwich topped with Mornay sauce and bacon, served on country ham spoon bread instead of the typical white. An impressive roster of local bourbons rounds out the theme.

How to Drink Up Kentucky Bourbon Country

Pedal past peaceful bluegrass pastures where thoroughbreds graze and sample barrel-aged spirits at Bourbon Trail distilleries on Backroads’ five-day, Louisville-to-Lexington tour. Stops at Four Roses and Woodford Reserve and an optional visit to the Wild Turkey distillery complement visits to Harrodsburg, Kentucky’s oldest town, and the working horse farm at Kentucky Horse Park. Departures: Multiple dates, May 10 to October 18, 2020.

Tauck’s nine-day trip from Louisville to Nashville, which hits highlights such as Churchill Downs; Asheville, North Carolina’s Biltmore Estate; and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, also includes time in Bourbon Country, including a visit to Buffalo Trace and a special “bourbon and bluegrass” evening at a Lexington hotel. Departures: Multiple dates, May 8 to October 17, 2020.

Your travel advisor can work with American Excursionist to craft a tailor-made Bourbon Country itinerary that includes insider experiences, private tastings on and off the Bourbon Trail, and a private driver/guide. Highly recommended: a farm-to-table lunch at Frankfort’s Sage Garden Cafe and an expert-led flavor education and tasting at Bardstown’s Willett Distillery. Contact your Virtuoso advisor for details.

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