In Northern Kentucky, you can’t go anywhere without hearing about bourbon. There are, however, other interesting things to see in between all that drinking.
A visit to Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail is an essential rite of passage for any discerning bourbon lover. It is not all about the bourbon, however. The scenery in Northern Kentucky is absolutely beautiful as well. Before getting tipsy on free samples, it is a good idea to check out some of the other sites in the area.
Frankfort to Lexington
While not technically part of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, Frankfort is a nice place to start. Home to Buffalo Trace Distillery, Frankfort sits in an idyllic valley, rimmed by the limestone that contributes so much taste to the signature bourbons of the area. Only about 45 minutes away from Lexington, Frankfort is an excellent place to set up home base if you want to avoid the sprawl so common to travelers these days.
Frankfort, the capital of Kentucky, is quite small. There are historic shops and cafes downtown, near the capital building, and it is advised to get some strong coffee if you plan on taking on the bourbon trail. Just a short drive from downtown is the Buffalo Trace Distillery. Home to Buffalo Trace Bourbon, as well as the personal favorite of many bourbon connoisseurs, Blanton’s, the distillery holds tours daily at no charge.
On the grounds, the characteristic smell of fermenting grain is everywhere. Whether it is the sweet aroma of cooking the malt, or the sourness wafting from the aging barrels, it can really make your mouth water. Do not be alarmed by the streaks of black mold coating the old brick warehouses and antiquated shacks. This occurs at most distilleries and is a result of sugar loving molds trying to get at that same whiskey you are.
At the end of the tour, they allow the guests to taste the whiskey before it has been aged. It is immediately apparent how important a role aging plays in a premium whiskey, as the clear, “fresh” stuff is like drinking fire. Buffalo Trace wins awards every year for its diligent production techniques.
The drive down to Lexington (with a designated driver, of course) is a real treat. The rolling hills of Kentucky blue grass and the horse farms made famous by the Derby are all here. And at the end of it, is the true beginning of the Bourbon Trail, starting from the East.
Lexington to Elizabethtown
Adding up to a mere 90 miles, there are five distilleries on the Martha Lane Blue Grass Parkway. Wild Turkey, Four Roses, Maker’s Mark, Heaven Hill and, my personal favorite, Woodford Reserve are all a short jaunt off the main road. Any of these locales make available the Bourbon Trail Passport, which tourists can get stamped as they visit the distilleries.
Get ready for a history lesson, as the distilleries on the trail have a penchant for sharing their love of the first truly American liquor. Apparently, according to the lore, the landscape itself shaped the distinct flavor of bourbon whiskey. Farmers, finding it difficult to transport grains through the mountainous landscape, found that it was easier to distill the grains into spirits before shipping them out. T
hey subsequently took them down this very route, eventually reaching the Mississippi River, where they were usually hauled to New Orleans. After the lengthy boat ride, the whiskey began to adopt the flavors of the oak barrels. The whiskey with the Bourbon County stamp became instantly famous for its mellow, aged characteristics. After decades of polishing, the techniques became the standard for all Kentucky bourbon whiskey. In fact, whiskey needs to be prepared a certain way to qualify as straight Kentucky bourbon.
Elizabethtown to Louisville
Another short drive, and the end of the journey. Jim Beam Distillery, probably the least award winning of the true Kentucky bourbons, but the most inexpensive, sits right in between Elizabethtown and Louisville. With all the samples you’ve had already, your palate will most likely not be what it was at the beginning of the tour, making it fitting that Jim Beam is at the end. Good, but not the best, Jim Beam still follows the techniques developed for generations to produce a varied line of whiskeys.
As an added bonus, upon arrival in Louisville, travelers will be greeted by the Louisville Slugger baseball museum and bat factory. If you like baseball, you can marvel at the enormous steel bat perched against the building, or take a tour. That is, if you still have the energy after your long day of tasting the best bourbons in the world.